Printed books Reflections

Supporting Transgender Athletes

Letting trans people be who they are—and do what they love

Featured image: Swimmer Lia Thomas. Photograph by Donald Miralle for Sports Illustrated

By Alex Dimeff, graphic designer

In his indispensable guide Supporting Transgender Students, Alex Myers advises educators on how to accommodate students of all genders, drawing on his own experiences as a teacher and as a trans man. Myers first came out as trans in 1995, at the beginning of his senior year of high school. Athletics had always been a big part of his life, and this presented complications. He recalls, “I had gone from being, at age seventeen, a very strong, very fit, very athletic young woman to being—in an instant—a short, small, weak boy.” 

Fortunately, Myers found ways to keep sports in his life. He continued to play on girls’ teams for his final year of high school, and he later joined co-ed clubs at his university. Eventually, after starting testosterone in his twenties, he competed against other men in races and triathlons. He never stopped being an athlete at heart, but he still remembers the pain of deciding against playing varsity sports in college. He knew that he couldn’t make a men’s team and worried that joining a women’s team “would in some way be admitting I wasn’t ‘really’ a boy.” It was a hard decision. “Athletics had been a major part of my identity as a kid and adolescent . . . I missed sports tremendously.”

It’s a striking moment. Here, in a book about gender identity, Myers is discussing his identity as an athlete. In doing so, he’s resisting a certain framework, one that equates identity entirely with demographic categories. Of course, factors like gender, language, race, and class play enormous roles in our experiences and self-perception—but they are not the end of the story. Are you an artist, a math whiz, a basketball player, a movie buff? Are you outgoing? Are you shy? Do you follow a sports team? Do you collect anything? Your answers to these questions probably say something about how you see yourself.

If we flatten trans people so that their gender identity is the only important thing about them, the question of sports may appear trivial. Giving up varsity ice hockey or basketball may seem like a minor sacrifice for the chance to live openly in your true gender. But trans people are, well, people, and this means that gender is only one aspect of who they are. 

Unfortunately, trans athletes are often placed in positions where they must prioritize either their gender or the sport they’ve dedicated years of their lives to. Recent years have seen much debate about trans people—especially trans women—competing in athletics. Some regulatory bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) now use guidelines about hormone levels or length of hormone therapy treatment when determining which genders an athlete can compete against. While this is progress from an outright ban of openly trans competitors, Alex Myers worries about forcing high school and college students to “weigh continued athletic competition (which many come with scholarship opportunities among other things) against medical reassignment.”

His concerns are well founded. Lia Thomas, the swimmer who made headlines earlier this spring as the first trans athlete to win a NCAA Division I championship, recalls a period of painful ambivalence during her sophomore year at University of Pennsylvania. She was experiencing overwhelming levels of gender dysphoria. Some days, she missed classes. Other days, she could barely leave bed. But despite this, she’d had a strong season on the men’s swim team, finishing second in three races at the Ivy League championships. She worried about the effect hormone replacement therapy (HRT) might have on her athleticism. “I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer. It’s what I’ve done for so long; it’s what I love.” She finally made the decision to start HRT in spring 2019, “knowing and accepting I might not swim again.” 

Three years later, Thomas snagged the NCAA national title in the women’s 500-yard freestyle, a controversial victory that earned her such appellations as “the trans swimmer dividing America.” Much of the resistance towards trans women athletes grows from a protectiveness of women’s sports. “The physical and biological reality is that if all spaces on all sports teams went to the strongest and fastest players (etc.), there would be far fewer girls on high school sports teams,” Alex Myers acknowledges. “Yet in the same breath I would claim that there is room on girls teams for transgender and gender non-conforming athletes, and that there is room in a high school sports program for all-gender teams.”

There may not be one single solution for making professional, nonprofessional, collegiate, and high school sports more accessible to trans and nonbinary athletes. It will probably take some flexibility and some creativity—and, above all, some empathy. When covering issues related to trans people, the media often presents policies and ideologies in the abstract—the sort of discussion that a frightening number of thinkpieces have labeled “the transgender debate.” But at the end of the day, we’re not debating ideas. We’re talking about people, real people with a range of personalities, passions, and needs. That’s what trans people keep asking cis people to remember. 

Decisions about how, when, and whether to medically transition are complex, highly personal ones. By making trans athletes more welcome in the sports world, we might be able to make those decisions just a little easier for some people. No one should have to sacrifice their passion in order to live openly in their real gender.  As Lia Thomas remarked following her groundbreaking victory, “I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone. . . . They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.”

Supporting Transgender Students: Understanding Gender Identity and Reshaping School Culture by Alex Myers is available here.

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