The issue of transgender athletes has come to the forefront of the culture wars again, as it does whenever the right needs a wedge issue. In this case, it is because president Biden signed an executive order affirming that the Administration will comply with the rulings in Bostock, Zarda, and Harris, and treat discrimination against LGBT people as a form or sex discrimination.
Sex discrimination is illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other federal laws such as Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or academic institution that receives federal money.
Simultaneously, about a third of U.S. states have banned, or have bills in progress to ban, transgender athletes at all levels, including in colleges and universities. Conservative news outlets have made this their number-one culture war issue since January.
Fox News ran 19 segments in one week on transgender athletes, most of which falsely claim that the Biden Executive Order was entirely about transgender athletes. They claim that allowing trans athletes to compete will not only deprive “real” women of opportunities but destroy women’s sports in general. The irony here is that most conservative, Christian schools opt out of Title IX compliance and receive federal money anyway.
What is missing from all of this is any sort acknowledgement of how existing policies allowing transgender athletes to compete have fared. This includes the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), International Olympic Committee (IOC), and professional sporting bodies such as the IAAF. What each of these organizations has in place generally resembles the NCAA and IOC policies.
Roughly speaking, transgender women are required to undergo a minimum of one year of surgical or hormonal testosterone suppression, and transgender men must compete as men as soon as they start taking testosterone.
These policies have been in place for years, with some modifications. The IOC had its first policy in 2004 and removed surgical requirements in 2015. The IAAF followed suit in 2005. The NCAA has had a policy for the inclusion of transgender athletes since 2011, which never had a requirement for “bottom” surgery.
Currently, there is no push by these bodies to eliminate transgender athletes. Most of the internal debate revolves around whether the upper limit for testosterone should be 3 nmol/L (normal upper limit for cisgender women) or 5 (upper limit in the presence of medical issues such as PCOS). Transgender women who are taking drugs to suppress testosterone can generally get their levels below this threshold, though the lack of FDA-approved drug options for US athletes is an issue.
Since the inception of these policies, there have been very few transgender athletes of note at the NCAA or IOC level. Cece Telfer won a pair of Division II national track events in 2019 but did so with a time that would not have even qualified her for the Division I finals (she would have placed 17th in the preliminaries).
Telfer is the most successful trans athlete so far, out of the approximately 200,000 women who compete every year. There have been no transgender Olympians to date, out of roughly 5,000 every summer games and 1,200 at the winter events, though there may be one or two in 2021.
At the professional level, which is beyond the scope of Title IX, we observe similar results. There is no rule against transgender people in the WNBA, but there has never been a transgender woman in the NBA either. There has been a transgender woman on a FIFA team (American Samoa), a team that also happened to be remembered as one of the worst in the history of sport.
The best measure of whether or not transgender athletes are having a significant impact on women’s sports is not whether any succeed, but whether we observe them succeeding at a rate disproportionate to their population. When standards like the NCAA’s and the IOC’s are applied, there have actually been fewer transgender athletes than a random draw of the population would predict, indicating that the standards have generally been sufficient.
The real issue is testosterone. There are few transgender people, and athletes, to begin with. For trans youth who have not gone through puberty, or have been on blockers, this isn’t an issue. It’s not a major issue at low levels of sport like Freshman, junior varsity, or intramurals where very little is on the line.
The trouble lies in varsity level in high school sports, where students are competing for scholarships with significant monetary value. The issue is not so much with students who meet NCAA or IOC guidelines, but for those who have not had a full year on blockers, cannot access them, or will not.
There is a scientific consensus among sporting bodies that much-higher testosterone levels confer an advantage. However, these organizations allow transgender women to compete because there is also agreement that blocking testosterone for a year or more removes most of this advantage and is sufficient to protect the sport. A decade of allowing transgender people to compete under these rules has not resulted in the end of NCAA women’s athletics, as trans opponents have long predicted, any more than letting lesbians and gays get married ended that institution.
Simply forcing transgender athletes to compete in divisions based on their assigned sex at birth, as is required by several conservative states, is unworkable. It results in absurd situations where trans men who are taking testosterone, like Mack Beggs in Texas, are only allowed to compete in the women’s division, and have a competitive advantage.
Conversely, forcing a transgender girl who has never gone through the wrong puberty to compete against the boys is physiologically no different than forcing a cisgender girl to do the same.
Requiring transgender people to “get their own league” isn’t feasible either: most schools don’t have any transgender athletes, much less enough to field a team. Forcing a student to run around an empty track by themselves singles them out as transgender, and subjects them to the abuse and ridicule that this entails.
This “solution” would also likely fall afoul of civil rights laws requiring the least intrusive means to achieve a goal when it affects a suspect class, especially when some transgender students more than meet NCAA protocols.
Transgender students often find meaning, purpose, camaraderie, and value in athletics. Very little in life favors them. Efforts to limit their participation would fall disproportionately on people of color, who already lack access to social goods and means to affordable higher education. At the same time, some high school varsity trans girl athletes may have an advantage that is considered unfair by most world sporting bodies and scientists who study the issue.
The total number of students who fall into this category is very small, but the issue is creating oversized problems for the administration.Right wing politicians and anti-LGBT groups have seized upon this one small piece of the Biden executive order to launch countless media and political attacks. Recent press briefings suggest they’re hitting home.
The Biden Department of Education should develop and issue policy guidance for high school varsity athletics that recommends standards similar to the NCAA’s where appropriate, while simultaneously ensuring and maximizing access, opportunity, and inclusion of athletes potentially affected by this policy.
The preceding op-ed was written by a leading Trans-activist who wished to remain anonymous.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, opinions or position of the Los Angeles Blade.