Outdated Binary Standards in Youth Athletics: A Need for Gender-Inclusive Policies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

References:

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/

Resources from Warner Library


Warner Library LGBTQIA2S+ Resources

Here you will find a list of recently published books from the collection at Warner Library library, specifically selected for LGBTQIA2S+ community members. These books are intended to showcase the diversity of the human experience as it relates to gender identity/expression and sexuality/sexual orientation, and highlight the way LGBTQIA2S+ identities interact with other identities we hold to shape the way we experience our world.

We have also included a list of online resources that young people and their families may find useful.

This is a sampling of available resources and not an exhaustive list. If you would like help finding more, please contact your librarian at Warner Library in Tarrytown, NY.

 

The Current State of LGBTQIA2S+ Healthcare in the United States: An Under-Recognized Public Health Crisis

The impact of words can resonate for an eternity in a person’s mind and body. For me, I battled to confront and overcome speaking three words that consumed my identity and altered my place within the worlds of others. Those words are: “I am transfeminine.” If I could help to shield and heal other transgender people from the trauma sustained in socially transitioning, my career will have an impact greater than what I can currently accomplish solely as a neurologist. I could help play a small part in reducing the stigma that shrouds people who bravely shout their authenticity.

My personal experience as a transgender person has caused me to lose many basic rights. However, the human right most important to my identity as a physician is the right to basic healthcare. I am drowning as a patient and provider within a system that accepts that there is no mandatory training in transgender healthcare in education curricula nor is there required testing for transgender competency by certification and licensing organizations (Caceres et al., 2020). It is a system where I was trained to treat diseases with an incidence of one in a million (e.g., primary angiitis of the central nervous system) but not the skills to treat patients who identify as one in two hundred and fifty people, i.e., the transgender population in the United States) (Salvarani et al, 2007; Meerwijk & Sevelius, 2017). It is a system that ignores the scientific evidence regarding the range of normal biological gender diversity. Healthcare providers know from their medical literature that misgendering (intentionally referring to a patient with incorrect gender pronouns) worsens mental health outcomes for transgender patients, yet providers often continue to misgender patients without apology or accountability (Bauer et al., 2015; Russell et al., 2018). Furthermore, providers fail to update intake forms and electronic health records to have appropriate options to accommodate those who are not cisgender (Deutsch et al., 2013). I believe these issues represent a largely-ignored public health crisis, and they are not solely a matter of social justice.

There are over a million Americans who identify as transgender, and there are not enough experienced, affordable mental health providers capable of accommodating the specific mental health needs of this population (Meerwijk & Sevelius, 2017). This is particularly true in areas outside of major cities (Whitehead et al., 2016). The higher rates of substance abuse as a coping mechanism and systemic discrimination leading to increased joblessness, homelessness, lack of insurance, and incarceration create a vicious cycle that punishes the transgender population for failing in a system designed to avoid providing them with the basic mental health tools needed to succeed (Oberheim et al., 2017; Begun et al., 2016; Hughto J.M.W. et al, 2019; Abeln & Love, 2019). I have been humbled to be one of the many transgender people who have experienced various failures within this system, which I have had to overcome with great effort and mental fortitude. I often still struggle to find meaning, value, self-worth, and success in our society, which is not changing fast enough to protect me on its own.

As a physician, I have had the privilege of caring for transgender patients. One person continues to stand out to me because I faced a particular difficulty in preserving their dignity as they died under my care as a neurology intern.  This patient was a transgender person of color with advanced AIDS. I remember a resident referring to them as “it,” and the attending physician would often skip them on rounds so that I was the only doctor physically seeing them each day, despite being the most junior person on the medical team. I spoke to this patient daily for a week, until they died; every time they were alone. I wish I could go back in time as my authentic self and better empathize with this patient as a fellow transgender person. Since that time, I too have been admitted to hospitals as a transgender patient where my humanity was stolen by the medical professionals assigned to care for me.

Although I have lost many things in coming out as my authentic self, I have never lost my strong desire to protect others, to advocate on their behalf, and to facilitate a solution for them. I have also gained something extremely meaningful: a purpose. That is, to reduce gaps for the transgender population in providing reliably affirming, affordable, available, and experienced healthcare providers trained to treat the LGBTQIA2S+ community.

References

Abeln, B., & Love, R. (2019). Bridging the gap of mental health inequalities in the transgender population: The role of nursing education. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 40(6), 482-485. https://doi.org/10.1080/01612840.2019.1565876.

Bauer, G.R., Scheim, A.I., Pyne, J., Travers, R., & Rebecca Hammond (2015).  Intervenable factors associated with suicide risk in transgender persons: a respondent driven sampling study in Ontario, Canada. BMC Public Health, 15, 525. doi: 10.1186/s12889-015-1867-2.

Begun, S., & Kattari, S. K. (2016). Conforming for survival: Associations between transgender   visual conformity/passing and homelessness experiences. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 28(1), 54-66.

Caceres, B.A., Streed, C.J., Corliss, H.L., Lloyd-Jones, D.M., Matthews, P.A., Mukherjee, M., Poteat, T. Rosendale, N., & Ross, L.M (2020).  Assessing and Addressing Cardiovascular Health in LGBTQ Adults.  Circulation, 142, 00-00.

Deutsch, M.B., Green, J., Keatley, J., Mayer, G., Hastings J., & Hall, A.M. (2013).  Electronic medical records and the transgender patient: recommendations from the World   Professional Association for Transgender Health EMR Working Group.  Journal of American Medical Informatics Association, 20, 700–703. doi:10.1136/amiajnl-2012-001472.

Hughto, J.M.W, Reisner, S.L., Kershaw, T.S., Altice, F.L., Biello, K.B., Mimiaga, M.J., Garofalo R., Kuhns, L.M., & Pachankis, J.E. (2019). A multisite, longitudinal study of risk factors for incarceration and impact on mental health and substance use among young transgender women in the USA. Journal of Public Health, 41(1), 100-109. doi:     10.1093/pubmed/fdy031.

Meerwijk, E.L & Sevelius, J.M. (2017). Transgender Population Size in the United States: a Meta-Regression of Population-Based Probability Samples. American Journal of Public     Health. 107(2), e1–e8. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303578.  Oberheim S.T., DePue, M.K., & Hagedorn, W.B. (2017). Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) in Transgender Communities: The Need for Trans-Competent  SUD Counselors and Facilities. Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, 2017, 38, 33-47. doi: 10.1002/jaoc.12027.

Russell, S.T., Pollitt, A.M., Li, G., & Grossman, A.H. (2018). Chosen Name Use Is Linked to Reduced Depressive Symptoms, Suicidal Ideation, and Suicidal Behavior Among Transgender Youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 63(4), 503-505.  doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.02.003.

Salvarani, C., Brown, R.D., Calamia, K.T., Christianson, T.J.H., Weigand, S.D., Miller, D.V., Giannini, C., Meschia, J.F., & Hunder, G.G. (2007). Primary central nervous system vasculitis: Analysis of 101 patients. Annals of Neurology, 62, 442–451. doi: 10.1002/ana.21226

Whitehead,J., Shaver, J., & Stephenson, R. (2016). Outness, Stigma, and Primary Health Care Utilization among Rural LGBT Populations. PLoS One, 11(1), e0146139. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0146139.