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COMMENTARY: What really motivates anti-transgender movements in women's athletics?


Former competitive swimmer Riley Gaines has become an outspoken opponent of transgender women athletes, including fellow swimmer Lia Thomas, but what if this fight to "preserve" women's athletics is really all about protecting affluent white women and excluding everyone else? – Photo by @TheDailyWire / Twitter

We have all seen the headlines over the past few years in which transgender women athletes have been painted as villains who steal from cisgender women athletes' achievements. Perhaps most prominently, the outrage against professional swimmer Lia Thomas from voices across the country — mainly from her fellow competitor Riley Gaines — has dominated the media.

Other cisgender women athletes, including Chelsea Mitchell, a former track-and-field athlete and self-proclaimed fastest girl in Connecticut, are suing the state after losing to transgender women in races. 

While I can only speak from a limited perspective as a former athlete, and plenty of other people can speak to the lived nuances of this controversy, I find a crucial detail of the argument against transgender inclusivity in all sports to be especially flawed.

First, let me clarify that transgender women, being women, deserve to compete alongside other women in the sport of their choosing. An argument running rampant among Conservatives and transphobic people, though, posits that this gives transgender women a supposed "advantage" over cisgender women. 

From my point of view, there is no actual concern for equal competition or ensuring fairness in sports. Instead, the conflict is entirely about protecting privileged, white cisgender women. 

To participate and potentially excel in most recreational, competitive and professional sports in this country, one must possess a certain degree of affluence. Speaking as a privileged white woman who used to play in private club sports and knew many who have done so in other sports, becoming a competitive athlete is far from cheap. 

Private coaching sessions, top-of-the-line equipment, traveling across the country for tournaments and purchasing team uniforms and merchandise are all expenses on top of the bill for actually playing in club leagues. Many aspiring athletes begin this time- and money-intensive process by middle school in an effort to get recruited by universities. 

From my own and my peers' experiences, I can confidently say that some families will spend between $30,000 and $50,000 annually on their child's sport. As such, being from an affluent family provides an obvious and unfair advantage to any potential competitive athlete.

This concern of Conservatives and anti-transgender activists that transgender women athletes are compromising women's sports is truly a concern about "protecting" rich, white women and the overall societal status quo. This is far from a new argument. 

As a history major, I have analyzed the long-standing infantilization of white women and their consistent portrayal as incredibly fragile and feminine, requiring excessive care and attention. In the late 19th century, there was a general consensus that women were more sensitive to ailments and pain than men.

More importantly, it was believed that rich women with status, who were mostly white, "were almost too sensitive to carry out normal bodily functions."

It was often believed that due to this hypersensitivity among certain groups of women, they "could never compete successfully in the brutal, masculine world and would always require the protection of men."

You may be wondering who made these decisions. Unsurprisingly, it was white men. While white women were characterized as hyperfeminine, Black women were often masculinized and characterized as more resistant to pain, which meant they did not receive the same care that white women did. The so-called father of modern gynecology, J. Marion Sims, made many of his scientific discoveries on enslaved Black women who underwent horrific and invasive procedures without anesthesia or medication. 

Sims' belief that "white women were too sensitive to pain" prompted him to carry out his "lengthy and agonizing experimental operations" on enslaved Black women. There is a historical precedent of this stark divide in the treatment of white women and non-white women.

In recent years, the cisgender women I have often seen advocating against the inclusion of transgender women in athletics have been white. Riley Gaines, a former collegiate swimmer, has become one of the poster children of the anti-transgender barrage in media coverage. 

Gaines claims that transgender inclusivity in women's sports is "plaguing" the nation and also explained that a male modeling a woman's one-piece in an Adidas campaign focused on ending transphobia and homophobia in sports was about "erasing women." Gaines has also called the new Title IX proposal, which would protect transgender people, "an abomination." 

This coverage highlights the continued legacy of white women as feminine and idealized figures — those who need to have their own privilege protected at the cost of excluding other women, disguised under the visage of "equality".

In fact, the standards of many sports seem to disregard equality among athletes entirely. Reflecting on the 2019 Olympic rule that attempted to ensure "fairness" in women's sports by implementing testosterone testing illuminates this.

The hormone testing systems used by many professional sports organizations like the Olympics unfairly target women with naturally high testosterone levels. Unlike Michael Phelps, who was celebrated for his genetics and unique attributes, Caster Semenya, a cisgender woman athlete from South Africa, was disqualified from the Olympics and medicated in response to her high testosterone levels. 

The athletics industry, like so many others in the U.S., is set up for the rich, white cisgender people to excel. Non-white and non-cis people who do not fit the mold of what society continues to try so hard to protect are immediately conceptualized as outcasts, and their credibility is neither respected nor celebrated the same as their counterparts. 

We must ask ourselves or our family members and friends: Who is this "fair" for? Who is this "ordinary" for?

The world of sports is already an arena of extreme privilege — an industry that hungrily watches families battle it out with their wallets to get their child to very top of competitive rankings. The targeting of transgender women athletes is not a question of fairness.

It is in the interest of those in positions of power to maintain and pass on their privilege, which is why the standards are set to benefit them and attempt to banish those who threaten the status quo.

Katherine Jackson is a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in history and minoring in critical intelligence studies.

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