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Conservative Lawmakers Say Banning Trans Youth From Sports Will Keep the Competition Fair. Some Harvard D1 Athletes Disagree.

By Megan M. Ross
By Miles J. Herszenhorn, Crimson Staff Writer

In 2022, the number of states banning transgender athletes from school sports doubled.

This year alone, nine states passed legislation banning transgender youth athletes from competing on sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. As of June 2022, there are 18 states around the country with such laws.

Many legislators in those statehouses pointed to Lia C. Thomas — who became the first trans athlete to win a Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association in March — as justification for passing anti-transgender laws preventing young people from competing in athletics.

Some lawmakers and conservative pundits claimed Thomas, who competed with the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s swimming team, possessed an unfair advantage over her NCAA Division I opponents because she is transgender.

Some current and former Division I athletes at Harvard, however, criticized the legislation being passed around the country and said it does not target athletes competing in elite-level sports.

Schuyler M. Bailar ’19, who made headlines competing at Harvard as the first openly trans NCAA Division I swimmer, said that most of the legislation is “focusing on children” and centering around sports in K-12 schools.

“We’re not talking about the NCAA, we’re not talking about college athletics, we’re not talking about elite-level sports,” Bailar added. “You’re definitely not talking about the Olympics or professional level sports.”

Bailar said this distinction is critical to understand because it means the legislation “doesn’t directly impact” someone like him from being able to compete in sports.

“We’re talking about Sally playing volleyball with her friends in eighth grade,” he said. “We’re talking about Johnny who wants to kick a soccer ball around with his friends in fourth grade.”

South Dakota, Iowa, Utah, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, South Carolina, Indiana, and Louisiana passed legislation in 2022 effectively banning transgender youth from competing on school sports teams. The state laws are far more overreaching than the guidelines for transgender athletes competing in the NCAA and the Olympics, which do not presume trans athletes have an advantage over their cisgender competitors and require evidence to prove otherwise.

But in June 2022, FINA — the international governing body for swimming — introduced new rules that effectively ban transgender women from competing in women’s swimming competitions. FINA’s new regulations, which establish some of the most severe restrictions in international sports on the participation of transgender athletes, were criticized by BGLTQ rights advocates.

“FINA’s new eligibility criteria for transgender athletes and athletes with intersex variations is deeply discriminatory, harmful, unscientific and not in line with the 2021 International Olympic Committee framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations,” Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, wrote in a statement.

Bailar said in a June 19 TikTok that the new FINA rules are “not about preserving fairness.”

“It’s about trying to exclude trans people and it continues the policing of women’s bodies in sports,” Bailar said.

According to McKenzie E. Forbes ’23, who competes on Harvard’s women’s basketball team, lawmakers are passing these bills in the name of protecting athletes without consulting the athletes themselves.

“Even though I don’t think that anyone who’s not trans should even have an opinion on the matter, I do think that athletes are weaponized to work in favor of passing these bills that are very much transphobic,” Forbes said.

According to a 2022 survey from the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for BGLTQ young people, 83 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth are “worried” about legislation passed around the country banning kids from competing on sports teams that correspond with their gender identity.

Forbes said she believes transgender youth should decide for themselves what team they want to compete on.

“I think that trans athletes should be allowed to play in the sport with the gender that they identify with,” Forbes added. “Point blank, period.”

Michael Y. Cheng ’22, who competed withfor Harvard’s men’s lightweight rowing team, said that the laws being passed around the country have less to do with the actual athletics and more to do with the state’s politics.

“It depends on what part of the country you’re in,” Cheng said. “That seems to be a lot of the reason why you see these bills succeed in some states but not others.”

Forbes said “there’s more that can be done” by Ivy League athletes to support their transgender peers — both in the league and in general.

“Cisgender athletes need to speak out and stand up,” Forbes said.

“Even amongst us there’s differing opinions,” she added. “But I think those of us who believe in trans rights [must] speak up and use our platform and advocate for that.”

Bailar said he believes the national discourse about trans athletes “needs to shift to prioritize facts.”

“There’s a lot of people that are misinformed about trans people that just don’t know any better,” Bailar added.

— Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

This piece is part of The Crimson’s 2022 Pride Month special issue.

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