When the gender equality legislation known as Title IX went into effect in 1972, the politics of transgender sports in the US was not even an outlier in the national conversation. Today it is one of the sharpest dividing lines in American culture.
As the Transformative Act enters its second half-century on the books, the Biden administration wants transgender athletes to enjoy the same protections that Title IX originally gave women when it was passed 50 years ago. This stance is at odds with efforts in states across the country.
“We are in a time where Title IX is being exploited and celebrated,” said Donna de Varona, an Olympic swimming champion who leads the working group on women’s sports policy, which is seeking a “middle ground” to include transgender athletes while doing it too does not “enforce” what it considers to be unfair competition. “But people won’t look at the downsides because they’re complicated and nuanced. And it’s always been complicated and nuanced.”
Without federal legislation setting parameters for this highly technical issue — on the front lines of a cultural divide that also includes abortion rights, gun control, and “surrogate theory” among other issues — high school athletic organizations and legislatures in no fewer than 40 states have filled the gap themselves .
There are about 15.3 million public high school students in the United States, and a 2019 CDC study estimates that 1.8 percent of them — about 275,000 — are transgender. The number of athletes within this group is much smaller; A 2017 Human Rights Campaign survey found that less than 15 percent of all transgender boys and transgender girls play sports.
But as of May, 19 states had passed laws banning or restricting transgender people’s participation in sports, although there is generally no issue that could be addressed.
Other measures do the opposite, allowing gender identity to determine an athlete’s suitability. There are countless rules and guidelines across the country, from state to state and sometimes from sport to sport or even school to school.
The debate essentially boils down to advocates wanting to protect the space that Title IX created for cisgender women – women whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth – and those who want to be transgender -Athletes competing as women enjoy the same protections as anyone else. A consensus is not in sight, the fighting is piling up.
Last fall, the American Civil Liberties Union and others filed a lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s ban on transgender athletes from participating in school sports. It was brought on behalf of Luc Esquivel, a freshman golfer who was assigned the gender of female at birth but in 2019 told his parents he identified as male.
“I’ve really been looking forward to trying my hand at the boys’ golf team and, if I can manage to train and compete with other boys, learn from them and improve my game,” Esquivel said. “Then when the legislature passed a law that singled out me and kids like me to keep us from being part of a team that took me down, it hurt a lot. I just want to play like any other kid.”
All of the anti-transgender legislation applies to Kyla Paterson, who was able to play soccer after the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union passed regulations on the inclusion of transgender girls in 2014.
“When I was in high school, people called me a ‘monster’ because I was taller than the other girls,” she recalled earlier this year on the Trans Porter Room podcast, just before Iowa lifted its ban on transgender people. athletes issued. “That’s how they see us now, especially in the Republican Party in Iowa. They see us as inhuman and as predators.”
The complexity of the debate has also put sporting icons in odd positions. De Varona, Martina Navratilova, Edwin Moses and Chris Evert have long been advocates for equality in women’s sport. They want a way to bring transgender athletes into mainstream sport but ensure cisgender women stay in the mix to win and insist that transgender athletes have an advantage in the “participation gap” by default.
De Varona’s group offers a 37-page briefing book on the subject. Among his suggestions: Transgender women who have not taken steps to “mitigate” their testosterone advantage with “gender-affirming” hormones can participate in noncompetitive aspects of women’s sports, but not actual games unless they have a “direct.” competitors”. the event.
The group wants lawmakers to align with international sports that have regulations for transgender athletes and others with above-average testosterone levels. Captured most poignantly through the journey of South African sprinter Caster Semenya, who suffers from what is known as a 46 XY DSD condition, this mystery has been fraught with contradiction and frustration. Forced to choose between medication or surgery to lower her testosterone levels, Semenya instead chose not to compete in the Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s like stabbing yourself with a knife every day. But I didn’t have a choice,” Semenya said in a recent interview with HBO about the hormone-altering drugs she took for a time to stay eligible to play for certain middle-distance events.
Imperfect as they may be, the rules governing transgender sport in athletics are the result of no less than 13 years of research involving scientists from around the world, along with countless trials and court hearings, who are still deciding the case Semenya, now 31.
In comparison, states in the US pass legislation on an almost monthly basis. The first ban, issued by Idaho in 2020, is one of many being challenged in court.
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, called the bans too harsh.
“It puts a target on the backs of trans youth and makes them feel insecure,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “These government bans are far-reaching. They categorically exclude a group of people from playing any kind of sport at any level.”
Debates over legislation are often accompanied by arguments over sensitive issues, including the use of school toilets by transgender students, whether schools should teach about sexual orientation and gender identity, and parental consent when it comes to gender confirmation for minors.
But the great fight in transgender sports revolves around the idea of fair competition, where there is still generally a lack of extensive research into elite athletics and virtually non-existent when it comes to determining if, say, a transgender girl is as a sophomore, has a clear advantage over their cisgender teammates.
“People say, ‘Well, trans women have advantages, so it can’t be fair,’ or ‘Trans women are women, so trans people’s rights are not up for debate,'” said Joanna Harper, a transgender woman and researcher at Loughborough University in the UK, has assisted World Athletics, the International Olympic Committee and other major sports organizations in shaping transgender policy. “And these very simplistic statements address two different policy bases. And it’s unfortunate that people resort to these simplistic methods of framing the argument and, in many cases, don’t seem willing to make a meaningful compromise.”
In May, the Indiana legislature overcame a governor’s veto to pass a law banning transgender women from participating in girls’ high school athletics, overturning the governor’s argument that there was in the K-12 Sport does not give a problem that requires “intervention by the state government”.
The ACLU almost immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the law. At the other end of the spectrum, four cisgender Connecticut high school athletes are challenging rules that allow transgender athletes to participate in sports based on their sexual identity.
At the federal level, under the Trump administration, in a key case, the Department of Education requested that the word “gender” be strictly construed to mean the sex assigned to a person at birth. Under the Biden administration, the department views Title IX’s iconic language on discrimination “on the basis of sex” to also “include discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.”
With Title IX approaching its 50th anniversary, a more permanent solution – a new law or an amended version of Title IX – seems unlikely. US President Joe Biden reversed several of the Trump administration’s rules regarding transgender rights the day after his inauguration, but the legislation has gone nowhere.
With the midterm elections underway, Republicans have consistently used transgender sports as a campaign issue. De Varona says the politicization of the issue is blunting some of the legitimate arguments of those, including in her political group, who want to ensure women are not denied the level playing field that Title IX sought 50 years ago.
Still, de Varona said, “Let’s not demonize transgender students and find a way to nuance it.”
“But again,” she added, “no one wants nuance.”
AP sportswriter Erica Hunzinger contributed.