Inside the Complex Debate Over Transgender Runners
Unsurprisingly, the implications of this debate ripple far beyond the sport
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Over the weekend, Juniper Eastwood, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Montana, became the first trans woman to participate in a Division I cross-country meet. At an early season invitational in Washington, Eastwood finished seventh out of 79 runners, completing the 4k course in 14:33. It was not, however, her first race as a collegiate athlete. Before transitioning in 2018, she was among the strongest runners on the University of Montana's men’s cross-country and track teams. Unsurprisingly, this has inspired a debate over the fairness of letting Eastwood run on the women's team, not least because her personal best in the 1,500-meters, set in April 2018, is only .12 seconds slower than the women’s world record.
In compliance with NCAA regulations, Eastwood has been undergoing testosterone suppression treatment for over a year, with the predictable consequence that she has gotten significantly slower. (In last weekend’s race, Eastwood averaged roughly 5:51 per mile; running in the men’s 6K race at the same meet in 2016, Eastwood averaged 5:07s.) For that reason, her case might be less divisive than that of Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, two trans high school sprinters, who have also been sucked into the vortex of the national news cycle. Last February, Yearwood and Miller finished first and second in the girls 55-meter dash at the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) indoor state championships. The girls also finished 1-2 in the 100-meters at last year’s outdoor state championships. (Miller, who will be a senior this fall, holds the Connecticut high school state record in the 55-meters.) In Connecticut, as in at least 19 other states, transgender athletes are allowed to compete as their self-identified gender without being required to undergo surgery or any kind of hormone treatment.
In June, a Christian conservative nonprofit organization called the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed an official complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on behalf of high school sprinter Selina Soule and two other female track athletes who wanted to remain anonymous. The Alliance argues that the CIAC’s policy of letting trans women athletes compete without restriction “discriminate[s] against girls and threaten[s] to reverse the gains for girls and women that Title IX has achieved.”
In its complaint, the ADF also cites an April op-ed in the Washington Post, (co-written by sprint legend Sanya Richards-Ross) in which the authors urge lawmakers to pass the Equality Act—a piece of legislation currently languishing in congressional purgatory which would extend Civil Rights protections to members of the LGBTQ community—while making an exception for Title IX. This exception is necessary, the authors of the Post article argue, because the Equality Act specifically prohibits discrimination not only on the basis of sex, but also gender identity. If this distinction isn’t maintained in the unique case of women’s athletics, the Equality Act would make it illegal for federally funded educational institutions to differentiate between a transgender woman and cisgender woman; in practice, this could mean that an athlete like Eastwood wouldn’t be required to take testosterone suppressants. This, the article asserts, would put “female-bodied athletes,” i.e. cis women, at an unfair disadvantage.
Of course, the state of affairs that Richards-Ross and Co. are warning against is already the status quo for high school sports in Connecticut. As a result, Yearwood and Miller have become symbols of a larger ideological struggle surrounding transgender rights. The American Civil Liberties Union has a petition on its website supporting their right to compete. As part of this petition reads:
“When misinformation about biology and gender is used to bar transgender girls from sports it amounts to the same form of sex discrimination that has long been prohibited under Title IX, a law that protects all students—including trans people—on the basis of sex.”
Needless to say, this debate isn’t confined to high school or NCAA sports. Marquee races like the Boston Marathon have been updating their trans athlete policies, or developing one for the first time. As Outside reported in May, the Western States Endurance Run recently became the first prominent ultra to officially address the issue. The WSER rules now state that runners’ gender will be accepted at “face value,” but that a transgender woman who finishes in the top ten may be asked to prove that, similar to the current NCAA policy, she has “been undergoing continuous, medically supervised hormone treatment for gender transition for at least one year prior to the race.”
At the high school level, things are less clear cut. It seems highly irresponsible to impose mandatory hormonal treatment for transgender teenagers (to say nothing of the logistcal nightmare of regulating any such rules). Yet allowing trans women athletes to compete without any restrictions whatsoever is likely to prove controversial as well—all the more so when those athletes are successful. As mentioned, Connecticut isn’t the only state which allows high school students to compete as their self-identified gender. According to the website transathlete.com, there are currently 18 other states with similar policies, as reflected in a map which, believe it or not, bears a striking similarity to the blue state/red state divide of general elections.
These days, that divide often feels insurmountable, at least if you’re the kind of person (me) who spends too much time on social media, or watching crappy news programming. As elsewhere in our politics, one of the more dispiriting aspects of the transgender sports discussion is the seeming impossibility of having any kind of discussion at all. Those vehemently opposed to any form of trans participation often seem devoid of empathy while tending to overstate the degree to which trans athletes are actually altering the landscape of women’s sports. (Noted Fox News agitator Tucker Carlson recently claimed that, “biological males who identify as females are entering the competition and dominating their opponents in many sports across the country and the world.”) Meanwhile, many trans rights activists believe that making any distinction whatsoever between a trans woman and a cis woman is itself an act of transphobia. (The ACLU: “Girls who are transgender are girls. Period.”)
Presumably, in order to develop a workable policy for trans athletes, one has to be able to acknowledge that trans athletes exist. Of course, some may feel that the best trans policy is no policy at all and that trans and cisgender athletes should be treated exactly the same. But, at least from where I sit, it seems difficult to defend that position while still maintaining that it is necessary and fair to have separate competitive categories for men and women.