Why are US states banning transgender women from sport?

 | Updated: Apr 16, 2022, 03:03 PM IST

Conservative lawmakers have passed a flurry of bills this year directed at transgender youth, including measures that bar classroom discussion of gender identity, block access to healthcare to help young people transition, and restrict participation in sports.

The rush of Republican-sponsored legislation comes in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, with transgender rights emerging as a major front in America's culture wars.


Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, finishes the 200 yard Freestyle for the University of Pennsylvania at an Ivy League swim meet against Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts

In March 2020, Idaho became the first state to ban trans women and girls from women’s sports leagues in schools and colleges, setting off a trend that swept more than 30 other state legislatures.

That landmark law is now suspended after a court challenge deemed it discriminatory.

This year, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Florida passed similar legislation and South Dakota’s governor has signed an executive order supporting a sports ban. All have Republican governors.

In May, the LGBT+ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign pronounced 2021 the “worst year” for bills challenging gay and transgender rights in US states.

It plans to challenge the law in Florida.

More than 250 LGBT+ rights-related bills were introduced in state legislatures this year, it said, with 18 “anti-LGBTQ” bills then signed into law, topping the previous record of 15 set in 2015.


Florida's governor Ron DeSantis

On Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order that banned discrimination based on gender identity in bathrooms, changing rooms and school sports - a move opposed by many Republicans.

“The President believes that trans rights are human rights, and that no one should be discriminated on the basis of sex,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in March.

Republicans have spoken out against trans girls competing in girls’ sport, saying they have an unfair physical advantage over other competitors, amid a fierce culture war between LGBT+ activists and social conservatives.

“I can tell you this: in Florida, girls are going to play girls’ sports and boys are going to play boys’ sports,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said on Tuesday where he signed the bill.

“We are going to go based off biology, not based off ideology when we are doing sports.”


Trans atheletes

School policies for trans athletes vary, but are usually set by bodies that govern athletics, rather than state laws.

Several states have no policies at all.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which runs inter-college sport, says trans women must suppress their testosterone for at least a year before competing as women.

Trans men cannot compete with women once they start taking testosterone, NCAA rules state.

On the global stage, International Olympic Committee guidelines advise sporting bodies to allow trans women athletes to compete if their testosterone levels remain below a certain level for at least a year. Trans men face no restrictions.


LGBT+ activists

LGBT+ activists say the sports bills are discriminatory, and dispute claims of a physical advantage.

Gillian Branstetter, a trans advocate and spokeswoman for the National Women’s Law Centre, said trans athletes have not consistently outperformed other female athletes in the 16 US states that have trans-inclusive high school policies.

“There’s not been the abolition of women’s sport. The nightmarish rhetoric (of) the people proposing these bills simply hasn’t come to fruition,” she said.

Chris Mosier, a triathlete and the first trans man to represent the United States internationally, said the current debate was damaging for all trans people.

“Telling transgender and non-binary youth that they are not valid and not worthy of having the same experiences as their peers not only negatively impacts them - it also impacts the way the rest of the country treats transgender people,” he said.

“These are very dangerous bills that are attempting to serve as an entry point to larger scale discrimination,” he said.


Paula Neira, Clinical Program Director, John Hopkins Center for Transgender Health, speaks during the ceremonial address for the USNS Harvey Milk at General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego, California

The muscular advantage enjoyed by trans women only falls by about 5 per cent after a year of testosterone suppressing treatment, according to a review of existing studies by the University of Manchester and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.

Britain’s Loughborough University found that hormone therapy reduced trans women’s haemoglobin levels - which affects endurance - to equal that of non-trans women within four months.

But strength, lean body mass and muscle area remained higher after three years of medication to block testosterone, it said.

Tommy Lundberg, who co-authored the first study, said male athletes gain their 30% muscular advantages during puberty, but there are no studies of trans adolescents who may take puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones before puberty finishes.


A person holds up a flag during rally to protest the Trump administration's reported transgender proposal to narrow the definition of gender to male or female at birth, at City Hall in New York City

Florida has become the largest US state to ban transgender women and girls from competing in women’s sport, part of a nationwide Republican drive to use local laws to challenge President Joe Biden’s push for greater LGBT+ inclusion.