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April 10, 2021
Ithaca, NY | 65°F

ColumnsOut of Bounds

Trans women deserve to be included in women’s sports

Trans women are women. Trans girls are girls.

These are not facts that are up for debate. Unfortunately, bigots have found a new avenue to oppress transgender people, particularly trans girls, through sports. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), at least 24 states have introduced legislation that targets trans youth and their access to sports as well as gender-affirming healthcare. Transgender and LGBTQ rights advocates are calling the sudden onslaught of bills a coordinated attack in response to President Joe Biden’s executive order aimed at prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Arguments against trans inclusion in sports are largely rooted in misunderstandings that damage both trans and cis girls. A dominant narrative is that allowing trans girls who were assigned male at birth to compete in girls sports will lead to the exclusion of girls who were assigned female at birth. This argument emphasizes the biological differences between those assigned male versus female at birth like height, muscle mass and lung capacity. However, this is a gross oversimplification of the situation.

First, no man is automatically more capable of performing at an elite level than any woman simply on the basis of gender. The best female athletes are going to be more capable than any male who is not as naturally talented. It is also a ridiculous implication that a certain body type — larger, more muscular — is ideal for every sport. 

A perfect example is CeCé Telfer, a transgender woman who competed in track and field for Division II Franklin Pierce University in 2019. Telfer transitioned midway through her college career and completed the year of hormone therapy required by the NCAA to compete with the women’s team. She placed fifth at the 2019 NCAA Championships in 100-meter hurdles, and in an interview with OutSports, she discussed having to relearn the event post-transition. In college track and field, the men’s hurdle race is 110 meters, and the hurdles are taller and further apart than in the women’s race, which makes the women’s race more challenging for someone built like Telfer, who is over six feet tall.

The concept of “protecting” women’s sports is inherently rooted in misogyny. Many bills proposed in state legislatures include stipulations that any athlete on a girls’ sports team can have their sex assigned at birth questioned. That means that girls who are naturally taller or more muscular, girls who prefer to present more masculine or girls who are simply too athletically gifted will likely be subjected to humiliation and dehumanizing sex testing to prove that they were assigned female at birth. With the legislation targeting trans girls, the cisgender girls who are supposedly being protected will get caught in the crossfire.

This ideal asserts that there is a particular body, appearance and ability level that defines womanhood. Trans athletes are very rarely questioned until they begin to succeed, and that sends a message to all young girls that there are limits on what they can achieve. It tells them that if they look too masculine or if they look different from the stereotypical all-American girl, they are not woman enough. 

Most importantly, excluding trans girls comes at a cost that is far more devastating than losing a sport. Youth sports are a critical part of personal and social development for many children, and being excluded from that experience instantly isolates transgender youth even more from their peers. A 2018 study showed that nearly 30% of trans children have attempted suicide, and a 2015 study showed that they are more than four times as likely to suffer significant symptoms of depression than their cisgender peers. Isolation has real and potentially lifelong impacts on transgender girls and women’s mental health.

Emily Adams can be reached at eadams3@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @eaadams6