In the 2021 state legislative season, 34 states are considering banning transgender girls from playing on girls’ interscholastic sports teams. Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and South Dakota have already enacted those bans into law, joining Idaho, which in 2020 became the first to do so.

Most of the debate over these laws is over what’s most equitable. My research reveals how sports became a focus for these disputes over transgender equality — and suggests a different approach entirely.

Women’s sports under Title IX

These anti-transgender bills and laws challenge federal civil rights requirements under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which built on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title IX mandates gender-equitable, nondiscriminatory opportunities for all students in classrooms, sports teams, facilities and programming. It has been especially effective in expanding women’s access to college and graduate school education. School-sponsored athletic opportunities for girls and women have also proliferated. In 1971, the year before Title IX became law, only 7 percent of high school athletes were girls; today, that figure is 43 percent.

Almost all these opportunities are on girls-only teams. Title IX’s policy implementation guidelines have, since the 1970s, required schools to invest in new teams specifically for women and girls. Only under limited circumstances may girls compete on boys’ teams or vice versa.

Policymakers and activists had seriously debated this policy model. Before Title IX, interscholastic sports were overwhelmingly crafted for boys, excluding girls. My archival research found feminist activists were concerned about the consequences of women’s historical exclusion from sports — including the lack of training, coaching, facilities and support for girls and women with athletic aspirations. Lack of investment left most girls and women underprepared to immediately join “men’s” teams. Still, some groups like the National Organization for Women, or NOW, argued that moving toward sex-integrated sports over time would best challenge the sexist presumption that women can’t compete with men.

Today, an increasing number of scholars and activists have been arguing that fully sex-segregated teams continue to deny girls and women access to the highest-profile and best-funded athletic opportunities. In youth and high school athletics, many girls can compete successfully with boys, including in high-contact sports. But the vast majority of U.S. high school sports teams remain segregated.

The problems with sex-segregated teams

My scholarship finds that this reinforces the idea that men and women are inherently different and belong in separate spheres. Sex-segregated teams imply that there’s a fixed, biologically based gender binary that determines boys’ and girls’ capacities. Policymakers assumed that sorting students onto “boys’ teams” and “girls’ teams” would be straightforward. And they believed that “women’s teams” would best transform a male-centered sports world into one that supported everyone.

In an era before transgender identities consolidated, policymakers did not specify how sex-segregated teams should account for gender identity.

But as more youth publicly identify as transgender, nonbinary or genderqueer, lawmakers in many states are scrutinizing and defining who “belongs” on girls’ and women’s teams. Transgender and nonbinary people often dis-identify with the sex assigned on their birth certificates, the only gender marker many lawmakers currently propose should determine athletic participation.

Transgender high school athletes’ athletic eligibility depends on their state high school athletic association’s rules. Some states allow full inclusion on teams that comport with an athlete’s gender identity. Others require evidence of medical transitions for trans athletes to join those teams. Several only allow athletes on teams concordant with the sex assigned at birth. Ten states offer no guidance for transgender inclusion.

As a result, transgender athletes are underrepresented on high school athletic teams. A 2017 Human Rights Campaign Foundation report found that while 68 percent of young people participate in organized sports, only 12 percent of transgender girls do. That means transgender students are less likely to reap the rewards of athletic participation, which include improved academic performance, better physical and mental health, meaningful and even life-changing social ties, and other benefits that help build healthy and fulfilling lives.

This is especially crucial for transgender youth, commonly harassed and excluded at school, which involvement in sports can mitigate. In addition to improving trans students’ lives, the close ties built through sports teams can also encourage cisgender athletes — those who identify with the sex assigned at birth — to reduce transphobia and anti-trans bias.

Proposed bills would hurt both trans and cisgender athletes

But proposed state laws would do the opposite. My research finds that the proposed legislation aims to limit participation on girls’ teams to athletes assigned female at birth. Several bills propose invasive physical exams to determine athletic eligibility. Some even propose criminal penalties for transgender girls who join girls’ teams. At least one suggests amending the state constitution toward these ends. In a number of states, these bills also target gender-nonconforming cisgender women by allowing competitors to challenge fellow athletes’ identities.

Most of these bills intentionally misgender trans girls, referring to them as “biological males.” Many invoke spurious claims about how male athletes are uniformly more physically capable than females. Numerous bills argue that transgender girls would get unfair advantages from testosterone levels. These bills are almost universally sponsored by Republicans.

Peer-reviewed science does not support these claims. Rather, it finds that athletic performance results from a complex interaction of many factors, not just hormones or chromosomes. For example, not all men can defeat all women in all sports contests, as you can see at the finish line of a local 5K road race.

To be sure, few studies examine transgender participants or compare high-school-age transgender athletes to their cisgender peers. Nevertheless, given the issues, hundreds of advocacy groups, professional and medical associations (including the American Academy of Pediatrics), and high-profile activists and athletes oppose the bills. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice directed agencies charged with implementing Title IX to enforce sex anti-discrimination mandates as protecting gender identity.

Lawsuits have been filed contesting recent state laws, but they’re still working their way through the courts. Expect transgender girls’ right to compete to remain hotly contested for some time.

Elizabeth Sharrow (@e_sharrow) is an associate professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s School of Public Policy and Department of History, and a former NCAA Division I athlete and coach.