Transgender athletes face debate, legal challenges in sports

Jeremy Rosen, Contributing Reporter

Matthew Tate

As transgender people become increasingly accepted in the U.S., there is a growing politicized debate regarding their gender identities’ place in society. For many years, the debate centered around trans people being allowed to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity. 

The debate has now shifted to transgender athletes competing in sports. It asks asks whether transgender athletes competing in organized sports poses an unfair advantage against their fellow cisgender athletes.

In the past year, several states passed legislation prohibiting transgender girls and women from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. Idaho was the first state to pass such a law in June 2020, and they were quickly followed by other Republican-led states such as Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee

In the state of Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards notably struck down a similar bill that would have prevented transgender athletes from competing on women’s sports teams in Lousiana schools. Edwards believed that the bill was both discriminatory and “a solution to a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana.”

State Senator Beth Mizell proposed the bill in Louisiana, calling it the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.” Mizell and other proponents of the bill point to the state of Connecticut, where two transgender female athletes broke 15 different track and field records. 

Supporters of the bill argue that transgender women have a natural athletic advantage over cisgender women that makes it unfair for them to compete against one another. In a legislative debate, Mizell stated that she does not intend to treat anyone with inequity, “but there is not an equal situation physically.

Lindsay Hecox, a transgender athlete at Boise State University, was blocked from competing on her school’s track and cross-country teams due to Idaho’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. She ran at the high school level on the boys’ teams before transitioning. Hecox stated that her athletic abilities have declined with the hormonal treatment to decrease her testosterone levels. 

Her case to challenge the Idaho bill, Hecox v. Little, was brought before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this past May, where they upheld an Idaho court’s decision to maintain the bill and barred her from competing. Hecox hoped that the judges will “think of us as real people,” adding that transgender people are seen as the bogeyman at times.

The debate surrounding transgender athletes is not just about fair competition but also safety when it comes to combat sports. Fallon Fox, the first openly transgender MMA fighter, was the topic of great controversy in the fighting community after her match against Tamikka Brents in 2014. 

Fox brutally defeated her opponent in just two minutes, before the referee was forced to halt the fight. Brents sustained serious injuries, suffering a concussion and a fractured orbital bone in her skull. She required seven staples in her head to repair the damage.

Brents later stated that Fox’s grip and strength was unlike any other women she fought before. Brents stated that she “had never been overpowered like that in my life, and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right.” 

Many notable people in the fighting community gave harsh responses to Fox and her desire to compete as her identified gender. UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and color commentator Joe Rogan both gave expletive laden statements saying that no matter what Fox does, she still has the bone structure of a man, making it unfair for her to fight.

Despite the the criticism towards Fox and other transgender athletes simply looking to compete as their identified gender, many in the medical world support these athletes. 

In an interview with Time Magazine, Dr. Eric Vilain claimed that the testosterone levels of transgender women are much lower than that of men once they have transitioned. He went on to say that transgender women have less muscle mass and bone density than males, putting them at a hormonal disadvantage. 

In another interview with NPR, Vilain argued that a principle of athletics at the Olympic level was to not discriminate and that the principle of athletic equality and spirit should exist at all levels of sporting competition.