Transphobia in Tennessee: Trans Women in Sports




"Progress can't happen just by transsexual people being out in the open. The society also has to truly accept transgender individuals. If society is capable of treating us equally, then we can and will live authentically."


Jazz Jennings, a trans woman, living in the United States of America, used these words to appeal for basic respect and kindness. However, recent legislation has proven that American legislators do not deem trans people deserving of this treatment.


The bill before the Tennessee Senate banned transgender student-athletes from participating in school sports teams as, according to the Senate, trans girls would have an undue physical advantage over cis-gendered female players. The Senate passed this bill with a 27-6 vote.[1]

It makes no distinction between trans students on hormone-blockers and those who have not yet opted for treatment, which shows that this bill that claims equality is nothing but a means of alienating the young trans population. Hormone therapy levels the playing field, but a level playing field was merely an excuse that these legislators used to hide their prejudice behind.


'Transgenderism' occurs when a person's gender does not align with their sex.[2] Sex refers to biological makeup, including chromosomes, hormone levels, reproductive anatomy, etc. In contrast, gender is a social construct that determines how a person expresses their social identity.[3] Trans people often experience gender dysphoria, the distress caused by the dissimilarity between their sex and their gender.[4]


In such situations, the exclusion is, according to Hohenwald Republican Joey Hensley, attributed to "guaranteeing safety and a level playing field for girl athletes on middle and high school teams."[5] However, when asked to cite examples of trans women who have used this 'advantage' to their favour, the legislators framing these transphobic policies were unable to come up with any cases.[6] This bigoted bill does nothing but give voice to the legislators' transphobia by discouraging the young trans girls from participating in sports. The transparent veil of equity and concern is evidently a façade.


The exclusion caused by this bill would further impact their participation in notable sports events held at the national and international levels. Ignoring the stellar example set by the New York Supreme Court in the case of Renee Richards, where she, despite being a trans woman, was allowed to participate in the US Open,[7] the rest of the American states refuse to follow suit, maintaining their regressive ideologies about sex and gender. Legislators from 19 other states have passed this discriminatory bill without any evidence to support their concerns.

This bill will alienate trans women further, and the alienation thus caused, coupled with the gender dysphoria they face, may cause them severe mental distress before they even reach adulthood.


The most logical means of ensuring that this oppressed group is not alienated further would be to ensure that trans women and trans men are permitted to participate in sports activities while being identified as their gender. However, this system of dividing sports into gender lines neglects that gender lies on a spectrum.[8] To ensure accurate equity, there needs to be a complete upheaval of the system in place. There is a negligible basis for the sex-based divisions that form the basis for most sporting events, and most arguments favouring these divisions have been refuted.


The main argument in favour of the sex-based divisions is the fact that the male sex, due to high levels of testosterone in their bloodstream, may have more physical strength and height, and thus putting them in the same playing field as women may put female players of the sport at a disadvantage. However, this myth is challenged by new scientific findings that question this 'difference in strengths.'


A study in 2014 showed that there might be instances where women have high testosterone levels and men have low testosterone levels, thereby causing an intersection between the physical features of males and females.[9] This, therefore, negates the need for sex-based divisions in sports. The divisions in sports based on gender do not make room for the fact that men and women may not always have the expected levels of androgens in their bloodstream. These restrictions punish trans women and women who may be biologically different from the standards set for female players by the sports agencies.


Sports agencies have targeted female athletes for not fitting the idea of femininity and decided to participate in various events. South African athlete, Caster Semenya, was not allowed to participate in events because her testosterone levels were higher than average, which allowed her a more enhanced performance. In 2012, several cis women had to undergo surgery to fit the requirements to compete in the Olympics. However, the trend has shown that female sportspersons are often punished for genetic advantages. Michael Phelps, a world-famous swimmer, has a series of genetic mutations that makes his body perfect for swimming. Double-jointed ankles and a disproportionately large wingspan, coupled with a body that produces only half the amount of lactic acid (which is responsible for fatigue), allow Michael Phelps to achieve the level of excellence.[10]


However, there was absolutely no restriction placed on him, no forced medical procedures that would restrict his abilities which are aided by genetic advantages he possessed. It is conclusive proof that these restrictions are not just grossly transphobic but also misogynistic.


Testosterone levels, height, weight, and strength, are all quantifiable factors. Divisions in sports based on these factors would lead to far more equitable and fair conduction of events. Moreover, it is a far more progressive system that moves past the myth of the gender binary and allows even transgender, transsexual, and non-binary persons to participate in sports. People of similar biological traits should be allowed to compete against each other, regardless of their sex or gender. Doing so will actively dismantle the narrative that women are biologically weaker or more incompetent at sports than men.


The need for a systemic change is reinforced by the bill passed in Tennessee. Targeting an already oppressed section of society can have adverse effects that can be easily anticipated. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 2016, 41% of the 6450 trans women interviewed had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.[11] With a severe lack of resources for mental health coupled with dysphoria and societal exclusion, trans women have no other way out. This bill has the power to exacerbate this situation.


As the times change, society should evolve to include every citizen under the folds of acceptance. The current systems in place are based on gender lines which may not be accurate in today's day and age. These divisions reinforce the archaic idea of gender roles and worsen the gender dysphoria of those whose genders do not align with their sex.


The Tennessee Senate needs to reevaluate its decision and pay heed to the backlash that this bill received from social advocacy groups. So, the policies in place can continue to serve the public by being just and equitable in the long run. Trans girls are girls, and excluding a whole section of girls from pursuing their passions will adversely impact their chances at pursuing careers playing sports that they have the passion and talent for in the future.

Not only will it deprive the state of potential sportspersons, but it will also disallow trans girls from tapping into their potential. Sports teams at the school level are not just responsible for developing athletic skills but also for developing social skills like leadership and teamwork.


Depriving trans girls of this opportunity deprives them of their shot at a happy, stable childhood where they can be supported by teammates who are ready to defend them as a part of their team. Furthermore, disallowing trans girls into sports teams nurtures a toxic environment of transphobia as it sends a message villainising trans people.


India derived its fundamental rights from the United States of America. Given the treatment of 'equality,' which is one of the cornerstones of the American Fundamental Rights, it is an incredibly shameful decision by the American legislators. The Empire of Liberty needs to realise that it cannot claim this nickname until this liberty is extended to people of all genders and sexual orientations.


References: [1] Tennessee Senate passes bill barring transgender students from playing high school sports under their gender identity The Tennessean, https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2021/03/01/tennessee-senate-votes-pass-transgender-athlete-bill/6869465002/ (last visited Mar 8, 2021) [2] Issues National Center for Transgender Equality, https://transequality.org/issues/resources/frequently-asked-questions-about-transgender-people%20-%20:~:text=What%20does%20it%20mean%20to,what%20our%20bodies%20look%20like. (last visited Mar 8, 2021) [3] What is gender? What is sex? - CIHR Cihr-irsc.gc.ca, https://cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/48642.html (last visited Mar 8, 2021) [4] Overview - Gender dysphoria, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gender-dysphoria/ (last visited Mar 8, 2021) [5] Tennessee Senate approves anti-trans athlete bill News-Herald, https://www.news-herald.net/news/state/tennessee-senate-approves-anti-trans-athlete-bill/article_5640e306-f554-5402-8e74-f40b2ab99332.html (last visited Mar 8, 2021) [6] Lawmakers cannot cite local examples of trans girls in sports AP NEWS, https://apnews.com/article/lawmakers-unable-to-cite-local-trans-girls-sports-914a982545e943ecc1e265e8c41042e7 (last visited Mar 8, 2021) [7] Renee Richards Ruled Eligible for US Open (Published 1977), The New York Times, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/1977/08/17/archives/renee-richards-ruled-eligible-for-us-open-ruling-makes-renee.html (last visited Mar 8, 2021) [8] The Spectrum Model of Sex, Gender and Sexuality | USD Usd.edu, https://www.usd.edu/diversity-and-inclusiveness/office-for-diversity/safe-zone-training/spectrum-model (last visited Mar 8, 2021) [9] Healy, Marie-Louise & Gibney, James & Pentecost, Claire & Wheeler, M & Sonksen, Peter. (2014). Endocrine Profiles in 693 Elite Athletes in the Post-Competition Setting. Clinical endocrinology. 81. 10.1111/cen.12445 [10] We celebrated Michael Phelps's genetic differences. Why punish Caster Semenya for hers? Washington Post,https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/we-celebrated-michael-phelpss-genetic-differences-why-punish-caster-semenya-for-hers/2019/05/02/93d08c8c-6c2b-11e9-be3a-33217240a539_story.html (last visited Mar 8, 2021) [11] Tanis J. The power of 41%: A glimpse into the life of a statistic. Am J Orthopsychiatry. 2016;86(4):373-7.DOI: 10.1037/ort0000200. PMID: 27380151.

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