In February 2020, the families of three cisgender girls filed a federal lawsuit against the Connecticut Association of Schools, the nonprofit Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and several boards of education in the state. The families were upset that transgender girls were competing against the cisgender girls in high school track leagues. They argued that transgender girls have an unfair advantage in high school sports and should be forced to play on boys’ teams.
Conservatives around the country have jumped on the question. Attorney General Merrick Garland was pressed on the issue during his confirmation hearing last month. State legislators around the country are pushing bills that would force trans girls to compete on boys’ teams. In describing the Connecticut case in the Wall Street Journal, opinion writer Abigail Shrier expressed a representative argument: when transgender girls compete on girls’ sports teams, she wrote, “[cisgender] girls can’t win.”
The opinion piece left out the fact that two days after the Connecticut lawsuit was filed by the cisgender girls’ families, one of those girls beat one of the transgender girls named in the lawsuit in a Connecticut state championship. It turns out that when transgender girls play on girls’ sports teams, cisgender girls can win. In fact, the vast majority of female athletes are cisgender, as are the vast majority of winners. There is no epidemic of transgender girls dominating female sports. Attempts to force transgender girls to play on the boys’ teams are unconscionable attacks on already marginalized transgender children, and they don’t address a real problem. They’re unscientific, and they would cause serious mental health damage to both cisgender and transgender youth.
Policies permitting transgender athletes to play on teams that match their gender identity are not new. The Olympics have had trans-inclusive policies since 2004, but a single openly transgender athlete has yet to even qualify. California passed a law in 2013 that allows trans youth to compete on the team that matches their gender identity; there have been no issues. U SPORTS, Canada’s equivalent to the U.S.’s National Collegiate Athletic Association, has allowed transgender athletes to compete with the team that matches their identity for the past two years.
The notion of transgender girls having an unfair advantage comes from the idea that testosterone causes physical changes such as an increase in muscle mass. But transgender girls are not the only girls with high testosterone levels. An estimated 10 percent of women have polycystic ovarian syndrome, which results in elevated testosterone levels. They are not banned from female sports. Transgender girls on puberty blockers, on the other hand, have negligible testosterone levels. Yet these state bills would force them to play with the boys. Plus, the athletic advantage conferred by testosterone is equivocal. As Katrina Karkazis, a senior visiting fellow and expert on testosterone and bioethics at Yale University explains, “Studies of testosterone levels in athletes do not show any clear, consistent relationship between testosterone and athletic performance. Sometimes testosterone is associated with better performance, but other studies show weak links or no links. And yet others show testosterone is associated with worse performance.” The bills’ premises lack scientific validity.
Claiming that transgender girls have an unfair advantage in sports also neglects the fact that these kids have the deck stacked against them in nearly every other way imaginable. They suffer from higher rates of bullying, anxiety and depression—all of which make it more difficult for them to train and compete. They also have higher rates of homelessness and poverty because of common experiences of family rejection. This is likely a major driver of why we see so few transgender athletes in collegiate sports and none in the Olympics.
On top of the notion of transgender athletic advantage being dubious, enforcing these bills would be bizarre and cruel. Idaho’s H.B. 500, which was signed into law but currently has a preliminary injunction against its enforcement, would essentially let people accuse students of lying about their sex. Those students would then need to “prove” their sex through means including an invasive genital exam or genetic testing. And what happens when a kid comes back with XY chromosomes but a vagina (as occurs with people with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome)? Do they play on the boys’ team or the girls’ team? This is just one of several conditions that would make such sex policing impossible.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time people have tried to discredit the success of athletes from marginalized minorities based on half-baked claims of “science.” There is a long history of similarly painting Black athletes as “genetically superior” in an attempt to downplay the effects of their hard work and training.
Recently, some have even harkened back to eras of “separate but equal,” suggesting that transgender athletes should be forced into their own leagues. In addition to all the reasons why this is unnecessary that I’ve already explained, it is also unjust. As we’ve learned from women’s sports leagues, separate is not equal. Female athletes consistently have to deal with fewer accolades, less press coverage and lower pay. A transgender sports league would undoubtedly be plagued with the same issues.
Beyond the trauma of sex-verification exams, these bills would cause further emotional damage to transgender youth. While we haven’t seen an epidemic of transgender girls dominating sports leagues, we have seen high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide attempts. Research highlights that a major driver of these mental health problems is rejection of someone’s gender identity. Forcing trans youth to play on sports teams that don’t match their identity will worsen these disparities. It’s a classic form of transgender conversion therapy, a discredited practice of trying to force transgender people to be cisgender and gender-conforming.
Though this can be hard for cisgender people to understand, imagine someone told you that you were a different gender and then forced you to play on the sports team of that gender throughout all of your school years. You’d likely be miserable and confused.
As a child psychiatry fellow, I spend a lot of time with kids. They have many worries on their minds: bullying, sexual assault, divorcing parents, concerns they won’t get into college. What they’re not worried about is transgender girls playing on girls’ sports teams.
Legislators need to work on the issues that truly impact young people and women’s sports—lower pay to female athletes, less media coverage for women’s sports and cultural environments that lead to high dropout rates for diverse athletes—instead of manufacturing problems and “solutions” that hurt the kids we are supposed to be protecting.