It’s Not Fair! (2) 🤼 🏳️⚧️
Transgender Inclusion in Sports
Sports: What do we value? What are our priorities? Should we rethink our attitudes?
First, whether we are talking about an Olympic event or a high school race, winning is far too often seen as the only measurement of true success. We hear of Olympic silver or bronze medal winners being disappointed not to have won. Coaches proclaiming ‘second place is for losers’ and please don’t even talk about the eighth-placed finisher. That athlete is never praised for making a sprint final, for example, and may often feel embarrassed for ‘finishing last’.
I am not suggesting that a desire to be the best is totally wrong. It certainly is a strong motivating factor for many elite athletes that helps them cope with the intense amount of time and effort they must expend in training. However, as a society, I believe we have put far too much emphasis on judging sporting ‘success’ in terms of winning or losing.
Professional sports and the huge amount of money involved in the top leagues, from NBA Basketball to Premier League Football (soccer) is one factor that fuels this obsession with winning. Perhaps the culture of professional sports is understandable within its own context and links to big business corporations, but I believe that we have to guard against the values and attitudes of that elite level being accepted as a model for all sporting organizations — from schools to recreational competitions. In these settings, the values and attitudes of ‘the business of sports’ is totally inappropriate and quite possibly harmful.
For most of us, the true value of participating in sports comes from the physical and mental health benefits that come from being active. Here, success is measured not by ‘being first’ but being healthy and perhaps enjoying the company of friends or teammates and learning important social skills. As my friend Charles Adamson commented in his response to my blog about sports and identity:
“Your comments about how soccer was a way for you to become one of the boys made me realize that sports were a way for me to learn much the same thing but from a different starting point. I was an only child and there were only a couple of kids around my age in the neighborhood. This meant that I did not learn how to interact with peers until I got into sports and school. I seldom played on official teams but I played a lot of pick-up games with kids from outside my neighborhood. I am pretty sure that I learned more about being social than about playing sports.”
Charles’ experiences as a young boy are highly relevant to this discussion as they point out the important contribution sports can make to our personal and social skills development. Therefore, if we extend Charles’ insight to trans youth, it’s not difficult to imagine the serious damage that can result from policies that exclude their participation. The most common means is to force a trans girl, for example, to play on the boys’ teams if they want to participate in school sports. Not all trans kids would necessarily want to join a school team, but for those who do, the psychological damage of being forced to participate in a gender that does not match their identity can be very stressful.
Remember, trans kids and teenagers have to face more than their fair share of challenges already. Just for a start, they are more likely to be rejected or bullied than most of their peers. Sports could be one avenue to increase the kids’ self-esteem and encourage better peer acceptance. To deny these vulnerable kids such an opportunity is at the very least mean-spirited and unkind; at worst, it can be a contributing factor in the disproportionate suicide rates of trans teenagers (University of Arizona, 2018 study: 30% transgender females vs. 10% cisgender males.
These young people don’t have any hidden transgender agendas or desires to dominate girls’ competitions. They simply want to play and have a good time just like everyone else. What is the harm in that? Can’t we just let them play and gain the benefits that sports can offer them without placing obstacles, often based on uninformed assumptions, in their way? Is that really too much to ask?
As Michelle Baade wrote in her essay, My Daughter is The Trans Girl Playing Sports That Everyone is So Worried About:
“As the deliberations continue in legislatures across the country over whether or not my child should play sports …, my little girl is oblivious to how much of the world wants to have a say in her fate. She merely wants to learn how to hit the ball over the fence, and she loves to play catch with her team. She only knows she wants to play ball with other little girls.…and if you make her play with boys, she will quit. Because she isn’t a boy. She’s a girl. And she deserves to play some ball like everyone else.”
Michelle went on to say that “People have gotten bolder with their ignorance and hatred,” which serves as a perfect introduction to the second question in this section of the paper:
What is the true nature of efforts to exclude transgender adults and youth from sport?
I’d like to emphasize at the outset of this discussion that I don’t believe all people who support established standards for transgender participation in sports are transphobic. Rather than being motivated by a wish to marginalize trans people of all ages, those who seek some type of checks and balances may have a genuine desire to try to find a middle ground that respects both trans and cisgender athletes.
Policy makers in sports organizations may be misled by questionable scientific research (testosterone) or biased anti-inclusion rhetoric; however, I believe many have shown themselves willing to consider various factors and opinions, from science and human rights to common decency and compassion, in their policy decisions.
Similarly, not all parents are represented by the group Michelle Baade overheard at her daughter’s baseball game:
“Last night, at our very first game, I heard a mom speaking to her extended family sitting with them on the bleachers. “That one over there is really a boy,” she said, pointing to my child. The family members reacted in horror, as if they were told my child is an ax murderer.”
At the risk of sounding totally naive, I’d still like to believe that most parents who feel anxious about the inclusion of trans kids in girls’ sports do not want to punish or harm transgender children. The primary concern of those parents is the welfare of their own children and that is perfectly understandable. One only hopes that they will eventually see that trans kids pose no more danger to their children than any other child on the playground.
Unfortunately, there are many voices out there, and the numbers are growing, who are determined to resist any attempts to find a middle ground and encourage the intolerance or scorn demonstrated by the parents at the baseball game. Let’s now look at some of those voices and their attacks not only on transgender inclusion in sports but also their goal of marginalizing transgender adults and youth from society in general.
First, I’ll return to the high school track athletes in Connecticut and the words of the Alliance in Defense of Freedom (ADF) in the legal case to exclude trans girls (young women) from competitions. In the buildup to the presentation of the court case, the ADF released a fund-raising article on their website “Track Athletes Taking a Stand to Defend Women’s Sports.” The entire article can be accessed on the following link:
Here, I’d like to offer a selection of some of the statements made in the article.
- “Male athletes have been dominating girls’ high school track and field events in Connecticut.Yes. You heard that right.”
- “Two male athletes who identify as female have won 15 women’s high school track championships that were once held by nine different girls in the state of Connecticut.”
- “Young women are losing athletic opportunities, dreams of competing at the next level, and even potential scholarships.”
- “Is this the end for women’s athletics?”
- “Those who dare to question whether biological males should be allowed to complete against females are ridiculed and bullied. Transgender activists lashed out against tennis legend Martina Navratilova when she wrote that a biological man competing as a woman is “cheating.”
- “Thankfully, female athletes like Selina Soule, Chelsea Mitchell, and Alanna Smith are taking a public stand against the harmful policies that allow this to happen.”
Notice the alarmist rhetoric, such as “the end for women’s athletics,” and the emphasis on the terms ‘male (athletes) or biological males” which are used in contrast to ‘girls’ in the first two statements. All of this adds to the not so subtle attempt to paint a picture of ‘girls’ being hopelessly outmatched.
In other words, girls are not pitted against ‘boy athletes’ who identify as girls, which at least puts both in the same age bracket, but instead we have an unfair ‘males’ versus girls’ scenario that is further reinforced by Navratilova’s comment about a “biological man competing as a woman.”
Finally, the ADF claims the victims are not only the female athletes but anyone who “dares to question,” and risk facing the attacks of transgender activists.
In a similar vein to the ADF article, J.R. Romano, the Connecticut state Republican Chairman, stated in a local paper that Soule, Mitchell and Smith have dealt with “a lot of hostility” in challenging Miller and Yearwood and added,“When it comes to today’s day and age, it takes courage to sue and challenge today’s cancel culture.”
He went on to repeat the “physical differences rationale,” but then states “It’s not a moral question. We’re not saying you can’t be who you want to be.”
Perhaps J.R. Romano believes that, but he might find that many people within the ADF would indeed make the moral claim based on their religious interpretations that transgender girls or others within the LGBTQ+ rainbow should not be tolerated and allowed “to be who you want to be.” See the ADF profile statements below.
In response to the ADF, Robin McHaelen, executive director of Our True Colors Inc., a Hartford-based education and advocacy group for LGBTQ youth said to the same local newspaper that:
“This particular assault against these trans girls is specious and not based on anything actionable.Terry and Andraya are girls and they haven’t transitioned because they believe they can perform better as girls, or women. Nobody transitions to win medals.”
She concluded by saying “Besides, the ones winning those medals lately are the cisgender plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought by the ADF,” who McHaelen describes as”a white-centric, anti-abortion, evangelical-focused non-profit organization.”
Of course, the ADF might deny the first characterization, but I’m sure they will have no problem with the latter two. We only have to refer to their own website’s ‘About Us’ profile.
“Alliance for Freedom is an alliance building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.”
“With God’s blessing, ADF has grown from the prayers of [our} godly leaders to become a major force in the legal battle for religious freedom, winning nearly 80% of our cases.”
Granted that the ADF does not represent all Christians (in this case) in the United States, but given that an estimated one quarter to a third of the US population are evangelicals from a variety of denominations (See Notes), any group of people who challenge their views faces a formidable force, not least of whom are vulnerable trans children or the dreaded ‘trans activists.’ In other words, it is not unreasonable to see the controversy of trans girls in sports as a relatively minor, but highly exploitable, issue in the larger cultural war being waged by groups and individuals who hold similar views to those put forth by the ADF.
The second case I’d like to highlight concerns a transgender high school wrestler in Texas. I think the reaction to this young person’s participation in high school competitions bordered on the ridiculous and wouldn’t have been out of place in Kafka’s castle with its contradictions. Unfortunately this wasn’t a fictional scenario out of a novel but a series of real events that clearly illustrate how much the “transphobic echo chamber” (thank you, Gemma Stone) of misinformation, confusion, and often willful ignorance surrounds any rationale discussion of trans youth athletes.
Mack Beggs was assigned female at birth but became the center of controversy as transgender young man who was a high school wrestling champion in Texas. Although Mack wanted to participate in the boy’s competition,Texas laws forced him to wrestle girls because his sex on his birth certificate was female.
At the 2017 regional state tournament, one of his female competitors, urged on by her parents, refused to wrestle him. The parents then filed an injunction to prevent him from competing any further, citing the same old testosterone advantage argument. As we have seen, this argument is often used to exclude, but in this case, the judge said there were no grounds for disqualification because Beggs was taking medication under a doctor’s supervision and that he was a biological female.
So Mack went on to win the tournament, but was greeted by many boos in the stadium after his final match, and had to quickly escape to the locker room to avoid the large media presence. He went on to win again in 2018, but the controversy surrounding him never let up, which naturally caused him a great deal of anxiety and stress.
Mack succinctly summarized the irony of this regrettable circus when he said:
“You have to wrestle against girls — but you really want to wrestle against guys,”Beggs said. “You beat girls, but technically you are a girl, but technically you’re not. It was a no-win situation.”
He added, “It was just a struggle that I hope nobody else has to go through.”
Please see the following link to Mack’s interview when he was 22 years old to get a full perspective on his story and his struggles dealing with so much hostility from parents and conservative media.
A typical example of the latter is a Tucker Carlson interview (link in Notes) with commentator Mark Steyn on Fox News. It begins with Carlson asking how a (biological) boy is allowed to compete against girls when in fact Mack is a trans boy who really wants to compete against boys.This sets the tone of a discussion that is replete with misleading, terminology* (see Notes), alarmist claims of an agenda to “abolish sex” and simplistic, quite likely patriarchal “traditional views” of males, females and genders in society.
All of this mixed in with a healthy dose of victimization and harassment perpetrated by, in Carlson’s words, “a small group of people (who) can determine what the rest of us can say out loud about biology (and also climate change) and require us to lie (about sex/gender)!”
Finally, Carlson states that they aren’t criticizing trans inclusion for “any prurient reason, and Steyn ‘reaches out’ and actually offers ‘a solution:’
“If someone wants to transition, “Great, but you can’t have everything. Maybe you have to give up wrestling, sports and maybe take up the violin. Not wreck a sport for other participants.”
I will let you be the judge of the tolerance and sincerity behind their remarks; however, other journalists have expressed far more balanced, compassionate views. and one of them, Dave Hansen, hardly fits the profile of a ultra-left radical or transgender activist.
Hansen is a straight, cisgender veteran sportscaster for a Dallas TV station and these are his words (adapted to fit the format of this essay) pertaining to Mack and other trans athletes as reported by LGBTQ Nation:
“Beggs should be allowed to compete as a boy and he is not the problem. I don’t know at what point a transgender teen should be allowed to compete with their gender identity, but somebody has to find a better answer than what we’re being given now. The problems that Mack Beggs is facing and dealing with now remind me again that I don’t have any problems. He needs our support, and he does not need a group of old men in Austin telling him who to wrestle because of a genetic mix-up at birth.”
As LGBTQ Nation said, “ Hansen showed a pretty profound understanding of the nature of privilege for a TV journalist.” I think he showed that and much, much more.
Hansen was very courageous to speak out publicly as he did given the power of anti-transgender campaigns, especially in a state known for its aggressive attacks against transgender inclusion in society. Nonetheless, Hansen and other allies do give us hope that while conservative forces are on the offensive, the tide can eventually be turned.
This optimism is echoed by Mack Beggs’ words in his 2021 interview:
“I do think it’s going to get better for trans athletes and sports,” Beggs said. “The next generation, they have a fire inside of them.”
It is surely an understatement to say this is a highly complex and contentious subject — from the scientific perspective to the policies both for and against the participation of trans women, men, youth and non-binary individuals in women’s sports from the elite to school age levels.
If I had to take a leap off the cliff in these polarized times, my personal opinion is that there is no absolute right or wrong here in terms of the pro and con arguments and that is precisely because (almost) nothing is totally binary! We need only look at the gender or fairness spectrum to see there is just as much truth in the middle as there is at the ends.
Therefore, I’d like to end this essay with an attempt to help us see the forest through the trees by offering these propositions that address what I believe to be the core issues involved in the debate.
- If we accept that it is possible that trans women/girls can hypothetically have some physical advantages over their cisgender peers, then we have to also recognize that the differences alone do not always determine the outcome of a race or match before they have even begun.
- If we maintain that women’s sports will be overrun by transgender athletes and that young women will be sidelined and lose the opportunity to excel, then we must back that claim up with evidence, not to ‘cry wolf’ about a problem that may not really be there at all. If a problem does arise, then we should deal with the specific context and individuals rather than resorting to ill-conceived reactions such as blanket bans on all trans participants.
- If we believe that marginalizing one group to protect another is legitimate, then we only have to look at history and the world today to see how destructive and futile that is for everyone, including those in power. Exclusion may seem like a justifiable or expedient solution, and many states in the US have recently enacted various trans exclusionary laws, but there will be pushback and eventually these ‘victories’ built upon power and privilege will unravel.
- If we believe that not all children and young people deserve equal consideration and care if they do not conform to our standards, then we have to recognize and take responsibility for the immense damage we have inflicted on innocent lives for the sake of our own beliefs.
- If we can rationalize the damage, then we might have to think twice about our values or ask if our actions truly reflect our values.
Rather than taking Mark Steyn’s easy option of telling a trans kid to “forget about sports and take up the violin,” we should be the ones who try, in David Hansen’s words, “to find a better answer than what we’re being given now.”
And the better answers can be found as long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of transgender people who want to engage in sports, especially trans youth, have no ambitions of becoming champions or medal winners or denying women and girls places on a team or podium.
Younger school age kids just want to have fun kicking a ball around, teenagers look for an outlet to express themselves and hopefully gain peer acceptance, and adults think about healthy and well-balanced lifestyles.
If we can keep this perspective in mind it really shouldn’t be that difficult to find a middle ground and create solutions that are fair and equitable for everyone… if we are only talking about sports. Sadly, sports is only the tip of the iceberg as the real challenge lies at a deeper and more fundamental level.
In other words, if people are disposed to try to find ways to include rather than automatically search for ways to exclude trans athletes or youth in sports, solutions can be found. However, if the default position is exclusion in sports and the wider society, then just about everything I’ve written, no matter how ‘perfectly reasonable,’ will just fall on deaf ears.
Unfortunately, there is no doubt that conservative forces, the extreme Christian right in particular, have far broader goals and many have already made up their minds to exclude all transgender people in mainstream sports as part of a larger campaign to reshape societies according to their values. When 39 states in the U.S seek to pass and implement so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws, which aim to silence any discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools and even remove books on the subject from school libraries, James Finn’s assertion that “the Christian Right is winning its war on LGBTQ people” is shocking but difficult to refute. (Medium, 13 April 2022).
Furthermore, Sarah Jones (New York Magazine, 11 April 2022) argues that ever since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, “ the Christian right’s religious convictions… have kept LGBTQ rights fixed squarely in their sights.” She goes on to state in no uncertain terms that their anti-gay/trans rhetoric and actions have reached the point where “they don’t care if gay or trans kids suffer or die by suicide because their religious convictions matter more to them than LGBTQ suffering matters.”
Given this dire, depressing situation, I am left wondering why I even wrote this paper in the first place since the ground has shifted so dramatically in just a few short years. Has all this been a futile, naive waste of my time to try to provide a rebuttal to anti-inclusion arguments about physiology or fairness in sport when opponents have de-humanized trans kids to the extent that Sarah Jones claims? If I think that appeals to reason, objectivity and compassion with ardent transphobic groups might lead to even the slightest compromises in their attitudes and actions, then ‘Yes’ I probably should have done something else with my time.
However, if I decided not to speak out and “took up the violin instead”, the extremists will truly have won. So, ‘No’ I don’t believe I’ve wasted my time to try to inform and reach out to more reasonable people, surely the majority of people in society even in these polarized times, who will support us. There’s no denying that transgender people, and even our families and allies, are under siege by waves of attacks from ultra-conservative forces, but not everyone out there has bought into their vicious rhetoric and misleading arguments. For example, we can take heart from the fact that in recent elections in the UK, another hotbed of transphobia from ‘gender-critical feminists’ to JK Rowling to sensationalist media, four transgender people were elected as local councilors (iTV News, 7 May 2022).
Whether it be in elections or other contexts, such positive stories of inclusion and support in mainstream society should motivate us to dig deeper, continue our efforts to build bridges and keep the fire of our determination to succeed burning brightly. The ‘dark side’ of bigotry, ignorance and exclusion can be overcome so that Mack Beggs’ prediction of a better future for transgender athletes, as well as everyone else in our community, will eventually come true.
1. Number of Evangelical Christians in the USA.
“Wheaton College’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals estimates that about 30 to 35 percent (90 to 100 million people) of the US population is evangelical. These figures include white and black “cultural evangelicals” (Americans who do not regularly attend church but identify as evangelicals). Similarly, a 2019 Gallup survey asking respondents whether they identified as “born-again” or “evangelical” found that 37% of respondents answered in the affirmative.”
2. A Terminology Check on Mark Steyn**:
“A girl transitioning to a boy is on drugs that increase her strength and ruined the competition for undrugged, unsteroided girls.
Low T Center — Reinventing Men’s Health. Is Testosterone Therapy the Same as Steroids?
Sept 9, 2020. lowtcenter.com
“While in some cases testosterone replacement therapy and illegal steroids have identical ingredients, it’s how you use them that make a difference. Steroids abusers use much higher doses to achieve a certain physique, such as body builders or weightlifters, and many illegal steroids contain growth hormone and even insulin.”
** Full Tucker Carlson interview with Mark Steyn
3. Number of Trans Students in US High Schools.
A more recent study on one US school district found 10% of students identified as gender diverse. The 2017 survey only asked whether a student was transgender.
“In contrast, [the 2021 survey} gave high school students more options, asking them to select the terms that best described them: girl, boy, trans girl, trans boy, nonbinary, genderqueer or “another identity.”
Once again, I’d like to acknowledge several other writers on Medium I didn’t mention by name but whose works provided me with invaluable background knowledge and perspectives in my research for this paper. In particular, special thanks to G.L Balend, David Valdez, Sage H., Luci Turner, Bitter Gertrude and Phaylen Williams.