What Transgender Bans tell us about High School Athletics

We’re hearing a lot about “fairness” these days. State legislatures are voting on bills that would ban transgender students from participating in sports that correspond to their understood (and not birth certificate assigned) gender identity, all in the name of “fairness.”

We’re learning a lot about these legislators’ pitiful, if not willful, ignorance around the extensive psychological and legal processes transgender people must undergo to receive official recognition of their understood gender. (No, Rep. Whiteman, Little Johnny can’t decide before 3rd block PE that he needs to use the girls’ locker room; and I’m more than just a little curious if we’re not not learning about your past – and maybe current- predilections, and not Johnny’s.)

We’re also learning a lot about how people view high school athletics. Here are three takeaways from the arguments made by those like Rep. Whiteman.

Women are still not viewed as serious competition to men.

Every argument I’ve heard revolve around the “unfairness” allowing transgender women compete with cisgender women, the idea being that transgender women would naturally trounce their cisgender counterparts. Not once have I heard the same argument for men’s athletics.

Now, strength and speed are without a doubt big factors in any athletic competition, but so are practice, focus, technique and drive. We see this all the time in professional men’s athletics, for example. Tom Brady is nowhere near the strongest or fastest QB in the NFL, but other QB’s would happily trade those gifts for the rings Brady has won. And opposing defenders – almost all of whom are faster and stronger than Brady – would do all they could to facilitate that trade. So the whole “athleticism always prevails” mindset just doesn’t hold up.

But, to the point, there are cisgender girls who are faster and stronger than cisgender boys their age, and young women like Sarah Fuller and Heaven Fitch are blazing trails others will follow. Right now they’re seen as exceptions to the rule by Rep. Whiteman, but they will become more frequent as patriarchal gender roles and norms continue to be left in the dust by these trail-blazing women.

High school athletics are not about formation, but acclamation

The sometimes spoken worry at play here – again only with trangender women competing with cisgender women – is that our kids won’t be winners. (Second place for worries goes to the fear-mongering, transphobic “I don’t want that NEAR my daughter” crowd).

My first call was to a church right outside of the Beltway in Maryland, and I got nasty phone calls on exactly two occasions: 1) when I dared to suggest homosexuality was not inherently sinful and 2) when I told one of our youth – who was on the verge of a panic attack with both ACT and SAT looming – that I never did well on those things, still got my PhD, and was a tax-paying citizen who didn’t live in a van down by the river. Two days later, one of her parents called to tell me I was way off base, that the pressure was good for her daughter, and that these tests would in fact determine her future. I didn’t need to be filling her head with a lot of bunk, like “no matter what God will love you just the same.”

Many parents want their kids to be winners. They want them to be exceptional. They want them to be celebrated by others. Badly. It’s why they scream at the ref, blame the teacher, and keep them in piano long after the joy is gone. I’ve got 2 kids, so I get that this is primal to some degree. I lost my mind when my oldest scored his first soccer goal at the age of four, and I imagine it was similar for the stone age parents whose kid evaded their first saber-tooth. But, for many it’s become an obsession, an idol smelted in the modern fires of perfectionism and specialization, and it’s (too often, literally) killing our kids.

As a society, we’ve consigned the idea that children’s sports are not an end unto themselves, but should serve a higher purpose – that of formation – to the dustbin of sentimentality. But if you’ve ever played a sport, you know that’s the stuff you carry with you for life; that actually matters to your friends, family, community, and coworkers. If you still talk about your high school wins and losses, on behalf of the rest of us, please stop. Show us how you value teamwork. Show us your perseverance. Show us you’re clutch. Don’t tell us.

Without these bans, I wonder what this generation of high school athletes – formed playing alongside transgender athletes – could show us about being on the same team, working together, and picking each other up?

Fairness” only matters when people need to be kept out

While we’re talking about fairness, you’d think all these state legislatures would want to address the dramatic non-sexuality-and-gender related inequalities prevalent in high school athletics, like:

  • some schools not being able to afford basic equipment while others play in college-level stadiums
  • individual athletic success being highly related to race and socio-economic status
  • athletes receiving preferential academic treatment because of their exploits on the field
  • the exploitation of Title IX loopholes to the disadvantage of womens’ sports

Addressing these would undo the “business” of amateur sports. They’d strike one more blow to racial inequity. They’d help women’s teams. And maybe, just maybe, get parents to think about the “value” of getting private coaching sessions for kids who can barely tie their shoes (I see it at the park across the street far too often).

You’d think Rep. Whiteman and his compatriots, all in a righteous swivet about “fairness,” would want to address all of these more prevalent issues along with the place of transgender athletes. It couldn’t be they’re serving up children as red meat for their constituencies, could it? I mean they’ve never done that before with integration, Title IX, or the inclusion of openly gay athletes on sports teams, right?

There’s so much about this debate per se that just wreaks: the transphobia, anti-science ignorance, and total neglect of psychological concern for trans children. But, add on to that the perpetuation of these harmful attitudes and practices already surrounding high school athletics, and you can really see how toxicity feeds, and feeds on, toxicity. It’s time to clean it all up so children and teenagers can do what they do best: play and grow.

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