Hateful trans athlete bans repackage old-school misogyny to divide working class

In the last few weeks, several states have passed laws banning transgender athletes from participating in sports as their gender. Nearly 30 states have had such bills introduced this year. Conservative bigots have tried to frame these as “enforcing equality” by protecting cisgender women athletes from their trans counterparts, but more and more cis woman athletes are standing up, saying, “We don’t need protecting.”

Working-class people must understand these bills as attacks on all women, both cis and trans, and an attempt to divide our class by creating a conflict out of a non-issue. All people have a right to participate in sports and to be affirmed in their identities, and sport should not and cannot be reduced to a “battle of the sexes” in which “real” women are always inferior.

Playing field is bigots’ last battlefield

Competitive sport is in many ways one of the last doors open for “Moral Majority” bigots to forestall the growing equality of LGBTQ people after successive victories of the movement. Reactionaries are appalled at victories for marriage equality, the rollback of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the huge cultural paradigm shift toward acceptance of LGBTQ people. Polls show that a majority of Americans support new anti-discrimination legislation to protect the rights of LGBTQ people and two in three supports marriage equality.

The successful attacks on LGBTQ rights during Donald Trump’s presidency were all done — and in part undone after his January exit — at the executive level. One legal assault after another, from bathroom bills to legalized discrimination, failed to pass state legislatures or were struck down by the courts. The final blow came in June 2020 after the Supreme Court ruled LGBTQ people are included in the legal category of “sex” in terms of discrimination protections.

Despite right-wingers’ best efforts, the reactionary rhetoric that has plagued LGBTQ people isn’t resonating as much anymore. The traditional barricades are slowly falling. 

Co-author Karleigh Webb (left) with Andraya Yearwood (center) and Terry Miller (right).

In 2019, the far-right Alliance Defending Freedom fired the opening shots of the present attack. They filed a complaint with Trump’s Department of Education charging that the policies of Connecticut’s Department of Education violated Title IX protections for women because they included trans women in women’s sporting events. This even though previous rulings during the Obama administration upheld that Title IX protections also apply to transgender people. In February 2020, the ADF then filed a lawsuit on behalf of three cisgender high school students who claimed the track-and-field victories of two Black trans girls, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, had unfairly “tak[en] away opportunities in competition and scholarship” from them. The actions saw bigots demonizing and misgendering these young athletes to “other” them and build hateful sentiment against trans people.

The following month, using legislation drafted by the ADF as a template, Idaho passed HB 500, the nation’s first ban on trans girls playing sports in their schools. However, five months later, a federal judge ruled for an injunction against the law after a legal challenge by a transgender student at Boise State who sought to run cross country for the school and an unnamed Boise-area cisgender girl high school student.

Since then 25 states have proposed such legislation and four more have passed them: Mississippi, Arkansas, South Dakota and Tennessee. The issue has become a major rallying point for conservatives. Trump called for bans on trans athletes at the Conservative Political Action Conference. His son, Donald Jr., raged against trans women athletes in his speech immediately prior to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, just as he had individually targeted other trans women athletes via social media in recent years.

Now, the federal Equality Act, which would add LGBTQ people to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and which easily passed in the House in February, has stalled in the Democrat-majority Senate. Republicans have used public hearings to berate trans athletes and insinuate that trans women are rapists.

Athletes stand with trans women

However, trans people are not alone. Many women athletes have added their voices to the chorus defending trans girls and women from these attacks. Megan Rapinoe, who has led the U.S. national soccer team to multiple FIFA Women’s World Cup victories and a Gold Medal in the 2012 Tokyo Olympics, recently penned a powerful op-ed in the Washington Post. She urged that “all women must stand up and demand that exclusion is not done in our name.” 

In addition, 545 National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes from 80 colleges recently signed a letter to the NCAA. They asked the association not to host championships in states that ban trans athlete participation. The pressure was so strong it convinced South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem to reject a ban passed by the state legislature on the grounds that it was too sweeping and would take away tourist revenues that NCAA championship events generate. However, on March 29, she circumvented the legislature altogether by issuing two executive orders banning trans athletes: one mandated a ban for K-12 students and one advised colleges to comply. That is in violation of NCAA policy that affirms the right to participate for transgender student athletes. 

Trans bans hurt Asian, African cis women athletes

Trans participation in the Olympics began again in 2003, when the International Olympic Committee adopted the Stockholm Consensus. The Consensus created a regulatory framework of biomedical and surgical requirements that allowed some trans athletes to participate if they had levels of testosterone in their blood judged by the IOC to be “typical” for someone of their gender. The requirement for having undergone vaginoplasty (surgical construction of a vagina) was removed in 2015. The NCAA established a similar regimen to the IOC in 2011 and many states have modeled their regulations on it. Others have left the final decision up to individual school districts or conferences.

If trans women were going to dominate women’s sports and deprive cis women of their records and medals, surely it would be at the Olympics. However, since 2003, no trans athlete has even qualified for the Olympic games and obviously not won any medals.

The now-standardized strict rules for testosterone levels have actually been hurting cisgender women athletes. South African middle-distance star Caster Semenya, a cisgender woman who has a naturally high level of testosterone, had to fight for a special waiver after more stringent regulations in 2019 disqualified her from competing as a woman. 

Those rules would have barred the entire podium at women’s 800 meters at the 2016 Rio Olympics — all three are cisgender and all three are Black Africans. In fact, the only athletes since the ending of direct genital examination in world sport in 1999 who have been under scrutiny for “differences in sexual development” are from Africa and Asia. The first was Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who sued World Athletics over her case and won.

Ruling class rules by dividing working people

Ultimately, the reason behind these attacks is to sow disunity in the working class, which is beginning to find the strength of collective action once again. By demonizing trans people, they hope to cut off one group from the rest and force us to devote our energies to defending ourselves from each other instead of carrying the fight to the ruling class with arms linked.

Working and oppressed people must resist these attempts at dividing us and must unite in defense of any group of us when they come under attack.

These bills are making headway in places with some of the most all-around reactionary governments in the country. It’s not just trans people under attack there: women have faced some of the most stringent anti-abortion laws in these states. Black and Native American communities have faced political violence and disenfranchisement, heavy economic repression, and borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. South Dakota saw the highest COVID-19 death rate of any territory or nation on the planet, and within the state, Native Americans have died at twice the rate of white people.

While Mississippi lawmakers pushed this anti-trans bill through the legislature in February, the state’s capital and largest city, Jackson, where four in five residents are Black, was struggling with no water for weeks. It is hard to believe that a state government that has pushed abortion bans and allowed hundreds of children to be poisoned each year is overly concerned with the health of girls and women.

Also consider that Mississippi has consistently stood against progressive efforts in regard to health care access. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves has consistently opposed public health efforts and has denied Medicaid expansion funding throughout his entire term as governor.

¡Deporte es el derecho del pueblo! Sport is the right of the people!

It is a clear fact of history that where the working class has succeeded in establishing a socialist system, athletics has been treated as a universal social right. Victorian-era patriarchal ideas held that women’s bodies were too frail for sport and warned that women physically exerting themselves could damage their reproductive organs. Women who engaged in the unwomanlike behavior of sport had their musculature held against them and were judged to be “pseudo-men” and “mannish,” or accused of being lesbians.

Soviet poster: Youth to the stadiums!

In the socialist nations of the Eastern Bloc, sports participation was seen as a great equalizer and the region became a powerhouse of women’s sports. On the field, women were separated from their patriarchal roles as wives and mothers and became athletes no different than men. Western commentators derided them as “Amazons” and so often accused them of being men that in 1966 the European Athletics Association became the first of many organizations to conduct invasive genital and chromosome examinations of women athletes.

Before the 1959 Cuban revolution, just 0.25% of Cubans participated in sports teams, nearly all of which were boxing and baseball. Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro said the Cuban revolution established the principle that “sport is a right of the people” — a right protected in a 1961 law that established a national sports system.

Participation in sports is the right of all people and should not merely be for the profit of monopolistic leagues, private television networks, shoe companies, and other corporate “sponsors,” especially at the interscholastic and intercollegiate levels. At such levels sport should be about building bonds of inclusion through teamwork, cooperation and joint effort. They can be a critical component toward health and health care, which also should be the right of the people.

If the proponents of anti-trans athlete bans truly cared about fairness, they would push for access for all, public accommodation for all, health care for all and higher education for all. The society they want has a vested interest in denying those things. All the more reason why we must fight for a society that would uphold what they seek to keep from working people as fundamental human rights.

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