Why the right wing lies about trans athletes

Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas waits for results after swimming the women’s 200 freestyle final at the NCAA swimming and diving championships, Friday, March 18, 2022, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Republican governors of two states this week vetoed legislation to ban transgender players from girls’ sports. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The U.S. right wing of politics can’t seem to depart from their tired obsession: the daily lives of transgender women.  

As a new variant to the COVID-19 virus emerges, American weapons and funds flood Ukraine, and the Biden Administration finds itself out of funds to finance additional COVID-19 relief measures such as free testing, Republican lawmakers around the country are deciding that their top priority is launching a barrage on the rights of transgender youth. In the center of the right’s crosshairs is a particular group: transgender student athletes. 

As of Friday, the Utah and Arizona legislatures passed bans on transgender student athletes competing in sports that correspond to the athletes’ gender identity, supplementing other life-threating bills that deny transgender youth crucial medical support such as puberty blockers. 

Before we understand why this is happening, it is important to clear up misconceptions circulated by culturally reactionary fear-mongers who portray transitioning as a young trans person as a nefarious, abusive action on behalf of parents and medical professionals.  

First, let’s talk definitions: A “transition” in this context is a broad term referring to the social and medical changes transgender people take on in order to close the gap between the gender they were assigned at birth, which usually falls into the binary categories of male and female, and their actual gender. Gender is distinct from anatomical sex in that gender is constructed by society writ large in accordance with certain social behaviors, norms and social roles from aesthetic preferences — think “blue is for boys and pink is for girls” — to roles in the economy, such as how women, especially women of color, comprise 91% of domestic workers in the U.S. 

To oversimplify, trans women transition from male to female and trans men transition from female to male. People often confuse these.  

One pervasive misconception about female trans athletes is that they compete with the express intention of gaining an “unfair advantage” over cisgender athletes because they did not succeed when competing as their assigned gender at birth. This smear is incorrect to the point of absurdity. Transgender athletes face harassment, discrimination and violence inside and outside of competitions. According to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey report, 22% of female trans students experienced such harsh and prolonged harassment that they changed schools.  

Imagine being brave enough to pursue a sport you’re passionate about amidst this violent and abusive atmosphere only to be accused of gaming the system for a slight competitive advantage. It would be unanimously outrageous if not for the systematic attempts by transphobic religious groups, legislators and community members to otherize and vilify female trans athletes. 

This advantage, which is so commonly highlighted, also has no shortage of complexities. For one, female trans athletes on hormone replacement therapy, a treatment which suppresses the production of testosterone in the body and supplements it with estrogen, often experience significant decreases in their athletic statistics. Lia Thomas, a female trans swimmer on the University of Pennsylvania swim team who recently made history by winning a national Division-500 meter free competition, has times that are 3-7% slower than her time competing in men’s swimming after two years on HRT.  

Even though Thomas has not been able to make the podium at other competitions, fellow athletes, parents and media figures have directed an endless stream of anger toward the swimmer and the NCAA rules that allow her to compete. It is telling that transphobes who fry their vocal chords deriding successful trans people are silent on the endemic violence this community faces, ranging from verbal harassment to intimate partner violence to assault. 

The perceived competitive advantage that trans women athletes have over cisgender women athletes is no different from the inherent variations in people’s body types generally. Tall runners have an advantage over short runners and lifters who put on bulk more easily have an inherent advantage in their sport. Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer who had the audacity to frame Thomas’ victory as the result of the lack of a “level playing field,” produces half the lactic acid of other cisgender male swimmers when using his muscles, increasing stamina and decreasing recovery time. These differences are never addressed through news exclusives or transphobic legislation — rather, it is the marginalized group that receives vitriol. 

Trans athletes work just as hard as their cisgender counterparts — even harder when you consider the amount of transphobia they have to endure in order to compete in a sport they love as their authentic, unapologetic selves. They deserve celebration as opposed to outrage. But celebration does not help right wing political and religious groups solidify their cultural hegemony and their grasp on American politics.  

Republican lawmakers galvanize around transphobia to claim victories and build momentum. When the right-wing successfully undermines trans rights, then the rights of queer people, people with disabilities, communities of color and the working class are fair game next, as the liberation of marginalized groups is completely anathema to the party of white nationalism, eviscerated social programs and climate crisis capitalism.  

Speaking up for trans athletes means speaking up for all queer and trans people. Transphobic sports bans come hand-in-hand with legislation preventing trans youth from receiving safe gender-affirming care and from being acknowledged by their correct name, pronouns and gender identity at school. The psychological repercussions of this legislation could be deadly. The University of Connecticut has an obligation to listen to the concerns of its queer and trans community and to unite in condemning this legislation. 

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