By Katelyn Burns
One issue above all others has been responsible for initially sending everyday people down the transphobic propaganda pipeline in right-wing media: equal participation of young trans athletes in sports.
Two weeks ago week, the Biden administration seemingly took a step towards protecting trans student athletes by releasing a new Title IX guidance. At first glance, it prohibits blanket bans of trans athletes, but a deeper look at the administration’s latest action shows that they could be opening the door to future trans exclusion in areas in sports and beyond.
And last week the administration opened public comment to its new rule so that voices beyond Washington, D.C. could be heard.
Those voices are welcome because the Biden administration’s position backslides from the 2016 Title IX guidance released by the Obama administration. The 2016 rule guarantees equal access to all educational opportunities for all trans students, including in sports, and prohibits the sorts of blanket bans being passed in red state legislatures. However, the Biden plan would allow school districts to implement some restrictions on trans girl athletes if they could prove a compelling reason why the exclusion is needed. This is a major departure from the previous Obama-era policy where all exclusions were out of bounds.
The issue of which sports category trans people should compete in is not new. In 1972, a US federal court ordered the women’s professional tennis association to include trans woman Renee Richards in their competitions. In 2003, the Olympics first opened up to trans women athletes, allowing those who had already had bottom surgery to compete in the games as women, though no openly trans athlete ever qualified under that provision.
In 2016, the Olympics further loosened their trans athlete restrictions to allow trans women who undergo at least a year of sufficient testosterone suppression to compete in the women’s division. It would take another five years for the first trans female athlete to actually qualify for the games: weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, who finished last in the women’s over-87-kilogram division at the games in 2021.
A quick scan of the women’s sports landscape shows that trans women are far from dominant in any sport, but that doesn’t stop anti-trans campaigners from claiming that trans participation in women’s sports is inherently unfair. And seemingly the perfect issue to divide uninformed voters.
In fact, a common belief is that people assigned male at birth are all inherently more athletic than people assigned female at birth. It’s a notion that’s deeply embedded within society. It’s easy to understand why. When watching a basketball game, for instance, the NBA and the WNBA look very different. Dunks are much rarer in the women’s game, while the men are frequently playing above the rim.
But sports have little to do with appearances.
The reality is that there has never been an athletically superior, undefeated trans woman athlete in any sport. Because they simply don’t have the inherent natural advantage that critics claim they do.
This tension between “common wisdom,” and the real life physical effects of gender transition all came together in a perfect storm when NCAA Division I swimmer Lia Thomas began winning races in Ivy League women’s swimming meets. Thomas’s success launched thousands of right-wing articles about how trans women were a threat to women’s sports.
Ultimately, however, Thomas proved not to be the dominant athlete the right made her out to be. She won one national championship race, making her the first openly transgender NCAA Division I champion, and handily lost two others. Nonetheless, the negative media attention spawned by Thomas has spurred numerous athletic bodies to panic and dump their pre-existing trans inclusion policies. Many have opted to avoid controversy altogether and pre-emptively ban trans women, again claiming an inherent unfairness.
Dozens of red states have also stepped into the controversy to pass bills banning trans girls from same-sex school sports. And this contentious political atmosphere is what the Biden administration has waded into.
While many within the LGBTQ rights movement applauded the Biden administration for the plan, and for making it more difficult for conservatives to ban trans athletes from school sports, I worry that the Biden plan sets a dangerous new precedent that could later be used to chip away at trans rights in general.
After all, if it’s “reasonable” to exclude some trans girls from girls sports, wouldn’t there also be cases where it would be reasonable to force a trans girl to use a boy’s bathroom? Depending on “reasonableness” to set legal standards for the inclusion of trans people is deeply exploitable by the anti-trans hate machine.
The sports argument has long been an uncomfortable conversation within LGBTQ political spaces because movement leaders who are unfamiliar with sports felt it was too difficult to explain the nuances underlying the issue to everyday folks.
Yet trying to appease the bigots on the conservative side by offering some limited cases of acceptable discrimination won’t help anyone. Trans students will be left wondering if a change in school district leadership would upend their athletic careers. Trans people will be worrying about the small crack in the wall created by the Biden administration possibly bursting open to other forms of “reasonable” discrimination further down the line. And Conservatives will continue banging the drum to eliminate transness from public life.
Nobody wins with this Biden trans sports policy but at least the administration can feel better about avoiding a larger political argument over this.
Katelyn Burns (she/her) is a freelance journalist and columnist for MSNBC. She was the first openly transgender Capitol Hill reporter in US history.