Ignore Any Argument That Asks You To ‘Protect Girls’ Sports’

The way the right uses it, "protect girls' sports" doesn't actually mean protect girls sports. It means "ignore trans athletes' rights."

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

It sounds right: protect girls’ and women’s sports. They are historically underfunded, under-covered and underappreciated, after all. That’s why landmark legislation was passed for that exact purpose — to codify inclusion in federal law — nearly 50 years ago. But as Title IX approaches the half-century mark, some self-proclaimed feminists would have you believe the spaces it created for girls to compete are threatened. 

Not by men, whose sports world hegemony has historically doomed girls’ opportunities via both intentional exclusion and negligence, but by other women. Specifically, these “feminists” insist, trans women. 

“Asking women — no, requiring them — to give up their hard-won rights to compete and be recognized in elite sport, with equal opportunities, scholarships, prize money, publicity, honor and respect, does the cause of transgender inclusion no favors,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer who is now a Title IX attorney, told USA Today. She is a member of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, a coalition of athletes and other powerful women in sports dedicated specifically to this idea of “protecting” girls and women in sports from their trans peers — while, they say, also advocating for LGBTQ rights. 

Twisting the idea of what it means to protect a group into a million knots, TERFs of this ilk offer plenty of caveats about the ways in which their plans also protect trans athletes. But their purportedly science-based approach to codifying gender on physical terms — to legislating personal identity — aligns with the onslaught of state and local legislation seeking to ban trans athletes from participating in sports in accordance with their gender identity.

Over 20 different states are currently considering such laws, fueled by rhetoric provided by national hate groups; there have been three bills banning trans athletes from participating in girls’ and women’s sports introduced at the federal level. Most are framed around “saving” or “preserving” girls’ sports, or some vague notion of fairness — the idea that if people assigned male at birth compete against other girls, they have a competitive advantage (a fairly reductive idea of what it takes to succeed as an athlete, if nothing else). 

But the content of the bills is blatant discrimination, manifested by invasive, humiliating sex testing or other ultimately arbitrary litmus tests. It’s become the latest battlefront in the right-wing’s endless culture war, meant to circle the party’s wagons around some manufactured bugaboo — gay marriage, gender neutral restrooms and similarly, to them, existential threats that tend to have no connection to anything besides how someone else lives their life (imagine Republicans minding their own business). 

Trans athletes are simply one more cudgel, as evidenced by the fact that most of the states where bills banning their participation are being considered don’t even have any headlines or controversy around trans athlete participation. What the ostensibly liberal-minded members of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group seem not to realize — or to be intentionally ignoring — is that their bedfellows on this issue aim to, as a friend put it, “legislate queer people out of existence.” 

The primary evidence in most of these bills is a federal lawsuit based in Connecticut, in which three cisgender girls sued the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference over the participation of two trans girls in track, alleging the conference had violated Title IX by allowing them to compete. Yes, the two trans girls won championships at the high school level — but two of the three cisgender girls pursuing the suit are currently competing in Division I, while the two trans girls named in the suit are no longer running. That these two girls — whose names are easy to find but they’ve endured enough needless scrutiny as it is — are two of very few trans athletes to receive national attention speaks to the crux of the matter. Ultimately, the only “unfairness” in trans girls’ athletic participation is that they’re not allowed to win.  

The bigger picture on this issue is that Title IX does get violated, and girls’ and women’s sports do need protection — and trans people have little to do with either of those realities, except as they pertain to their own intentional exclusion. The core assumption underlying all of these bills and arguments is proof positive of that larger concern, as it’s ultimately a sexist one: that people assigned male at birth are naturally better at sports. 

“Make no mistake, the fight to keep trans people out of sports is about power and control, not the protection of cis women in sports,” as WNBA player Layshia Clarendon, who announced their top surgery earlier this year, put it in a moving Marie Claire op-ed. “These people want to keep women in their place and then use us as swords to cut people who pose no threat to the advancement of our sport.”

It’s up to us — cis women — to see that they don’t.