Soaring in like a phalanx across state legislatures, this has been the year of bills designed to keep transgender boys and girls from participating in sports.
This week in Mississippi the governor signed one into law banning trans youth from playing on girls’ and women’s sports teams. It is one of more than 20 states looking to limit trans athletes from playing, or to impose restrictions on medical treatment.
But let’s be honest, the people behind these bills aren’t really looking to “protect women’s sports,” or else they’d be at the NCAA’s door demanding women’s teams get the same workout facilities and resources as the men in the tournament bubbles.
“This is a gateway bill to try to exclude trans people from other areas of public life starting in sport,” said transgender athlete and activist Chris Mosier in a recent episode of the Ladies’ Room podcast.
And these exclusionary laws really will have an effect on kids just starting to express who they are, a concept beautifully expressed by father Brandon Boulware, who went viral this week pleading with the Missouri House of Representatives not to pass a bill that would make “students who participate in sex-separated athletic contests only be allowed to participate in those for the biological sex found on the student’s birth certificate.”
“I need you to understand that this language, if it becomes law, will have real effects on real people. It will affect my daughter. It will mean she can’t play on the girls’ volleyball team or dance squad or tennis team,” Boulware said. “I ask you, please don’t take this away from my daughter or the countless others like her out there.”
Just like the bathroom bills of yesteryear, these bills purport to protect young women who would somehow be squeezed out of sports by the influx of burly preteens confused about their gender. They are designed to address a mythical problem, and ignore the reality that trans teens are like any other, and that they just want to be accepted for who they are. In America, that kind of acceptance often comes from team sports.
“All of these bills are trying to solve a problem that simply doesn’t exist,” Mosier said. “They’re packaging these under bills that say ‘Save women’s sports’ but inherent within any of these bills in the text there is no way to save women’s sports within it, it is absolutely trying to exclude certain people from playing sports.”
The idea that any high school jock would pretend to be a girl so that he could win a state track title ignores the fact that this would be humiliating for a cisgender boy in a culture that sees girls sports as secondary, and feminine traits as weakness. There is no benefit for a self-identified boy in doing that, unless he is acting as an emissary for people who would ridicule the system by exploiting it.
We are so hung up on gender when it comes to sports. Like a lot of people, I spent more time playing sports informally on outdoor courts in pickup games or in neighborhood parks. Often I was the only woman, or one of a few. But most women who like to play soccer or basketball enough to seek out a pickup game are more than strong enough to play at that level.
Sports don’t always have to be segregated by gender. And we’ve used boys and girls as a shorthand for levels of play, but there are always girls good enough to play on boys teams. And if there weren’t such a cultural stigma, probably a few boys who would enjoy playing with girls.
“When kids are kids they’re just playing with everyone in the neighborhood,” Mosier said. “But there comes a certain time when sports become incredibly gendered and it’s men’s and women’s sports, boys’ and girls’ sports and there’s not room in between. But gender isn’t a binary system and we need to open up space for everybody to be in sports”
There is no reason recreational teams can’t be open to all genders. And when people play together, they learn to respect skills that aren’t exclusively masculine or feminine.
Billie Jean King had it right when she started World Team Tennis, where men and women compete together and contribute equally to the cumulative score. Tennis is the most successful sport for women, and both men’s and women’s tours do better when they play at dual-Tour events like the Grand Slams.
Transgender athletes have competed at high levels, but the results aren’t what people assume – that women will run the table and men will fail to compete. For example, Renee Richards played in the WTA in the 1970s but was ranked only as high as 20th on the tour, and Mosier made the 2016 U.S. men’s duathlon team after transitioning.
But even as headlines are made when an athlete who doesn’t fall into the traditional gender categories reaches the heights of competition, these laws are really targeting vulnerable young people.
Lastly, there is misogyny in the idea that cisgender women need protection, delicate flowers that we are. But it’s the tell that this legislation isn’t on the up-and-up. If these states were so concerned with women’s sports, legislators would have spent the last four years defending Title IX and the next four days posing with their NCAA women’s brackets.
If there’s anything worse than being protected, it’s being used as cover.