Fair Play: Debunking Right-Wing Myths About Trans Athletes

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In 2023, the tide of public opinion increasingly favors protections for transgender individuals. But as anti-trans legislation sweeps the country, anti-trans ideas are beginning to take root among some ordinary people. 58% of Americans now support banning trans people from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity. Sports bans are increasingly entering the discourse of the political establishment and media, even in states seen as progressive on LGBTQ issues. Connecticut, the second state to legalize gay marriage in 2008, now has two sports ban bills active, among other anti-trans legislation. Another sports ban bill was recently brought to the New York state legislature despite existing protections and recognition for gender nonconforming and trans people.

The right-wing talking points in these bills (which are used by Republicans and Democrats alike) leverage on the public’s generally low level of education on gender and sexuality, using disinformation and distortion to mislead people into believing that trans women and girls have “unfair advantages” over their cisgender peers.

What The Research Really Shows

Anti-trans talking points often cite testosterone levels that cause male and female people to develop differently during puberty. This argument rests entirely on outdated bad science. Separating female and male anatomy on the basis of testosterone (or any other singular biological factor) is overly simplistic and doesn’t account for the reality of natural human variation: not all males naturally have more testosterone than all females, nor do all males or females naturally have the same levels of testosterone. On this basis the right also has no answer to how intersex people, a not-insignificant portion of the population, should participate in sports.

What’s more, testosterone does not automatically translate into athleticism. Abnormally high levels of testosterone (though normal ranges are difficult to determine and not broadly agreed upon by the medical community) can produce effects that may hinder athletic performance, such as heart problems, low mood, and impaired judgment. Other physical factors, like hand-eye coordination, agility, and strategic thinking – to say nothing of the role of practice, training, and commitment – are equally or more important to athletic prowess, and not fundamentally related to testosterone or sex assigned at birth.

To the degree that testosterone can impact athletic ability by impacting muscle mass and bone density, the disingenuous nature of anti-trans rhetoric is laid bare by the fact that access to hormonal treatments (which are already used, albeit controversially, among professional athletes) would help address the “problem” of high testosterone – and yet sports bans are frequently pitched alongside bans on gender-affirming healthcare.

In the final analysis, a rounded-out study of testosterone, gender identity, and biological sex demonstrates not that trans women compete “like men,” but that attempting to box all people into either “men’s” or “women’s” sports is fundamentally unfair to all genders

Pre-adolescent, coed sports demonstrate the benefits of teams not split by gender that facilitate more balanced, well-rounded competition – benefits which in reality are applicable across age groups. In general, the ability to play team sports freely as a child has immense social and emotional benefits. Kids learn to cooperate and share, they learn how to navigate and use their bodies, and they learn how to regulate their emotions, win or lose.

Anti-trans talking points also claim that allowing trans people to compete as their gender identity can increase the danger of sports injuries. This is again clearly disingenuous. Sports can and do increase risk of injuries regardless of gender composition, such as football, where high risk of brain injury is a well-documented issue. If safety were a real concern for the right, they would not be scapegoating trans athletes, they would be fighting for more far-reaching changes to the way sports are already played to make them safer and more accessible to all.

Concern For Women Or Control Over Women?

Proponents of anti-trans legislation often fall back on “protecting women and girls.” But are they actually fighting for women? During Trump’s presidency, his administration was a key enabler and accelerant of the anti-trans attacks we’re seeing today, and yet Trump himself and those surrounding him have consistently shown themselves to be virulently misogynistic.

Banning trans athletes from playing sports according to their gender identity opens the door to more policing of all women in sports and bans on the basis of being “too good,” because gendered teams rest on the idea of fundamental differences between men and women that always result in women occupying a weaker, inferior position, and that reinforce stereotypes that harm people of all genders.

Anti-trans arguments are, at the end of the day, anti-feminist arguments that have nothing in common with a real fight for women’s equality. Fighting for the liberation and equality of trans people is necessary to win genuine liberation and equality for all genders.

It’s About More Than Just Sports

The right makes claims about “biological males dominating many female sports,” yet the sports ban bills impact very few known trans athletes (though they certainly impact all young people questioning their gender identity). So why are sports the target of so much of the far right’s energy?

Leaked documents from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) – a group drafting anti-trans bills that also played a role in overturning Roe v. Wade – illustrate their plan to use school sports bans as a “foot in the door” issue, with the ultimate goal of essentially eradicating trans people from public life. ADF, like others on the right, relies on lies, fearmongering, and hypocrisy to promote its agenda, preying on the fears of parents that their children won’t have a fair shot at success.

If it were really about “fairness in sports,” groups like ADF would be pushing to ensure that all students have equal access to medical care and free, nutritious food at school so that students are able to be active. They would be fighting for smaller class sizes and more school funding, so that students have the attention and resources they need to excel in academics, often a prerequisite for school sports. But school boards, lobbyists, and politicians from both parties that are attacking trans rights are also responsible for cutting the school budgets and social services that could make schools – and school sports – fair for all.

What’s really behind the sports bans is the right’s aim to artificially pit trans and cisgender people against one another, because capitalism relies on a divided population to distract us from the fact that the ruling class and their political representatives have no real answers to the crises facing us. Working people shouldn’t fall for this divide-and-conquer tactic! What we really need is to build a fight for better jobs and lives – a better world – on the most united possible basis: the basis of all workers and oppressed people against the tiny minority of the ruling class.

Ultimately, if banned from playing alongside other people of their gender identity, most trans athletes will simply not compete in sports. This is also the case for non-binary athletes who are not willing to misgender themselves on a gendered team, and women and girls who are told they’re “too masculine” or “too good” to play with their peers. Depriving anyone of the opportunity to play sports deprives them of important opportunities for physical, psychological, and social development. Socialist Alternative opposes all attempts to segregate trans and queer people from society and deny queer people the same opportunities and experiences as their cisgender peers. We need a united fight against these attempts among the whole working class on the basis that trans rights are in all our interests!

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