On transgender student athletes: Just let them play
University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas looks on after swimming the 500 freestyle during the 2022 Ivy League Womens Swimming and Diving Championships at Blodgett Pool on Feb. 17, 2022, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
I received some needed clarity from an unlikely source while working on a column about recent legislation that has passed the U.S. House of Representatives targeting transgender athletes.
“Trans Marathoner Defeats 14,000 Women in Race after Competing as Man Months Earlier,” reads the National Review headline.
The wording seems to support the contention that transgender people switch up their gender for competitive advantage the way most people change their shoes. But then I read the article:
“Glenique Frank, a 52-year-old male athlete who now identifies as female, finished in 6,160th place out of 20,123 entrants, outpacing 14,000 women.”
That means more than 6,000 females beat Frank in the London Marathon.
While I’m focusing on state and federal laws aimed at high school and college athletes, I found the National Review story instructive. You can have a conversation about the politics of transgender athletes competing in sports, or you can have one about the data. There is very little overlap between the two.
Think about why a publication would frame a headline like that, why it would twist itself into a pretzel to make it seem like a transgender human being is blowing away the competition. Because it fits the political narrative.
On April 20, the House of Representatives passed the Protection of Girls and Women in Sports Act of 2023; it will likely not pass the Senate, but even if it does, President Biden will veto it. Still, New Jersey state Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) took it as an opening to push for passage of what he calls the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which would amend Title IX to add, “Sex shall be recognized based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”
Note the words used by our elected representatives: “protection” and “fairness.” The girls! They need protecting. How I wish I had pearls to clutch. It was only last month when we were all supposed to put our hands over our ears, wide-eyed, because of escalated smack talk in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four.
This is what brings Republicans out of the woodwork to express their feminist leanings? Where have you been all my life? Where were your puffed-up Title IX speeches when girls were playing on borderline dangerous fields or at inferior gym facilities, and getting short shrift on everything from funding to media coverage?
If this is not partly about paternalism, then please explain to me why we hear virtually no one crafting legislation to make sure a female transitioning to male doesn’t threaten the boys on the varsity team. It’s because one scenario has the perceived “weak” opting to play with the “strong” while the other puts the ostensibly “strong” into the “weak” pool of competition.
Which is to say this is also about winning. Or the perception of what it takes to win and what that might translate to in terms of stature and getting to the next level. After spending 15 years covering girls’ and women’s sports for a daily newspaper, I can’t tell you how common it is to hear a parent express certainty that their child will be getting an athletic scholarship. The truth is, according to the NCAA, less than 2 percent of high school athletes will receive scholarships for their sports prowess.
Writer Cyd Ziegler with OutSports interviewed four transgender females who train hard but almost never win, contrary to what sponsors of all this legislation would have you believe. One, soccer goalie Athena Del Rosario, was one of the fastest kids on her school’s boys’ soccer team, and by the end of her senior year at a new school, and after self-medicating with estrogen and androgen blockers, she was one of the slowest.
Being transgender doesn’t always give athletes a competitive advantage. This is especially important given how many advantages are already built into scholastic sports (and life). Does your family have the money to hire a private pitching coach for your child who plays softball? Advantage. Did your kid have a marked growth spurt last summer? Advantage. Have you freed up your student athlete from work responsibilities so they can practice more? Advantage.
You really want to protect women? Process the rape kit backlog. Keep the government out of our reproductive decisions. Stop glamorizing guns and show even scant interest in getting military-grade weapons out of Americans’ hands.
Sports are about skill, physicality, competition, triumph, defeat, disappointment, exhilaration, persistence. Sometimes it’s about winning; sometimes it’s about grace in defeat or making a strong comeback. Thanks to Title IX, females have been learning this in droves for decades.
We’ll be wrestling with the nuances of this for years. Do I believe that one is either inclusive or biased? No. Should an athlete be able to identify as male one day and female the very next? No. There needs to be a process and this is exactly what pertinent organizations are hammering out. I think any intelligent discussion of trans female athletes has to acknowledge that it’s going to be fluid for a while.
I wrote earlier about getting insight from unlikely places. Well, how about from fiction? I just finished reading the novel “Mad Honey” by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan. The main character, Lily, is transgender and a student athlete. As a competing fencer, she is three inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than her opponent in one described match, but she wins with finesse. Her interior dialogue taught me so much about challenges at a young age, like questions about when and if to reveal yourself to others:
“Even though I am proud of who I am, proud of having fought against all these odds to become the person I always dreamed of being — it means everyone would know I’m trans. When all I really want to be — all I’ve ever been — is a girl.”
Please, just let her play.
This column first appeared in the New Jersey Monitor, part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: [email protected]. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.
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