The Facts Regarding Transgender Inclusion in the World of Sports

Disclaimer: SportsEvents magazine is passionate about all athletes, rights holders, and destinations. Therefore, we feel as if it is our duty to help get the facts regarding transgender athletes and inclusion. To get the facts, Summer Abston, managing editor, spoke with Joanna Hoffman of Athlete Ally, a national nonprofit advocating for LGBTQI+ inclusion in athletics. We are in no way, shape, or form discriminating against anyone, anywhere with the following piece but are instead providing the facts and framework so readers can form their own intelligent stances and opinions on what is the most debated topic in the industry.

Lia Thomas made headlines in March of this year becoming the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship for the women’s 500-yard freestyle in swimming with a time of 4:33.24. Placing second was Olympic silver medalist, Emma Weyant, only 1.75 seconds behind Thomas. While some media outlets had everyone believing Thomas beat everyone by a landslide, the 500-yard freestyle was the only meet she won. Additionally, during other meets at the competition, Thomas came in second, fifth, tenth, and even last place. While some sporting fans believe that Thomas was ranked first, after two years of hormone replacement therapy, she was ranked close to 50th.

Beyond the headlines were a tyranny of opinions from both sides—those rallying behind the inclusion of transgender athletes and those opposed wanting a different category altogether. However, what some people failed to realize was they were talking about another human being. At the basis of it all was a living, breathing person who never signed up to be a figurehead or a martyr for any specific movement. At heart was an athlete who loved sports and wished to compete in their category.

Athlete Ally is the leading organization regarding LGBTQI+ inclusion in sports.

While many facts and figures—both true and false—were floating around the internet and the media circuit, one group founded in January of 2011 was ready to showcase their decades-long research findings.

Joanna Hoffman, the director of communications for Athlete Ally, a national nonprofit Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex+ (LGBTQI+) athletic advocacy group based in the United States, says their main goal is to, “focus on making athletic communities more inclusive and less discriminatory and helping athletes to advocate for LGBTQ equality.”

According to the Athlete Ally website, they “believe that everyone should have equal access, opportunity, and experience in sports— regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Our mission is to end the rampant homophobia and transphobia in sport and to activate the athletic community to exercise their leadership to champion LGBTQI+ equality.”

The nonprofit also says that “sports remain one of the greatest socialization mechanisms in the world— it communicates values without relying on any one language, and its most successful participants are known and respected globally. And yet, an entire community of people remain systematically excluded from sport.”

Hoffman mentions they have several ways of going about their mission.

Hudson Taylor, the founder of Athlete Ally, is a former collegiate wrestler.

“First, we like to educate all our peers on LGBTQI+ in sports. We educate athletic communities at all levels— sport governing bodies, teams, and individual athletes— to understand the obstacles to inclusion for LGBTQI+ people in sports and how they can build inclusive communities on their teams or within their organizations. We also hold trainings across the country on college campuses, with front office staff of major sports leagues and institutions like the NBA, NCAA, and the MLB and with individual athletes. In 2018, we launched Champions of Inclusion, an online curriculum providing coaches and athletic departments with education and resources around critical issues facing LGBTQI+ athletes and tools for creating an inclusive environment for all.”

In addition to education, Athlete Ally has also launched an Athletic Equality Index (AEI) that helps measure inclusion policies and practices in the NCAA’s Power Five conferences.

“We update the AEI yearly,” says Hoffman. “Our AEI provides an invaluable baseline so we can continue to push for LGBTQI+ inclusive policies at all colleges and universities across the nation.”

However, one of the biggest ways that Athlete Ally educates others is by advocating the truth.

“We believe athlete activism should be expected and accepted. We incubate athlete activism through our Ambassador Program and organize platforms for athletes and sports institutions to advance LGBTQI+ civil rights, including mobilizing athletes and teams to voice their opposition to laws and policies that discriminate against LGBTQ people. We also have a long list of athletes across the nation that help us spread the word. While some are members of the LGBTQI+, others are simply straight allies,” mentions Hoffman.

The Athletic Equality Index measures how effective inclusion policies and procedures are across college campuses in America.

While Hoffman knows there are people for transgender athlete inclusion, there are some that are heavily against. Through extensive research done over the time span of a decade, Hoffman confirms that there is no, “tangible evidence that shows transgender athletes have a competitive advantage. We see these exclusion policies, and based on what we know from our research, we have this strong affirmation that there is little to no advantage at all.”

Hoffman states that fear mongering false information regarding the inclusion of transgender athletes does not only happen in policies and procedures—it happens online.

“Lia Thomas made headlines in March and was treated horribly regarding the notion that transgender women were taking over women’s sports. In last year’s Tokyo Olympics, there was one out of 54,000 athletes that was transgender—Chelsea Wolfe, a BMX rider. However, while people were saying men were overtaking the women, Wolfe did not even medal in the games.”

On a smaller scale, when asked about how transgender treatment is trickling down into youth sports, Hoffman says, “overall it is important to us that every athlete’s gender identity and gender expression is respected. For example, in schools it is not fair to tell a child that they can be who they are during the day, but when they go to soccer practice, they must be someone they are not.”

Being two different versions of oneself instead of one is at the core of it all for Athlete Ally. Transgender kids are more likely to get bullied than their cisgender counterparts and recluse in from typical youth activities.

“The argument the opposition of inclusion is using paints trans athletes as a threat to women’s sports. However, we have talked to several large figures in women’s sports such as Billie Jean King, Megan Rapinoe, and Candace Parker who say they do not see trans girls and women as threats to their sports at all. In fact, they welcome trans girls and women to their respective sports. Aside from a spoken acceptance, they also wrote letters to governing bodies saying the lifelong lessons that sports have given them need to be shared across the board.”

Research shows that participating in a youth or amateur sport makes youth less susceptible to outsider influences.

While some are accepting of transgender athletes, placing said athletes in another category is often brought up. When mentioned to Hoffman, she says, “placing trans athletes into a separate third and fourth category is harmful. Essentially, placing athletes in another category altogether only furthers the isolation and the discrimination that trans athletes face. At the end of the day, these are just people who found something in their life that gives them joy, allows them to connect with their friends and teammates, and makes their life better. All they are doing is the same thing their cisgender peers are. Trans athletes are not trying to take anything or hurt anyone, they just want to play with everyone else.”

While both the NCAA and International Olympic Committee (IOC) have released policies that allow trans athletes to compete in the cisgender category after proving hormone levels, Athlete Ally calls it groundbreaking but says it also needs some work moving forward.

“While the IOC guidelines were groundbreaking, they were pretty concerning to us. It does not include any safeguards against powerful and invasive procedures/treatments like mandatory surgeries or inspections. It also places the burden on college athletes to prove that they don’t have unfair advantages simply because of who they are while also deviating from the world professional association for trans health standards of care. Regarding the NCAA, we feel like they were responding to political pressure in a lot of ways. Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, talked about the fact that 80 percent of U.S. Olympians are former college athletes. However, we know that 98 percent of NCAA athletes do not make it to the Olympic level—essentially what works on an Olympic level does not automatically translate to college athletics. It is an uphill battle, but we are hoping that we can work with the NCAA to further mention inclusion and the appropriate measures moving forward.”