How State Legislation Bans on Transgender Athletes Could Impact Transgender Youths
By Sean Fischer – Associate Dean for External Affairs, Rowan University
Over the past several weeks there have been 30 bills introduced, three of which were signed into law, that restrict transgender people participating in high school and/or college athletic programs. Often presented under the guise of “fairness in competition,” politicians have suggested that these bills are necessary and are thus an effective use of the government’s time. However, behind those gentle sounding assertions there is a discernible insincerity to that narrative. While such bills may currently be popular, if there was ever a solution actively looking for a problem, it is this one. Legislatures across the nation are passing these exclusionary bills to satiate political constituencies who harbor sensationalized fears, but by doing so they have targeted young people who already face herculean challenges. By passing these bills in an effort score political points, legislators are creating unnecessary public policy for an issue that does not need it, while de facto ignoring a host of other issues that merit the governments’ attention.
Terminology and Statistics
For the purposes of clarity, the phrase “assigned male/female at birth” is used to describe physical characteristics visible at birth. The term “gender” is used to indicate the broad spectrum of cultural attitudes and beliefs that have typically been assigned to each sex. Cisgender describes an individual whose gender aligns with the sex assigned at their birth. Transgender describes someone whose gender does not align with the sex assigned at their birth.
Statistically, a mere 0.6 percent of the entire United States population has identified themselves as transgender. That number moves up marginally to 0.7 percent among individuals 13–17 years of age. While the ratio of transgender people to cisgender people seeking to participate in high school and collegiate athletics is difficult to ascertain, it can be inferred that that ratio must be low. Stated alternatively, in 30 states, legislators have bothered with bills that target for exclusion a small fraction of an already statistically low, yet highly vulnerable population. The needless effort to exclude that small fraction of people from participating in programs considered a rite of passage suggests an unfortunate callousness among certain elected leaders, and is arguably a dereliction of responsibility in the face of so many other pressing concerns sitting before us.
The bills seek to ensure that transgender athletes are prohibited from athletic participation among their cisgender peers, but the specific fear being addressed within the aforementioned constituencies is that cisgender women will be forced to compete against individuals who were assigned male at birth. Even if we park the spectrum of nuances within the gender identity discussion, that argument is demonstrably misogynistic in tone. For such an argument to make any sense, one must conclude that anyone assigned as male at birth; regardless of talent, effort, dedication, etc.; is inherently athletically superior to all those assigned as female at birth. So much so that we need actual state-wide legislation to maintain “fairness.” It perpetuates the old trope that women need rescuing, while affirming antiquated gender-role expectations. It is also patently not true. Women who emerge as elite athletes devote themselves to competition and adjust, adapt, and overcome as all elite athletes do.
What Does It Take to Be an Athlete?
To that point, let us look at what it takes to become a truly elite athlete. Between all three NCAA divisions, there are about 480,000 places on athletic teams. Of that total, slightly less than 32 percent receive an athletic scholarship (about 150,000 people). That means about 0.2 percent of the United States population under the age of 18 might qualify as good enough to receive funding through the NCAA. From there, if we limit this discussion to only basketball, men who play in college have a 0.03 percent chance of being drafted by a professional team; for women it is 0.02 percent. For the Olympics, the 2020 USA team featured about 600 athletes in total, and if we limit the age range for what is most common to the games (ages 15–40) it means roughly 0.0009 percent might qualify for an Olympic spot.
Therefore, for any of these bills to actually be necessary, we have to conclude that not only are all males inherently athletically superior to even the most dedicated females, but that a potentially elite, cisgender woman’s path to an NCAA, professional, or Olympic spot will be interrupted by a transgender woman who happens to come from a fraction of 0.7 percent of the teenage population of the entire country and is coincidentally from the same geographic region.
The likelihood that such an encounter would happen, let alone ensure that the cisgender woman’s path forward was blocked by it, has to be statistically less than simultaneously being struck by lightning while winning the lottery during a plane crash.
Arguments that individuals will falsely claim transgender status to somehow game the system are as unlikely as they are absurd. To suggest that young people would compromise their identities simply to take advantage of a passing athletic advantage or that already elite athletes will make some obviously ham-handed attempt at it defies logic. The window dressing of advocacy “for women” and for “fairness” being used to exclude vulnerable children is political theater at its worst. Nevertheless, there are legislators in at least 30 states who believe it to be a valuable use of governments’ time and effort.
Transgender Athletes versus Other Social Issues
Transgender youth face a series of sociological challenges and threats of violence on a routine basis. Their mental and physical well-being is often in jeopardy; many face difficult home lives and denying them the simple release and enjoyment of participating in activities with their peers is cruel; and it stands in tension with the recommendations of the broader psychological and medical communities on issues of gender identity.
Politically speaking, it is puzzling that we as a nation have not found more common ground on this issue. The lion’s share of these bills were introduced, and were signed into law, by Republicans, with some suggestion that these bills are developed in response to governmental “overreach” on social issues by Democrats—most notably President Biden’s recent executive order on preventing discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, and the passing of the Equality Act in the House of Representatives.
Partisans will surely debate the merits of Biden’s actions and the Equality Act, nevertheless based on the aforementioned data and the lack of any qualifiable evidence suggesting opportunities for cisgender women are being compromised, we can fairly suggest there is simply not a problem to solve here. Ironically, these Republican-marshalled bills are arguably the essence of governmental overreach in and of themselves—something Republicans have traditionally opposed—as they create superfluous intrusive policies.
Furthermore, defending human dignity, civil rights, and protecting our most vulnerable citizens are articulated commitments of each major party. James Madison famously contended that protecting the rights of minorities from the overreach of the majority is a formal and purposeful part of the mechanism of the government of the United States. Thus, it stands to reason that the exclusionary targeting of such a small fraction of any state’s population is antithetical to the idea of Americanism, at least as defined by Adams and Jefferson.
Legislation, Leadership, and Onward
It behooves us as a people to ensure equity and inclusion for our vulnerable citizens, in particular those who have demonstrated the courage to be who they are despite the challenges it will bring; and it also behooves us to create space to hear those who might have made conclusions regarding transgender athletic participation from a place of nescient sincerity. Americans freely admit to having only a limited understanding of the nuances of transgender issues. Members of the public may be unaware of the aforementioned numbers, the absence of any meaningful qualifiable data, and might not fully appreciate how these legislative efforts further stigmatize and isolate at-risk children and young people. While we need to ensure the protection of civil rights, we can also leverage the benefits of—and have the capacity to listen. When we do so, we often find that Americans as a rule are optimistic and cringe at needless cruelty, in particular when it comes to governmental actions.
Therefore, when elected leaders argue that these pieces of legislation are demanded by their voters, they do so in a way that betrays the American capacity for decency. Surely elected leaders have a responsibility to represent their constituents, but sometimes that means they need (and we should expect them) to collaborate with each other, to lead, educate, and assure away their constituents’ fears. It is the job of the elected leader to not only hear what it is their constituents want, but to also deliver what it is they need. As illustrated throughout this piece, not only are these bills not needed, but they undermine the dignity of brave children and young people. Furthermore, in all instances, we expect elected officials will not waste our time and resources developing solutions for problems that do not exist.
For support resources, or to learn more about transgender issues, please visit The Human Rights Campaign. If you enjoyed this article, you can read more bipartisan debates, op-eds, and interviews here.
Sean M. Fischer, Ed.D, has taught and currently teaches American History & American Government at a number of colleges. He's previously produced a public affairs radio show (Spotlight on Atlantic City, 96.1 WTTH) and is a veteran of numerous political campaigns.