The GOP’s Fake Problem with Transgender Athletes


Photo by Jonathan Chng | Unsplash

Photo by Jonathan Chng | Unsplash


Last month, the South Dakota state Senate introduced HB 1217, a bill that effectively restricted transgender women athletes from competing on high school and college girls’ and women’s teams. Republican State Senators made impassioned speeches outlining how the bill wasn’t discriminating against transgender citizens, but rather a way to “protect women’s sports” while acknowledging that there are only a handful of such cases in the state. Republican Gov. Kristi Noem tweeted that she was “excited” to sign it.

Conversely, on the other side of the aisle, the bill was viewed as a means of codifying discrimination against an already vulnerable population. “To me, it looks an awful lot like bullying,” said Democratic state Sen. Reynold Nesiba, who voted against the bill. That sentiment was echoed by civil rights groups and experts, who said that the bill violated Title 7 and Title 9 of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating based on sex.

On March 8th, the Republican-controlled House passed the bill, which was sent to Governor Noem’s desk to be signed; however, fearing an onslaught of legal challenges from organizations like the NCAA, Noem sent the bill back to the legislature asking for changes. The move surprised her conservative colleagues, and after failing to agree on amendments, it ultimately died in the state legislature. To save face, the governor issued two executive orders: one to protect fairness in K-12 athletics, and another to do so on the collegiate level – a temporary fix.

The bill in South Dakota is just one example of the wave of anti-transgender legislation sweeping across the country. According to an Axios report published in early March, at least 73 pieces of legislation targeting the transgender community were put forward in state legislatures – surpassing the previous year combined. According to the ACLU’s legislation tracker, there are currently 59 bills across 31 states that exclude transgender youth from athletics. Mississippi and Arkansas, two other Republican-controlled states, have already passed such laws, which are set to become law this summer.

Transgender citizens have been participating in the sports team of their choice for years, and sports organizations like the NCAA and the Olympics already have policies in place to address concerns about physical differences in male and female biology. So, why has this issue been elevated to the forefront of the national conversation?

A political explanation was best stated by Dan Pfieffer, a former White House Communications Director for Obama, who eloquently said in a recent episode of Crooked Media’s Pod Save America: “Economic issues divide the Republican Party, cultural issues unite them.” 

Two polls conducted by the New York Times-Siena and PRRI in October of 2020, found that Republicans were divided by President Trump’s behavior, a public health insurance option, local COVID-19 restrictions and getting the vaccine, the Green New Deal, immigration policy, Universal Basic Income, and the levels of discrimination Black and Hispanic Americans face.

President Biden has faced several of these issues already to broad support. Nearly 100 days into his administration, Biden has a secure 59% approval rating, two-thirds of Americans (approximately 67%) approve of his recent coronavirus aid package, and nearly three-quarters (approximately 72%) approve of the current vaccine rollout. With the wind in his sails, Biden is gearing up to tackle more issues with sizeable public appeal – such as infrastructure and climate change

The Republican Party is struggling to whip up their base’s hatred for President Biden in the same way they were able to effectively tar Hilary Clinton and President Barack Obama. This has been a problem for them ever since President Biden announced his presidential bid, but of course, Biden is now in the White House. Without their singular villain, the GOP has moved their crosshairs from a who to a what. From the perspective of conservative media, that what  is “cancel culture” and liberal woke-ness, which former President Donald Trump called “completely alien to our culture and our values.”

Bans on transgender athletes are just the most recent iteration of what some experts and journalists are calling the GOP’s “culture war.” Earlier this year, the conservative establishment was seemingly outraged against the cancellation of Dr. Seuss, obsessed with New York Times tech reporter Taylor Lorenz, and more recently, the MLB’s decision to move the All-Star game out of Atlanta, among others.

What is dismaying about the wave of anti-trans legislating, in particular, is that it seems to defy public opinion from both sides of the aisle. According to PRRI’s 2020 ‘American Values Atlas‘, “more than three in four Americans (76%) favor laws that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodation.” Majorities of all partisan groups favor LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination – 86% of Democrats, 79% of independents, and 62% of Republicans, respectively. By these metrics, the GOP not only at odds with the majority of Americans but their own party.

Survey Question | April 10th, 2021

Should transgender female students be restricted from participating in female sports? (Percentage of 26,879 votes)

That being said, the conservative political apparatus has an uncanny ability to reframe issues in their favor with surgical, poll-tested precision. When pollsters asked whether people support or oppose transgender athletes competing in women’s sports, there was a significant swing. In early March, a Morning Consult-POLITICO poll asked respondents that very question referring to legislation passed in Mississippi and found that 53% of respondents supported the ban. When posted a similar question on April 10th, 56.07% of 26,879 respondents said that “transgender female students be restricted from participating in female sports.”

Framed through the lens of girls’ sports, transgender citizens participating in the sports team of their choice are viewed as devaluing the experiences of cis-gendered athletes. It is no longer about the equality of trans youth, but giving our cis- daughters, sisters, and friends a fair playing field. It is a compelling narrative. Of course, we want to give high-school and college cis-girls a chance to bring home a gold medal.

But here the thing: there is no evidence to suggest that there has suddenly been an influx of transgender athletic flooding into high-school and collegiate sports. Furthermore, while right-wing politicians and media personalities turn into bloodhounds sniffing out specific stories of transgender athletes trouncing their cisgender counterparts, there is no scientific evidence that transgender athletes have a demonstrable advantage. 

Conservative lawmakers often use testosterone as a means of displaying an unfair advantage, but as Katrina Karkazis, a senior visiting fellow and expert on testosterone and bioethics at Yale University explained to Scientific American: “Studies of testosterone levels in athletes do not show any clear, consistent relationship between testosterone and athletic performance. Sometimes testosterone is associated with better performance, but other studies show weak links or no links. And yet others show testosterone is associated with worse performance.”

It’s worth noting that the Republican Party has deployed similar tactics in the past. In 2004, for example, then-President Bush came out in favor of a constitutional ban on gay marriage, framing the concept of same-sex marriage as something that would depreciate the sanctity of traditional marriages. More recently in 2016, North Carolina passed a controversial “bathroom bill” that barred transgender citizens from using the bathroom of their choice – spurring a boycott from the NCAA. In that case, transgender citizens were egregiously framed as sexual predators violating the privacy of their cisgender counterparts.

History is repeating itself, but this time with more force than perhaps ever before. The underlying message of the GOP’s culture war against the transgender community is not about protecting the rights of women, but an attempt to stoke fear in their base and dog-whistle towards white grievance as a whole. Transgender athletes competing in high-school and collegiate sports is a non-issue, but their mere presence is symbolic of a more diverse, inclusive America – one welcomed by the vast majority of Americans. All efforts to codify discrimination against the trans community are attempts to fight against these positive shifts in our society.

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