A rainbow colored flag against a blue sky, with a pink and blue flag close up in front of it. (Photo by Cecilie Johnsen on Unsplash)
Photo by Cecilie Johnsen on Unsplash
Opinion Health

Discriminatory Sports Laws Hurt Trans Girls–and Cis Girls, Too

Why this matters

March 31 is both Trans Day of Visibility and the final day of Women’s History Month. Risa Isard says that current legislation and the results of these battles will be detrimental for all girls and their future in sport.

Monthly Issue The Power of Women & Girls in Sport

In statehouses across the country, a legal and cultural war is being waged against trans girls in sport. Laws violating their human rights are being debated and enacted for the purported purpose of helping cis girls, meaning people labeled girls at birth.

But in reality, this battle is hurting all of our girls, cis and trans.

To be clear, the stakes are highest for trans girls, the intended targets of these vicious policies. And that, by itself, is sufficient reason for anyone who cares about other people to oppose them. Full stop. In addition, the collateral damage being done to cis girls via the same set of laws should be considered and understood—in part because it’s also a problem, and in part because that harm undercuts the hollow and disingenuous justifications invoked by lawmakers.

Today, more than 20 states have pending legislation that would codify discrimination by keeping trans girls out of sport. These bills propose that all school sports teams should be defined by “biological sex,” thereby excluding any athlete whose gender does not match what a doctor assumed and subsequently assigned them at birth. Mississippi and Arkansas have already signed their bills into law. Advocates for these bills argue that children identified at birth as boys are inherently better at sports than children identified at birth as girls, and as such, these athletes should not play on the same teams or compete against one another.

But science doesn’t support that argument. At the population level, there is no evidence that trans girls are better at sports than cis girls. Trans and cis girls don’t need to compete separately in order to, in the words of a state lawmaker, “protect women’s sports.”

However, research does show that asserting blanket boys’ and men’s athletic superiority—in this case, by codifying it into law—can harm all girls through something called a “stereotype threat,” which refers to how people behave when they worry that their behavior may reinforce negative stereotypes.

For more than 20 years, researchers have studied how stereotypes impact marginalized groups such as girls. They’ve found that stereotype threats become self-fulfilling prophecies: for instance, girls do worse at math when reminded of the stereotype that girls are not as good at math, and perform better when not reminded.

The same is true in sports. Studies have found that girls perform worse at sport when reminded of the stereotype that girls are not as good as boys at sports. These findings have held across a variety of sports and regardless of whether a girl is new or experienced at her particular sport. Even girls who don’t personally believe the sport stereotype perform worse when reminded of it.

So what happens when a trans girl sees one of these discriminatory laws or is told by the state that there’s no place for her? She wonders where she belongs, or if she belongs anywhere. (If you’re trans and reading this, please know that you belong.) Meanwhile, a cis girl hears that these laws are somehow for her benefit because she’s just not as good at sports as a trans girl, and ends up performing worse.

Nobody wins. Our trans girls are hurt, most obviously and devastatingly. Our cis girls are hurt as well, perhaps more insidiously.

And that’s not the only harm caused by these policies. Girls’ sports participation declined over the past decade in states where the school sport federation has trans-exclusive policies, a new report from the Center for American Progress found. By contrast, states with inclusive policies have seen girls continue to participate at their same rates. The overwhelming majority of girls who play sports are cis, suggesting that exclusive policies leave cis girls on the sideline along with trans girls.

Sports participation has been linked to a wide range of psychosocial benefits for girls, including higher self-esteem, academic performance, and educational aspirations; lower levels of depression, self-derogations, and truancy and misbehavior; and a greater sense of school and community connectedness and social support and capital. Sports also can teach leadership, perseverance, goal-setting, and teamwork. Given those benefits, should we be instituting policies that contribute to any of our girls being sidelined?

Appallingly, many states’ policies also require invasive and unethical gender testing to determine if an athlete is “girl enough” to play on the girls’ team. Some girls with short haircuts have already had their gender called into question in recent years. Uproar ensued when Mili Hernandez, an eight-year-old Nebraska girl with short hair, was barred from playing in a soccer tournament. Under these policies, the consequences for girls like Mili are far more troubling: abusive medical procedures to determine “internal and external reproductive anatomy.”

Statistically speaking, any girl whose body the state will examine and regulate is likely to be cis. She’s also likely to be a minor, and sometimes as young as elementary school-aged.

The global sports community has horrifically watched gender policing policies play out over the past century. Since their implementation in the 1920s, these policies have never been successful in achieving their stated purpose of catching “impostors,” largely because they are a solution to a non-existent problem: people don’t impersonate women for the “prize” of competing and winning in women’s sports, where there traditionally has been little glory, fame, or money. Instead, gender policing has violated the human rights of women who simply want to play and compete – the same as every athlete. 

March 31 is both Trans Day of Visibility and the final day of Women’s History Month. That’s fitting. As we celebrate, we should remember that the fates of cis and trans girls and women are intertwined. Sport is a human right for all. The greatest victory is playing together.

Risa Isard is an expert in sports policy, with a focus on the intersection of sports, gender, sexuality, and social issues. She is a Research Fellow with the Laboratory of Inclusion and Diversity in Sport at the University of Massachusetts, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in the McCormack Department of Sport Management in the Isenberg School of Management. She's a proud Phoenix native and previous contributor to Global Sport Matters. She has also written for Ad Week, espnW, and Quartz. Follow her on Twitter at @RisaLovesSports.

Monthly Issue

The Power of Women & Girls in Sport

From participation to coaching, and shattering leadership ceilings, 2020 was slated to be a year of progress for women’s sport. But then came the pandemic.

2021 could still stand to be a significant year of growth for women and girls in sport. What long-standing barriers and future opportunities lie ahead?