The Sports Arena Has Become Conservatives’ Favorite Anti-Trans Battleground
The ‘debate’ over trans student-athletes relies on ancient — and false — ideas about women’s weakness
In the early 2000s, I used to debate feminism with straight men. It’s a losing game, and I don’t advise you to try it, but I was in college, so chalk it up to youthful experimentation. The men I spoke to did not have the most advanced grasp on the matter, and tended to stall out at the “women aren’t worse than men” portion. By saying women were equal to men, they’d ask, wasn’t I really saying women were the same as men? Weren’t there some things men were just better at? I’d ask what they meant, and they’d sputter, and finally, inevitably, each man would produce the same example: sports. Men were better at sports. They were stronger, and faster, and that was just nature, so clearly, this whole “gender equality” thing was a lost cause.
Flash forward to 2021, where trans-exclusionary radical feminists (better known as TERFs) are focused with messianic zeal on trying to exclude trans women and girls from female sports teams. This has been framed, by proponents, as a feminist mission. An op-ed by the New York Post argues that trans girls’ “physical advantages” will lead to cis girls “losing out on prestigious sports victories (and maybe scholarships that go with them).” Transphobic thought leader Abigail Shrier calls trans inclusion on sports teams “a new glass ceiling… placed over girls.” Thanks to coordinated efforts from conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Alliance Defending Freedom, states have been flooded with bills intended to prevent trans student-athletes from joining the correct teams; already, there have been 25 pieces of legislation this year. That legislation is likely unconstitutional, thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer in Bostock v. Clayton County, which held that Title VII protections apply for gender and sexual orientation — a determination that was bolstered by President Biden’s executive order stating that schools will lose their federal funding if they enforce transphobic discrimination. Yet the bills keep coming, perhaps as an attempt to overturn Bostock, and certainly as an attempt to foment culture war and whip up a conservative base.
Even among cis men and women, traits like strength and speed aren’t binary.
The core contention here is that trans girls are “really” men, and that, as such, they are inherently more athletic than any cis girl. It is supposedly impossible for a cis girl to defeat a trans girl in a fair contest, and unjust to make them try. This is clearly transphobic and ill-informed — among other things, the invocation of the unstoppably big and strong trans girl is meant to evoke stereotypes of trans women as sexual predators or physical threats to women — but what you might miss, unless you’d been having these arguments for a long time, is the extent to which it’s just a rehash of the age-old frat-boy adage: Men are just better.
The attacks on trans athletes are not grounded in science. Even among cis men and women, traits like strength and speed aren’t binary; they exist along a continuum, so that any generalization about men being “stronger” or women being “weaker” can be easily disproven. The average country-club tennis player could not beat Serena Williams just because he’s a guy, and I defy you to imagine a fair fight in which Ronda Rousey does not beat the stuffing out of Timothée Chalamet.
Admittedly, those are extreme examples, but that’s the point: Athletes are physically exceptional people. Any trans woman, no matter how fast or strong she is, will be competing with similarly fast or strong cis women. When cis athletes have exceptional physical features, we tend to celebrate them for it. No one tried to stop Yao Ming from playing basketball just because he’s over seven and a half feet tall. There have been countless articles about how Michael Phelps’ uniquely aerodynamic body makes him a faster swimmer, but no one wants to ban him from swimming. It’s only being trans — specifically, being a trans woman — that is supposedly unfair.
The fact is that trans bodies exist along a spectrum of athletic talent, just as cis ones do, and simply knowing an athlete is trans does nothing to tell you how strong, fast, or coordinated they are. It depends on the player and it depends on the game. As Britni de la Cretaz wrote for Inside Hook, talking points that play up trans girls’ “advantages” also portray trans boys as weak, with no hope of competing against “real” men — yet the only trans athlete ever to compete in the Olympic trials under his correct gender, triathlete Chris Mosier, is a trans man, and he had to beat a whole lot of cis men to qualify. Meanwhile, despite their supposed “advantages” (which, if they exist at all, largely disappear after one to two years of hormone therapy) trans women athletes remain underrepresented. Trans women are often taller than cis women, for instance, but there are no trans women in the WNBA. No openly transfeminine athlete has made it to the Olympics, even though they’ve been allowed to compete on the correct teams for years now.
So why do sports remain such a flashpoint? Of all the teenage activities transphobes could potentially use to litigate trans existence — sex ed classes, school dances, the eternal battle of Home Ec vs. Shop, etc. — why should they be so laser-focused on the right to join the softball team?
On some level, it’s because school sports are bound up in our idea of happy, wholesome American childhood. We all understand what it means to say that someone was the quarterback of his high school football team, just as we were all raised to believe sports held the key to self-esteem. For those who believe trans children are inherently freakish and abnormal, it no doubt feels very important to exclude them from that picture of the all-American girl or boy.
Yet sports are also where we work out our ideas about competition and excellence, and gender norms are deeply bound up in that. When trans girls are cast as an overpowering threat, capable of beating even the most athletic cis girl at her own game, then, yes, trans girls are being told that they’re boys. That’s deeply hurtful. But cis girls are also being told they’re inferior to boys, and always will be, no matter how hard they work or how skilled they get. That message is also incredibly harmful, and though it’s not true, it’s something cis and trans women will be hearing, in one form or another, for the rest of their lives.
Trans sports bills aren’t about sports. They’re about enforcing an age-old binary: Tough, strong boys and fragile, dainty girls; competitive men and nurturing women; quarterbacks and cheerleaders. We want to believe that athletic skill is binary and biological, for the same reasons we want to believe men are just better, just tougher, just stronger, just more courageous or more competitive, or better team players. Those stereotypes are used to undermine and condescend to every female athlete, cis or trans. They’re used to argue for men’s superior toughness, courage, and leadership skills in professional settings, including office jobs that require no physical exertion. Casting women as weak and incompetent yearlings in need of “protection” is the underlying principle of cultural sexism; cisgender women have been “protected” from voting, from reading, from working, and now, from competition with other women.
A glass ceiling has been placed over girls, yes, but trans people didn’t put it there. It is still deeply offensive and frightening to many people to suggest that men are not just better, that the circumstances of our births don’t determine our ability to compete, that we all belong on the same playing field. Our kids don’t need “protection” from the other kids on their soccer team. They need protection from the adults telling them that they are weak or crazy or freakish or doomed to failure because of the bodies they were born with — the voices, which may dog or define them for the rest of their lives, telling them they shouldn’t play because they can’t win.