Trans Athletes Welcomed on Teams Despite Hostile State Bills

"Media only pays attention to trans athletes when they're winning.”

In 1973, 90 million people tuned in to watch Billie Jean King defeat American tennis champion and male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. The moment would mark a turning point for women in sports, who wanted decent pay, airtime, and the respect of athletic associations.

More than 45 years later, transgender athletes are fighting for the right to compete at all. According to Freedom for All Americans, 21 bills are currently pending in state legislatures that would bar trans kids from competing in sports as their lived genders.

Much of the nationwide controversy around trans participation in sports originated from the participation of Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, Connecticut track stars whose successes have deeply divided a nation uneasy about the idea of trans women competing against their cisgender peers.

Alex Schmider produced the documentary Changing the Game, which features Miller and Yearwood. He says that opponents of trans participation in athletics cherry-pick stories to make a case for excluding trans athletes.

“What you'll find if you look and do your investigation is that media only pays attention to trans athletes when they're winning,” he tells NewNowNext.

But transgender athletes at all levels say their presence on sports teams has largely been a nonissue. Sometimes athletes have competed post medical transition. Other times, nonbinary athletes have taken to the field and been forced to choose a binary team.

Trans athletes are competing at the highest levels of sports. On January 25, Chris Mosier made history as the first trans man to compete in the U.S. Olympic trials in race walking.

Erica Meacham is a quarterback for the Oregon Hawks, a semi-professional women’s football team. She’s also a trans woman.

“I mean, with the team as far as the organization being treated on the field, I can honestly say that I haven't had any issues,” Meacham tells NewNowNext. “It's not something where I'm going out and dominating the sport or anything like that. There’s just not a lot of negativity that's really been thrown toward me.”

LGBTQ experts say athletics in particular is being used as a wedge issue for the 2020 elections, as conservatives aim to pick off voters by preying on their worst fears about transgender people. Like "bathroom bills," anti-trans sports bills portray transgender women as invading female spaces and dominating sports.

There is no research that suggests that transgender athletes to have a competitive advantage over their cisgender counterparts, and trans athletes say that belief is born from outdated transphobic myths.

Sue Yacka-Bible, media relations manager at LGBTQ youth advocacy organization GLSEN, says some lawmakers are using transgender children in particular as a talking point to energize their base ahead of November.

“If you're stirring up anger and animosity and hate around one of these issues—and you pick the issue, whether it's immigration, whether it's trans folks being allowed to do anything in public life—as long as you're seen as stirring the pot around this, it's going to reinforce your popularity,” Yacka-Bible explains to NewNowNext. “So, I do think there is political motivation in this, even if it doesn't succeed.”

While many coaches and parents are fixated on the idea of fairness, trans advocates say sports are supposed to teach critical life lessons. Schmider, whose film follows three trans girls and one trans boy, believes there are no simple answers.

“When we're talking about middle school kids participating in sports, there should be a basic level of inclusion to explore what it means to be on a team, to figure out what it means to win and to lose, to learn all those incredibly valuable life lessons that many people can only get through sports because it's so unique and it's so instrumental to many people's development,” he says.

Just 17 states and Washington, D.C., have policies that expressly allow trans high schoolers to compete in their lived genders. That binary, however, leaves out an increasing number of athletes who don’t identify as male or female. Some have advocated for doing away with gendered sports altogether, dividing up sports based on ability rather than sex assigned at birth.

On occasion, trans people have put off transitioning in order to compete because rules can disqualify those medically transitioning for months to even years at a time.

Teddy Shields made that difficult decision as a freshman rugby player at Fordham University.

“There’s so many restrictions for people that it almost makes it impossible for trans people to play sports,” Shields tells NewNowNext.

Shields wanted to take testosterone and medically transition, but doing so would disqualify them from playing on the women’s rugby team. They couldn’t play on the men’s team, either, because the rules require that trans male athletes be on testosterone for three years and undergo top surgery. Shields would have to choose between a body that was home and a sport they loved.

Shields chose Rugby. Sophomore year, they told teammates they were trans.

“Immediately everyone was just saying we’re proud of you, we’re with you, we understand,” they recall.

For the next three years, Shields played against women, even while identifying as a trans man.

Some LGBTQ athletes and women are eying a different future for sports. The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team is suing for equal pay, a reminder that gender in sports continues to disadvantage women at the most elite levels.

Christina Kahrl, a senior editor at ESPN and a trans woman, says pro sports will likely be stuck in that binary for a long time.

“For the foreseeable future, they're going to continue to be gender-segregated leagues, and particularly at the pro level, there's going to be people who hold onto that very, very dearly and defend that standard, and that's going to put trans athletes in particular in an awkward position,” she tells NewNowNext.

A.T. Furuya, also at GLSEN, fields calls from trans kids and their schools trying to untangle fact from fiction when they’re looking get into sports.

“I think we're seeing a rise in this topic coming up more to the forefront and news and students reaching out for support,” they tell NewNowNext. “I think that's definitely something that is undeniably coming across in our networks.”

Getty Images

A young female swimmer doing the breatstroke at a swim meet.

Those calls come from students like JP Grant, a 12th-grader at Needham High School in Massachusetts.

Grant, 18, has been swimming for half of his life. He came out as a trans man at the end of 7th grade. He tells NewNowNext he tried to swim in high school on a women’s team, but his dysphoria got in the way.

“It was way too large and way too big to kind of just recognize myself as a man on that team,” he recalls. “And the girls were wonderful, but it just wasn't comforting at all.”

So, Grant quit swimming and joined football his sophomore year.

“That was probably the team that I felt most comfortable with in my life,” he says. “Those guys, whether it was practice, dinner or a game, they were always supportive.”

Grant’s peers in school were a different story. Grant is one of few students of color in his class, and coming out as trans in a nearly all-white school made him feel doubly alone.

“A lot of people didn't get it,” he says. “I was just kind of just seen as a lesbian, a tomboy.”

Grant reached out to GLSEN during that time. Today, he advocates for other trans athletes by working to help educate people through media. For Grant, it means putting human faces to the issue, showing people that denying kids the option to compete is not just unfair, but inhumane.

“Do people realize the pain and suffering that people really have to go through just to do what they do every day?” he wonders. “Getting on a team as a man, with all cis men as football player—that's intimidating. I don't know if people realize that.”

Changing the Game premieres June 1 on Hulu.

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