The policies to determine someone’s “biological sex” are getting weirder and weirder — not to mention illogical. Just this month Florida tried to institute a policy to track the period data of female students, only dropping the idea after severe backlash. There are many reasons a cis girl might not menstruate particularly in high school. Abnormal menstruation is of course irrelevant to a person being a “real” woman. Cis women might have a medical condition disrupting their menstruation, engage in excessive exercise, or be underweight. Or they might just naturally begin their period later than what would be considered average. Not only is menstruation irrelevant to one’s ability to play sports and unlikely to be sufficient information to determine if one is trans or cis, but associating menstruation with womanhood will have stigmatizing effects for cis women who don’t menstruate normally and overly associate womanhood with the biological capability to get pregnant.
Over the past few years we have seen conservatives go from supposed concern over fairness in sports, even giving the harmful bills names about “fairness,” to introducing bills to outlaw trans-affirming care for anyone under 21. The anti-trans panic is growing at an alarming rate using fearmongering ranging from harm to cis women to claims of grooming and forced transition for young trans people. Not only are these anti-trans policies causing great harm to trans people, but they are also harming cis women and serving to enforce normative patriarchal gender expression for all women. There is no evidence that making sports trans-inclusive does any harm to the success or participation of cisgender athletes and no legitimate reason for these laws.
There are a lot of laws trying to keep trans people (particularly trans women) from playing sports in schools and policies restricting trans inclusion at the professional level. But keeping trans people out of sports isn’t that simple. How do you determine who is trans and who is cis if you’re not willing to rely on self-identification? No matter what transphobes tell you it’s not actually possible to “always tell” who is trans and who is cis.
The history of competitive sports is predominantly male until the 20th century. With the inclusion of women, panics over the femininity of athletes began. In the 1936 Olympics, two female runners were rumored to actually be men because they were deemed too fast and strong to be women. Sex verification in sports began in the 1940s with “femininity certificates” and resulted in mostly excluding intersex athletes. Even when female athletes’ sex wasn’t questioned, many were still uncomfortable with the “masculine” displays as part of the competition preferring women remain more feminine and outside of sports.
In 1966 in response to rumors that Eastern Bloc countries were cheating by sneaking men into women’s sports, international sports officials instituted a mandatory “genital check” to guarantee no men were competing in women’s sports. Later chromosomal tests were instituted to verify an athlete’s gender. Today hormone tests are mostly used. These hormone tests can be embarrassing, or even traumatic, and exclude any athletes who might have abnormalities forcing a rigid definition of femininity onto athletics. It also reduces womanhood to very specific biological traits.
Even when trans women fulfill the hormone requirements to compete as women in sports, they are often criticized and blamed for taking a “real woman’s” spot on the team. Lia Thomas is a transgender woman who competed on the swim team at the University of Pennsylvania from 2017-2022. She competed on the men’s team until 2021, two years while she was transitioning, which began in 2019, and moved to the women’s team in 2021. Lia Thomas became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I championship in any sport in 2022. Lia Thomas won the championship, but she didn’t break records and her performance was within normal bounds for women athletes at her level. Unfortunately, these clear facts that Lia Thomas did not have an unfair advantage aren’t convincing transphobic people who accuse Lia Thomas of taking the sport of a “real woman.” In fact, one of Thomas’ records was just broken this past weekend by a cis woman and former teammate.
To keep trans students out of sports at younger ages, Ohio and New Jersey have proposed bills that would require a genital examination to keep transgender kids and teenagers out of single-sex sports teams. Most girls don’t need to experience a genital exam until their first gynecology appointment sometime in their mid-teens. Requiring children to undergo a genital examination for no medical reason could be embarrassing at best and traumatic at worst. It’s also a bizarre solution for a group that claims to be particularly concerned with the grooming and molestation of young children.
Many states are requiring original birth certificates as “proof” of a child’s assigned gender at birth. Some states require students to transition fully before being allowed to play sex-segregated sports — even though those same states are banning trans-affirming healthcare that would allow such a transition. When the state policy requires cases to be determined on an individual basis by committee vote, it’s also hard to imagine traditional feminine gender performance doesn’t influence their decision.
Anti-trans policies excluding trans students from sports are harmful to all trans people and have been shown to perpetuate racist ideas about traditional femininity and disproportionately target Black athletes for investigation. Anti-trans laws are based on the assumption that trans athletes assigned male at birth automatically have an advantage over athletes assigned female at birth. This assumption enforces an image of women that is feminine, less athletic, weaker, and often white. Black women and girls have long faced discrimination that excluded them from traditional femininity through stereotypes that Black women are stronger and more “masculine.” Therefore the panic that trans girls might be playing alongside cis girls encourages hyperfocus on the relative masculinity of athletes and often targets Black girls more than white. In one prominent lawsuit, three white cisgender girls filed a lawsuit against two Black transgender athletes the cis girls had already beaten.
Any kind of gender verification in sports enforces a rigid understanding of gender onto athletes which serves to support traditional ideas of femininity in and outside of sports. Men do not have an automatic advantage over women. Chromosomes, genitalia, or hormone levels do not determine one’s athleticism. Many athletes are genetically blessed in some way that gives them an edge when competing, but we didn’t disqualify Michael Phelps for his wingspan and we shouldn’t disqualify Caster Semenya for her hormone levels. Billie Jean King didn’t beat Bobby Riggs in 1973 for us all to be told all men are more athletic than all women in 2023.
Mia Brett has a Ph. D in history and is a freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter or playing with her dog Tchotchke.