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Trans Activist Explains Why Anti-Trans Sports Laws Will Hurt Cis People, Too

Transgender flags on the step to D.C.

As a trans person, this one hits close to home for me, so I’m writing it for all of the people who are undecided about trans athletes in sports.

In my own life, I’ve seen a tendency for even the most well intentioned, open-minded people to draw a line when it comes to the inclusion of trans people in sports. And that line is usually drawn with regards to trans women playing on women’s sports teams.

Thankfully, the trans activist Erin Reed has recently tweeted a well thought out argument that highlights the faulty logic behind anti-trans sports laws—one that explains why cisgender people will be hurt by the passage of laws such as these, as well.

If you’d care to read her words on the topic, she phrases her points much more eloquently than I ever could. However, I will try to summarize them as best as I can.

Reed states that any law that attempts to categorize human beings as “male” and “female” according to their hormone levels will fail cis people as well as trans people. Many cis women who are elite athletes have levels of testosterone that would cause them to fall into the “male” category. We’ve already seen this happen at the Olympic level, with champion runner Caster Semenya, and Reed had even more examples.

Similarly, any attempt to categorize “males” and “females” based on chromosomes will also fail. She explains that an attempt to do just this was made at the 1996 Olympics, and that 10 of the cis female competitors had XY chromosomes with intersex conditions. I’d like to add that an earlier “sex test” was performed on an athlete at the 1936 Olympics, a cis woman named Helen Stephens from Saint Lewis.

Stephens beat the the Polish sprinter Stella Walsh, then known as the “fastest woman in the world,” in the 100 meter dash, and set a world record by completing the feat in 11.4 seconds. After the race, a Polish journalist declared that Stephens must have been “male” or else she would not have been able to beat Walsh. A “sex test” test was administered to Helens by Olympic officials, and the athlete was found to be female.

Forty-four years later, Stella Walsh was found murdered in a parking garage in Cleveland. Her autopsy revealed that she had no uterus, an abnormal urethra, and a non-functioning, underdeveloped penis. An analysis of her chromosomes revealed that most of her cells contained X and Y chromosomes, but some were X0, meaning that they only contained one X chromosome. This condition is referred to as XY gonadal dysgenesis, and is one of many conditions that make both genitalia and chromosomes “ambiguous” with regards to determining biological sex.

Reed reiterates this point as well, stating that genital ambiguity would no doubt occur in some athletes. She also raises the salient point that fully inspecting the internal and external genitalia of every Olympic athlete would no doubt be an upsetting and time consuming process. As for utilizing birth certificates to suss out the gender of an athlete, Reed argues that they are often changed, as are most identification documents, when a person transitions.

Even if such policies were to be enacted, enforcing them is another matter entirely. In Ohio, legislators have attempted to pass laws that require genital inspections, but opponents of the law state that such a bill would render both cis and trans minors vulnerable to sexual abuse. In Virginia, state legislators are attempting to use birth certificate records that refer to a person’s gender “at the time of birth” to aid their categorization attempts, but Reed again reiterates that biological sex is often more complicated than “male” and “female.” The aforementioned athlete Stella Walsh is one of a thousand examples.

Reed goes on to say that if draconian laws such as these are implemented, all athletes will be hurt by them, including cis women. As an example of this, she includes a link to a story from Utah where a secret investigation was made against a cis athlete due to an accusation that she was transgender. The investigation was performed without the consent of the girl’s parents and was spurred on by the parents of a child who had lost a competition against the athlete.

Reed highlights that Black girls and women will be especially vulnerable to anti-trans bills, as was the case in Utah, due to the intersection between racism, transphobia, and misogyny ingrained in the culture of the United States. This sentiment is shared by trans author and activist Julia Serano, who points out that this issue is one that goes back centuries. In her new book Sexed Up, Serano states that white Europeans researchers used “discredited methods” such as “crude measurements of skeletons and skulls, brain volumes, and other superficial anatomical differences” in order to “[claim] that Europeans were more ‘highly evolved’ than other ethnicities.”

She goes on to say that many European scientists used these precursor methods of “gender testing” in order to assert their claim that Europeans were most “civilized” because they “purported exhibited the highest levels of sex differentiation — physical differences between women and men.” Needless to say, policies involving gender testing have had a net negative effect on society over the centuries, and these new bills only serve to carry on that dark legacy.

Thankfully, one such bill in Utah was blocked, but Reed states that it was solely due to the fact that a cis girl was challenged. If a trans person were targeted, it is unlikely that that the bill would have been thrown out, as the law would have functioned as intended. Overall, Reed perfectly illustrated that anti-trans bias in organized sports is a decades-old issue. With regards to Helen Stephens and Stella Walsh, the practice is near a century old. “There is NO good way of doing it (or good reason)” is the sentence with which she ends her explanation, and I agree.

Laws such as these will have a devastating effect on both trans and cis athletes. What is most shameful to me, however, is that it took the suffering of a cisgender girl for lawmakers to realize their folly, yet the plight of thousands of trans athletes has been ignored. Nevertheless, I am thankful that one of these bills was blocked in Utah, and perhaps the debacle will allow cis lawmakers to approach trans issues with further empathy. After all, these laws hurt all of humanity, even if the people who bear the brunt of them are the most vulnerable and should be protected whether anyone else is affected or not.

(featured image: Image via Ted Eytan/Flickr (CC BY-SA))

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