Throughout 2020, 19 states proposed banning transgender girls and women from sports teams that match their gender identities. In March 2020, Idaho passed one of these bans, calling it the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.” After the ACLU contested the law, a U.S. District Court put a hold on its implementation.
This calendar year, state legislators proposed 170 bills targeting trans youths. Some would restrict gender-affirming health care. Over 75 focus on sports, many suggesting invasive medical examinations to enforce the exclusion of gender-nonconforming children from girls’ teams. Others suggest imposing criminal penalties if trans children participate in sports consistent with their gender identities. On Wednesday, a federal judge blocked the enactment of one bill in West Virginia that became law.
What’s at stake in this legislation?
These bills extend the decades-long political fight over transgender rights at school, at work and in public institutions. They reveal that racism is entangled with anti-trans politics, as they assume White, Western standards of femininity and how women should look. These bans increase suspicion of both transgender and cisgender girls and women, especially those of color — much as has happened in elite sports where female athletes with intersex variations (who are not transgender) are targeted by sex testing policies. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch argue that gender policing violates basic human rights.
Proponents claim that women’s sports require “protection” from transgender athletes, even as they are unable to cite examples of trans athletes competing in their states. Research identifies many significant threats to women and girls in sport — including lack of funding and sponsorship, pay inequities, a decreasing proportion of female coaches and administrators, unequal access to participation, underrepresentation in the media, vulnerability to sexual harassment and abuse, hostile climates, and insufficient implementation of Title IX. Yet the Republican lawmakers now rallying to “save” women’s sports do not appear to be tackling these problems.
What do federal and state laws say?
Courts confirm that trans students have the right to access restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities. In the 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, the U.S. Supreme Court held that discrimination based on gender identity is a form of sex discrimination outlawed under federal law. Federal policy issued by the Department of Education recently confirmed that the decision applies to educational programming, including athletics. In addition, 17 states protect trans students from gender identity discrimination at school, including on sports teams.
Where do women’s rights advocacy groups and athletes stand?
Close to 1,000 collegiate athletes supported trans athletes in two letters, calling on the NCAA to move championships out of states that passed bans. WNBA players Sue Bird and Natasha Cloud, WNBA coach Cheryl Reeve, U.S. paralympian Alana Nichols and scores of other athletes signed on to a similar letter to the NCAA last year.
What does the U.S. public think?
What’s at stake for transgender youths?
Playing a sport has social, physical and mental health benefits. Nearly 7 in 10 young people in the United States participate in sports, where research finds they develop critical skills such as communication, teamwork and leadership. Girls with access to sports consistently report better grades and health, higher self-esteem, fewer risky behaviors and a stronger belief in their abilities and competence. Playing sports helps fight depression, build community and cultivate self-confidence among trans youths. Yet trans youths play sports at significantly lower rates than their cisgender peers.
Sports competition also builds cohesion across different social groups. Meaningful interactions with trans youths, like those fostered on athletic teams, can expose cisgender youths to the lived experiences of trans people, reducing exclusionary attitudes and increasing empathy and acceptance. Trans youths with access to gender-affirming spaces, like a sports team, are 25 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt.
What’s the history of including trans people in sports?
What does the research say about trans athletes in sport?
What are the broader implications?
Jaime Schultz is a professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University.