Failing to Understand the Outrage Over Transgendered Athletes in Sports

woman with basketball

There are an awful lot of things I don't understand, and I am fine with admitting that. One that has been on my mind lately because it keeps cropping up on various blogs I visit and on Twitter is the outrage some are experiencing over the idea that transgendered athletes might wish to participate in sports. Because I realize I don't get it, I am going to try to put myself in the shoes of someone who strongly opposes this by describing what I imagine must be the worst case scenario. I am telling you this at the outset because I don't want you to think I am not taking the subject seriously; as a worst case scenario, what I am about to describe is supposed to be extreme.

We will suppose that you are the proud parent of a 15 year-old who plays on her high school's basketball team. She's the tallest student on the team, and she plays the center position. She's an average player in terms of ability. Her coach has been fairly pleased with her performance when her team as the ball but wishes her defensive play was stronger. In any case, your daughter really likes basketball, and you have enjoyed seeing how it has helped her come out of her shell and gain some self-confidence. After all, being a 15-year-old girl has never been easy.

At the beginning of the next school year, you learn that a new student has joined the team. This particular student is transgendered, a biological male who identifies as a female. The school was able to accommodate everyone with regard to restroom and locker room facilities, so that isn't the issue we need to consider here. What we need to consider is that this student is much taller, stronger, and better coordinated than your daughter. Remember when I said at the outset that this was going to be a worst case scenario? This student...well...picture a transgendered version of Shaquille O'Neal. She's an absolute beast on the court, and your daughter cannot come close to competing. This new student dominates the paint, and your daughter has been spending most of her time on the bench.

Putting myself in your shoes, I'd have to imagine that this doesn't seem fair to your daughter. What are our options? We could prohibit transgendered athletes across the board, booting this new girl from the team. That might make you and your daughter happy, but I'm having trouble seeing it as fair to any of the transgendered athletes who would be affected. Remember how helpful basketball was to your daughter's self-confidence? Why should someone be deprived of having a similar opportunity just because they are transgendered? I agree that it sucks that your daughter's playing time is now limited, but is this really any different from what would have happened if a much better cisgendered player had been added to the team? Your daughter is an average player. If her coach had access to a cisgendered center who was about to set the college world on fire, how much playing time to you think your daughter would get? Not much, and we wouldn't be able to claim that this had anything to do with testosterone levels, chromosomes, etc.

The other issue isn't yours but the one the parents of all the girls on every team that has to compete against your daughter's team are facing. When they go to the games, all they see is this Shaq-like force-of-nature who towers over their daughters, could probably bench-press a few of them at a time, and can easily swat their shots away whenever she pleases. Is this the real reason you get so upset over the idea of transgendered athletes? Is it more about perceiving the competition as unfair because of various physical attributes? So again, what are our options? We could ban transgendered athletes, but that still doesn't seem fair. I'm also not sure what that teaches our children.

What would change if we took the transgendered aspect away for a moment? The new player joining your daughter's team is biologically female but still towers over the other girls, is much stronger and faster than them, and is a far superior player in every way. We might imagine her as the sort of girl who everyone could tell was going to be a star in college and probably make it into the pros. Would we want to ban her from playing too?

Here's where I seem to be getting stuck in understanding your perspective: is what really bothers you that you think the transgendered athlete simply looks too masculine, or is it that you believe such an athlete will necessarily be superior solely because of biological differences? If it is the former (i.e., their physical appearance), I have a hard time seeing that as anything other than bigotry. If it is the second, I question the assumption you seem to be making. I am a cisgendered man who played basketball just enough in my youth to know that I wasn't any good at it. When I was 15, I am fairly confident that any of the 15 year-old girls on my high school's basketball team could have embarrased me on the court even though I would have had an advantage over all of them in terms of both height and upper-body strength. Had I been transgendered and joined their team, I would have embarrassed them whenever they put me in.

Am I missing something here? Is there another reason I haven't touched on that explains why you find this so upsetting?