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The strong case for transgender inclusion in athletics

The strong case for transgender inclusion in athletics

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On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order barring discrimination against transgender individuals. The executive order holds that laws prohibiting sex discrimination (such as Title IX) also forbid discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The text also makes explicit reference to sport: “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 executive order starkly contrasts efforts at the state and federal levels to curtail transgender rights, especially in sport and athletics. Texas is no exception. Rep. Valoree Swanson, R, Spring, filed House Bill 1458, calling for the separation of athletic teams based on the athletes’ sex assigned at birth.

The central aim of HB 1458, and others like it, is to limit the rights of transgender children, excluding them from participating in interscholastic athletics and other sport activities.

The evidence, however, points to the value of adopting a welcoming position, one that is inclusive of transgender people and their athletic pursuits. The rationale coalesces around human rights, psychological well-being, the aims of athletics, and economics.

Human rights

The Olympic Charter reads that “the practice of sport is a human right.” Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued as much, too. He stated: “Access to sport, physical activity and play is a fundamental human right.”

Interscholastic athletic associations also promote an inclusive view of sport. The National Federation of State High School Associations, for example, advanced a belief that participation in athletics “fosters the inclusion of diverse populations.”

If sport is a human right, then sport is a right for transgender people. Whether interscholastic athletics, intramural sports, or another form of physical activity — transgender people belong.

Psychological well-being

In addition, transgender inclusiveness promotes psychological well-being.

Exclusionary policies at the state, community and school levels stigmatize individuals. They send the message that transgender status is wrong or shameful. Members of the transgender community frequently internalize such messages and, as a result, experience psychological and physical health declines. Psychologist Steve DuBois and colleagues found as much in their study of more than 1,100 transgender adults in the U.S.

The opposite also is true: Inclusive environments serve to improve health and well-being. For instance, Amaya Perez-Brumer and colleagues found that inclusive state-level policies and ordinances were associated with fewer suicide attempts among transgender adults.

These studies, and the scores like them, paint a clear picture. Inclusive laws and policies matter. They signal an accepting environment, and they promote a sense of wellbeing among the transgender community.

The aims of athletics

Supporters of HB 1458, and other bills like it, point to issues of fairness and the notion that athletes assigned male at birth have a natural advantage. These arguments miss the mark in at least two ways.

First, fairness arguments presuppose that athletes assigned male at birth are better athletes than those assigned female at birth. At the elite end of the athletics spectrum, this is correct. The fastest man in the world, for example, is speedier than the fastest woman. For everyone else, though, athleticism is more evenly distributed.

To illustrate, consider an example from a local event. The fastest woman in the 2019 BCS Marathon completed the race in 2 hours 59 minutes. This impressive time was slower than 11 men but was faster than more than 500 other participants, the majority of whom were men.

Athletes assigned male at birth are not automatically athletic, nor are they inevitably better than athletes assigned female at birth. Advancing such arguments only reinforces outdated gender stereotypes.

Second, a fairness argument prioritizes competition and success over all else. Whereas these are potential outcomes of athletics, they are not the primary aims. The University Interscholastic League, which governs extracurricular school activities in Texas, lists 14 potential benefits of participation. Winning is listed last and is characterized as “doing one’s best.”

Competition and success are key outcomes at higher levels of competition, such as college athletics and the Olympics. Transgender athletes can compete in both of these sport contexts.

If transgender athletes can compete in the most elite levels of sport, why restrict their involvement in high school athletics, a context where winning is of secondary importance?

Economics pitfalls

Five years ago, North Carolina legislators passed a “bathroom bill,” restricting access to public restrooms based on a person’s sex assigned at birth. In 2017, 16 other states considered such bills. Each found out, though, that anti-transgender legislation has economic pitfalls.

In North Carolina, scores of companies relocated, and entertainers moved events to other states. An Associated Press analysis estimated more than $3.76 billion in losses attributable to the law.

Texas legislators considered their own “bathroom bill” in 2017. When news spread, the NCAA considered moving the Final Four men’s basketball tournament that was to be played in San Antonio. The event was projected to have a $240 million economic impact. Ultimately, the bill failed, and the sport event remained in the state.

Businesses are known by the company they keep. They simply do not want to be associated with entities that are exclusionary or discriminatory.

Consumers and investors also take note. Companies recognized for their transgender inclusiveness also see bumps in their stock prices, as illustrated in a study by Pen Wang and Joshua Schwarz of Miami University. My colleagues and I have also shown the benefits of inclusiveness. In our study, participants were more likely to join fitness clubs they believed were welcoming and accepting of all people.

In short, the benefits of inclusion far outweigh those of exclusion. Sport participation is a right for transgender athletes. Inclusive policies promote health and are consistent with the aims of interscholastic athletics. Finally, states that pass discriminatory laws are likely to face the economic pitfalls.

The choice for Texans is clear: Support transgender individuals and their rights to lead full, active, healthy lives.

George B. Cunningham is a professor of health and kinesiology in the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University, where he is also director of the Laboratory for Diversity in Sport. He can be reached at

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