Outdated Binary Standards in Youth Athletics: A Need for Gender-Inclusive Policies


Mackenzie P Lerario, MD, NYS CRPA/CPS-p

Neisha G Wiley, MSW, LSW  

“What are you doing in here?”   

A middle-aged, white woman approached me fiercely in the women’s bathroom.  Her tone implied that my Y chromosomes were most unwelcome, let alone the fact that the sex on my driver’s license and my genitals were the same as hers. 

            Although she was successful in scaring me, she did not prevent me from using the bathroom aligned with my gender identity. She was at no risk of being assaulted or harassed by me, but in contrast, I was harassed while also being disrespected and publicly humiliated over a simple toilet. Why she felt the need to disturb another woman using the bathroom was beyond me, and I had no clue who deputized her with this role to police the women’s bathrooms. This trauma was jarring  enough to me as an adult of transfeminine experience, so I cannot imagine how harmful such behavior is when it is brought upon a transgender child.

            Earlier this year, 36 US states have introduced legislation to ban transgender youth from participating in sports based on their gender identity rather than their sex at birth, citing safety concerns for the cisgender students and maintaining the purity of competition (National Public Radio, 2021; Sharrow et al, 2021).  In nine states, these bills have become law (Sharrow et al, 2021).  Now, more than 1 in 10 members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community live in states with laws preventing transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity (Movement Advancement Project, 2021).

            Sex discrimination based on gender identity (including in the context of school sports participation) is federally illegal under Title IX  due to the recent USSupreme Court ruling on Bostock v Clayton County and upheld in recent Federal Policy issued by the Department of Education (Sharrow et al., 2021).   In terms of K-12 athletics, 17 states and Washington, D.C.  have gender-inclusive policies allowing transgender students to participate in school sports without requirements of medical or legal transition (Sharrow  et al., 2021; @THECHRISMOSIER, 2021; Goldberg et al, 2021).  Other states either offer no guidance, have invasive policies placing the student under medical or administrative scrutiny, or limit participation solely on the basis of the institutions’ individual definition of “biological sex” rather than scientific evidence and individual identity (@THECHRISMOSIER, 2021; Goldberg et al, 2021).  National surveys demonstrate that transgender youth are discouraged from playing sports based on their gender identity, and more than half have been prevented from using bathrooms and locker rooms based on their identified gender (Kosciw et al. 2019; Goldberg et al., 2021).

            This is in the face of increasing amounts of data demonstrating that gender-exclusive policies worsen mental health outcomes for transgender youth (Goldberg et al, 2021).   Transgender youth who experience discriminatory athletic policies report lower self-esteem and school belonging, as well as higher rates of depression and school absenteeism (Clark et al, 2021; Goldberg et al, 2021).  Other data show that transgender high school students feel less safe using sex-segregated facilities, which may explain lower levels of sports participation in this student population (Kulick et al. 2018).  On the other hand, gender-inclusive policies lower the reported risk of self-harm, depressive symptoms, and unsafety at school for transgender students (Goldberg et al, 2021). 

            Furthermore, there is no data that signifies any safety risk for transgender students.  Politicians involved in this legislation are unable to name a single transgender athlete, let alone name an example of a safety issue or violation of athletic policies perpetrated by transgender women (Crary et al, 2021). 

            In fact, leading experts in pediatrics and genetics suggest that gender-exclusive policies diminish the diversity of athletes’ bodies (National Public Radio, 2021).  Dr. Eric Vilain explains: “every sport requires different talents and anatomies for success. So I think we should focus on celebrating this diversity, rather than focusing on relative notions of fairness. For example, the body of a marathon runner is extremely different from the body of a shot put champion, and a transwoman athlete may have some advantage on the basketball field because of her height, but would be at a disadvantage in gymnastics. So it’s complicated” (National Public Radio, 2021).  Gender varies by culture and often differentiates diversity into discrete, but subjectively-created, categories.  Therefore, we may need to rethink how gender is viewed in athletics, and focus the debate on the realities of sex and gender, and not lose the facts for outdated traditions and standards which discriminate against many student athletes who identify as transgender.

            Historically women who look different have been targeted for discrimination, whether cis or transgender.  For those who are transgender, there are additional layers of intersecting identities which further prevent transfeminine student athletes from receiving equal treatment in school athletics.  Transmisogyny, defined as oppression at the intersection of femininity and transgender identity (Serano, 2007), is displayed in the imbalanced NCAA policies regarding gender-affirming hormone therapy in transmasculine versus transfeminine athletes.  As Dr. Vilain describes, testosterone is the main discriminator in these policies, as it effects muscles and red blood cells and therefore speed, strength, and endurance (National Public Radio, 2021).   Many transgender children choose to go on medications that delay puberty while they make decisions on whether to medically transition.  In the absence of a male puberty, all children should roughly be at similar advantage in sports (National Public Radio, 2021).  But this biology and scientific evidence  is not reflected in many US state’s policies regarding student athletes.

            Therefore, we need to review our own implicit biases regarding sex and gender, as the gender binary has made it difficult for any woman– cis or transgender– to be accepted in competitive athletics if they do not conform to strict societal standards of what it means to be a woman.  Implicit bias testing can be taken online at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.  Diversity is natural to biology, and there is great variation between members of the same sex, which can give some cisgender women advantages over others in some sports and disadvantages in other sports.  Some cisgender men and women have high levels of testosterone and others have low levels of testosterone, yet they are not excluded from play in athletics.  The same thinking should be applied to transgender women in sports, who present with a diverse range of sizes, strength and athletic abilities. 

            The existence of nonbinary gender identities and intersex conditions demonstrate that dividing sports into binary gender categories is too limited a worldview  (De La Cretaz, 2021).  The solution would be to either open up categories to include genders outside of man and woman or to find a different means to categorize athletes separate from chromosomes, hormones, and genitals, which in no way define an athlete or their skills.  If critics of gender-inclusive athletic policies cite the relatively larger musculoskeletal size of transgender women (which is not true of all transgender women), then would not body measurement be a better distinguisher between categories than gender?  I think it is time we reconsider how we view gender in our world, because our world is already changing whether we want it to or not.  And fear of change is not an adequate reason to discriminate against a marginalized community.

            I am lucky to be in a profession that is accepting of gender variety, and I therefore have the privilege to learn contemporary social welfare policy from diverse faculty who are accepting of my authentic gender expression, such as Dr. Neisha Wiley.  I find within social work education, my pronouns “they/them/their” are often viewed as an asset rather than a liability to the classroom experience.  It is no coincidence that social work is the profession with the largest code of ethical responsibility (National Association of Social Workers, 2021).  The dignity and worth of the person and challenging social injustices are engrained as core ethical responsibilities of social workers.  I believe it is time social workers continue to become more involved in schools to ensure that gender inclusive policies are created and enforced.  To do otherwise would be contrary to our professional ethics.


Clark, C.M., Kosciw, J.G. (2021).  Engaged or excluded: LGBTQ youth’s participation in school sports and their relationship to psychological well-being.  Psychology in the Schools. 1-20.

Crary, D., Whitehurst, L.  (2021).   Lawmakers can’t cite local examples of trans girls in sports. The Associated Press.  Accessed online September 9, 2021 at: https://apnews.com/article/lawmakers-unable-to-cite-local-trans-girls-sports-914a982545e943ecc1e265e8c41042e7

De La Cretaz, B. (2021).  Living Nonbinary in a Binary Sports World.  Sports Illustrated: WNBA.     Accessed online September 18, 2021 at: https://www.si.com/wnba/2021/04/16/nonbinary-athletes-transgender-layshia-clarendon-quinn-rach-mcbride-daily-cover

Goldberg, S.K., Santos, T.  Fact Sheet: The Importance of Sports Participation for Transgender Youth.  Center for American Progress: LGBTQ RIGHTS.  Accessed online September 9, 2021 at: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbtq-rights/reports/2021/03/18/497336/fact-sheet-importance-sports-participation-  transgender-youth/

Kosciw, J.G., Clark, C.M., Truong, N.L, Zongrone, A.D. (2020). The 2019 National School Climate   Survey. New York: GLSEN. Accessed online September 18, 2021 at:      https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/NSCS19-Full-Report_2.pdf.

Kulick, A., Wernick, L.J., Espinoza, M.A.V., Newman, T.J., and Dessel, A.B. (2018).  Three strikes   and you’re out: culture, facilities, and participation among LGBTQ youth in sports.  Sport, Education, and Society. 1-15.

Movement Advancement Project (2021).  Bans on transgender youth in participation in sports.  Equality Maps.  Accessed online September 18, 2021 at: https://www.lgbtmap.org/equalitymaps/sports_participation_bans

National Association of Social Workers (2021).  Read the Code Of Ethics.  Accessed online            September 23, 2021 at:  https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of- Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

National Public Radio (2021).  Wave Of Bills To Block Trans Athletes Has No Basis In Science,        Researcher Says.  Sports.  Accessed online September 9, 2021 at:            https://www.npr.org/2021/03/18/978716732/wave-of-new-bills-say-trans-athletes-have-an-unfair-edge-what-does-the-science-s

@THECHRISMOSIER (2021). Transathlete.com.  Policies. Accessed online September 9, 2021 at: https://www.transathlete.com/policie .

Serano, J. (2007) Whipping girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.

Sharrow E., Schultz J, Pieper LP, Baeth, A, Lieberman, A. (2021).  States are still trying to ban trans youth from sports.  Here’s what you need to know.  The Washington Post: Monkey Cage.  Accessed online September 18, 2021 at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/07/26/states-are-still-trying-ban-trans- youths-sports-heres-what-you-need-know/

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