Sport & the Transgender Boogey(wo)man

Last week, after a long and ugly campaign, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) voted to adopt a policy which governs trans participation in sport. The policy has undergone several different drafts since July and ultimately passed as an appeals process for “male to female students.” This means that a trans girl would have to file an appeal with the MSHSL to transfer her eligibility from the boys’ team to the girls’ team. Original draft language had included guidelines for trans boys and trans girls (but not for non-binary or gender variant students). In statements to the press, board members claim that girls can already play on boys’ teams; and therefore, guidelines for trans boys are redundant.

An early draft of the policy was circulated in September before the October board meeting (where they were scheduled to vote on the proposed draft). This version of the draft included language addressing trans boys and girls’ participation as well as guidelines for locker room accommodations. The weekend before the board meeting, the ultra-conservative Minnesota Child Protection League (CPL) took out a full page ad in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “A male wants to shower beside your 14 year old daughter” they say. “Are YOU ok with that?” they ask.

The meeting was contentious, and the board moved to table the vote until December. Again, an updated draft of the policy was circulated in November prior to the December 4th meeting. This version was still generically labeled “Gender Identity Participation” but specific guidelines for trans boys and trans girls were removed. And again, in the days leading up to the meeting, the CPL took out another full page ad in the Star-Tribune. This ad hyperbolically announces the “end of girls’ sports.” Further, the ad states, “Her dreams of a scholarship shattered, your 14-year-old-daughter just lost her position to a male… and now she may have to shower with him.”

In claiming that trans girls & women are “really male,” these fear mongering ads deny the gender identity, self-determination, and humanity of trans people, especially trans girls & women. This has significant & harmful repercussions for how trans people are understood and treated in US society. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 78% of trans and gender variant youth experienced verbal harassment and 35% experienced physical assault. Even for people who may never be directly verbally and/or physically harassed, these ads contribute to and encourage an atmosphere which invalidates trans peoples’ identities and experiences. For example, I experience my gender fluidly and identify as queer, yet I often get talked about and introduced as lesbian – which both misgenders me and ignores my sexual identification. These microaggressions build up over time, and often become unbearable.

Are YOU ok with that?

These ads are an easy target, though. Their offensive depiction of trans girls is easily seen as “out of step” or “backwards” and their harmful consequences for trans people are easily articulated (though not easily lived). The policy, on the other hand, is harder to critique. It, along with other legal gains made by LGBT groups, appear to be a progressive & forward-thinking step. I want to pause and be careful with my wording here; we should absolutely celebrate its existence and the hard work that people put in to ensure its passage. However, we must also be critical of its implementation and governance, its own contribution to anti-trans or hostile atmospheres, and the microaggressions that exist within it. Kris Newhall has written about the policy and its shortcomings here and here. Echoing her concerns, I’d like to put the policy into the historical and cultural context of trans sport participation in the U.S.

The passage of the policy as one which only governs trans girls’ participation implicitly affirms the CPL’s position that trans girls & women are really men masquerading as women and that they are sexual predators. Further, it reinforces so called “floodgate theories” that circulated in popular culture during the 1970s when Renée Richards fought for (and won) access to the women’s division at the US Open tennis tournament. Like the CPL ads, these floodgate theories traffic in fear mongering: promising that giant, muscular, hairy men will claim to be trans in order to dominate women’s competition. A letter to the editor in the Star-Tribune (I am purposefully not linking to the letter so that we do not increase its click count) asks us to imagine an “adolescent counterpart to Clay Matthews” coming before the MSHSL claiming to have a “feminine self image.” Building the tension from there, he implores us to imagine this “Clay Matthews look-alike bowling girls over under the basket” during a high school girls’ basketball game.

These floodgate theories are grounded in gender ideology about sport. People assigned male sex at birth are presumed to be bigger, faster, and stronger (and thus naturally better at sports). And, because many trans women were assigned male at birth, they are presumed to have a “competitive advantage” over their competitors who were assigned female at birth. For many feminist sport scholars, these are time worn arguments. Yet, these floodgate theories and stereotypes of trans women continue to re-circulate. Fallon Fox, who identifies as a trans woman, is a rising MMA fighter. Ronda Rousey, who was assigned female at birth and identifies as a woman, is the current UFC women’s bantamweight champion (Fox is in the same weight division but does not have a UFC contract). Rousey has challenged men to fight her and has boasted that she could beat men’s MMA and boxing champions. Yet, she has consistently refused to fight Fox, arguing that Fox can “cut her pecker off” but that as a trans woman she still has competitive advantages. Similarly, Joe Rogan, a MMA analyst, claimed that Fox should not participate in the women’s division at all because she is “a fucking man.”

Are YOU ok with that?

These pernicious stereotypes and ways of thinking about trans women create monstrous and fantastical images that are not grounded in the lives and experiences of trans people. We are asked to imagine a Clay Matthews look-alike bowling girls over rather than the harassment and violence that trans people experience daily. We are asked to imagine a women’s sporting event overrun with stereotypical neanderthals out to win-at-all-cost rather than the diversity of bodies and reasons for participating in sport. We are asked to imagine trans people as sexual predators in a locker room rather than people who cannot go to the bathroom safely.

Are YOU ok with that?

Cathryn Lucas-Carr is a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa and crosses campus to use one of the few gender neutral/bathrooms for people of all genders. Cathryn can be reached at cathryn-lucas@uiowa.edu

One thought on “Sport & the Transgender Boogey(wo)man

  1. Pingback: Seen and Unseen | Sport in American History

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