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The Importance of Creating Inclusive Teams for Transgender Runners

During LGBTQ+ Pride month, advocates are fighting for transgender athletes to have their opportunity to fairly compete.

On March 30, the state of Idaho enacted House Bill 500, which effectively banned transgender girls and women from competing in sports at the collegiate level. In response, letters supporting transgender runners and athletes have been drafted to the NCAA requesting that all future events be moved out of Idaho. 

The letters, which were signed by nearly 60 organizations; dozens of professional athletes; and more than 500 collegiate athletes, call out the danger of such discrimination: “Transgender students already participate at significantly lower rates and feel unsafe in athletic spaces. Further, while the harm of this law explicitly falls on transgender girls, the impact extends even further. Idaho’s new law is the first in the country to categorically ban transgender girls from sports statewide, but past research has found that when states adopt policies that create new barriers for transgender athletes to participate in sports, the number of participants in sports among all LGBTQ youth drops.”

In response, the NCAA made a public statement that the Board of Governors would meet in August to discuss the legislation, adding: “Idaho’s House Bill 500 and resulting law is harmful to transgender student-athletes and conflicts with the NCAA’s core values of inclusivity, respect and the equitable treatment of all individuals.” 

Part of the resistance to creating inclusive spaces comes from false information that those who transition to their correct gender identity of female have an unfair advantage over cisgender female athletes due to their exposure to testosterone. 

Joanna Harper has dedicated her professional life to proving that idea is scientifically untrue. She recently moved to England to continue her research and to finish getting her PhD at Loughborough University. Her goal is to understand what exactly happens to trans people when they go through hormone therapy. “We have embarked on a research project that’s probably going to last 10 to 12 years. It will take a while to get good, solid data on transgender athletes,” she says.

Generally, during a male to female (MTF) transition, the person will take estrogen and an androgen blocker that suppresses testosterone. The goal is to have hormone levels mimic that of a cisgender woman. Anecdotally, many trans runners see their race times dip dramatically from before their transition. 

“How much the athletic performance mimics that of cisgender women is not entirely known at this point,” says Harper. Working with physiologists, physicians at a nearby gender clinic, and social scientists, she hopes to use data to help transgender athletes compete fairly.

“There have been numerous questions over the past few years about exactly what international sporting federations should do with transgender athletes. And not just international federations, but national and even high school. We absolutely hope that the data we’ll get will help sporting federations at all levels make better rules in regard to transgender athletes,” she says.

It is important to note that not all trans people choose to go through hormone therapy—and they have a right to participate in sports, too. 

All this comes at a time when other rights for transgender folks are being rolled back. Just last week, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that they would be “returning to the government’s interpretation of sex discrimination according to the plain meaning of the word ‘sex’ as male or female and as determined by biology.” The change leaves transgender people without protection within the Affordable Care Act, making them vulnerable to discrimination. It could also make it more challenging to get care for gender transitions—which is a barrier to competing for some athletes. 

Many athletes have voiced their concern to the NCAA and proudly announced their allyship to trans athletes.  Here are some other ways to create an inclusive space in running groups and competition.

Listen and mirror.

You may not know somebody’s comfort level talking about their gender identity at first. If it is something they want to talk about, let them take the lead, and listen. “We talk about mirroring language,” Cavender Salvadori, program manager with the You Can Play Project, an organization dedicated to inclusivity in sport. “If a person says they use they/them pronouns, then you just mirror that. Don’t gender someone based on appearance.”

Act as if you have an LGBTQ+ person on your team.

The You Can Play Project advocates for teams to act proactively, rather than reactively, by creating a space that is inclusive and welcoming through language and actions. “When someone is thinking about coming out, they often look for signs that they will be accepted,” says Salvadori. 

One service offered by You Can Play is an educational workshop for teams, coaches, and schools to learn about LGBTQ+ inclusion in athletics. Even if you think you are an inclusive group, part of being a good ally is staying up to date on knowledge about the community you’re trying to include.

Speak out.

It is such a comfort to know that others have my back and support me,” said ultrarunner Grace Fisher when she learned about the letters ally athletes sent to the NCAA. She has been lucky enough to be surrounded by an accepting trail running community and was able to compete at Western States in 2019 under their new guidelines. 

But many races have yet to keep up, leaving trans athletes unable to compete with the gender they identify or having to give up some level of privacy to do so. “Not speaking out is akin to acceptance of rules and behaviors that are anti-trans,” says Fisher. 

Fisher also acknowledges that the trans community is rather small—it would be nearly impossible to affect change without a volume of allies. 

Learn.

A lot of backlash against transgender athletes, especially in women’s sports, has to do with misinformation about physiology. To get over preconceived prejudices, it’s important to learn about the nuances in hormone therapy and other ways transgender athletes choose to present themselves. 

Another key to being an ally to a trans athlete is learning the language around gender identity. Transathlete.com, run by triathlete Chris Mosier, is a great place to start learning terminology and inclusive policies from elementary sports all the way to professional sporting governance. 

From the community she mingles with, Harper believes that most transgender runners would like to participate without attention or special treatment. Fisher recognizes that most trans people are denied esteem, love, or belonging—which many runners have the privilege of enjoying in a group or team. 

“For me as a coach and as a runner, the most important part of everyday normal runs is to enjoy the company you are with and look forward to the run. Whether your running partner is trans or cis shouldn’t impact that,” says Salvadori.