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Debating fairness: Laws restrict transgender athletes

Debating+fairness%3A+Laws+restrict+transgender+athletes
Collegian | Rashida Obika

As athletes continue to shatter records and overcome stereotypes, this debate intensifies: Are transgender athletes working with an advantage or just trying to be themselves while playing the sport they love?

Bans and regulations in 24 of the 50 U.S. states prevent transgender athletes from competing in high school sports that align with their gender identity. It is no secret that the primary function of these bills is to restrict transgender women specifically. Specifying biological differences between men and women makes up the foundation of these bills.

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“And participating in sports can often be an incredible gateway to building relationships, community and self-confidence,” Courtenay Daum, professor of political science and women’s studies at Colorado State University.

For example, the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act was signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis June 1, 2021. This act prohibits students assigned male at birth from competing in sports designated for female students, and it allows schools to request a particular health examination to verify the student’s sex assigned at birth.

The act was made off the back of Title IX, enacted in 1972 on the framework of sex-based equality. However, Title IX isn’t used consistently; the definition of sex in the act changes with shifts in political power.

“The word sex is contested politically and legally today,” said Courtenay Daum, professor of political science and women’s studies at Colorado State University. “When (former President Donald) Trump came into office, he said sex speaks to biological sex, not gender identity. And then, when President Biden came into office, he issued an executive order that said sex should be understood to protect gender identity as well.”

The difficult conversation of how transgender athletes can compete in sports has only begun in the past three to four years, and the argument is growing bigger.

World Athletics has started to address the debate with testosterone measurement or hormone blockers to attempt fairness. President Sebastian Coe of World Athletics said “gender cannot trump biology” when discussing Lia Thomas, a transgender woman who won the 500-yard freestyle in the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships.

Thomas herself is the most prominent example of why many feel these bills are necessary, but in reality, her story represents a small part of collegiate sports.

According to the NCAA’s 2021-22 season report, there were over 520,000 active college athletes in the United States. Of those, there were 32 transgender athletes — less than approximately .007% of college athletes. 

“This fixation on the threat that trans athletes pose has been exaggerated,” Daum said. “You’re talking about a really small portion of the population. That doesn’t mean that there are no discussions to be had about elite levels of competition, but most people are never going to get there. When we’re talking about club sports or recreational sports, I think the reality is that this is not an issue in most of those spaces.”

Organizations like the NCAA and the Olympics have their own rules and regulations around transgender athletes, and most often, high school governing bodies have to act on contested bills.

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The Colorado High School Activities Association recognizes students’ rights to play in sports that align with their gender identity, and confidential evaluations are used in some cases to ensure fairness.

“I believe Colorado’s protective laws around LGBTQIA+ identities are drawing out-of-state students here so that they can pursue their goals and needs, which may well include competing in athletics,” said Maggie Hendrickson, the director of the Pride Resource Center. “Colorado has passed sanctuary laws for transgender health care and is being seen as a safe haven state, so we are experiencing a wave of folks moving here to be their authentic selves.”

Colorado is one of the safer states when it comes to legislation around transgender athletes. In states such as Idaho, which was the first state to enact a bill limiting transgender athletes, restrictions continue into club and intramural sports.

“I think (these laws) work in effect to discourage people from participating,” Daum said. “The reality of the situation is this: Different ages, different sports, different levels of competition may require different discussions. The athletic prohibitions do not happen in isolation. They happen as part of a broader concert of legislative initiatives. … They are working to regulate trans people.”

Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in track and field, was curbed from participation when it was discovered that she has undescended testes. Semenya is intersex, which is described by the Intersex Society of North America as undefined sexual anatomy outside of the male-female gender binary.

Because her testosterone levels were higher than the typical person assigned female at birth, Semenya was required to take hormone treatments by World Athletics to lower them before the 2012 Olympics she was planning on competing in.

Semenya is an isolated case of the intersection of gender identity and sex in the Olympics, and her op-ed in The New York Times shows her experience undergoing hormone therapy. In reality, most transgender people aren’t Olympic-level athletes and don’t have access to expensive hormone treatments.

According to The Williams Institute with the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, 101,500 transgender youth — about one-third of transgender youth in the U.S. — live in states that restrict access to school sports for transgender students. Trans students are left at an impasse, one difficult to look past for many legislators and educators.

“I’m not inclined to pit groups against each other,” Daum said. “It’s important not to say that this doesn’t matter in terms of outcomes because the laws really matter for transgender people. … (They) are some of the most vulnerable to violence and economic insecurity, … and participating in sports can often be an incredible gateway to building relationships, community and self-confidence.”

Reach Liv Sewell at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @Liv_sewell22.

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