There is no 'middle ground' on trans inclusion in youth sports

Cis female Olympic champs are lobbying Biden to take away rights from trans girls.

Hi, friends. Welcome back to Power Plays, a no-bullshit newsletter about sexism (etc.) in sports, written by me, Lindsay Gibbs.


This is my second newsletter of the day, which I know is a lot, but it’s because I was determined to get this newsletter out on National Girls and Women in Sports Day. You’ll understand why in a second. Quick reminder that Power Plays subscriptions are 21% off this month, and your support makes this work possible.

Become a subscriber of Power Plays!!

Okay, friends. Let’s do this.

The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group is a danger to trans youth

As I wrote at the start of this week, one of Joe Biden’s first actions as president was to sign the “Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation,” which, among other things, mandated that transgender children be allowed to use the locker rooms and bathrooms of their gender identity, and participate in the sport of their gender identity.

This executive order led to a slew of transphobic op-eds whining that Biden is “erasing women” and “ending girls’ sport,” and escalated the emergence of anti-trans bills in local legislatures across the country that aim to ban trans girls and women from participating in girls’ and women’s sport.

All of that is bad. But overnight, things got significantly worse.

On Tuesday, a group consisting of multiple female sport legends officially launched the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group (d). This group of six people — legendary tennis player Martina Navratilova; Olympic gold medalist swimmer and CEO of Champion women, Nancy Hogshead-Makar; Olympic gold medalist swimmer and USOPC board member Donna De Varona; president of The Drake Group, Donna Lopiano; six-time Olympic coach Tracy Sundlun; and professor of law and co-director of the Center for Sports Law & Policy at Duke Law School, Doriane Coleman — has been working for almost two years to solve “the problem” of trans participation in sports.

That work has culminated in a detailed website, which provides instructions for contacting Congress, and an extensive briefing book titled, “A Request to Congress and the Administration to Preserve Girls’ and Women’s Sport & Accommodate Transgender Athletes.”

Here’s how they word their mission:

Our mission is to protect girls’ and women’s competitive sport for biological females while accommodating trans girls and trans women through evidence-based, respectful criteria. We reject both the effort to exclude trans girls and trans women from girls’ and women’s sport and the effort to disadvantage biological females by forcing them to compete against athletes with male sex-linked physical advantages. There is a middle way.

The working group timed their announcement so it would get coverage on National Girls and Women in Sports Day, and I wanted to make sure I obliged. Because on this day it is more important than ever to say that trans girls are girls, trans women are women, and both are welcome in girls’ and women’s sports.

Unfortunately, the WSPWG sends the exact opposite message.

While it describes its policies as moderate and accommodating, the working group is actually posing policies that are far more damning than what currently exists in elite women’s sports. If these policies are implemented, they will actively harm the trans community, particularly trans girls.

‘The onset of male puberty’

I will be recruiting help to do a more thorough analysis of the brief in future newsletters, but the crux of the policy proposal is this: Before “the onset of male puberty,” trans girls and women can compete in girls’ and women’s sport “without condition.” But trans girls and women “who have experienced all or part of male puberty” must “sufficiently mitigate their male sex-linked advantages through surgery and/or gender affirming hormones consistent with the rules of their sport’s international federations” in order to participate in any competitive girls’ and women’s sport.

This focus on the “onset of male puberty” is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. First of all, there is no one uniform age or date in which male puberty begins, nor are the signs of the exact start of male puberty uniform across the board. So, how exactly would this be monitored? Well, the working group provides no detailed information on this front, but it is reasonable to expect that it would be a devastatingly invasive process that would disproportionately discriminate against racialized children, who are typically perceived as being more adult than their same-aged white counterparts.

On, and it’s a very classist policy, too. Let’s say the exact onset is discernable, and a trans girl decides that she wants begin medically transitioning. She can’t just stop by the front office during her lunch break and get everything taken care of — that type of health care is not cheap or uniformly accessible.

Currently, laws for trans participation in youth sports vary from state to state, but across much of the country, trans girls and women only have to undergo hormone treatment or surgery if they are competing in events sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or NCAA. Under the WSPWG’s guidelines, girls as young as 11 or 12 could be forced to make decisions about surgery and hormone treatment just so they can compete in sports with other girls. That’s unconscionable.

The revealing conference call

Perhaps none of this should be surprising considering the working group is overwhelmingly white and consists of five cisgender women, one cisgender man, and zero scientists or trans people.

The WSPWG does list 14 champion athletes who as official “supporters” of the initiative, but only two of those athletes are trans — Joanna Harper and Renee Richards.

I participated in a zoom conference call on Tuesday that served as the official launch of this working group, and was alarmed by the lack of care and concern they showed towards the trans community. The entire press conference honestly deserves its own point-by-point breakdown, and I will return to it in future newsletters, but I’ll give you a few of the lowlights here:

  • Martina Navratilova was adamant that she couldn’t be transphobic because “in the 90s, I co founded an Affinity Credit Card called the Rainbow Card that raised over $2 million for various LGBTQ causes and organizations.”

  • Nancy Hogshead-Makar cited great research by her own organization, Champion Women, about how men still have many more opportunities to play sports in college than women do because Title IX isn’t being properly enforced. But then she immediately pivoted into stating that trans women are the real threat to women’s sports.

  • When asked by a reporter whether they could come up with problematic examples of trans women taking over women’s sports, Navratilova brought up her friend, Renee Richards, a trans woman who played on the WTA Tour in the 1970s. Navratilova said, “We didn't find it problematic. I think for for one reason, we wanted to be inclusive. Also, Renee had been living as a woman for many, many years. But I think we would have found it problematic had she started beating us, okay? I don't know if we would have been so happy if she started beating the pants off of us.”

  • Answering the same question, the lone cis male of the group, Tracy Sundlun, concocted a hypothetical scenario, and when telling the story, he repeatedly deadnamed Caitlyn Jenner and used “he/him” pronouns to refer to her.

  • Here’s Sundlun’s full quote, though I have substituted in the proper pronouns and name: “I always use this thought, (Caitlyn) Jenner, one of my dear friends, and one of our all of our friends, one of the most remarkable men, now women of all time, is opening up doors. Unbelievable. But clearly, the Connecticut rule, the rule for 17 states right now, were, if (she) was still in high school, (she) could have won the Olympic decathlon, gone to the press conference, accepted all the congratulations, told everybody (she’d) been struggling with something for years, said, ‘Please now call me Caitlyn.’ And then entered the women's pentathlon the next day. Obviously, that's extreme. It's riveting. But the reality is, the rules potentially would allow that. Without mitigation.”

  • (The Connecticut rule is simply that trans athletes can participate in sport congruent with their gender identity. This rule is not at all applicable to Olympic competition.)

  • Donna Lopiano repeatedly used “trans” as a noun.

Look, these are not fringe right-wing voices that the Biden administration is sure to easily dismiss. These are powerful people who have long carried a lot of weight — and done a lot of good — in the women’s sports space.

I find it particularly crushing to be speaking out against Hogshead-Makar, who I’ve long admired for her advocacy work helping protect athletes from sexual abuse. When I worked at ThinkProgress and covered the congressional hearings about Olympic sex abuse, I saw up close how she helped shape and pass crucial legislation to protect Olympians.

Now she’s using that same energy to try to enact discriminatory legislation that is targeting some of the most vulnerable members of our society. The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group is going out of their way to come up with perilous solutions for a problem that doesn’t exist. Trans girls and women are not dominating girl’s and women’s sports. They are NOT the threat. They are the ones being threatened.

As Anne Lieberman, the Director of Policy and Programs for Athlete Ally, told Power Plays: “While everyone is really hyper focused on hypotheticals in elite levels of competitions, trans kids are dying.”

Thanks for sticking with me today, friends, and for agreeing that North Carolina is in the mountain time zone, so in fact I did get this newsletter sent out before NGWSD was over.

We’re going to keep exploring this issue in Power Plays, and come up with action items to fight back. And to our trans subscribers: I am so glad you are a part of this community.

It feels so good to be back in your inboxes.

Get 21% off for 1 year