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Gender Identity: Limitations Within Sport 

By Shania Pagan

There is an ever expanding vocabulary for ways to express an individual’s identity. Over recent years, the use of preferred pronouns and added gender terminology have become more common in school and workplaces. With the growing acceptance of choice in terms of self-identification, inclusivity standards are raising as well. When it comes to inclusion in athletics programs, specifically amongst those in the transgender community, it has not been an easy process.

The definition of gender identity is “an individual’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else,” according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. But when gender identity is internal and not necessarily visible to others, it means outside opinion weighs heavily on what is and is not accepted.  Transgender people- a term for those whose gender identity or expression is different from that associated with their birth sex – are often subjected to the biases of others, especially when it comes to their inclusion with primarily cisgender people – those whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.

The gender spectrum being included in athletic participation is new, with no prior standard, and a smaller community of individuals who identify outside of being cisgender. This means that discrimination and biases are easily spread, and misunderstandings can be confused as fact. Currently in the United States, there are no federal standards to regulate inclusion of transgender individuals, instead it’s widely left up to a state’s discretion.

In 2011, the National Collegiate Athletic Association Office of Inclusion released the NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes resource, stating that “individual universities/colleges are well advised to proactively adopt policies and best practices that provide equal opportunities for transgender students to participate on sports teams.” The resource emphasizes the fact that athletic opportunities in a collegiate setting provide unique participation scenarios, and important experiences for students that last well beyond college life, an aspect that everyone should be entitled to experience. 

The policy separates standards for transgender athletes based on their usage of hormone therapy, which is used to induce physical changes in an individual’s body that is caused by estrogen or testosterone hormones during puberty. Those who are not currently using hormone therapy, must participate in organizations corresponding with their birth sex. If they are using testosterone or estrogen therapy, they must have medical examinations prior to participation. In some cases,  a full year of therapy must be complete before they are able to participate in programs of their presented gender. 

Educators and coaches need to understand that gender is complex. Genetic makeup and reproductive organs are not synonymous with talent, skill, and ability. All students deserve the right to have their seat present at the table, or spot on the field.

Those who choose to remain ignorant on the issue often use insulting and belittling arguments to protest transgender inclusion. This is included but not limited to, referring to trans persons as  “a man playing in a woman’s game,” stating that they “have an unfair advantage,” or even that “it’s not right for them to compete amongst real women and men.” 

Many personal beliefs and confusions are used to combat the inclusion of transgender people.

The truth is, there is a massive lack of research on the subject. This makes conclusions of genetic impact on ability difficult to measure across a broad and varied spectrum. However, it does not excuse misinformed opinions being used to implement on levels of inclusion or lack thereof. The fact that the Trans community is smaller, does not mean they are by any means less deserving of respect, decency, and a shared effort towards a better understanding of them as individuals.

Trans athletes have various levels of athletic ability, like any other person participating in sports. This is likely due to the fact that they are just another person, trying to compete without fear of harassment,  bullying, and unnecessary scrutiny from their counterparts.

The spread of misinformation breeds violence and increases danger against an already at risk community. According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, there were at least 37 known murders of transgender and gender non-conforming people in 2020. 

Trans rights are human rights, and transgender athletes deserve equal standards just as anyone else.

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