Transgender athletes and a national history of exclusionary practices – commentary

May 6, 2022 5:42 am
An illustration of arms and hands in rainbow colors

“The belief that transgender women pose a threat to their teammates or hold an ‘unfair’ advantage over other athletes is grounded in the same ideas that upheld (and continue to uphold) racial segregation in the United States.” (Illustration by mustafahacalaki | Getty Images)

“Stand up for women, even when they’re swimmin’. We support the women!”

I’m watching a video of a small group of picketers outside the NCAA Division I women’s swimming championships in Atlanta. The words “Save Women’s Sports” are scrawled across their matching shirts, an organization, they explain to a reporter, that was founded on the “basis of women’s sex, and keeping sports single sex to protect women’s and girls’ safety and boundaries and right to privacy and fairness in sports.” I can’t escape a nagging sense of deja vu. 

The group of mostly white women are protesting the inclusion of Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, in the competition. One, speaking to a reporter, homes in on the term inclusivity. “That term comes at the direct expense of women being able to have boundaries around our bodies,” she calmly explains. Her tone is kind and by all accounts she seems genuine in her concerns, but I’m not buying it. 

Over the following days I will hear many friends and acquaintances across the political spectrum make the same arguments: “I support trans rights but ….” “It’s just not fair!” “The hemoglobin!” “I wouldn’t feel safe letting my daughter change in that locker room.”  The verdict appears to be in; the inclusion of transgender women in collegiate swimming can come only at the expense of other women. 

Currently undergirding a flurry of legislation across the country intended to exclude transgender children from competing with their peers, these are not unfamiliar arguments.

The myth that one demographic must be excluded or oppressed for the safety and success of another has been propagated countless times across our nation’s history. These same sentiments were fed to white indentured servants to garner support for the enslavement of African peoples after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675; were used to rationalize segregation laws during the Jim Crow era; and encouraged white suffragists to exclude women of color from their demands for gender equity, to name just a few. 

As it turns out, the pool is actually an exceptional model for understanding these exclusionary practices, as demonstrated by Jeff Wilste in his book “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America” (2007). Seen as an opportunity to promote a common identity among citizens and overcome “ethnic” divisions, public pools exploded in popularity in the 1930s. Cities and towns across the nation invested in large community swimming areas that would be free to the public. While pools became integrated by gender in the early 19th century, they remained racially segregated, and were built in segregated white neighborhoods. At this time the American dream did not extend to folks of color.

As racial dynamics shifted during the civil rights movement of the 1950s, the continued absence of desegregated public swimming pools, and the threat of violence or lynching for ignoring segregation policies, pushed children with friends of varying pigmentation to seek out alternative, often dangerous, swimming holes. As a result, three Black children drowned in Baltimore over the summer of 1953. The NAACP sued the city over their deaths and in 1956 they won; public pools were desegregated. But not really. In her book “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” Heather McGhee details the reaction of white families, many of whom simply stopped using desegregated pools. Others intimidated, threatened, and became violent when Black children attempted to use the public pools now legally available to them. 

When desegregation passed in Montgomery, Alabama, the town chose to drain the pool instead of sharing it. Some communities went so far as to fill their pools with concrete. But most places handled it in the same way they handled the desegregation of public schools: private pools where membership came with a fee and could be denied at the owner’s discretion.

Across a decade, millions of white Americans chose to pay for an amenity they once received for free to avoid sharing the resource with people of color. The impacts of this racist history are tangible and quantifiable. They can be seen in the pool of competitive swimmers today, as well as the death rates in incidents of drowning, which are three times higher among African American children aged 5 to 14 than their white counterparts.

While pools are a great model of exclusion, this is definitely not just a swimming issue.

Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Mississippi did not welcome their first Black football players until 1971. The Title IX act that mandated equal inclusion of women in athletics was not passed until 1972.  Arguments against racially desegregated competition were often grounded in claims that those of African descent held an unfair biological advantage over their white competitors and that it was unsafe for Black men to be present in spaces where they might come into contact with white women due to a “biological predisposition” toward violent, aggressive behavior.

These theories have been debunked repeatedly by scientists across all fields, and are broken down at the genetic level by Adam Rutherford in his book “How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference” (2020). Women were considered too meek and compassionate for competition; they would likely injure themselves or strain their bodies. The scientific community backed these claims with a large body of research. The resulting stereotypes pervade our society to this day.  

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t safe. Is this starting to sound familiar? 

The belief that transgender women pose a threat to their teammates or hold an “unfair” advantage over other athletes is grounded in the same ideas that upheld (and continue to uphold) racial segregation in the United States. Genetic and biological variability are inherent and necessary aspects of the human condition. Unique deviations from what we consider the status quo are what allow athletes such as Michael Phelps and Serena Williams to excel in their fields.

We still have a lot to learn about the sustained impacts of previously elevated testosterone levels on athletic performance – the research is inconclusive. We do know that a person’s “sex” can be impacted on many different levels: chromosonal, hormonal, and cellular. Individuals may even present variation between these three levels; it’s complex science.

In lieu of definitive knowledge, the athletic community has decided that hormone levels at the time of performance will be the arbiter of participation in women’s sports (there is no cap for men’s athletics). Some women will require suppressants to maintain the agreed upon hormone levels. There is no substantiated evidence to support the claim that this gives them an “unfair” advantage. 

“Men have a biological advantage over women, it’s common sense! It’s science!” Is this really where the conversation ends?

Common sense is not beholden to the complexities of science, nor does it account for the political, social, and historical contexts from which our assumptions arise. To those who find themselves stuck on this issue, I would urge you to avoid any conclusions that draw on a body of “common sense.” Explore the nuance. And most importantly, recognize the humanity of the folks that these conversations impact most deeply.

There are tangible threads connecting our nation’s complex history of exclusionary practices; we owe it to the communities they have marginalized and oppressed to acknowledge and understand them.

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Marie Collins
Marie Collins

Marie Collins is an educator, community organizer, and doctoral student at the University of New Hampshire studying curriculum theory, while pursuing a graduate certificate in feminist studies. Drawing on her experience as a classroom teacher and curricular specialist within international schools and her years advising pre-service and novice teachers in New Hampshire public schools, her research focuses on engaging educators and learners of all ages in critical discussions surrounding curricular development and learning.