The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing yesterday to discuss the Equality Act, a bill that would create a national ban on discrimination against LGBT people—something that only a minority of states legally prohibit at the moment. In the wake of some major gains for queer and trans people in this generation, a bill like the Equality Act is a logical next step that’s both a measure of protection for some of our most vulnerable citizens and a reminder that there’s still a long way to go before LGBT people really achieve full equality.
“In most states in this country, a gay couple can be married on Saturday, post their wedding photos to Instagram on Sunday, and lose their jobs or get kicked out of their apartments on Monday just because of who they are,” said Rhode Island representative David Cicilline, explaining why the bill is necessary.
Polling shows that a majority of Americans—Republican and Democrat—support anti-discrimination protections for trans and queer people. But unsurprisingly, this legislation has raised the ire of folks like social conservatives looking for a new stupid controversy to hump since opposing gay marriage became politically unsustainable, angry straights obsessed with their own fear of gender nonconformity, and numbskulls who think Tootsie is a documentary.
Their most vocal opposition to the proposal is about its gender identity protections. These protections are good because we want trans people (and everybody) to be able to rent apartments, get hired for jobs, make purchases, play sports, and have fun without something stupid like gender prompting a “no.” However, the most terrified of the bill’s opponents claim that these protections will end our culture’s current conception of gender and lead to a world where cis women’s spaces are commandeered by trans women—or, I guess more accurately, “men who claim to be women.”
Seriously, that’s the argument. Here’s Doreen Denny in Fox News:
The bill would create a world in which women and girls are no longer recognized, protected or dignified as uniquely female.
Under the Equality Act, everything women have done and achieved over the last half century to improve opportunities and protections in education, sports, the workplace and society could be overruled by any male claiming “womanhood.”
Elsewhere, self-identified oppressed conservative Chad Felix Greene had an existential crisis over what it would mean if he were attracted to a trans man. (It’s nice to know it’s not just straight men panicking about trans women.) And, ugh, Breitbart wrote that “The measure would likely force American women throughout the country to relinquish their rights to privacy, safety, and the ability to compete in sports ‘equally.’” A writer in the Wall Street Journal declared that the act “directly competes with the rights of women and girls.” And Georgia representative Doug Collins said in the hearing that if the bill passes, “Women, lesbians, and families become the collateral damage of identity politics.”
We all heard this same toxic line of logic back when North Carolina’s so-called “Bathroom Bill” controversy somehow led people to believe that there were hordes of men just waiting to pretend to be women so they could molest unfettered in women’s bathrooms. (Even though molestation would still be illegal???) But the one consistent line of attack against the Equality Act that I’m most interested in is sports-related—the part of the bill that would let young trans student-athletes all over the country compete with boys or girls based on gender identity, not biological sex. Some states already allow that, but basically, the gripe is that if this bill passes—which it won’t, because Republicans, but anyway—it’ll mean an invasion of trans girls into women’s sports. Those trans girls, the thinking goes, will use their physical advantages to dominate cis women, and in the process lay waste to every good thing Title IX helped create.
“Women can expect to lose more and more opportunities (for college scholarships) to biological males who have a natural advantage in sports and physical activities,” wrote Heritage Foundation mouthpiece the Daily Signal.
“Biological boys who identify as girls would gain an instant entitlement to compete on girls’ teams in all 50 states,” the Wall Street Journal was compelled to mention.
“A college coach could choose to give a scholarship to a transgender athlete over a female athlete knowing the biology of the former gives the team a competitive advantage,” wrote Denny.
Claimed Texas Republican Louie Gohmert in the hearing, “You’ll have men’s sports, and you’ll have co-ed sports” as a consequence of the Equality Act.
The thing is, this is bullshit. (Full disclosure: I’m a trans woman who played boys’ sports until about 10 years ago, when I got my ass handed to me at 9th-grade basketball tryouts and decided to become a queer blogger instead.) Trans girls aren’t gathering en masse to steal women’s sports for themselves, and cis boys certainly aren’t lying about their gender identity to win some trophies with the girls. Science and critical thinking disprove the former, while even a passing familiarity with reality swats down the latter.
In the sports world, the Equality Act does create a fantastic opportunity, because the passing of a law guaranteeing the protection of trans people from discrimination—and therefore guaranteeing the right to compete with other people of the same gender—could be a perfect jumping off point for creating a national set of agreed-upon guidelines for handling transgender high school athletes.
These guidelines would be wildly helpful, because I think people on both sides of the argument can agree that various states’ high school athletic associations have failed their trans athletes—male and female. One of the most obvious examples is Texas wrestler Mack Beggs, a trans guy who absolutely dominated the girls’ division after taking testosterone to transition, because the University Interscholastic League forces student-athletes to compete as a member of the sex marked on their birth certificate. And in Connecticut, where high schoolers can compete as whichever gender they identify as, track athletes Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood were forced to deal with national attention and outrage because of their achievements as trans women competing in the girls’ division, which sparked a kind of widespread scrutiny that 16-year-olds should never have to experience.
Reading the right-wing blogs I had to read for this article, it was fascinating to me how much more disgust was directed toward women like Miller and Yearwood rather than actual men forced to compete against women, like Beggs. But anyway, the solution here, to my eyes, is a compromise between Texas and Connecticut. Believe it or not, the best idea comes from noted fuck-ups the NCAA, which generally lets trans athletes compete with the gender they prefer with the stipulation that trans women have completed at least a year of hormone therapy. (I’d try to take out the need for a “medical exception” in their policy, however, because it’s already annoying how much of trans people’s lives are dependent on doctors agreeing with them). The timeline here is backed up by Dr. Eric Vilain, professor and director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology and Chief Medical Genetics Department of Pediatrics at UCLA, who said the following in a 2010 report on transgender student athletes:
Research suggests that androgen deprivation and cross sex hormone treatment in male-to-female transsexuals reduces muscle mass; accordingly, one year of hormone therapy is an appropriate transitional time before a male-to- female student athlete competes on a women’s team.
So this would be the proposal:
- Trans men can compete with whichever gender they prefer, until they start taking testosterone. After that, they have to compete with men.
- Trans women should compete with men’s teams until they’ve undergone 12 months of hormone therapy, after which they can compete with whichever team they prefer.
The IOC has a similar-ish policy, which calls for female athletes to show that their testosterone levels have been below 10 nanomoles/L for at least 12 months before competing. However, there are clear problems with having a strict cutoff point, and no ideal policy should have one: The IAAF blatantly adopted a 5 nmol/L limit to target Caster Semenya and her elevated testosterone, so any new guidelines should be about a timeframe for trans women, not a specific level for everyone. But for trans women, even if a level-based policy becomes the norm, hitting that mark is pretty easy to do, because the fear that trans women will destroy cis female athletes because of testosterone is way overblown by science-ignorant bigots.
The normal levels of testosterone in women is between 0.5 and 3.0 nmol/L. To use the examples of two trans athletes who have made that information public, Australian handball player Hannah Mouncey got her levels down to 0.5 nmol/L within a year of transitioning, and Brazilian volleyball player Tifanny Abreu got down to 0.2 nmol/L before getting approved to switch from men’s to women’s play.
A policy with a 12-month timeframe for trans women, more than anything, easily shuts down the argument that cis men could “claim womanhood” to compete with the girls. Find me a teen boy who’s going to willingly take estrogen for a year, even if a college scholarship is at stake. The most hardline of transphobes could, as a final stand, point out that being born physically male can still create some advantages—after all, trans women are on average taller than cis women. But if a large number of people are seriously going to advance the argument that sports should ban players who are too big, Boban Marjanović better start thinking about applying to colleges. And anyway, those bodies come with their own issues, too, as Joanna Harper, a medical physicist who advised the IOC on their guidelines, noted in a New York Times article about Abreu:
“(Hormone therapy) reduces muscle mass, but not to typical female averages,” she said. “On average, transgender women are taller, bigger and stronger. For many sports, including volleyball, these are advantages.”
But, she added, they also have disadvantages. The main one is they maintain their typically larger frames, but with reduced muscle mass and aerobic capacity.
After studying hours of Ms. Abreu’s games, Ms. Harper said that factor explains why the Brazilian star is such a formidable spiker but slow, and even a bit of a liability, in the back of the court.
Anyone worried about the death of women’s sports because of trans women competing is going to struggle to find more support for their viewpoint than a few high schoolers who just started hormone therapy. In an article last year after the Boston Marathon began allowing trans women to compete with cis women, Parker Molloy—while noting the fairly mediocre careers of trans athletes like Fallon Fox and Renée Richards—stated what should be an obvious question: if superstar trans female athletes are such an enormous threat to cis women, where the hell are they?
“There are no trans LeBron Jameses dominating the WNBA or trans Cristiano Ronaldos racking up Women’s World Cup victories,” Molloy correctly pointed out.
And the very necessary efforts to protect trans people aren’t going to create them. Sure, if by some miracle this Equality Act passes and then the U.S. figures out some standardized common-sense policy for allowing transgender athletes to compete, there might be some more trans women who succeed in women’s sports. But science and history both show us that the apocalyptic predictions about women’s sports peddled by these culture war-monger doomsayers masquerading as feminists won’t come to pass.
Strip away what’s essentially paranoia and ignorance from these arguments against the Equality Act, and what are you left with? Basically just a refusal to see trans people as deserving of full rights, which I really don’t have time for. Trans people are the future, and we’re absolutely coming to take over the world. But women’s sports will be just fine.