The rights of transgender athletes

When the gender equity legislation known as Title IX came into effect in 1972, transgender sports policy was not even a jolt in the national conversation. Today, it is one of the sharpest dividing points in American culture.

As the transformational law enters its second half-century on the books, the Biden administration wants transgender athletes to have the same protections that Title IX originally gave women when it was passed 50 years ago. This position is in contradiction with the efforts made in the states of the country.

“We’re at a time where Title IX is going to be exploited and celebrated,” said Donna de Varona, the Olympic champion swimmer who leads the women’s sports policy task force, which is looking for a “middle way” to include athletes. transgender. while also not “forcing” what he considers unfair competition. “But people aren’t going to look at the belly because it’s complicated and nuanced. And it’s always been complicated and nuanced.

Without federal legislation to set the parameters for this highly technical issue — at the forefront of a cultural divide that also includes abortion rights, gun control, and “replacement theory,” among other topics — High school athletic associations and legislatures in as many as 40 states have filled the void on their own.

There are about 15.3 million public high school students in the United States, and a 2019 study by the CDC estimated that 1.8% of them — about 275,000 — are transgender. The number of athletes within this group is much smaller; a 2017 survey by the Human Rights Campaign suggested that less than 15% of all transgender boys and girls play sports.

Yet as of May, 19 states had passed laws banning or restricting transgender participation in sports despite the general lack of an issue to address.

Other measures do the opposite, allowing gender identity to determine an athlete’s eligibility. There are a myriad of rules and guidelines in place across the country, state to state, and sometimes sport to sport or even school to school.

The debate essentially boils down to advocates who want to protect the space that Title IX has reserved for cisgender women — women whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth — and those who want athletes transgender people who compete as women enjoy the same protections as anyone else. Consensus is not in sight and the fights are piling up.

Last fall, the American Civil Liberties Union and others filed a lawsuit against Tennessee’s ban on transgender athletes from playing school sports. It was named after Luc Esquivel, a freshman golfer who was assigned the gender of female at birth but in 2019 told his parents he identifies as male.

“I was really looking forward to trying out for the men’s golf team and if I made it, to practice and compete and learn from other boys and improve my game,” Esquivel said. . “Then to have the legislature pass a law that singled me out and kids like me to stop us from being on a team, that crushed me, it hurt a lot. I just want to play , like any other child.

All of the anti-transgender legislation is hitting home for Kyla Paterson, who was able to play football after the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union passed regulations for the inclusion of transgender girls in 2014.

“When I was in high school, people called me a ‘monster’ because I was taller than other girls,” she recalled on the Trans Porter Room podcast earlier this year, shortly before Iowa enacted its ban on transgender athletes. “That’s how they see us now, especially in the Iowa Republican Party. They see us as non-human and as predators.

The complexity of the debate has also placed sports icons in particular positions. From Varona, Martina Navratilova, Edwin Moses and Chris Evert have long been at the forefront of equality in women’s sport. They want a way to include transgender athletes in mainstream sports, but ensure cisgender women stay in the mix to win, insisting that trans athletes have an advantage in the ‘participation gap’ by default.

De Varona’s group offers a 37-page “information book” on the subject. Among its proposals: Transgender women who have not taken steps to “dampen” their testosterone advantage through “gender-affirming” hormones can participate in non-competitive aspects of women’s sports, but not actual games, unless they have a “direct competitor” in the event.

The group wants lawmakers to take inspiration from international sports, which have implemented regulations for transgender athletes. This conundrum, illustrated most poignantly by the journey of South African sprinter Caster Semenya, has been full of contradictions and frustration. Semenya, forced to choose between drugs or surgery to lower her testosterone levels, opted out of the Tokyo Olympics instead.

“It’s like stabbing yourself with a knife every day. But I had no choice,” Semenya said in a recent interview with HBO about the hormone-altering drugs she took for a while in order to stay eligible for certain middle-distance events.

Flawed as they are, the rules that govern transgender sports in athletics are the result of no less than 13 years of research involving scientists around the world, as well as countless lawsuits and court hearings that are still deciding the case. of Semenya, now 31 years old.

By comparison, US states enact laws almost every month. The first ban, enacted by Idaho in 2020, is one of many challenges in court.

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, called the bans too harsh.

“It puts a target on young trans people and makes them feel unsafe,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “These state bans are sweeping. They categorically exclude a group of people from playing any kind of sport at any level.”

Debates over legislation are often accompanied by arguments over hot topics, including the use of school bathrooms by transgender students, whether schools should teach about sexual orientation and gender identity, and parental consent when confirming the sex of minors.

But the big fight in transgender sports centers around the idea of ​​fair competition, where extensive research is still generally lacking on elite athletics and virtually non-existent when it comes to determining whether, for example , a transgender girl in second grade has a clear advantage over her cisgender teammates.

“People say, ‘Well, trans women have advantages, so it can’t be fair’ or ‘Trans women are women and therefore trans rights are not up for debate,'” Joanna Harper said. a transgender woman and researcher at Loughborough University in Britain, who has helped World Athletics, the International Olympic Committee and other major sports organizations shape transgender policy. “And these very simplistic statements appeal to two different political bases. And it’s unfortunate that people resort to these simplistic ways of making the argument and, in many cases, seem unwilling to make any meaningful compromises.

In May, Indiana lawmakers overturned a governor’s veto to enact a law banning transgender women from participating in girls’ high school sports, overriding the governor’s argument that there was no problem in K-12 sports requiring “state government intervention”.

The ACLU almost immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the law. On the other end of the spectrum, four cisgender female high school athletes from Connecticut are challenging rules that allow transgender athletes to compete in sports based on their gender identity.

At the federal level, the Department of Education under the Trump administration argued in a landmark case that the word “sex” should be interpreted strictly to mean the sex assigned to a person at birth. Under the Biden administration, the department considers Title IX’s signature language on discrimination on the “basis of sex” to also include “include discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.”

As the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaches, a stronger solution – a new law or an amended version of Title IX – seems unlikely. President Joe Biden, the day after his inauguration, overturned several of the Trump administration’s rules regarding transgender rights, but the legislation came to nothing.

With the midterm elections underway, Republicans have consistently used transgender sports as a campaign issue. De Varona says the politicization of the topic is blunting some of the legitimate arguments of those, including in her political group, who would like to ensure that women are not denied the level playing field that Title IX aspired to 50 years ago. year.

Still, de Varona said, “let’s not demonize transgender students and find a way to nuance it.”

“But then again,” she added, “nobody wants shades.”


AP Sports Writer Erica Hunzinger contributed.


For more on the impact of Title IX, check out the full AP package: Video timeline: NdgNI6BZpw0

Naomi C. Amerson