When Lia Thomas touched the wall during the 500-yard freestyle swim and became the first NCAA Division I national champion who self-identifies as a transgender athlete, many people quietly wondered whether her victory was something to celebrate or lament.
On one hand, historic victories from underdogs tend to be lionized because so many people identify as underdogs themselves. And transgender people are certainly on the underside of power in the United States. However, others wonder if Thomas had an advantage due to being born biologically male, making her competitors the underdogs.
Conservative author and commentator Allie Beth Stuckey shared an interview of an NCAA track and field athlete talking about Thomas and added: “Love this courageous girl and her refusal to use female pronouns for the male athlete … .”
Greg Price, who is a digital strategist and a former editor for The Daily Caller, tweeted an image from a South Park episode where a cowboy-hat-wearing, beard-sporting male power lifter wins a Strong Woman Competition, while joking, “Make South Park satire again.”
After Thomas won, conservative author and podcaster Matt Walsh tweeted that the second-place swimmer, not Thomas, was actually “the real first place winner and should be congratulated for her victory.” He went on to call Thomas’ victory a “ridiculous charade” and doubled down, saying: “I’ve been fighting gender ideology for years. Since before the Jenner ‘woman of the year’ magazine cover. For a long time many conservatives told me it was a sideshow, a fad, nothing to worry about. I said it would become the central cultural battlefield, and now it is. … Fighting this scourge means attacking it at its roots. We’re not just concerned about women’s sports or bathrooms or whatever. Gender ideology itself is the cancer at the core of this. We have to go after that, the very idea of it.”
According to Walsh, “If you’re trying to find some middle-of-the-road position that opposes men in women’s sports but supports the idea of transgenderism generally, it doesn’t exist. You must either attack left-wing gender ideology at its foundation or ultimately affirm it. There is no middle ground. A male who identifies as a woman either is a woman or is not. If he is not, then transgenderism is false to its core.”
If you listen to these conservative pundits, you would think Lebron James was calling himself a woman and participating in the WNBA. Or you might wonder if perhaps Tom Brady was taking inspiration from his fashion model wife, Gisele Bundchen, and joining the Lingerie Football League to rack up even more championships.
Is that all there is?
But is that really what is going on with transgender athletes?
Many Americans may not consider themselves to be culture warriors fighting “scourges” on battlefields. Many of us want to be kind, whether we understand the experiences of transgender people or not. Most often, the driving factor behind our opinions about transgender athletes is not a knowledge of real data, but a feeling that we are using our common sense.
“Most often, the driving factor behind our opinions about transgender athletes is not a knowledge of real data, but a feeling that we are using our common sense.”
But what if what seems to be common sense on the surface doesn’t match with what the data are telling us about transgender athletes? And where does our common humanity and the dignity of transgender athletes fit into all this?
It is understandable, given the lack of awareness about transgender people and human bodies, that there would be some questions raised about this topic. But lack of awareness never can foster empathy and love.
So for those who are confused about how to process Thomas’ victory but also want to be kind toward their transgender neighbors, we need to increase our awareness of transgender athletes by considering the history of women’s athletics, the truth about biological differences, the precedents being set in lawsuits, and our common humanity.
The rise of women’s sporting events
For most of the history of the United States, competitive sports were reserved for men. In an article for The Sport Journal, Richard Bell of Colorado Mesa University explains: “Prior to 1870, activities for women were recreational rather than sport-specific in nature. They were noncompetitive, informal, rule-less; they emphasized physical activity rather than competition. Efforts to limit women’s sport activity continued as they became more involved in competitive sports.”
According to Bell, many of the advances women made during the feminist movement of the 1920s were offset by the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, when women had to leave their homes in order to enter the workforce as men went off to fight in World War II, “many women believed that if they could compete successfully in the workforce, then they could certainly compete on the athletic fields.” As a result, the All-American Girls Baseball League was formed in place of the temporarily canceled Major League Baseball. And once the war came to a close, women’s athletics didn’t retreat back home.
Building on the successes of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Congress eventually passed Title IX in 1972 in an attempt to bring parity to men’s and women’s sports. The law says: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
However, after the law passed, efforts immediately began to weaken the law. According to Margaret Nash of the University of California, the National Collegiate Athletic Association “argued that if colleges had to fund women’s athletics more than they already did, implementation of Title IX would ‘destroy major college football and basketball programs.”
Nash explained: “Title IX’s greatest contributions may have been twofold: the law gave girls and women a right to seek change, and advocates of equity used Title IX as a wedge in the door for future change.”
Understanding the truth about biological differences
One opportunity for future change became the debate about transgender athletes we are having today. While many people believe common sense shows that there are major biological differences between men and women in size and strength and that such differences would drastically affect athletic performance, few people understand precisely what those differences may be, or how those differences are affected when transgender athletes want to cross the athletic gender lines.
David Handelsman, Angelical Hirschberg and Stephane Bermon wrote for Endocrine Reviews: “Prior to puberty, there is no sex difference in circulating testosterone concentrations or athletic performance, but from puberty onward a clear sex difference in athletic performance emerges as circulating testosterone concentrations rise in men because testes produce 30 times more testosterone than before puberty with circulating testosterone exceeding 15-fold that of women at any age … . These dichotomies largely account for the sex differences in muscle mass and strength and circulating hemoglobin levels that result in at least an 8% to 12% ergogenic advantage in men.”
“For most of their childhood, children who identify as transgender should be able to compete athletically without any concern for differences related to physical performance, stamina or recovery.”
This means that for most of their childhood, children who identify as transgender should be able to compete athletically without any concern for differences related to physical performance, stamina or recovery — whether male or female.
But how many transgender athletes are there?
According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, just “0.6% of U.S. adults identify as transgender.” From that small sample of people, even fewer will be raised by families wealthy enough to invest in their athletic training to the degree that would be necessary to achieve collegiate, professional or Olympic opportunities. And of those who can afford it and have the opportunities, even fewer will attain access to the highest levels of competition, let alone win.
The Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism says high school students who identify as transgender often will utilize hormone blockers in order to prevent puberty from taking place, which impedes the advantages in size and strength from happening due to the lack of testosterone growth. Qualified medical professionals will not prescribe or perform aggressive gender-affirming care until a person reaches — or passes through — puberty.
For the handful of transgender athletes who compete beyond high school, guidelines already are in place to measure their levels of hormones. In an article titled “Fair Play: Transgender Athletes and Their Opponents On (and Off) the Field,” Michelle Roman explains: “The NCAA permits transgender females to participate on a female team as long as they have had hormone therapy for the past year. Individuals who were assigned female at birth can participate on women’s teams until they start taking testosterone.”
Regarding the transgender athletes who go on to compete in the Olympics, Roman points out that the International Olympic Committee requires that “Olympic competitors must claim (and not change) their gender identity for four years before competing, and their testosterone levels must remain less than 10 nanomoles per liter a year. These rules are in place for those transitioning from male to female (females who transition to male do not have any restrictions).”
“There are so few transgender athletes that can ever hope to achieve NCAA or Olympic levels. And those who do are highly monitored and regulated.”
So while many people assume based on what they think is a common sense observation that there are massive biological differences between men and women that should prevent transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports, the data show a very different picture. There are so few transgender athletes that can ever hope to achieve NCAA or Olympic levels. And those who do are highly monitored and regulated.
This is hardly the “ridiculous charade,” “scourge,” and “cultural battlefield” the conservative pundits are trying to spread fear about.
The real ‘charade’
The actual ridiculous charade is not with transgender athletes but with politicians.
When Title IX originally passed Congress, it created more opportunities for female athletes, while also boxing sex into the binaries of male and female, with no awareness of transgender or intersex athletes.
As the U.S. presidency transitioned from Obama to Trump and then to Biden, politicians kept changing the definitions of sex back and forth to include gender identity or not, which has created years of instability for transgender athletes to know whether or not and to what degree they can participate in sports.
While many of us are rightly focusing on the attack from conservatives on public education over fears of Critical Race Theory, it is important to note their simultaneous attacks on transgender athletes.
Thankfully, there are some Republican lawmakers who realize the conservative takedown of transgender athletes is going too far. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed a ban against transgender athletes on Monday, saying: “It implies that the goals of consistency and fairness in competitive female sports are not currently being met. After thorough review, I find no evidence to support either claim even if I support the overall goal.”
“There seems to be no shortage of fear-driven retribution on the right.”
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, also a Republican, vetoed the GOP-led ban against transgender athletes in Utah on Tuesday, saying: “Politically, it would be much easier and better for me to simply sign the bill,” but that he “tried to do what I feel is the right thing regardless of the consequences.”
Of course, Republican lawmakers are not backing down. So the political consequences for GOP lawmakers who resist these bans depend on how anxious Republican voters are to punish and persecute transgender people. And with the conservative pundits ratcheting up the language of mockery and misinformation, there seems to be no shortage of fear-driven retribution on the right.
We are human
Transgender athletes are human beings. They long to be seen, valued, celebrated and loved. They enjoy laughter, singing, tasting good food and drink. They enjoy the warmth of the sun on their faces, the sound of the waves crashing, the touch of a friend on their skin. They study hard in order to have a chance to make it into college or pursue a career. Some of them long to have families, while others may want to be present in the world in other ways.
But rather than seeing them, we play games with them. We stoke fears that they have an “agenda” that will destroy civilization as we’ve known it. We pass laws back and forth that keep them from ever having any consistency in their path toward personal growth. We label them as a scourge, as lacking common sense, as confused, as dangerous.
When they compete in athletics, we make sure they are highly regulated, and then we mock them if they win. Michelle Dumaresq, a transgender athlete, says, “I have found that as a trans person, it’s acceptable to compete, but don’t you dare win.”
How does anyone perform under those conditions?
Over time, the way we treat transgender athletes begins to take a toll on their minds and bodies. Roman points out: “Transgender individuals are often some of the most misunderstood and marginalized people in our society, and their suicide rate is nearly 10 times the national average. Furthermore, high school students who are gender nonconforming are associated with higher levels of depression, stress and, among males particularly, substance abuse.”
We should treat others with dignity
We are human. It’s time that we begin treating one another with the dignity we all deserve.
That dignity certainly has not been on display in this week’s Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Several Republican senators, including a shouting Ted Cruz of Texas, pressed the nominee to take a side on the transgender athletics issue.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee specifically questioned Jackson about the transgender swimmer’s victory. She asked: “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” To which Jackson replied: “I can’t. Not in this context. I’m not a biologist.”
That interchange set off online ridicule by conservatives who declared Jackson therefore unfit to sit on the nation’s highest court. If she isn’t qualified as a biologist to define the intricacies of gender, these critics apparently find themselves qualified.
There is a better way, though.
While the path forward regarding transgender athletes is sure to have many twists and turns as lawmakers propose different plans, may we listen to the advice that the TransAthlete wants us to remember: Respect transgender people by using their names and pronouns, protect their confidentiality, support them by listening and allowing them to inform us how we can assist them, remember that every transgender athlete’s journey is different, and educate ourselves beyond the assumptions that we think are common sense and learn to see, value, celebrate and love transgender athletes like Lia Thomas as our fellow human beings.
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a bachelor of arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.
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