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Transgender Athletes Face their Biggest Bully: Politicians

Transgender discrimination signed into law harm children and teens.

Key points

  • Discrimination causes physical, psychological, and academic harm to youth.
  • Trans youth want to participate in school sports like other youth their age, and being banned from sports should not be sanctioned.
  • The forced segregation of cisgender women and transgender women parallels racial segregation of the Jim Crow past.

In Iowa, the governor just signed a law banning transgender girls and women from participating in female school sports. This forced segregation of cisgender women and transgender women parallels racial segregation of the JIm Crow past.

Just like with racial discrimination, this form of transgender discrimination harms children and teens. While transgender youth face may peer harassment at school, the biggest bully seems to be politicians and school boards.

Politicians got involved in 2017 when North Carolina passed HB2, the “bathroom bill,” that forbade trans youth from using the bathroom that matched their gender identity. This policy is a bizarre invasion of privacy, where one hidden body part overrides every other publicly presented—and personally identified—sense of self. It’s a policy that, in practice, conveys that genitalia are private for everyone except trans kids.

As one trans girl explained, “Being a trans girl is already making me different from everybody else, and now I’m not even allowed to use the same bathroom as the girls, so people weren’t seeing me as a girl.” Because of the shame and awkwardness of being forced to use a special restroom or one that does not align with their gender, more than 40 percent of transgender students fast, refuse to drink anything, or find other ways not to use the restroom. As a result of not using the restroom when needed, trans youth regularly suffer from urinary tract and kidney infections.2

Although 24 other states considered legislation that would only give students access to bathrooms and locker rooms that matched their sex assigned at birth, all of the other states' bills failed to pass. By December 2020, even North Carolina ended up repealing HB2, largely because of financial pressures from businesses like PayPal and Amazon, who pulled their business out of the state following the passage of the law.

In August of 2020, after a five-year legal battle, Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, won the right to use his chosen bathroom. The judge relied on the clear scientific evidence, stating, “Seventeen of our foremost medical, mental health, and public health organizations agree that being transgender ‘implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities….transgender people face major mental health disparities: they are up to three times more likely to report or be diagnosed with a mental health disorder as the general population . . . and nearly nine times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population . . . And harassment at school is correlated with mental health outcomes for transgender students.”2

Judge James Wynn wrote a concurring opinion wherein he drew sharp comparisons between transgender student rights and the rights of students of color in the Jim Crow era, showing that both systems produce

“a vicious and ineradicable stigma. The result is to deeply and indelibly scar the most vulnerable among us—children who simply wish to be treated as equals at one of the most fraught developmental moments in their lives—by labeling them as unfit for equal participation in our society.”

Wynn further highlighted the fact that the school’s policy was “not hypothetical,” but one that caused real pain to a real boy, and, because it involved basic necessities, the “pain is overwhelming, unceasing, and existential.” Wynn’s point is an important one: The biases embedded in our policies have real consequences in the lives of real children.

Indeed, as Iowa is proving, the next struggles will be focused on transgender student athletes. As Terry Miller, a student athlete and trans young woman, stated, “I am a girl and I am a runner. I participate in athletics just like my peers to excel, find community, and meaning in my life. It is both unfair and painful that my victories have to be attacked and my hard work ignored . . . The more we are told that we don’t belong and should be ashamed of who we are, the fewer opportunities we have to participate in sports at all . . . I will continue to fight for all trans people to compete and participate consistent with who we are." According to Dr. Deanna Adkins, “When a school or athletic organization denies transgender students the ability to participate equally in athletics because they are transgender, that condones, reinforces, and affirms the transgender students’ social status as outsiders or misfits who deserve the hostility they experience from peers

Across all of the upcoming legal challenges and legal changes, trans children and teens are trying to live in a world free of bias, trying to be student athletes without being harassed or shamed. Just as it was true with racial discrimination, children deserve to be treated equally—by individuals and by institutions.

Sections of this blog post have been excerpted from Unraveling Bias: How Prejudice Has Shaped Children for Generations and Why It's Time to Break the Cycle.


1Sandy James et al., "The report of the 2015 US transgender survey" (2016).

2Concurring Opinion by Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, No. 19-1952 (4th Cir. 2020).

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