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The massive Republican push to ban trans athletes, explained

About 30 states have introduced bills to prevent trans kids and women from playing sports. It’s the GOP’s latest attempt to force trans people into hiding.

Grace Walker wants you to know that she is just an average athlete. “I’m going to be entirely honest, when it comes to me and my athletics, I am strictly middle of the road. I’m far from exceptional,” the 17-year-old from Minnesota told Vox.

She’s being modest. She’s captain of her school’s cheerleading and tennis teams and hopes to continue her athletic career when she goes off to college next year. Walker says she wasn’t drawn to sports before her transition, citing the alienating masculine atmosphere often baked into boys’ sports. But the moment she transitioned, the idea of sports was suddenly on the table. Being part of a team seemed fun, inclusive, a way not just to challenge her athletic ability but to also be part of something.

“I joined tennis and cheer specifically for the culture,” she said. “I joined cheer to be a cheerleader and be able to walk into school in a uniform that my parents never would have let me wear outside the house. I joined because we had fundraisers and sleepovers where we would sneak out and go get food, or we would do, like, henna tattoos. I joined all these sports just to be surrounded by a bunch of people like me.”

But what Walker and many see as a normal part of creating teenage camaraderie is criminal to others. A Republican lawmaker in her state, Rep. Eric Lucero, introduced a bill this legislative session that would classify trans girls and women playing sports as a petty misdemeanor, roughly equivalent in the state to possessing a small amount of marijuana. Minnesotan trans athletes like Walker could end up having to appear in juvenile court just for playing tennis.

It’s perhaps the harshest in a wave of state-level anti-trans legislation aimed at barring trans girls and women from playing girls’ and women's scholastic sports. About 30 states have introduced anti-trans athlete bills this year, and two of those became law this month: Mississippi and Arkansas. Tennessee’s ban, meanwhile, is awaiting the governor’s signature. Idaho passed a similar law last year, which was later enjoined by a federal court.

The crusade against trans athletes has been the most successful effort to introduce transphobic discrimination into state law, after numerous states failed to pass larger-scale bathroom bills and puberty blocker bans in recent years. Trans athleticism is a seemingly complicated issue that has found success largely due to a mishmash of cultural attitudes and generally incorrect assumptions, particularly about trans girls’ bodies.

It first gained attention in 2017 when far-right media began waging a campaign against a small handful of trans athletes, most notably two Black trans sprinters who dominated Connecticut girls’ track. Under the Trump administration, the Education Department joined a lawsuit against the Connecticut high school athletics governing body brought by the anti-trans legal group Alliance Defending Freedom and several cisgender girls who lost in track events to the Connecticut trans girls (before later beating them).

The case — along with Cece Telfer’s Division II national hurdling championship in 2019 and Veronica Ivy’s 2018 and 2019 world masters sprint cycling championships — has been held up by conservative media as proof that all trans girls and women have a “biological advantage” at sports, and should therefore be banned.

Anti-trans doomsayers often claim that simply allowing trans women and girls to compete at sports would “destroy women’s sports.” “If the A.C.L.U. gets its way, women’s sports will no longer exist,” Roger Brooks, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, told the New York Times. “There’ll be men’s sports and there’ll be semi-coed sports, and women and girls in Connecticut will be losers.”

But that narrative largely fails to hold up to real-world evidence — trans athletes have been allowed in girls’ high school and women's college sports for years and no school has had to make “co-ed teams,” a dig that misgenders trans girls and women. Meanwhile, science has found that trans girls who hormonally transition at younger ages do not necessarily have a “biological advantage” athletically. And none of it justifies banning middle school trans girls from the local girls’ soccer team.

Transgender advocates say that using a handful of examples of trans girls succeeding at sports to push widespread and exclusionary legislation is a solution in search of a problem. An Associated Press investigation into these athletic bans found that most lawmakers supporting such bills cannot name a single trans athlete competing in their state. A New York Times report indicated that out of about 200,000 women taking part in NCAA women’s sports at a given time, about 50 are transgender.

“This is a manufactured fear that the politicians pushing hope will be emblematic of a too-swiftly changing culture,” Gillian Branstetter, a spokesperson for the National Women’s Law Center, told Vox. It’s “simply a wedge issue to drive between voters of one party or another. My concern is that the wedge that these bills will drive is not between voters and a political party, but between parents and their children.”

Advocates say that laws that exclude and punish trans kids — and messaging that classifies young trans girls as “biological boys” — is scare-mongering and unfair, and only seeks to reinforce ugly stereotypes about trans girls and women to an uninformed public. It’s another attack on trans kids that potentially threatens not just their school life but also their relationship with their parents — which, advocates say, is ultimately the goal for anti-trans conservatives: forcing trans kids back into the closet.

The science shows many trans women athletes lose strength after hormonally transitioning

At the heart of the issue is an assumption that male bodies are born with an innate biological athletic superiority. It deems anyone born with a penis to be better at sports than anyone born with a vagina. And this assumption not only drives many issues marginalizing women’s sports — which are frequently underfunded, underdeveloped, and largely ignored in a culture that equates “best” with “male” — it is the narrative driving the push to ban trans girls from competing in girls’ sports, too.

In fact, nearly all of the sweeping legislation to ban trans kids from playing sports primarily focuses on trans girls, with language misgendering them as “biological boys.”

But this “biological male is best” assumption, as with so many other trans issues, is a gross overgeneralization. Children frequently play coed sports until puberty begins, and only then does there begin to be a separation in athletic performance between boys and girls. The existence of girls like Walker, however, further complicates matters. She largely avoided male puberty to begin with, thanks to her middle school puberty blockers and hormonal transition. Taking a look at her slight physique would render absurd the idea that she’s some genetically giant super-athlete compared to her cis peers.

“I wouldn’t even have a shot on the boys’ team,” said Walker. “I don’t have that testosterone. If we really want to talk about fairness and athletics, putting a person like myself or a transgender female on a men’s team would not be fair. I’m a girl, and in no way, shape, or form does my blood work, physique, muscle mass, BMI, or anything like that reflect a man.”

Even for trans women athletes, many experts agree that trans women at least lose some performance ability when they hormonally transition, even if it’s after puberty has been completed, rendering it unlikely that they would be able to keep up — or stay safe — competing against their cis male counterparts.

Estrogen is much less efficient at building and maintaining muscle than testosterone, and early research indicates that trans women lose significant strength through their transition-related hormone replacement therapy regimen. So for trans women athletes, that means they need to take longer to recover between workouts than they did before transition, causing muscle loss.

While some studies have suggested that trans women do retain at least some of their previous pure strength advantage even after a year on estrogen, with further drops past the one-year mark, how this exactly translates to more complicated athletic movements beyond pure strength and endurance tests remains to be proven.

There are physical traits that cannot be changed through hormone replacement, such as height, which is critical in many sports including basketball and volleyball. But human bodies aren’t cleanly split into two distinct types like store mannequins. In my own social circle, I know a 5-foot trans woman and a 6-foot-4 genderqueer person who was assigned female at birth. It would be odd to ban trans women on the basis of height while not holding unusually tall cis women to the same standard.

Part of the problem on the anti-trans side is that they’re starting from the base assumption that trans women are men, and substitute cis male physical traits when discussing whether trans women may have competitive advantages. They’ll argue that men have bigger hearts and more lung capacity, or produce more red blood cells on average than cis women, and then assume trans women’s bodies would be the same.

But initial scientific findings don’t necessarily support that, according to Loughborough University PhD student Joanna Harper, who has spent the past decade researching trans athletes. Harper noted that a trans athlete she previously studied at Arizona State University saw the ejection fraction rate of her heart drop significantly after HRT, meaning less blood was pumped with each beat. “The heart itself might be the same, but the muscles may not work as well,” she told Vox. “And if the ejection fraction goes down, who cares about the size of the heart? It’s how much blood you can pump that matters.”

According to Harper, there are myriad physical traits that may impact a trans woman’s athletic ability, but we yet don’t know enough specific science about trans women’s bodies to draw broad policy conclusions for trans athletes.

“Cis people see a lot of the instantaneous results of the coming-out process, so they assume it’s just a snap decision,” said Canadian sportswriter A.J. Andrews, a trans woman. “They don’t see the years of hormone therapy and the changes it does to a body; they just see the moment of public change and fear some giant bodybuilder is going to do the same thing.”

While conservatives have used Telfer and Ivy for outrage fuel in this debate, neither has competed at the very highest levels of their sport. Ivy won a master’s championship, which is an age-restricted category, meaning she was only competing against other women in their late 30s. She is not a world elite rider and is not a likely competitor to make an Olympic appearance.

Ignored in right-wing media coverage are decidedly average trans performances, like 28-year-old Megan Youngren, who attempted to qualify for the 2020 US Olympic marathon team last February, finishing in 200th place in the qualifying race. Trans women were allowed to begin competing as women in the Olympics if they’d had bottom surgery beginning in 2004. The surgery requirement was lifted in 2016 and replaced by guidelines stating that trans women must lower their testosterone levels for an entire year before eligibility. Despite the more open stance, no openly trans woman has ever qualified to compete as a woman in the Olympics.

Similarly, the NCAA instituted a similar hormone requirement in 2011, and thus far, Telfer has been the only openly trans national champion at any of the association’s three divisions of competition.

Even debating who is allowed into elite athletic sporting competitions like the Olympics is a far cry from legislating whether trans kids can take part in school sports. And caught in the middle are trans kids like Walker.

Far-right conservatives are using this debate to classify trans women and girls as male under law

Speaking with Vox, Walker continuously stressed how average she is, particularly in tennis, where she says she alternated between first and second singles on the team and was voted captain not because of her talent, but because she is likable. But later in the interview, Walker revealed just how hard she’d worked to both make and succeed on the team. She mentioned going to cheer and tennis camp and growing up playing tennis like her mom.

But girls like Walker shouldn’t have to justify their right to play sports by proving how mediocre their results are — and the panic over supposed athletic dominance of trans girls is a convenient lead-in for conservatives and radical feminists to draw distinctions between cis and trans girls in law that they can later build on.

Rep. Lucero’s public comments about his bill belie the endgame of such legislation. “The last several years have been witness to a rise in the number of confused boys and men mistakenly believing themselves to be girls and women when the science says otherwise, yet demanding to play on female sport teams, use female bathrooms, and even shower with females, causing outrage and concern among parents by the threat to their daughters’ safety,” Lucero told the Minnesota television station KTSP earlier this month.

In other words, Lucero and his conservative peers see this as an extension of the bathroom bill debate and are seeking to classify trans girls and women as men under the law, which would then open the door to all sorts of legal exclusions down the road.

So far, just Mississippi, Arkansas, and Idaho have signed such bills into law, and the latter state’s bill is caught up in court. Any other bill that gets signed into law will likely be challenged in court, too.

In the meantime, these statehouse debates have once again forced trans adults, trans kids, and parents of trans kids to turn out to legislative hearings debating their right to exist. In touching testimony in Missouri, Brandon Boulware, the parent of a trans girl, patiently explained to lawmakers his evolution in supporting his daughter’s transition.

“I had a child who did not smile,” Boulware said about his daughter before her social transition. Boulware said he had forbidden his daughter from wearing girls’ clothes or growing her hair out for years, against the advice of teachers, doctors, and therapists. “My daughter was equating being good with being someone else. I was teaching her to deny who she is. As a parent, the one thing we cannot do is silence our child’s spirit.”

Sports — and, ultimately, being part of a team — are a normal part of kids’ socialization. Studies have shown that athletic participation provides all sorts of positive effects on children, from reduced rates of depression to positive physical health outcomes. But more importantly, high school and college sports are a common space for community-building. Small towns often gather at the local high school’s athletic events and socialize and build a common identity. By excluding trans girls from these spaces, it sends a clear message to all trans kids that they don’t belong.

And that’s the thing about this and all debates over trans issues happening in the US and the rest of the world. Behind all the grand pronouncements, Twitter trolls, and armchair experts are the very real lives of trans kids like Grace Walker, who merely want to live a normal life without their transness making things weird or difficult.

“We encourage students to engage in sports,” said Walker. “We know it makes students happier. It makes them more healthy. It makes them more involved in their school environment. We encourage children to be part of sports. For me, it’s so shocking because it’s taking away a core foundation that we have put in place for such a long time. We’re going after the kids.”

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