Trans youth are under attack as waves of anti-trans bills across the country are being passed to prevent them from participating in sports. These sports bans do not stand alone in 2021’s pattern of transphobia, as 28 of 50 states have proposed some sort of anti-trans legislation this year. These laws have prohibited forms of medical treatment for trans people, including some life-saving care. But what is the root of this trend of transphobia?
Idaho was the first state to establish a dramatic position on transgender athletes, initially proposing a ban on all transgender athletes in 2020 but later blocking that proposal. Now, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Dakota are following suit with similarly destructive bills. A majority of this legislation prohibits trans girls from participating in girls’ sports while allowing trans boys to participate in boys’ sports. Supporters of this legislation argue that it is essential to keep sports fair for female athletes, but this conclusion is based on inaccurate stereotypes about female athletes that end up marginalizing trans athletes. Organizations like the NCAA, who advocate for transgender rights, argue that if trans women and girls take testosterone suppression treatment for a year, they can compete fairly in the sports that they want to. Besides the NCAA, many other organizations and companies have stood up in opposition of these recent bills, most notably Facebook, Pfizer, and Apple. They don’t stand alone, with about ⅔ of Americans opposing bills that discriminate against transgender people, but it doesn’t appear that these current policies reflect that opposition.
Even more troubling within this transphobia is the subsequent racism that underlies sports bans. In a 2020 lawsuit in Connecticut two young Black sprinters, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, incited more anger over the “unfair advantage” that trans girls have in sports, and the case sparked national attention and hate. This is not isolated hostility. Black women in sports— transgender, cisgender, or intersex—have faced a long history of ostracism and hate. They are accused of using steroids or other forms of cheating to win competitions. They are harassed with comments about their physiques and athletic abilities. Even a figure like Serena Williams, perhaps the most influential female athlete of all time, has been bombarded with comments about her body throughout her whole career, even after establishing herself as a standout athlete. If her existence as a Black cisgender woman athlete is met with this much judgement, imagine the experiences of Black trans girls in states that don’t support their athletic participation.
Even scarier than the sports banning bills are states like Alabama, Arkansas, and North Dakota, which are considering wiping out gender-affirming medical treatment for youths all together. This would make it impossible for kids in these states to receive treatments or surgeries they need to transition and live their lives in fulfilling ways. Without access to these essential gender-affirming treatments and other forms of support, trans kids are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, or suicide than trans youth with support from others and access to necessary treatments. Rates of mental illness are already much higher among LGBTQ youth than straight cisgender youth, and legislation like this can and will intensify these existing problems.
Why do lawmakers and politicians feel the need to attack such a vulnerable demographic for something so essential to childhood and adolescence? Sports offer a needed sense of belonging and contribution to something outside of the individual. Athlete Cece Tefler, who became the first openly transgender woman to win a NCAA title, discussed her experience with sports in response to this trend of transphobia, saying, “Athletics is a way for people to get out and get away from negativity and just breathe… I am not a threat to women’s sports because I am a woman.” To rob that sense of escape and expression from children who may already feel ostracized from their community, from their schools, and from other kids is only further adding to the problem. There is a growing number of transgender kids who are ready to live a life in alignment with who they are, and legislation must be ready to reflect that growing need and provide these kids with support and inclusion.