Trans athletes are being politicized

By: tori marland&
April 1 2022

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Trans athletes are being politicized

Attacks on trans rights have intensified in 2022. Wherever there appear to be advances in human rights for transgender people, there are lawmakers and prominent transphobes eager to reverse this progress. 

In the U.S., several states are introducing or have passed bills that limit the rights of LGBTQ people, and specifically transgender children. In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill seeking to limit discussion of gender and sexuality with younger students. The official title is the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, but it has become more widely known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. On some right-wing sites, the bill is often referred to in explicitly homophobic terms – the “anti-grooming bill.”  Not to be outdone by Florida, Texas lawmakers have taken things further, claiming that medical treatment for trans youths is tantamount to child abuse. Several entities have partially blocked enforcement of the bill, but some trans-affirming families had already begun to be investigated by Child Services. And this has not stopped other states from contemplating similar legislation. A former Mississippi state congressperson, echoing the homophobic “grooming” charge, called for trans people to be shot by firing squad

Over in the U.K., Westminster published a statement in response to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) consultation in September 2020, making minor administrative changes to the original act. LGBTQ charity Stonewall responded: "The U.K. Government has fallen far short of its promise to reform the GRA – despite many people who responded to the consultation calling for reform." Fast forward to February 21, 2022, and the House of Commons once again held a debate over the act, this time triggered by a petition signed by over 130,000 people. However, the government is still to act, despite promising reforms leading to an easier, less traumatizing process of obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). 

In Scotland, the government at Holyrood is in the process of amending the GRA, with a public consultation running until May 2022. The bill "changes the process to get a gender recognition certificate (GRC)." The bill will simplify the process, in effect allowing for self-identification. It is in Scotland that much of the anti-trans hostility has been focused, as a result of this development, which was a non-negotiable demand of GRA reform by the Scottish Greens as a stipulation of their co-operative partnership with the Scottish National Party (SNP). Additionally, a court judgment upholding census guidance in February 2022 ruled against Fair Play for Women, a pressure group aiming to prevent trans women from being included in women's shelters, women's prisons, and women's sports teams, which objected to questions about sex on the Scottish census. Fair Play for Women had recently been successful in overturning similar census guidance in England and Wales. 

This swirl of legislation – both progressive and regressive – has coincided with the news that a competitive swimmer in the U.S., who won a freestyle race, just so happened to be a trans woman. Lia Thomas, 22, became the first openly transgender athlete to win the top award in college sports in her final competition as a university-level athlete. Having begun her medical transition in 2019, by the time she competed in March, she had been on hormone replacement therapy for almost three years, far surpassing the NCAA and Olympic rules on trans women competitors. She lost both height and strength during her transition. She competed fairly. She won one race, came fifth and eighth in others during the tournament, and did not break any records. 

Manufactured outrage

The press, politicians, and transphobic public figures have had a field day with Thomas' win. Ron DeSantis committed to writing a declaration that Lia Thomas was not the winner, instead recognizing the second-place athlete (a Floridian) as the real winner. QAnon-dogwhistling Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green outright called her a man. The scrutiny of Thomas' appearance, including misrepresentation of her height and relationship with her teammates, would suggest that this is the first trans athlete to have ever existed, and therefore we absolutely must debate their right to exist and take part in sports.

But just because people have decided to join the debate at this present moment in time, it doesn't mean there haven't already been years of reasonable discussion among relevant sports authorites. Lia Thomas is not the first openly trans athlete to compete and certainly will not be the last. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) initially drew up guidelines almost 20 years ago, in 2003, amending them in 2015. In November 2021, the IOC issued ten principles of inclusion, which was seen as a loosening of the rules. Despite some minor consternation around the inclusion of the first openly trans woman to compete at the Olympics in 2021 — Laurel Hubbard (who left without any medals) — the attention was minor compared to that received by Lia Thomas. 

Trans participation in sports has become a wedge issue: despite broad support for recognizing transgender rights, surveys have previously shown that many cis people do not believe that transgender people should be allowed to compete. 

So why now?

The gap in information on trans people in sports has been exploited by the anti-trans and anti-gay lobby to push back against more substantial trans rights. Attacking sportspeople is an easy target, it seems, and one that can be extrapolated into the broader debate on trans people existing in general. Sportspeople are public figures, they are physical in their very nature, so they have a considerable amount of visibility. Creating memes and sharing misinformation in a snappy infographic is easier when you have a single talking point. Cis people who might not know any trans people, nor be informed about issues affecting their lives,  suddenly find what they think is a concrete issue to latch onto by arguing that biological differences will mean women's sport is ruined. In this case, memes using Thomas' win as a starting point populated social media with larger transphobic tropes, accusing trans women of being predators in bathrooms, speculating about their bodies, or saying that they're not “real” women. 

By reducing the debate to a single issue, transphobic people can seize upon it, as they did with single-sex bathrooms and affirmative care for transgender children. This allows it to fester into a full-scale moral panic, where anti-gay and anti-trans lobbyists can use the slippery slope fallacy as a rhetorical tactic. This has already happened on both sides of the Atlantic with gay rights in the 1980s, and well up to the present day. The latest iteration is just repackaged homophobia. 

This repackaging of homophobic outrage brings with it an increase in harmful rhetoric. References to grooming, which was common in the homophobia debate –  for example, the myth that gay men can't be allowed to teach; they're just going to groom young boys because they're all pedophiles – are now more explicitly focused on the space in which trans sportspeople exist. We previously saw this with the restroom debate, and the latest focus overlaps with the increase in anti-trans bills, enabling a new outlet for QAnon followers. Now, the  homophobic slur “ok groomer,” resembling the catchphrase “ok boomer,” has become increasingly normalized in rightwing spaces over the past month. 

Journalists like Mike Rothschild and Judd Legum have noted the influence of QAnon's conspiracy, specifically the part describing a cabal of blood-drinking pedophiles, on mainstream discourse. Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, has no doubts that the anti-trans lobby in the U.S. has strong overlap with QAnon, suggesting that anti-trans legislation allows for the laundering of conspiracy theory: “Anti-trans movements demonstrate that conspiracy and disinformation are not outside of, but rather are central to, liberal political institutions. Indeed, anti-trans speech is increasingly the very means by which to launder extremism and conspiracy theory into democratic institutions, with disastrous results.” 

When Michael Phelps swims, he has a "natural advantage," but when Serena Williams consistently beats her opponents, she is body shamed and accused of "being born a guy." It simply is not feasible or humane to reduce every single competitive person to their biological features as a way of categorizing for sports.

These memes and conspiracy theories can carry a distinctly misogynistic slant. Does the name Chris Mosier ring a bell? Probably not. A rudimentary Google search shows 65,000 results for the name versus 14,000,000 for Lia Thomas. Chris Mosier is a transgender athlete who qualified for the U.S. men's duathlon at the 2016 World Championships. So, where are the think pieces from that time? Where are the memes? Trans women are policed and subjected to scrutiny in a way that trans men aren't, as are cisgender women – but minus the so-called feminist outrage. When Michael Phelps swims, he has a "natural advantage," but when Serena Williams consistently beats her opponents, she is body shamed and accused of "being born a guy." It simply is not feasible, sensible nor humane to reduce every single competitive person to their individual biological features as a way of categorizing for sports.

"I just want to compete"

Lia Thomas has been swimming since she was five years old. It is a huge part of her identity, and she should not be made to give that part of her up to live her life as befits her true self.  Similarly, Emily Bridges, a trans cyclist, recently reflected on her experience of cycling and transitioning.  She felt forced to hide her gender identity in the face of casual homophobia from teammates, eventually causing her misery in the sport she had always loved: "By the summer of 2020, I'd fallen out of love with the sport," she told Cycling Weekly, speaking about the dilemma she faced. "I couldn't live like that anymore – I couldn't be my true self." She was keen to point out that despite the usual hate from anti-trans people online, there was a great deal of positivity: "lots of really nice messages from friends and people I'd never met, mostly female cyclists, offering their support."  

The hostility towards trans women competitors has filtered through to everyday sport. Dr. Abby Barras, a researcher into trans participation in sports, says it is clear "that these debates about elite level sport are rippling out into wider discussions about inclusivity and equality for trans people in recreational activities." Her research actively involves trans and non-binary participants, who have revealed permanent anxiety about participating in sports at a basic recreational level. Crucially, Dr. Barras' research uncovered that many trans women "were worried that they possessed the competitive advantage so often cited in the media as the primary reason to exclude trans women from elite sport, only to find that it didn't exist for them."

Access to competitive sports

Given that concerns over competitive advantage mask the actual diversity of trans and cis bodies, and how few trans athletes at national and competitive levels there are, perhaps attention could be turned to the actual barriers to women participating and succeeding in sports. The most persistent gaps in access have everything to do with race and class, and nothing to do with transgender people. A report by the Women's Sport Foundation in the U.S. shows that white girls are more likely to be involved in sports from the age of six or younger at almost double the rate of Black girls. It also found disparities due to financial barriers, with parents reporting that they could not support their daughters playing. In the U.K., over a third of Olympic medallists at the 2021 Tokyo Games were privately educated. However, privately educated people only make up 7 percent of Britain's population. 

Trans women are not deliberately transitioning to gain a competitive advantage in sports. Trans athletes, like every other athlete, are deeply invested in fair participation and competition. They want to win or lose on merit, just like anyone else. Framing this conversation as something “we” should have can imply that cis people should have the conversation without trans people. As some small percentage of humanity is trans, and some small percentage of humanity is also elite athletes, an extremely small percentage of humanity is going to be both. 

The anti-trans lobby is using the case of Lia Thomas as a sticking point in an attempt to drive their agenda, using it as a broader stick with which to beat trans people and their rights online more generally. Offline, 9 in 10 people believe that the U.K. media's so-called trans debate is harmful, and trans athletes generally have the support of their teammates and peers. It is clear that the anti-trans lobby is using transgender people in sports – specifically trans women – as a cover for their anti-trans legislation.  

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