Editorial: Let Them Play

An editorial on transgender athletes in sports


Graphic by Monica Inouye/SAC.Media.

Growing up as a teen in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I never had to worry about someone else making a decision that could impact my ability to do the things I wanted as a kid—like to compete in sports. Afterall, Los Angeles has always been a cultural and communal melting pot that inspires and empowers. Yet for a small population of people, decisions are being made legislatively across the country that specifically target them with the intent to further marginalize.
As of today, 31 states have introduced some form of legislation to effectively ban transgendered athletes from competing in school sports that match their gender identities. These bills are often guided by fear, misconceptions and sometimes deliberate ignorance, bringing forth concerns about fairness that seem valid, but lack any consideration for the nuance that exists in the real world.
In 2020, a lawsuit on behalf of four teenage girls was filed against the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and regional school districts over two transgender girls having been allowed to compete in track championships between 2017 and 2019. Through that period of time, only one of the transgender girls placed first in just four competitions.
Though Connecticut Association of Schools policy allows athletes to compete in the sports that are consistent with their gender identity, the plaintiffs argued that the association and the athletic conference violated Title IX by allowing transgender girls to compete, which put cisgender girls at a disadvantage.
Though the lawsuit was dismissed this year, it encapsulated the most basic concerns and arguments of the people that push for legislation to ban transgender athletes from competing in sports: the thought that transgender women will always have a competitive advantage against cisgender women.
From there, we usually see arguments go off the rails and start spouting off what-if scenarios, like, what if a cisgender man decides to randomly identify as female to compete and dominate a sport full of women? How would that be fair?
If we could think about that scenario for a little more than the time it took us to read that sentence back, we would probably see why a cisgender man would actually not want to submit himself into a life of oppression, discrimination and scrutiny that all female athletes experience, just for a few moments of glory.
It’s very astronomically unlikely that we will ever see a baseball player who will want to transition and play softball for the simple sake of dominating others. So, maybe we could put that to rest and realize that any athlete who is transgender and competing in a sport is doing so because it’s who they are.
Yet, on the same subject of competitive fairness, we never hear the same arguments against transgender athletes brought up when it’s about transgender males wanting to compete alongside other cisgender males. Is it because we inherently accept that males have physical advantages over females and, therefore, there’s no reason to cry foul because we simply wouldn’t expect transgender males to dominate their sport?
The story of Mack Beggs, a transgender male wrestler, became known to the world in 2017 when the State of Texas prevented him from competing in male leagues during his high school athletic career, forcing him to compete against female wrestlers. His story was even featured on ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series and flipped the argument about transgender athletes and competitive fairness on its head.
If the reason so many states are pushing to ban transgender athletes from competing out of the misconceived fear that they would have some sort of advantage over others, why would the State of Texas willingly deny a transgender male athlete the opportunity to compete against other males, and force him to compete against females while on low doses of testosterone therapy?
Beggs dominated the girls’ division—going undefeated in 2017 and 2018. When parents started crying foul and protesting, not because of Beggs being denied the chance to compete against other males but because he was allowed to compete at all, he went as far as taking hormone blockers to appease the loud voices harassing him at the cost any detrimental effects that could have on his own transition.
He did all that as a teenager because he wanted to participate in a sport he loved and, at some point, we have to consider what these legislations do and who they truly affect.
Sports bring people together, and at a high school level in particular, they serve as not only an outlet for athletes but also as a pivotal character building and emotionally strengthening part of a teenager’s life.
For many athletes, sports also represent the opportunity to be part of a community: to be accepted by peers and learn lessons in communication and leadership while working with others towards a common goal. These are young people with a love and passion for the games they play, and to strip them of that part of the human experience would have a damaging impact on more lives than these legislations care to protect.
The sort of damage that comes sometimes under the guise of protecting exclusively women’s sports—even as lawmakers debate your identity with unfounded fears and little scientific basis— isn’t something that can easily be undone.
We would ask those same legislators how often they’ve pushed legislation to address the disparities female athletes face in being undervalued and underpaid. We would even ask them how often they’ve attended or watched women’s soccer and the WNBA; we’d ask them to tell me about their favorite female athletes or how they’ve invested in women’s sports.
The truth is that they likely wouldn’t have an answer, and the notion that these legislations are trying to prevent transgender people from deliberately dominating a sport is ridiculous on its own.
Since 2004, the International Olympic Committee has allowed transgender athletes to compete in the Olympics, yet no openly transgender athlete has done so. The NCAA has allowed transgender athletes to compete since 2011, yet there has only been one transgender national champion; CeCé Telfer was crowned in 2019 for a women’s 400-meter run event at the Division II level.
The fact is transgender people are not dominating in sports, yet there are clearly some individuals hell-bent on preventing them from participating. Even at a high school level, they aren’t setting national records; in the case of the Connecticut lawsuit which scrutinized the two transgender girls who competed, nothing was said about the times they didn’t even win anything.
Now this alone shouldn’t be the only takeaway about allowing transgender athletes to compete in sports. Transgender people already battle enough dehumanizing stereotypes as it is, but they also shouldn’t have to flaunt their losses or the fact that they haven’t set those records or competed in the Olympics just to put everyone at ease about letting them pursue something they love.
As a cisgender man who has competed in multiple sports, I know it takes a lifetime of hard work and dedication to be successful in an athletic career. Imagine how many more obstacles transgender people face from social structures trying to limit how they move freely in society on top of the challenges that come with being an athlete.
Transgender athletes should have the right to competing in sports, and that right should be celebrated. There will be times that they will win and set records, and when that happens, we must always remember that nothing should ever take away from someone winning if they are willing to bust their ass to do so.