Ryan Jayne: Banning transgender athletes is wrong

Ryan Jayne
A protester holds up a sign at the National Trans Visibility March in 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Shutterstock)

This article appears on FFRF’s blog site patheos.com/blogs/freethoughtnow.

By Ryan Jayne

There’s a disturbing new phenomenon we’ve recently observed at the state level.

Last year, Idaho was the first state to ban transgender females from playing in high school women’s sports. Even though the Idaho law is likely unconstitutional, this year 31 states are considering following suit, and four state legislatures have already passed such measures: Alabama, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee and Arkansas. The Freedom From Religion Foundation tracks bills like these that seek to codify a benighted religious belief into the law, and this is a major trend we’ve spotted among the 900+ bills FFRF is currently tracking.

These bills and laws achieve nothing except using the legislative process to stoke anti-trans fears. This is nothing new — lawmakers similarly tried to convince parents that trans women would assault girls in public bathrooms. After intense backlash, they are moving to a new bête noire, insisting that trans women will steal high school sports awards. This anti-trans rhetoric is rooted in religious absolutism based on biblical references that supposedly declare that gender and sex are identical, binary and immutable. The argument depends on creation myths for support, since data, science and the real world offer none.  

Are we to believe that 2021 was the great awakening in which anti-LGBTQ lawmakers suddenly discovered a deep love of and desire to protect women’s sports and equality? How many of them have supported the Equal Rights Amendment? Just like their “bathroom bills” were never about bathrooms, their trans athlete bans are not about supporting women’s sports. They’re about outing and excluding transgender kids.

The Christian nationalist contingency in Congress is a driving force behind this anti-trans movement. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., an unapologetic conspiracy theorist and Christian nationalist, made a public show of dehumanizing transgender individuals by placing a sign that read, “There are two genders, male & female, ‘Trust the Science!’” across from the office of a colleague who has a transgender child. This statement is not only factually incorrect, but also shows the need for a law like the Equality Act, which has passed the House of Representatives and will prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. (See Page 19.) Greene’s anti-trans behavior and rhetoric shows how bigots bring their religiously motivated hate into the workplace to dehumanize and divide others.

Religious motivation

The motivating factor behind this anti-trans rhetoric is overwhelmingly religious in nature. The argument is often cast as “God only made two genders.” Or as a West Virginia legislator put it recently in defense of a trans athlete ban, the existence of trans people means “that my God made a mistake. . . . [and] my God does not make a mistake.” In these lawmakers’ minds, discriminating against transgender individuals is fulfilling the Christian god’s will. To do anything less is “defying God’s will.” Seeking to legislate religious doctrine is the real motivation behind these bills.  

But, of course, they try to spin their discrimination as being based in fact and reason. Those proposing “trans athlete bans” insist that the laws are needed to prevent the end of women’s sports as we know it, and are essential to protect cisgender female athletes. QAnon-endorsing, gun-and-God-obsessed Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., went on Fox News to say that the Equality Act is a threat to female athletes, and that those who favor the act “hate women” and want to “end women’s sports.” Like most of her fellow anti-trans lawmakers, Boebert cannot cite a single instance of this “problem” in her district. 

Boebert’s fear-mongering about women’s sports was also the leading argument by opponents of the Equality Act at the bill’s recent hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The first thing Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, did was to enter into the record a letter from a parent of a female Connecticut athlete who was concerned about her daughter competing with “biological males” (an outdated description that shows Grassley is not up to speed on the relevant science). Other senators opposing the bill repeated the same argument. An “expert” witness — a reporter, not a scientist — told senators over and over again that banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity means instant doom for women’s sports.

Data, science and reason tell a different story. Even considering their best possible arguments, the conclusion is clear: These bans are nothing more than targeted discrimination, inflicting harm for no reason. No science supports these bills.

The history of sports has shown that while all elite athletes reach biological limits to their performance, those barriers come sooner for elite athletes who have competed in women’s events than for those who have competed in men’s events. As one stark example, the male deadlift record is now over 1,100 pounds, with many elite male powerlifters topping 900 pounds, while the women’s record, set in 2005, is 694 pounds. Studies have documented biological differences between post-pubescent men and women that likely explain this gap, which is present at the elite level in every athletic test of strength, endurance or speed. This persistent gap cannot be written off as a difference in technique, hard work, psychology or the ratio of female to male athletes. The difference, science suggests, is physiological.

Proponents of trans athlete bans point to this elite-level gap and conclude that it would be unfair for cisgender girls or women to compete, at any level, against anyone who has undergone male puberty, arguing that, therefore, cisgender female high school athletes should not be forced to compete against transgender female athletes. That’s the strongest version of their argument, and it is riddled with problems.

An imagined problem

We know that this is an almost entirely imagined problem.

In many states that have protected against transgender discrimination for decades — e.g., Minnesota since 2001 — we have not seen the “sky is falling” predictions for women’s sports come to pass. After decades of transgender athletes participating at every level, the anti-trans crowd all cling to one instance of an award-winning runner in Connecticut. It puts perspective on the issue to point that only 0.6 percent of American adults identify as transgender. The transgender takeover of women’s sports is a fantasy.

We can thus say with confidence that trans athlete bans have virtually zero practical benefit, since they address a nonexistent problem. Meanwhile, the bills openly discriminate against and exclude transgender athletes, harming these young athletes in a clear and unambiguous way. High school trans athletes don’t have a significant athletic edge, but excluding them deprives them of the myriad benefits associated with sports, from scholarships to the psychological benefits of being part of a team. And it gets worse.

These laws restrict young athletes, most of whom care more about participation than performance, rather than elite athletes.

The gap described above is most pronounced at the very elite levels of competition, when athletes are approaching the very limits of their physical capabilities — a world where runners and swimmers work to trim hundreths of a second off of their times. Things are very different at the high school level, where these trans athlete bans apply. At that level, most student athletes simply want to play. Their performance varies wildly depending on their natural abilities, how well refined their technique is, and how hard they train. 

Elite athletic leagues already have their own science-driven policies, which have not obliterated women’s sports.

If there is a high school transgender girl who is really good at a sport, that’s just fine. Any concerns about a possible physiological advantage are easily outweighed by the benefits of inclusion for all high school athletes. Beyond the high school level, governing bodies like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have allowed transgender women to compete, subject to policies that attempt to ensure an even playing field (those, too, are hotly contested and subject to ongoing studies). 

Detached from research

A state legislature imposing a sweeping ban on transgender participation in women’s high school sports is detached from the research we do have and amounts to lawmakers inserting themselves into an area where they are not experts. It’s the wrong decision-makers making the wrong decision for the wrong reasons.

The bigotry that motivates these rules is laid bare when one considers that restricting sports participation to “sex assigned at birth” leads to the very problem proponents say they are trying to avoid. 

Under a trans athlete ban, a transgender male, identified female at birth, could go through male puberty and would still be forced to compete in women’s sports. This is not merely hypothetical. In Texas, a transgender boy was forced by state rules to compete against girls, drawing boos when he won the state championship. That a 17-year-old was booed shows both the harm and the absurdity of the anti-trans lawmakers’ supposed concerns for women. The fact that anti-trans lawmakers fixate on their constituents’ fear of transgender women, without even realizing they are trying to force transgender men to compete in women’s sports, shows how phony their concern is. If their concerns were genuine, they would seek a more nuanced, research-based approach.

Finally, many groups that are dedicated to advancing and protecting women’s sports — including the Women’s Sports Foundation and the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education — have emphasized that, as a practical matter, trans athlete bans would do far more harm than good. There are very real threats to women’s sports, and transgender athletes are not among them. If you care about women’s sports, you should want more women to participate, not fewer. 

To summarize: Yes, there is a physiological performance gap between elite athletes who have gone through male puberty and those who have not. But don’t be fooled into thinking that fact in any way supports a ban on transgender high school athletes. It does not. Just let the girls play.

Ryan Jayne is an FFRF attorney.