Transgender Idahoans have come under fire at the state capitol this year, and in particular, transgender athletes. The House has approved a bill banning transgender girls and women from competing on teams with which they identify. It’s currently awaiting action in the Senate.
But the move comes after years of sporting organizations in the U.S. and around the globe eventually growing more accepting of trans athletes.
It’s a debate that’s been going on for a long time.
Renee Richards was a nationally ranked tennis player before she transitioned to a woman in the ‘70s.
After being barred from competing in the U.S. Open in 1976, she sued the United States Tennis Association and won the right to qualify for the Grand Slam tournament as a transgender woman the very next year. In his decision, New York Supreme Court Justice Alfred Ascione called the sex verification test she would’ve been forced to take “grossly unfair, discriminatory and inequitable, and violative of her rights under the Human Rights Law of this State.”
She didn’t get past the first round.
Over the next 40-some years, the overseers of elite sports, like the International Olympic Committee, have drafted and revised their policies on transgender athletes, eventually making them more inclusive.
Idaho legislators want to head in the opposite direction. A bill introduced this year that would ban trans girls and women from competing on teams that align with their gender identity has sparked multiple protests. It also brought Chris Mosier, the first transgender athlete to qualify for an Olympic trial, to Boise.
“This is not just about transgender athletes. This is the gateway to creating more discrimination, more discriminative policies against trans people,” Mosier said.
At the heart of the issue is a divide between the values of inclusion and fairness.
State Rep. Barbara Ehardt (R-Idaho Falls) introduced the bill last month. During public hearings and debate on the Idaho House floor, Ehardt told her colleagues and anyone watching what it was like growing up as a girl in the 1960s.
Her career choices were broken down to three possibilities: an airline stewardess, a teacher or a secretary, she said. But she just wanted to play sports.
“And you know what the response to me was? ‘Ah, that’s not what girls do,’” Ehardt said.
That changed just a few years later with the passage of Title IX, the federal law that requires equal educational opportunities for males and females.
The former collegiate basketball coach turned lawmaker said she just wants to keep the spirit of Title IX intact. That’s why she introduced her bill to keep those who she calls “biological males” out of female sports.
“Forcing girls and women to compete against biological boys and men has often made us spectators in our own sport,” Ehardt said.
She initially agreed to an interview with Boise State Public Radio, but didn’t respond to further attempts to speak with her. On the House floor, she said these proposed rules are no different than basing eligibility on a student’s GPA or where they live.
“You see, in sports we have requirements. We have standards and it is not based on feelings and … we have these in order to participate to ensure fairness for all,” Ehardt said.
LGBTQ advocates pushed back against those arguments, saying someone’s identity isn’t based on how they feel on a certain day.
Also, athletic organizations do have standards. Most state regulators have a policy allowing trans athletes to compete in high school – but several require students to change their birth certificates, or even get surgery to be eligible.
For collegiate sports, the NCAA requires trans women to be on testosterone suppressors for at least a year – the same requirement Idaho high schoolers have to meet. Transgender Olympic hopefuls have to keep their testosterone under a certain level to compete, though from 2004 to 2016, they would’ve been required to undergo sex reassignment surgery to be eligible to compete.
But World Athletics, which oversees international track and running sports, has bucked those trends. Last year, the group cut the amount of acceptable testosterone in a woman’s bloodstream in half, regardless if that person is transgender. It used to match the IOC standards.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, the country's anti-doping agency, urges policymakers to not require athletes to undergo hormone therapy unless they can prove restrictions are necessary on an individual sport basis.
Scientists are still studying just how much naturally-produced testosterone affects a person’s athletic prowess and they’re coming to mixed conclusions. A report published in the Journal of Medical Ethics last year suggested testosterone gives athletes an edge when it comes to elite-level competition.
“There’s a whole range of changes that occur, primarily at puberty, but at different points that give them a performance advantage in sport,” said Lynley Anderson, one of the co-authors of the study, and head of Bioethics at University of Otago in New Zealand.
Anderson said the male sex hormone testosterone doesn’t just promote bigger muscles. It also makes the male cardiovascular system more efficient, which helps with recovery.
But Taryn Knox, another co-author of the study and professor, said that doesn’t mean trans women are cheating, even though they might produce more testosterone than cisgendered women, or those who were assigned female at birth.
“They meet the guidelines as they are now,” Knox said. “The problem is with the guidelines.”
Instead, the study’s authors said elite sport groups should blow up male and female divisions altogether. Knox outlined how several new categories would be created, with athletes matched together based on things like height, weight and testosterone levels – all in an effort to level the playing field regardless of someone’s gender.
“Queer people have had a real history of being excluded – not just in sport but in all parts of life. We don’t want to be repeating that for trans people.”
But what does an Olympic hopeful like Mosier think of that?
“We will never see that in my lifetime. There’s no way that every national governing body would get on board with that and it’s also not necessary,” he said.
Transgender athletes should just be allowed to play on teams that align with their gender identity, Mosier said.
That’s being debated in real time in the United States. Three families of high school students in Connecticut are suing to block two well-decorated trans girls from competing at track meets. One of the students who’s suing won a state championship there last month. Meanwhile, one of those trans runners won third.
At least 19 states are considering bills like Ehardt’s to block participation, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group, Equality Federation. But Mosier points out there’s not widespread domination by transgender girls and women in sports.
“We have had how many? Zero, yeah, zero trans athletes have competed in the Olympics,” he said.
The argument for barring trans athletes seems to almost exclusively focus on girls’ and women’s sports, Mosier said. “It is absolutely only a problem when they win and not just when transgender athletes win. I could win and people don’t care.”
If Ehardt’s bill does become law, an opinion from the state attorney general’s office called it “constitutionally problematic” for several reasons, including that it would treat transgender girls and women differently.
Aside from whether it’s legal or not, researchers say there needs to be more data on just how much of an advantage trans women have in sports — if any — before outright banning participation.
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