Trolling and Controlling: Harming Trans Athletes Is Not a Humanist Sport

A few weeks ago this story was shared on the Facebook page of the American Humanist Association (AHA) to celebrate a preliminary injunction by a federal judge against Idaho’s backwards Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. The comments thread quickly devolved into a malicious and transphobic free-for-all. Faced with an onslaught of posts that violated our social media guidelines, our social media coordinator brought the social justice department in to assist. It took nearly three hours for all of us to properly moderate the conversation, and we’re still actively monitoring the post because the vitriol hasn’t stopped.

As a team, we did a post mortem: What could we have done differently to stem the harm early? Should we have taken the post down? What can we do better next time? But this exercise doesn’t change the fact that our social media platforms, which are intended to be a positive space where humanists from all over the country can share perspectives and build community, fostered harm with that post.

So, while elsewhere we’re working on repairing that harm, I’d like to use this space to lay out our perspective. To be clear, as a cisgender heterosexual woman, I am not writing on behalf of transgender athletes. And I encourage people who haven’t already taken in perspectives from transgender athletes to do so now. I also will not attempt to debunk every harmful, transphobic, and transmisogynist myth shared on our page about transgender athletes. Others have already done that more thoroughly than I could.

Instead, let’s focus on the specifics of the Idaho law—the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act—that was scheduled to go into effect this summer alongside another new state law prohibiting people from changing the gender listed on their birth certificate (the latter, proposed under the guise of supporting accurate record keeping, was struck down).

The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act would ban student athletes from participating in girls’ school sports if they do not meet specific criteria. Here’s how the law would determine whether or not a student can participate:

A dispute regarding a student’s sex shall be resolved by the school or institution by requesting that the student provide a health examination and consent form or other statement signed by the student’s personal health care provider that shall verify the student’s biological sex. The health care provider may verify the student’s biological sex as part of a routine sports physical examination relying only on one (1) or more of the following: the student’s reproductive anatomy, genetic makeup, or normal endogenously produced testosterone levels. [Full text available here.]

Simply put, in order to participate in student athletics, women and girls would have to “prove” they are cisgender (and in effect possibly “prove” they are endosex by subjecting themselves to invasive exams and tests to assess their chromosomal makeup, external genitalia, and/or testosterone levels. These invasive assessments are founded on a scientifically debunked understanding of sex and gender. The law says nothing of men’s and boys’ school sports. What’s more, it’s the only law of its kind in the US, though similar bills have been introduced in at least sixteen states. Opponents of the law claim it’s unconstitutional. In this view, it violates the Fourth Amendment protecting US citizens against unlawful search and seizure, and it violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

So those are the facts.

The AHA, along with our secular partners, opposed these anti-trans bills in Idaho and celebrates this announcement from the court.

We also contend it’s no accident that anti-trans activists support the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act under the guise of protecting women, even though this law would lead to traumatic and invasive experiences for transgender women, intersex women, and any student athlete participating in women’s sports who appears too masculine, too strong, or even perhaps too successful. That’s a perverse form of paternalism if I’ve ever seen one. So, I ask; Who is this law protecting?

There are so many gender issues that need to be addressed on the state level, but Idaho legislators chose this issue. Why might that be? If legislators want to get serious about protecting women’s rights, I recommend they address real problems. In Idaho, 20.8 percent of female students in Idaho have experienced sexual assaults (5 percent more than the US average) and LGBTQ girls are being led to suicide because of religious doctrine, alongside so many other longstanding forms of gender-based discrimination and violence.

But we also have to ask: What are we protecting students from? With the scientific evidence available, sporting bodies have determined that transgender athletes do not have an unfair advantage over cisgender athletes. The NCAA, for example, has had regulations inclusive of transgender athletes for at least the last ten years. And the Idaho High School Activities Association has clear guidelines that allow students to participate in athletic programs that are consistent with their gender identity. School athletics teach young people about teamwork, goal setting, self-esteem, and, yes, they also teach about healthy competition. Shouldn’t all students get the opportunity to participate in that learning, and shouldn’t they be able to do that authentically?

Let’s not mince words. Laws that try to prevent trans athletes from participating in sports or prevent trans students from using the bathroom most suitable for them aren’t about protecting women and girls. They’re about shaming and controlling transgender bodies. Anti-transgender activists have lost the discriminatory fight for bathrooms and so have moved on to athletics.

Sports have always been a platform where rights are negotiated and fought for. And women having to prove their “womanhood” isn’t new (see the history of the “nude parade” of women athletes).

As humanists, what kind of society do we want? I would hope it’s one guided by scientific evidence but founded on the dignity and worth of every human being. Personally, I was ashamed of how our community represented itself on Facebook that day. While I’m sure a fair number of commenters were trolls, we also must consider that vitriolic and harmful comments also came from humanists. That’s something we will continue to reckon with.

For this humanist, and for the American Humanist Association as an organization, bone density and femur-to-hip angles—major points of contention from our Facebook comments—do not make a person, do not make an athlete, and do not make a woman. I’m encouraged that our sports and schools continue to evolve to be more inclusive. I hope humanists are open to doing the same.