The Current

Barring transgender women, girls from female sports teams 'fundamentally unfair,' says Canadian athlete

A Canadian transgender athlete says it’s “reprehensible” that some U.S. states are trying to ban trans women and girls from playing for female sports teams.

Some U.S. states have introduced laws critics say restrict trans rights, and could harm young trans people

Canadian cyclist Veronica Ivy celebrates her gold-medal win in the F35-39 sprint discipline at the UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championships, in Manchester, U.K., on Oct. 19, 2019. Ivy says it's 'unconscionable' that U.S. lawmakers would introduce bills that attack children's ability to play sports. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)

A Canadian transgender athlete says it's "reprehensible" that some U.S. states are trying to ban trans women and girls from playing for female sports teams.

"What they're really doing is fighting for what one might call the non-existent rights of [non-transgender] women and girls, while treating trans girls and trans women as not real girls or women," said Veronica Ivy, a two-time track cycling world champion.

"It's fundamentally unfair," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Republican lawmakers in states across the U.S. have introduced more than 100 bills related to transgender issues this year, according to Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. organization fighting for LGBTQ equality. Many of those bills aim to prevent transgender women and girls from competing on women's and girls' sports teams. 

Proponents of such legislation argue that allowing transgender individuals to play on women's sports teams gives them an unfair physical advantage over other players. 

The Mississippi Fairness Act, for example, states that courts have recognized men and women have inherent, physiological differences that give them different athletic capabilities. The legislation takes effect in July and will require high schools and universities to designate sports teams according to biological sex. It states that, "Athletic teams or sports designated for "females," "women" or "girls" shall not be open to students of the male sex."

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signs the first state bill in the U.S. this year to ban transgender athletes from competing on female sports teams, as supporting lawmakers gather behind him on March 11 at the capitol in Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/The Associated Press)

In a tweet in early March, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said he would sign the bill "to protect young girls from being forced to compete with biological males for athletic opportunities."

But critics and human rights advocates say the legislation is unconstitutional, and that it's an attack on transgender people for political gain. A handful of Republican governors have vetoed bills restricting the participation of transgender youth in sports, in some cases saying the proposed legislation was overly broad or too far-reaching, or that the issue was non-existent in their state.

The slew of bills comes after U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order in January to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. The order included a statement that "children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room or school sports."

No unfair advantage, says Ivy

Ivy called it "unconscionable" that legislators would use these bills to attack children and their right to play with their peers.

"This idea that trans women are going to suddenly take over sport has not happened," Ivy said. "And it's unlikely to ever happen."

The International Olympic Committee, for example, has allowed transgender athletes to compete since 2003. However, no transgender athletes are known to have competed in the Games since then.

Ivy also said her highest world ranking ever has been 85th place, and that she has lost many races in her athletic career. 

"And yet people say that I have an unfair advantage," she said.

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Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a civil rights lawyer, four-time Olympic medallist and leadership member of the Women's Sports Policy Working Group, told Galloway that categorical bans on transgender athletes competing in women's sports promote hatred of trans people.

However, she argued that some transgender women have a "very obvious" sex-linked advantage over other athletes, and that "we do need to respect the science." Men's higher testosterone levels give them an athletic advantage over women, she said, "and unless somebody can unwind that sex-linked advantage, then we say it's not fair to compete in the girls and women's category."

The role of testosterone in athletic performance has been a contentious topic.

In 2018, the International Association of Athletics Federations required female athletes to have specific levels of testosterone to be eligible for certain track competitions, because it said higher testosterone levels can give athletes a leg up. But some academic researchers argued that those findings couldn't be independently reproduced, and that they weren't reliable. 

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Hogshead-Makar said transgender women who have never been through male puberty, or who have taken gender-affirming hormones and lowered their testosterone levels, should be allowed to compete in women's sport. Organizations should also find ways to include transgender women who have not taken hormones or undergone gender-affirming surgery, but she argued they should not be involved in head-to-head competitions.

"What we are trying to do is create a safe and respectful environment within women's sports while still [ensuring] a fair competition," she said. "We want to include transgender athletes as much as possible." 

Advocate calls legislation 'dehumanizing'

While Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Campaign, said he appreciates the argument that transgender women may have a natural advantage over other female athletes, "that's all it is, is an argument."

"The myth that transgender women are dominant competitors in women's sports is pure disinformation," he said.

"And it's important to also recognize that this disinformation is dangerous for the health and the safety and the very lives of transgender youth and adults alike."

Alphonso David is president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy organization in the United States. (Human Rights Campaign)

He predicts that the bills barring transgender athletes from women's sports will fail.

He added that if Republican lawmakers really cared about women's rights in sport, they would be funding athletic programs for women, championing pay equity and fighting sexual misconduct in sports. 

"But they're not," David said. "What they're really interested in is dehumanizing transgender people. What they're interested in is denying transgender people the rights that they deserve under law."

Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News. Produced by Ryan Chatterjee and Samira Mohyeddin.

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