Under what circumstances can transgender girls and women play women’s scholastic sports? That question is nuanced and complicated and worthy of thoughtful discussion. Should younger athletes be able to compete as girls if that’s their gender identity? Should older high school athletes first have to undergo hormone treatment to ensure that their testosterone levels track typical female levels, as the NCAA requires of transgender college athletes? How do you balance the human right simply to be accepted as what you are with the possibility that some transgender athletes could have an advantage? Hard questions. And reasonable people can disagree — or even change their minds as more evidence and testimony comes to light. In other words, the issue requires some dexterity. Unfortunately, it proved too much for Florida’s clumsy Legislature.
No, the Republican-led Legislature effectively claims there is no such thing as a transgender athlete. A bill heading to Gov. Ron DeSantis uses this definition: “A statement of a student’s biological sex on the student’s official birth certificate is considered to have correctly stated the student’s biological sex.” This bill erases the very possibility of a transgender female athlete. Born a boy — or at least identified as one on the birth certificate — always a boy, no matter what. And that’s just not right.
It’s hard to be a kid. Every tiny difference — shoes that aren’t cool, a haircut that’s not fashionable — can be a painful opportunity to be singled out for ridicule or worse. But shoes get replaced, and hair grows out. Now imagine a transgender kid. It’s not a choice, it’s just what is. No wonder transgender youth face high rates of anxiety and depression. More than three out of every 10 transgender kids had attempted suicide in the preceding year, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey. They hadn’t just thought about suicide. They had taken steps to end their lives. Now the Florida Legislature has made them feel even more like outsiders.
The CDC estimates that a mere 2 percent of high school students are transgender. The number of transgender athletes is even smaller. And the only known examples of transgender girls winning high school championships are two Connecticut sprinters years ago. Meantime, transgender kids — athletic or not — must wonder what their state legislators think of them. And their hope for acceptance dwindles still more.
Transgender kids can figure out the best way to express their gender identity — whether to simply transition socially and begin dressing and acting in accordance with their identity, whether to undergo hormone treatment or, later, even whether to have surgery. But none of those choices change the core fact: They are transgender. The bill that passed in the Legislature doesn’t acknowledge that reality.
There is fair-minded disagreement about how and when transgender girls and women can compete in women’s sports, particularly at elite levels. The competing concerns can seem asymmetrical: the right to be valued as what you are vs. mere games. But games do matter, and competition has to be fair. Science can assist, but it can’t provide the solutions, which aren’t black and white in any case. One thing that is certain: For transgender Floridians, a birth certificate is most emphatically not the final word on who they are. But Thursday night at a town hall of red state governors hosted by Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, DeSantis said he will sign the bill. “We’re going to protect our girls,” is how he framed it.
Rather than planting a flag on the latest hill of the culture wars, the Republican-led Legislature should have acknowledged that birth certificates aren’t destiny, honored the reality of transgender Floridians and worked on a fair way for them to compete as what they are.
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