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Explained: Why is there debate in the US over who can play women’s sports?

Republican legislators in more than half of the US states are pushing for new laws aimed at banning transgender women/girls from playing for teams in school and university sports. It has created a hot button issue with political and cultural ramifications.

Written by Nihal Koshie , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 20, 2021 7:48:48 am
Parents of transgender children and other supporters of transgender rights gather in the capital outdoor rotunda to speak about transgender legislation being considered in the Texas House and Texas Senate, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo)

Republican legislators in more than half of the US states are pushing for new laws aimed at banning transgender women/girls from playing for teams in school and university sports. It has created a hot button issue with political and cultural ramifications.

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How many states have passed laws?

Idaho last year and Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee in 2021 have passed state laws to disallow transgender women/girls from women’s teams. Montana and Minnesota are in advanced stages of converting bills into laws.

“I proudly signed the Mississippi Fairness Act to ensure young girls are not forced to compete against biological males,” Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, tweeted. This was followed by South Dakota’s Republican Governor Kristi Noem issuing executive orders which, in effect, aim for a similar ban.

What do the legislations in Mississippi and other states aim at?

In schools and universities, athletes can only compete based on their sex at birth, and not sexual orientation or gender identity developed later on in life. However, the proposed bill in Minnesota takes it one step further and will punish transgender female student-athletes (for petty misdemeanour) if they participate in women’s events or use facilities meant for women.

Didn’t President Joe Biden put a check on such laws?

Among the orders President Biden signed on his first day in office was one that disallows discrimination, including based on sexual orientation or gender identity, in federally-funded schools. “Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports,” the order stated, according to a report in The Guardian.

States which don’t follow this order could stop getting federal funding for education, the report stated.

However, the deterrent doesn’t seem to be strong enough.

Are transgender women athletes winning medals at schools and universities?

The most prominent are transgender women sprinters Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood from Connecticut, who have dominated for over a year and a half in senior high-school competitions. So much so that Chelsea Mitchell of Canton High School filed a lawsuit to stop athletes from participating in women’s events based on the gender they chose to identify.

Connecticut is one of the states which allows transgender women athletes to compete in women’s events.

According to an Associated Press report, a large number of legislators who have introduced bills which bar transgender girls from competing were unable to give specific instances of such athletes excelling in sports. “The Associated Press reached out to two dozen state lawmakers sponsoring such measures around the country as well as the conservative groups supporting them and found only a few times it’s been an issue among the hundreds of thousands of American teenagers who play high school sports,” a report stated.

How have student athletes reacted in the USA?

In March, 545 student athletes belonging to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), wrote to its president Mark Emmert to express their collective disappointment at the lack of action by the association. “You have been silent in the face of hateful legislation in states that are slated to host championships, even though those states are close to passing anti-transgender legislation,” the letter stated.

According to NCAA rules, athletes transitioning to female should be on testosterone-suppression treatment for a year before they can compete in a women’s event.

What are the arguments offered by both sides?

Those who want a ban say it helps in maintaining a level playing field for women athletes.

A poll by POLITICO/Morning Consult showed good support for banning transgender women athletes from female competition in school and university sports. Fifty-nine per cent of men supported it, while 46 per cent of women backed it and 34 per cent against it.

However, experts say higher levels of testosterone don’t always result in better athletic performance. Katrina Karkazis, a senior research fellow at Yale University and author of Testosterone: An Unauthorised Biography, told The Guardian: “Testosterone affects muscle but research has shown that it can affect different muscles in the body within the same person quite differently. Where we run into trouble is trying to make comparisons across individuals based on testosterone levels. Sometimes, it’s individuals with lower testosterone who do better.”

Chase Strangio, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, a body which went to court to block the law in Idaho, told The New York Times how such bans would have a devastating effect on children. “They’re acting like LeBron James is going to put on a wig and play basketball with fourth-graders. In reality, you’re talking about little kids who just want to play rec sports.”

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What are the rules in international sport?

The International Olympic Committee rules related to athletes who have transitioned from male to female and want to participate in the female category state that they would have to show that their total testosterone level in serum is below 10 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) for at least a year before their first competition. Also, an athlete’s testosterone level in serum must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of eligibility to compete in the female category.

World Athletics rules state that Differences in Sex Development (DSD) athletes will have to lower their level of testosterone to below 5 nmol/L for a period of six months in order to be eligible to compete at international events between 400 metres and a mile.

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