Wednesday, March 11, 2015

OTL covers young transgender athletes

Shows like Outside the Lines give me a little more faith in ESPN. This week's episode (a piece of which can be found here) profiled two transgender athletes and discussed more broadly the issue of trans athletes in youth and high school sports.

The episode focused on two transgender students. The first, Leo, is a trans boy in Maine who recently came out and received permission to swim on the boys' team at his high school. Maine is one of the 33 states that has a policy addressing the participation of transgender athletes in high school sports. They passed their policy in 2013 and Leo took his situation to the high school athletic association which approved his participation on the boys' team last fall. Leo's experience, based on his own telling and interviews with his teammates and coach, was positive. What was striking about his interview was the reminder to all of us that this issue is about more than just the right to participate (not to diminish the very important civil rights component here). It is about what sports can provide participants:
"I think I can go through a lot more more confidently than if I hadn't [had this experience]."

Also important to note is that Leo's teammates and coach are very supportive of his participation. The three teammates OTL interviewed called him brave.

The other story, of Shay, is a sharp contrast to Leo's because she lives in Montana which has been unable to successfully pass a policy regarding transgender participation. I wrote about the policy proposal in January. That policy was withdrawn, according to OTL, because the Montana High School Association did not feel it had enough votes (it needed a 2/3 majority among its 120 members) to pass. This has left Shay, who competed in both track and basketball as a middle schooler, unable to play high school sports. Shay's story is particularly sad because she has struggled throughout her transition and sports offered her an outlet.

OTL interviewed members of conservative Christian organizations that opposed the policy. (Not all of these interviews made it to the above clip.) So-called privacy concerns arose again in this conversation. This argument continues to privilege the the privacy of cisgender children over that of transgender children. This was especially interesting in Shay's case because she was not out when competing in middle school and would change in bathroom stalls to protect her identity--and I would argue, her personal safety.

This leads to another issue that opponents have: safety in locker rooms. This is an argument similar to one that has been made against gays and lesbians, which assumes an innate predatory instinct (recall the campaign against gay Boy Scouts). Safety in a locker room is the result of the culture of that locker room, regardless of one's sexuality, gender identity, hormones, chromosomes, or genitals. The safety of gay and transgender people is far less secure than their heterosexual and cisgender peers.

Another conservative safety argument is that mixed gender locker rooms--their term, which  negates the gender identity of the transgender children--will result in undesirable shenanigans of a sexual nature. Let's not forget the many, many, many incidents of hazing and bullying in locker rooms that are perpetuated among cisgender people of the same sex and involve acts of genital touching and penetration. 

These are all straw man arguments, which one can easily see through when the opponents refer to transgender children using their biological identity and encourage them to be comfortable being themselves and not hiding who they are; what they mean is not hiding their biological sex. The implication is that these children are being both deceptive and unnatural--that is the foundation of their opposition, not safety concerns.

The rationale behind why youth and interscholastic sports should exist in our culture includes the belief that they are character-building, and teach leadership, cooperation, and sportspersonship. And though we can poke many holes in this Great Sports Myth, there are still many children who benefit a great deal from sports participation at a young age. To deny these experiences to any child is an injustice and to deny them by blaming and labeling and stereotyping them is unconscionable.