The Problem with Trans Girls in Sports is not the Trans Girls. It’s the Sports.

(Photo/Sharon McCutcheon)

Dear Other Dad —

My daughter does rock climbing and is really good at it, but there is a trans girl who keeps taking the top spot. My daughter gets disappointed sometimes but also claims she doesn’t mind because she says this trans girl should be able to climb. I’m proud of her for being so generous but I’m frustrated that all the other girls don’t get a fair shot to win. If they don’t win local meets they can’t go to nationals and some of them hope to get sponsors. I understand the trans girl’s desire to participate but wonder why we can’t draw the line in girl’s sports when it’s so unfair.

— Not Anti-Trans

Your daughter’s attitude — her ability to acknowledge her disappointment without letting that overcome her belief that trans peers should be able to enjoy the same sports as she does — is a testament to her empathy and sense of justice. You are right to feel proud that you have raised her to be kind and wise.

Your reluctance to go that far yourself is understandable, as few parents like to see their child lose, but it is also misguided. Your premise is that a trans girl inherently has an advantage in rock climbing because she is trans and, thus, that the competition is unfair. Let’s look at both halves of that equation.

It is a widespread belief that being a trans girl provides an athlete with inherent and unstoppable benefits over cisgender girls. That was the claim made by a group of Connecticut high school track stars who sued to prohibit trans girls from competing with them; one plaintiff said, “We know the outcome before the race begins” and another added, “No matter how hard you work, you don’t have a fair shot at victory.”

These are heart-tugging statements and the logic seems persuasive at first. This belief has caught hold of the popular imagination and the political machine alike, yielding more than 60 anti-trans youth bills in 2021 alone.

However, as Scientific American noted, there is no statistical evidence of a wave of trans dominance in girls’ sports. That’s why so many legislators pushing anti-trans bills offer no examples at all and often end up referring back to the Connecticut suit. But a close look at that case shows the lie of the argument: The same runner who complained that there was no “fair shot” for girls like her went on to beat the target of her lawsuit in the 400 meter; one of her co-complainants soon after defeated another target of the lawsuit in the 4 x 200 meter relay. Though their lawsuit ignited a movement, their story is actually proof only that trans girls win some and lose some — just like other athletes.

No wonder the NCAA handbook says, “According to medical experts on this issue, the assumption that a transgender woman competing on a women’s team would have a competitive advantage…is not supported by evidence.”

That’s because bodies — and abilities — differ from human to human, not just across but within gender. The runner with the longer stride or leaner mass, regardless of birth gender, may outpace one who is equally disciplined but heavier or shorter. In rock climbing, the climber with the ideal so-called “ape index” may prevail, but not if they are heavier or if they have less strong fingertips. There simply is no “x biology always yields y result” equation that holds true across; instead, dominance tends to come from individual applications of whatever biological gifts are present.

Sports history is full of examples of athletes who dominated because of their combination of skill and biological good fortune. Most often cited is swimmer Michael Phelps, with his disproportionate wingspan and double-jointed ankles. Sure, other swimmers have groused about how hard it was to compete against the Phelps physique, but no state introduced legislation requiring him or any swimmer to conform to a set of average biological markers.

There are similar versions of individual advantage in all sports: runner Usain Bolt’s 8-foot stride; archer Brady Ellis’s 20/10 vision; and freestyle rock climber Alex Honnold’s amygdala, which doesn’t fire in situations that should trigger a fear reflex. Without the hot-button issue of gender casting its shadow over them, those athletes were all widely celebrated, from Olympic parades to Wheaties Boxes.

The idea that sports has ever truly been fair, that competition takes place only between exact physiological equals, is a fiction we maintain because it makes us feel good. The chubby kid running bases, the too-short guy at the free throw line, the too-tall girl doing her balance beam routine — we’ve seen them all and known the odds were stacked against them, but we never suggested that it was an injustice if they were beaten by the whippet of base runner, the sixth grader who was already 5’10, or the 4’10” pixie backflipping down the beam. Happily, sometimes the chubby kid does beat the third baseman to home plate and we cheer for him, but no one pretends they were physical equals to begin with.

The truth is that, in this moment, youth sports today are not about fairness at all; they’re about winning and what winning can bring you. The bogus language of anti-inclusion bills (which claim to “protect women and girls”) makes it sound like some true danger is being averted, when all the claimants actually want is more chances to win their meets.

They want to win because winning one meet leads to more meets and winning more meets can lead to scholarships or other opportunities. “Protecting” girls in this case only means making sure they face less competition for potential rewards — rewards which will now go to a small number of cis girls who, whether they call it an advantage or not, have just the right mix of skill and body to best their peers. Essentially, people are waging lawsuits so the same few athletes can win every time.

That’s both selfish and pointless. Girls who do not win every meet still go on to athletic careers in college (as was the case for the Connecticut runners). That’s because coaches scout for individual talent, not team scores. The reason scouts so often go to watch athletes compete is that simple win/loss records don’t tell them enough about what the student’s skills actually look like in the field. Athletic directors more often rely on word-of-mouth from other coaches and teachers who can speak to an athlete’s specific gifts, personality, and potential fit with a given school. Attitude, strength, endurance, and composure under pressure — the kinds of things that make an athlete attractive to a coach — are not compromised by the mere presence of any other girl, trans or not.

Make no mistake: there is so much that sports can offer young people. But the real benefits of athletics are found in improved physical and mental health, the development of persistence and time-management, and the building of community — none of which requires medals or prize money. Maybe what girls really need to be protected from at this point is the mentality that winning alone is the high value.

Advocating for banning trans girls in sports simply will not yield better or more equitable play for your daughter. What it will do, indisputably, is exclude and stigmatize a girl who is just trying to live her life, in a time when some of the most powerful people on earth are using her existence as a political tool. Her desire to be safe and her wish for fair access to the experiences of her peers are both made impossible by these bills. And why? To perhaps give a very small number of cis girls more podium time.

Thank god your daughter sees the hollowness of that. Her good heart and common sense are inspiring. It’s time to follow her lead.

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