I have something to tell you that you might not believe. You’re being lied to; manipulated by the worst forces in American culture today. Almost everything you think you know about transgender athletes is wrong. Here’s the facts that actually matter.
The trans athlete argument has been pushed to the front by conservatives in Congress, anti-LGBT hate groups, right-wing media, and even a few women athletes, as an “urgent” issue. However, this is part of the GOP strategy to abandon real policy, and instead wage pointless culture war over trivial or imaginary things, while keeping with the long-term goal of attacking LGBTQ rights as a whole. In the past few weeks the GOP have railed on conservative media and even in Congress, about Mr. Potato Head, The Muppet Show from the 1970’s, Dr. Seuss, and transgender athletes.
None of these have any meaningful impact, but instead serve as agitprop to rile up their base and distract Americans from the fact that the GOP is in opposition to every popular, important issue in Congress right now. The GOP almost universally opposes a COVID stimulus, the Voting Rights Act, raising the minimum wage, the Equality Act, and election reform. Pointless culture wars let them avoid answering why they oppose this necessary and overwhelmingly popular legislation.
In 2015, the religious right saw that the fight against marriage equality was over and shifted to attacking trans people. Powerful religious-right organizations close to the Trump administration such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, Heritage Foundation, and Family Research Council decided that co-opting feminism, feminist-sounding language, and secular arguments was their best way to divide and conquer the LGBT community. Their goal was cutting off trans people from support, crushing them, and then continuing on to destroy the LGB community. First they tried bathrooms, failed, and now have moved on to trans athletes.
Religious conservatives have been claiming trans people will be the end of women’s sports since the Obama administration, and been utterly wrong at every step of the way. Transgender athletes remain vanishingly rare, and even fewer have achieved even a modicum of success.
The International Olympic Committee first allowed transgender athletes in 2004. Out of the tens of thousands of women who have competed, there have been no transgender Olympians. The NCAA put rules in place for trans athletes to compete in 2011, and there have been zero trans athletes of any note at the Division I level, and only one at the Division II level (and that was several years ago now). The first transgender swimmer at the Division I level was a transgender man (i.e. transitioned to male). There’s no rule against trans athletes in the WNBA, but then again, there has never been a trans athlete, though at least one has tried out.
To put the rarity in perspective: there have been more men in Florida shot by their own dog since 2010 than successful transgender girls in high school athletics. In the two school years since the lawsuit over two transgender high-school athletes in Connecticut, there have been no trans athletes of any note at the high school level. These girls represent the only two of note this decade. Mack Beggs, another trans man, was forced to compete in the girls’ division in Texas, rather than being allowed to wrestle with the boys.
Nor can the right wing demonstrate tangible harms. There’s no evidence of their claims that trans athletes are taking away scholarship opportunities from cisgender girls. Two of the cisgender girls in the Conneticut lawsuit mentioned above (represented the Alliance Defending Freedom) have graduated, and gone to University on athletic scholarships. The third, daughter of a former Major League Baseball star, is still in high school but is turning in times that virtually guarantee she will get one. Of the two transgender girls (both of whom are Black), one did not go to college, and the other is at a HBCU but not participating in athletics (meaning she’s not on athletic scholarship).
While trans athletes are rare to begin with, the vast majority of the few that do play do so in obscurity, because their performance is utterly unremarkable. Ohio has had total of nine transgender athletes in the past five years (out of the approximately 1.2 million total Ohio high school athletes in that same time period). We have heard nothing about them because they haven’t been dominant, or even good enough to notice their presence.
Even though being shot by your dog is both more common and more dangerous than allowing transgender athletes to compete, Republicans have made the latter a legislative priority. They have introduced bills in more than 20 states to ban them (but none involving firearms and pets, that I can tell). The Associated Press reached out to two dozen sponsors of such legislation, and none could name a single instance of a transgender athlete in their state. They admitted that this wasn’t about solving an actual problem, but an attempt to prevent any transgender athletes from competing.
For Republican politicians, trans athletes are just another culture war issue to be outraged over, like claiming Starbucks’ holiday cups promote the “gay agenda”, saying Merry Christmas, or disclaimers on 45 year-old episodes of The Muppets. For the religious right, whom most GOP politicians must obey, this is how they get their foot in the door to turn the public against the trans community and roll back LGBT rights in general. The groups running point on banning trans athletes (ADF, Heritage, and Family Policy Alliance) accidentally leaked a document making it clear that this was part of their long term anti-LGB agenda, based on their religious beliefs, and not out of some sincerely held love of women’s sports. They have used this as their primary talking point against the Equality Act, which covers job discrimination, and not sports.
This doesn’t matter to them, of course. The entire point is to get people angry, not to spur rational thought. When it comes to trans athletes, the facts are that they have been allowed to compete for years, are rare to begin with, and even more rarely succeed. There is no crisis in women’s sports happening now: no high level trans athletes at either the HS or NCAA level today, and no cisgender female athletes have lost scholarships to trans girls. This, like every other conservative culture war issue, is a cynical attempt to generate outrage over trivial things and divert attention from the fact that the GOP is a party bankrupt of popular ideas on how to govern on issues that matter. The party of Trump and the religious right are trying to wag the dog, and make innocent trans youth collateral damage in this manufactured conflict.
Brynn Tannehill is the author of “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Trans” and “American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy”. She works as a senior defense analyst at a think tank in Washington DC.