Feb 4, 2021 - Sports

The debate over trans inclusion in federally funded athletics

Illustration of the transgender symbol as a sport court

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Biden's executive order prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination in federally funded athletics represents a significant step forward for transgender women athletes.

What it says: The order — which targets discrimination in all areas, not just sports — states that schools receiving federal funding must allow transgender girls onto girls' sports teams or face federal action.

Why it matters: The Human Rights Campaign called it "the most substantive, wide-ranging executive order concerning sexual orientation and gender identity ever issued by a United States president."

The state of play: As it stands, policies surrounding trans participation in youth sports differ state-by-state.

  • 10 states are "trans exclusive": Participation must match gender assigned at birth.
  • 17 states plus D.C. are "trans inclusive": Trans girls can play with cis girls regardless of how far along their transition is.
  • 17 other states are "trans inclusive (if)": Trans girls can play with cis girls as long as they've taken gender-affirming hormones for a year.
  • Six states have no policy.

Of note: While you can find studies proving trans women have no competitive advantage, you can find others proving the opposite.

Between the lines: The long-raging debate that Biden's order reopened is a nuanced one. So while the extreme solutions — full inclusion or full exclusion — are easier to digest, they're not indicative of the debate's true nature.

  • A group of high-profile women sports leaders, including Martina Navratilova, has proposed legislation to exempt girls' and women's sports from Biden's order.
  • Rather than blanket inclusion, they want to take a more scientific approach, limiting participation of transgender girls and women who "have experienced all or part of male puberty."
  • But they still want to accommodate their participation through things like separate heats, additional events and/or the handicapping of results.

What they're saying: Casey Pick (she/her pronouns) of The Trevor Project, which provides support for LGBTQ youth, says "the goal is just to have equal opportunities and let folks play if they want to play."

  • "We can uphold female sports and allow for participation by everybody at the same time," Pick tells me. "This is not a zero sum game."
  • On the other side, WSJ's Abigail Shrier argues that cisgender girls could be discouraged from participating if they know they'll be "demoralized by the blatant unfairness of a rigged competition."

The bottom line: This order is a step forward for the trans community and their advocates, but it's a complex issue that won't go away after a simple stroke of the president's pen.

"Right now, trans groups and those supporting protection of biological girls and women are not talking. They are in court trying to win on their respective extreme positions. ... This needs to change and we have to just keep at it."
— Title IX attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar, via USA Today

Go deeper: The impact of sports on LGBTQ youth (Axios)

Go deeper