The week of Nov. 12-19 is Transgender Awareness Week. This is a time for us to have serious discussions about how we have come and how far we need to go to achieve full equality for the transgender community. Being transgender in America is difficult without question given the tremendous acts of discrimination, bigotry, hatred, and violence that have been leveled. Transgender Americans face high rates of unemployment, harassment, lack of access to health care, homicide, suicide, and incarceration. State legislatures have introduced over 50 so called “bathroom bills” within the last few years that prohibit transgender Americans from using the bathroom that is in accordance with their gender identity. This is no different than “White Only” and “Colored Only” public facilities during the Jim Crow era. The President issued a memo essentially saying that transgender Americans are to be “erased” from existence. This is about criminalizing vulnerable people and creating fear and hysteria for no reason. Thankfully, there has been more visibility of many transgender people, public figures, activists, and allies alike where there is a great sense of urgency to fight for civil and human rights. That is certainly true in the world of sports as well.
The history of transgender athletes dates back to the 1970’s when professional tennis player Renee Richards appeared on the scene. As a transgender woman, she competed with other women and was even given a spot at the U.S. Open. However, she endured tremendous backlash from the media and the tennis establishment while the U.S. Tennis Association and the Women’s Tennis Association withdrew their support along with 25 other women who were competing. Both organizations eventually introduced the so called “barr body test” that said that a person’s sex chromosomes determined their gender. She refused to take the test and followed suit afterwards arguing her civil rights were violated and they were. A judge eventually ruled in her favor and she was allowed to compete in the 1977 U.S. Open. Renee opened the doors for other transgender athletes to make a name for themselves.
Today, many transgender athletes are now competing in world competitions, achieving remarkable success, and breaking down barriers. Chris Mossier became the first openly trans-American athlete when he qualified for the U.S. duathlon team in 2016 and competed in the World Championships. He is also an advocate for the trans-community and was the first trans-athlete to be featured in a Nike endorsement. Cyclist Rachel McKinnon won a gold medal at the 2018 Masters Track World Championships. Many states now have programs and protections in place that allow for transgender athletes to compete in sports and have access to locker rooms that are in accordance with their gender identity. There are small pockets of progress, but we still have a long way to go.
There has been tremendous backlash by some who get the impression that if, for example, a transgender woman was allowed to compete in women’s sports, she would have an unfair advantage due to her “masculine characteristics.” However, science argues otherwise and refutes this claim. The use of estrogen supplements and testosterone blockers particularly during the period of reassignment surgery actually reduce muscle mass and bone density. This is what happened in 2017 in Texas with Mack Beggs, who was a high school wrestler and a young transgender man who was transitioning from female to male. He was forced to compete in the girl’s competition during the state championship. The state of Texas in their sports guidelines said that athletes had to compete alongside other athletes of their birth gender. All of this is simply an effort by bigots and transphobes to not allow for equal participation in sports. This is the same argument that was made against African Americans from not competing in professional sports by racists who tried to use “science” or “biology.” Furthermore, many transgender students, not just athletes, face an incredible amount of bullying and alienation from their peers, schools, communities, and families. That is why we as social workers must do everything we can do to create safe spaces for transgender students, including athletes, to thrive and to be treated fairly and humanely.
There are a number of things we can to advocate for transgender athletes’ well being, safety, support, and access to equal participation in sports. Here are 10 things we can do:
1. Advocate for the civil and human rights of the transgender community
2. Advocate for states’ sports guidelines ensure that transgender athletes are allowed to compete and have access to locker rooms, restrooms, and other public facilities
3. Ensure that transgender athletes have access to cultural competent mental health resources
4. Train coaches, athletic directors, administrators, and others in authority in create a safe environment for their athletes, especially trans-athletes
5. Oppose the so called “bathroom bills” and other discriminatory measures
6. Support and partner with organizations such as the You Can Play Project, Athlete Ally, Human Rights Campaign, National Black Justice Coalition, and Trevor Project that advocate for the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ athletes
7. Vote in every single election for LGBTQ friendly candidates
8. Host discussions and events with athletes, coaches, athletic directors, and administrators on the importance of diversity and inclusion
9. Hire social workers to athletic teams and departments
10. Understand the fundamental difference between sex and gender
We all can do our part and we must do our part. Let us continue to support and stand with our transgender sisters and brothers every step of the way.