Trans women in sports is a fight for equality 

There’s an important issue in the community and around the country that many of us don’t understand fully, and it involves members of our trans community participating in sports. It’s been so misreported in the mainstream media that even fellow members of the LGBTQ community don’t understand the nuance. Let’s face it, it’s a complex subject, but I’m going to attempt to bring it into terms that we can all appreciate.

The issue, in a nutshell, is that some people claim that trans people, particularly trans women, have an unfair advantage due to being born male. Some sports, including various college sports, have a rule that a trans woman must go through an extended period of taking hormones to be able to compete in the women’s events. And that is the issue: is being born male an advantage for trans women athletes, even after taking hormones? Where have we heard that debate before? Guess what, we heard that same line years ago, but it was the suggestion that Black athletes had an advantage due to being different than white athletes. The same debate about fairness is happening here.

There will always be someone in sports who has what people assume is an advantage. It is the job of the ruling sports organizations to attempt to make the competing field equal. The first disadvantage in most sports is one we seldom talk about: economics. How many marginalized people can afford what it takes to become a champion athlete? Hence why up until recently, you saw a not-so-diverse Olympic team. Let’s look at another example of advantage, one of the most popular of Olympians, Michael Phelps. He not only had the advantage of economics, but he also has the gift of large hands, lungs, and a body that produces less lactic acid. Should we have a limit on the size of hands that are allowed to compete against each other? Or a minimum limit on the amount of lactic acid one produces?

The best example of trans women in sports today is Lia Thomas, the Penn swimmer who won the 500 free at the Division I NCAA championships. She has gone through all the hormone treatments that a trans swimmer is required to compete. But maybe her advantage isn’t that she’s trans. Maybe she simply has the same advantage as Michael Phelps, maybe she also was born with those same gifts. Being born with large hands or lungs happens to a small amount of both the population of men and women. Should everyone with large hands be disqualified? No. 

We should ask the question: Is this not an issue of fairness, but an issue of continued discrimination of marginalized people from professional sports? And is the discrimination perpetuated due to the lack of clear and fair rules? Or is it, as some believe, impossible to make rules based on science that is still being studied? 

The discrimination against trans athletes is clear to see. Black athletes felt it, so did gay and lesbian athletes. Let’s not forget when LGBT athletes felt unwelcome by the Olympic committee and decided to form their own Olympics, the Gay Olympics. The International Olympic Committee went to court to stop their name from being connected to the LGBT community. That is why we ended up with the Gay Games. 

In my view, from what I’ve looked at, there are a number of reasons that this all comes down to simple discrimination against trans athletes. And that controversy has been used as a political battle ax by Republicans. How much of a panic is it? How many trans athletes can you name? This has become a political tool, not a science or professional rules discussion. Some 34 states are trying to legislate trans athletes in their schools; are there even 34 trans athletes? 

This is a message war, and a war on our trans community. The right calls this a culture war, and as long as we allow them to use that phrase, they win. We should make it clear that “culture war” is a dog whistle for “discrimination,” and what it really is is not a cultural war, but a fight for equality.

Originally published by our friends at the Philadelphia Gay News on March 30, 2022.

Mark Segal is an American journalist. He is the founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News and has won numerous journalism awards for his column "Mark My Words," including best column by The National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspaper Association and The Society of Professional Journalists.