In 2021, lawmakers in 36 states have filed over 75 bills that would ban transgender youths from school-sponsored sports consistent with their gender identities. In nine states, these bills have become law. This post explains what is at stake.

What’s the recent history?

Over the past 15 years, anti-LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and lawmakers targeted transgender people’s access to restrooms and identification documents that match their gender identities. In 2020, the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom added youth sports to its anti-LGBTQ+ political agenda when it filed a lawsuit arguing that two Black trans high school girls in Connecticut should not be eligible to compete with other girls.

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?

Some state and federal laws ostensibly protect trans youths against discrimination, but specific protections vary state by state. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbids sex discrimination in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding.

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?

So do high-profile female athletes. Soccer star Megan Rapinoe, former world No. 1 tennis player Billie Jean King and professional basketball player Candace Parker joined nearly 200 other professional, Olympic and collegiate female athletes on an amicus brief contesting the Idaho law.

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?

Nationwide representative opinion polls find that 67 percent of adults — Democrats and Republicans — oppose laws that ban transgender athletes from teams that match their gender identities. Roughly half of Americans support the rights of transgender athletes to participate on youth teams.

What’s at stake for transgender youths?

Fully 85 percent of trans youths feel unsafe at school. They are more likely than other students to be harassed and physically attacked, and nearly half attempt suicide.

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?

Sports governing bodies have successfully negotiated trans inclusion at all levels of competition. Guidelines vary over requiring medical interventions, but many have removed exclusionary restrictions.

What does the research say about trans athletes in sport?

The Center for American Progress finds that including trans high school athletes does not reduce cisgender girls’ involvement in sports. Recent studies of college athletes find a growing acceptance for trans athletes and nondiscrimination policies among cisgender, heterosexual teammates.

Very few scientific studies have examined trans inclusion in sport; almost none consider children. The results are both limited and inconclusive. Consequently, conclusions drawn about elite sports cannot be applied to K-12 students in scholastic sports.

What are the broader implications?

As trans people become more visible, attempts to dehumanize them escalate, often into violence. Courts continue to handle the ongoing legal battles over recent legislation. Their decisions will affect the future of transgender inclusion, health, well-being — and involvement in sports.

Elizabeth Sharrow (@e_sharrow) is an associate professor in the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s School of Public Policy and Department of History.

Jaime Schultz is a professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University.

Lindsay Parks Pieper (@LindsayPieper) is an associate professor of sports management at the University of Lynchburg.

Anna Baeth (@BaethAnna), director of research at Athlete Ally, holds a PhD from the University of Minnesota.

Anne Lieberman (@AnneLiebs), is the director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally and holds an MA in human rights from Columbia University.