Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Two weeks ago, when I wrote my first Splits column, I invited readers to suggest topics they’d like to see discussed in this space. I received a few solid ideas through my social media DMs (always a precarious place to be), but amid those sincere messages I also found a surprising number that came from a peculiar demographic, given our target audience: white men, who asked if I’d share my opinion on “men competing against women,” a transphobic way of asking what I thought about transgender women participating in sports.
I try my hardest not to respond to trolls so my first instinct was, “Nope, not going to give them the satisfaction.” And now, two weeks later, here I am, giving them a few hundred words that they’ll no doubt use as fodder for more trolling. Have at it. I just ask that you stop using “male” and “female” as nouns, but I digress—I’ll save that rant for another time.
This edition of Splits falls on March 31, Transgender Day of Visibility, which is a time to celebrate people who are transgender (their gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth) and nonbinary (whose gender is not male or female) around the world. It’s supposed to be a day of joy and acknowledgement of the courage it takes transgender and nonbinary people to live openly and authentically, according to the Human Rights Campaign. It’s also a day to acknowledge the discrimination and violence they face daily, just for existing as themselves.
I’ve admittedly shied away from the topic of transgender women in sports. It’s a complicated issue, it’s a lightning rod for threats, and I’ve wondered if whatever I contributed to the discussion as a cisgender (a person who identifies with their gender assigned at birth) white woman would make any constructive difference. It might not, but I also know that avoiding a conversation because it’s hard or out of fear is the easy and privileged way out.
Then on Wednesday, the eve of Transgender Day of Visibility, the governor of Arizona, where I reside, signed two bills that target transgender youth. One restricts access to gender-affirming health care for minors and the other prohibits transgender athletes from competing on women’s and girls’ sports teams. In doing so, Arizona became the fifth state to enact an anti-transgender sports ban this year.
As somebody who knows and loves people who will suffer the repercussions of laws like this, I legitimately fear for their lives.
It’s important to go over some statistics when it comes to transgender youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 44 percent have considered suicide, versus 16 percent of cisgender youth. The Trevor Project’s 2021 national survey of 35,000 LGBTQ+ youth ages 13–24 found that 42 percent seriously considered attempting suicide in 2020, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
The Trevor Project also found that one in three LGBTQ youth who participated in sports reported receiving mostly A grades in school compared to one in four LGBTQ children who did not participate in sports. Those who are welcomed onto youth sports teams also have reported lower rates of anxiety and depression than transgender kids who don’t play any sports.
In 2021, we saw the highest number of transgender and gender non-conforming people killed in a single year (at least 47, though so many go unreported, it is likely more) since the Human Rights Campaign began tracking these deaths in 2013—and most of the victims were Black trans women. It’s no coincidence that violence escalates as anti-transgender laws pass in record numbers, perpetuating stigma, fueling hate and discrimination directed at our youngest and most vulnerable population.
But you have to go deeper than statistics to really get to the heart of the matter. If you’ve never known a transgender or nonbinary child, it might be easy to avoid thinking about all the legislation going around that bans them from the very activities where they find safety, community, support, joy, and friends in a world that tries its best to isolate and dehumanize them. But what if that’s your kid? Where’s the compassion in this conversation? These are people, just like you and me, who deserve conversations that are led with kindness—and whether it’s right-wing lawmakers or those who claim to advocate for a level playing field or those trolls on the internet, the dialogue has been void of humanity.
The thing is, we can talk about the fairness, the policies, and the still-developing research when it comes to inclusion of transgender women in elite sports, but in the process, it’s unnecessary to misgender people or show them an utter lack of dignity. I won’t allow it in any space that I occupy—nobody should. And we can stand up for kids who can’t stand up for themselves by learning more, voting, advocating on their behalf, and showing them that there are adults out there who care about their wellbeing. It doesn’t take much to show a child what love looks like in the face of so much hate, just as it doesn’t take much to approach complicated issues with curiosity instead of confrontation.
Lia Thomas is a person. Emily Bridges is a person. Nikki Hiltz is a person. All of the transgender girls who are banned from playing sports across the country are people, too. They are entitled to far more respect than they’ve ever been given. And on Transgender Day of Visibility, it’s time for those of us who support them to come out, too—as friends and allies who believe in their right to exist in all spaces as their authentic selves. Trolls be damned.
To learn more about how to be an LGBTQ+ ally, visit the Human Rights Campaign.
If you are an LGBTQ+ youth seeking help, support, or counseling, visit the Trevor Project.
Splits is a twice-a-month column by Erin Strout, a freelance writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona, who covers health, fitness, and women in sports. This space will offer commentary and analysis on the running culture, news, and events that move women. You can find Erin on Twitter and Instagram: @erinstrout.