Trans athletes won’t be sidelined by bigotry

March 12, 2019

The controversy about the rights of trans women athletes has been missing a voice: trans women athletes. Isabelle Bartter adds the missing piece to what shouldn’t be a puzzle.

FOR WEEKS, I’ve been reading a volley of back-and-forth articles about trans women athletes competing in women’s sports, and I can’t help but feel like I’m the ball in someone else’s game.

That is a feeling I cannot put up with. Trans women athletes and coaches are speaking for ourselves, and we should be listened to.

I’ll get to the debate and the political landscape, but first, a little about myself.

I play Ultimate Frisbee. I fell in love with this sport in 2003 when I was a freshman in high school. I left all other sports for it. I didn’t apply to a single college or university that didn’t have an Ultimate team. Since then, I have played at all different levels, from recreational leagues to the national stage, mixed teams and women’s teams, on two continents and in three countries.

I’ve left my blood on the field. I’ve left my tears on the field. I’ve left everything I had left in me on the field. I have been injured, and I have been healed by Ultimate.

Protesting an anti-trans ban of athletes in Australia
Protesting an anti-trans ban of athletes in Australia

I have always tried to live up to the spirit of the game, but I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always been a gracious winner or a humble loser. I hope I have been both more often than not, but I have certainly grown up in Ultimate. It is my home. It’s my community.


MY HISTORY is why reading comments like those made by Martina Navratilova are so hurtful to me as a trans woman athlete.

Navratilova said in a recent article in the Sunday Times, “To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organization is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating.”

Navratilova’s argument not only ignores the fact that sports are necessarily a field where talent and training often overshadow physical ability (a fact she admits), but it also ignores the realities of transitioning in a world, and in a health care system, that often does not believe trans women should exist.

By setting up a false dichotomy between “transgender and transsexual athletes” where “transsexuals...have had the deed done, surgically,” Navratilova far too casually argues that for trans women to be able to compete in sports, we must undergo an outrageously expensive and life-threatening surgery which results, in her specific words, in our inability to have children.

Whether she meant it or not, Navratilova’s argument leads to the conclusion that trans women must undergo sterilization to compete.

While there is no compelling scientific evidence to suggest that trans women athletes have any competitive edge over cis women athletes when following the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) guidelines on testosterone levels over time, there is certainly no evidence or logic to suggesting that surgery does anything to impact competitive advantage at all — and even the IOC agrees.


THE LACK of evidence to support Navratilova’s claim that trans women will “win everything in sight” was challenged most systematically in a recent twitter thread by Brynn Tannehill, author of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Trans (But Were Afraid to Ask).

Tannehill starts: “Quick test: name a transgender Olympian off the top of your head. You can’t, because since the IOC started allowing transgender people to compete in 2004 there hasn’t been one.”

She then goes on to list “every major female trans athlete in the past 40 years” (Fallon Fox, Rachel Evans and Renee Richards). She concludes, “We have thoroughly field-tested the hypothesis that transgender athletes will dominate if they are allowed to compete, and statistically we can reject this hypothesis with high degree of certainty.”

Tannehill leaves out the one and only trans woman who has won a world title since 2004: Dr. Rachel McKinnon. In October 2018, McKinnon won a gold medal at the Cycling Masters World Track Championship in Los Angeles.

Unsurprisingly, this triggered an avalanche of attacks from some strange bedfellows who villainize trans women as men with an unfair advantage in women’s sports: proponents of trans-exclusionary reactionary “feminism” (TERFs) and the army of right-wing talking heads and alt-right trolls. McKinnon received hundreds of thousands of hateful messages online and in the mail.

Navratilova and others like her obscure the actual source of McKinnon’s win. When asked by Velo News if she had an unfair advantage, McKinnon replied by listing her less than perfect record and saying:

People who oppose transgender inclusion in sport put us in the double bind. It’s the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. If I win, they attribute it to me being trans and having an unfair advantage. If I lose, the same people think I must not be good anyway. People will never attribute my winning to hard work which is what I think I deserve.


LET’S TALK about those strange bedfellows of TERFs and the right wing that find themselves working together.

Most recently, Julia Beck, a self-proclaimed lesbian feminist, testified to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Beck, who spoke to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in February and at the Heritage Foundation in January, testified that transgender women would harm cis women in shelters, and must therefore be removed from the provision.

Far from being a threat, trans women are some of the most vulnerable to abuse. A 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 54 percent of trans women have reported experiencing some form of intimate partner violence.

Of course, statistics and facts don’t seem to matter to Beck or her Republican friends in Congress.

As for Navratilova, although she supposedly regrets that the right wing seized on her words, her recent quotes were used by Republican Rep. Lee Qualm to defend South Dakota House Bill 1225 — which, if enacted, would force high school students to compete in sports based on the sex on their birth certificate.

The bill failed in a 34-34 deadlock, but it’s the fourth anti-trans bill this season in South Dakota, so there are more opportunities to come.

The alliance of anti-trans “feminists” and the right goes back a generation, as laid out in a thorough investigation by Cole Parke. Parke quotes journalist Tina Vasquez, who noted:

In 1980, Janice Raymond, lesbian scholar and anti-trans activist, “wrote a report for the Reagan administration called “Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery,” which informed the official federal position on medical care for trans people. The paper’s conclusion reads, “The elimination of transsexualism is not best achieved by legislation prohibiting transsexual treatment and surgery, but rather by legislation that limits it and by other legislation that lessens the support given to sex-role stereotyping.”

Parke adds:

Another example of right-wing players building off of TERF scholarship features Dr. Paul McHugh, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. McHugh co-authored a statement that claims that respecting transgender children’s identities causes them harm and is akin to “child abuse.”

Among McHugh’s primary sources? Sheila Jeffreys, another lesbian scholar and anti-trans activist. Jeffreys recently retired after 24 years of teaching at the University of Melbourne but remains highly influential. She refers to gender-affirmation surgery (also known as gender-reassignment surgery) as a form of mutilation and describes the “practice of transgenderism” as harmful and a “human rights violation.”

Parke concludes: “While the right lays siege to some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community, it’s TERFs who may actually be guilty of drafting their talking points.”


TERFS AND the right wing have the same goal, which Tannehill sums up perfectly: “segregating transgender people from society, and driving them from public life.”

For trans women athletes, our communities and even social safety nets are defined by our sports in some cases. Or at least, that was the case for me.

When I transitioned, I took all nine years of my history in Ultimate Frisbee with me. When the world rejected me and literally threw me out into the streets, Ultimate was still there. Like the north star in a very dark night, Ultimate was more than a sport, it was a source of hope.

I remember my first tournament after I started transitioning. After so much had changed, it felt so familiar. Many of my college teammates were there, and some even encouraged me to play. I don’t know what I would have done without them. I don’t know what I would have done without Ultimate.

So when someone like Julia Beck or Martina Navratilova tells me I shouldn’t be playing the sport I love as the woman I am, it’s more than an insult. It’s a threat to something that has been a lifeline for me in the hardest times. And for what? For the sake of scoring ideological points in a political chess game being played on the backs of me and my sisters? It’s disgusting.

The bitter irony for me is that, despite what transphobic academics want people to believe, as athletes, trans women still face all the same sexism in sports that cis women face.

A few years ago, I was asked to try out for a professional Ultimate team by someone on the coaching staff. That year, another woman went out for a team in the Midwest and did really well. From what I heard, she would have made the team, but at the last minute, a decision was made nationally that women could not play in the league — it would officially be male-only.

I got a call about an hour before the combine was set to start and was told that I was welcome to come and try out, but no matter my performance, I would not be given a spot on the team.

What no one seems to want to mention about trans women in sports is that after everything, we’re women. We face all the challenges that life, the GOP, the alt right and TERFs throw at us, and then if we make it through all that, we are still women, playing women’s sports.

Those of us who do dare to compete do so with the understanding that we must fight for women’s sports, for all women, and it’s an uphill battle. Women athletes are still systematically paid less than men and treated as an afterthought in every level of sports. Even the greatest tennis player of all time, Serena Williams, cannot get angry at bad calls like her male peers without being torn apart in the news.

Perhaps if TERFs actually cared about women’s sports, instead of pushing their backwards, transphobic agenda that paints women as permanently biologically determined second-class athletes, they could tackle some of the real issues affecting women athletes.

I am happy to report that, because of the courage of two women pioneers, Jessi Jones and Jesse Shofner, the latter of whom organized a boycott of her own league to protest gender inequality, the professional Ultimate Frisbee league had five women among its 23 teams in 2018.

This isn’t perfect, but it’s a win for all women athletes, cis and trans alike.

I’m also grateful that, for the last five years, I have been able to coach high school Ultimate. My student athletes have made me a better player and a better person. I hope I have been able to pass on something that I’ve learned to them, and maybe to you as well: that sports, too, is a site of struggle.

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