The importance of LGBTQ+ visibility in sports
This May marked a milestone anniversary for me. On May 1, 2017 I did something that I had never done in my twenty five years of coaching. I told the soccer players at Portland Community Football Club (PCFC) that I am transgender. I’ve come out to hundreds of other people in over two decades of identifying as a queer/trans person, but when it came to telling kids I’d coached, I had always hesitated.
The false, but persistent narrative about LGBTQ+ adults being predators or trying to push their “gay agenda” onto kids had prevented me from talking openly in my coaching role. I actually left the profession of coaching in 2007 in order to start the process of transitioning because that narrative was so loud. At that time I was using my birth-given name and female pronouns only when coaching and then male pronouns and my chosen name (Kaig) in every other facet of my life. It was a crazy-making time.
Fast forward ten years and I am standing in front of about 20 kids from the ages of 8–16 preparing to tell them that I am transgender. The result was a video that ended up being viewed over 112,000 times on YouTube and over a month of being interviewed from local, national, and international outlets. You can read more about that experience in another article I wrote — “There’s Always More To A Story”.
The fanfare only lasted about 2 months overall and then my story faded into the cacophony of the chaotic news cycle we’ve all become accustomed to. Life carried on. The soccer club, which I founded in 2013, continued to succeed, grow and evolve. I actually forgot all about that “15 seconds of fame” until one day I overheard two young (6 year olds) PCFC players talking about me being transgender. I just calmly walked over and stood silently as one of those kids was matter-of-factly explaining to his teammate that I used to be a girl and now I was a boy and he went on to say “and there’s nothing bad about that…” The other kid stared at me with a look of absolute astonishment on his face.
This young advocate of mine is Ocires (but everyone calls him “Junior”). He’s been playing with PCFC for almost 3 years. His mom is our Program Director, his dad is one of our Head Coaches and his sister also plays for the club. His whole family joined PCFC a month before that video went viral in May 2017. His family, along with so many other families in the club, showed me absolute support only weeks after they had joined the club. During the past three years Junior and I have bonded. He has been my spokesperson to make sure that other kids know about me being transgender and that it’s totally normal. It’s been incredible to witness.
The power of what Junior is doing for the visibility of transgender and nonbinary youth is immense and he isn’t even aware of what his advocacy is doing — he’s just standing up for what he believes in. His mom recently told me that he had begun standing up for a classmate of his at school. This kid was assigned the sex of female at birth, but wanted people to use “he/him” pronouns and call him a different name. He was being left out, picked on and bullied in the classroom. Junior saw this happening and stepped in. He told his classmate all about me and told him there’s nothing wrong with him. Junior was able to really see who this person is, not what the gender “rules” had told him to believe. He told his new friend that he didn’t need to be alone anymore and then invited him to come play soccer with the club.
As his mom told me this story my heart swelled. It swelled out of not only the pure kindness and love which Junior was exhibiting towards another human at such a young age, but also for the life altering impact that his actions most certainly made on that young transgender/nonbinary person and would continue to do so for the rest of that kid’s life.
Just weeks after learning about this I was sitting next to one of our PCFC parents. His six year old was sitting on his lap and suddenly this young player turned to me and said “I heard you are supposed to be a girl.” I made eye contact with his dad who just quietly chuckled and allowed his son and me to keep talking about it. I asked him what he meant by “supposed to be” and he just shrugged and said “Junior told me you used to be a girl!”. I smiled and responded by saying that I was born a girl, but always felt like a boy. As I heard these words coming out of my mouth I felt as if I was having an out of body experience, but not due to discomfort or shame, as it might have been so many years ago. I just simply couldn’t believe that I was no longer afraid or ashamed to have that conversation not only with a kid, but in front of his dad. This was a transformational experience for me. It reinforced my long held belief that more transgender and nonbinary voices are needed in sports, especially in regards to the debate over transgender athletes.
Transgender Athletes — The Debate
The roots of this debate can be traced as far back as 400BC when the Greek matron Kallipateria, following her husband’s death, took over the responsibility of training her son in the sport of boxing. At that time, however, married women were not allowed to attend the games because the toll that the “pain of death” was assumed to take on women was too great. Kallipateria was determined to see her son compete and so she disguised herself as a male trainer and attended the event (Rupert, J.L., “Genitals to genes: the history and biology of gender verification in the Olympics”, 2011). This is obviously not an example of someone who identified as transgender, but it does highlight the patriarchal foundation of this debate. Athletics were created by cisgender men for other cisgender men to perform. Cisgender and transgender female athletes are competing in a structure which, by default, compares them to the athletic ability and entertainment value of watching bodies with higher levels of testosterone compete.
“…competition should be for the ‘solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism,” with “female applause as its reward.’” — Pierre de Coubertin, Founder of the modern Olympic Games
The first modern example of this debate began at the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (only 8 years after women were allowed to compete) where two athletes, assigned female at birth, were discovered by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to have had surgical interventions and that their gender identity was in fact male. This prompted the IOC to implement sexual identification procedures for only female athletes which required a physical examination to determine if they were “100 percent woman.” (Time Magazine, “Sport: Olympic Games”, 1936).
One of the most anticipated races during these games was the race between Helen “The Fulton Flash” Stephens from the USA and Stanislawa Walasiewicz (aka Stella Walsh) running for Poland. Both women had their sex questioned based on their exceptional speed and “masculine” appearance. Walsh was also believed to be hiding something when she asked for privacy while showering and changing, which resulted in her being referred to as “Stella the Fella”.
Helen Stephens won that race by .02 seconds and subsequently was required to submit a physical confirmation of her sex (Rupert, 2011). Over 40 years later Walsh was sadly killed as she tried to wrestle a gun from a man who was attempting to rob her. The autopsy results revealed to the public that she actually had a rare chromosome combination of X0/XY, known as mosaicism. The local Cleveland TV stations, where Walsh lived at the time of her death, publicly broadcasted that Stella Walsh had a penis. The truth is that she was intersex and had genitalia that could not be categorized as either male or female. There were outcries for her Olympic medals to be rescinded at the same time that Polish-Americans staged protests outside the news station in honor of Walsh.
Stella Walsh held 20 world records in various track and field events and a journalist once wrote that, “Walsh “is to women’s track what Babe Ruth is to baseball,”. Her athletic ability was revered in a time when women competing was seen as “unfeminine”, but her physical appearance was one that defied the beauty standards. Her square jaw, broad shoulders and defined muscular body automatically put her into the “other” category. If Stella Walsh were to compete today she very likely would be categorized as transgender, whether she identified as such or not. Most likely she would be deemed ineligible to compete against other cisgender women for not only the fact that she didn’t look feminine enough, but also for the fact that she was athletically superior. She wasn’t unbeatable, however. There were other women who could run faster than her. She did lose by .02 seconds to Helen Stephens, after all, which ironically, Walsh then publicly questioned Stephens’ gender as a woman.
The fact that Walsh lost in a sport that she dominated so significantly is fundamental to the discussion of transgender* athletes competing, especially in the female-identified category. One of the primary arguments made by those against trans female athletes competing against cisgender women/girls is that trans female athletes have a physical advantage due to their levels of testosterone.
This is where this debate gets incredibly complicated and it is impossible to find a singular answer where everyone walks away satisfied. Hormones and transphobia are two of the most significant factors to this complexity.
I have personally experienced the life-altering power of elevated levels of testosterone in my own body. After thirteen years of injecting this hormone, I have seen my muscles thicken and grow with far less effort compared to before I began injections. However, it is important to note that I have always had a muscular body, which is not the case for all transgender masculine people.
Just like every cisgender person has different muscular structures so do transgender people. That may seem completely obvious, but often transgender* people are lumped into a category together and our individuality is forgotten. That is a key component to this debate, so just file that one away for the moment.
The lowest hanging fruit for the anti-trans athlete movement to use in this debate is the very fact that hormones determine the physicality of a human body and cisgender men/boys have a competitive advantage as a result. I am not going to deny the scientific fact that testosterone obviously does increase muscle mass and strength. If the debate were only based on that one fact, as many believe it to be, then it would be case closed. However, it is far more complex, and I would argue that there is not now, nor will there ever be, a one-size-fits-all solution.
Let’s first look at the function of puberty blockers for young athletes. This is an intervention that has become more readily used for adolescents who are displaying consistent and persistent signs of gender dysphoria. Puberty blockers can be administered before puberty has taken a full hold and therefore block the release of testosterone or estrogen. They can be stopped at any time and the puberty processes will resume with no side effects. If a young athlete who was assigned the sex of male at birth begins taking puberty blockers then they will not produce the levels of testosterone which would potentially give them the physical advantage over their cisgender female counterparts. This also applies to transwomen who’ve already experienced puberty and have been taking estrogen for 12 months to reduce the levels of testosterone.
“ Research suggests that androgen deprivation and cross sex hormone treatment in male-to-female transsexuals reduces muscle mass; accordingly, one year of hormone therapy is an appropriate transitional time before a male-to-female student-athlete competes on a women’s team.” — Eric Vilain M.D., Ph.D., Professor, Director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology and Chief Medical Genetics Department of Pediatrics, UCLA
The NCAA adopted a policy in 2011 that uses Dr. Vilain’s clear statement of how to provide a pathway for transgender athletes to participate. Yet, here we are in 2020 with the debate raging. State governments have begun to get more involved in the debate which is adding to the complexity.
It cannot be overlooked that the spotlight of hate, vitriol, and oppression in this debate is almost entirely focused on transfemale athletes. Idaho just passed HB 500 on March 30th which prohibits transgender girls from participating in high school and collegiate sports. The lawmakers rest their entire argument on the statement that there are “inherent differences between men and women”(HB 500, Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, 33–6201(1)). However, this isn’t a bill to restrict all transgender athletes from competing.
No one seems to be as worried about an unfair advantage that a transmasculine person might have over a cisgender man/boy. Actually if you step back and look at this debate from the 30,000 foot view you’ll find far more uproar over transwomen/girls competing than their transmale counterparts. The reason most people will give is that they believe transwomen & girls will take away the opportunity for cisgender women & girls to excel in their sport, but it’s actually just transphobia.
The most recent example is the three cisgender female high school track athletes in Connecticut that, on behalf of the organization Alliance Defending Freedom, are suing two transgender female runners because after losing multiple races to the trans athletes they feel there’s an unfair advantage. However, after that suit had already been filed one of those cisgender runners, Chelsea Mitchell, actually beat one of the trans runners in the lawsuit, twice. This ultimately led to Mitchell winning two state championships.
It could be debated endlessly on either side of whether the transgender runners have an advantage due to their hormone profile or not. The HB 500 bill cites a recent study done by the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden to defend this heinous bill. That study found that there was a loss of only “5% of muscle mass by volume in the thighs” in transgender women after 12 months of reduced testosterone production. If one takes this fact at face value then it seems transwomen still do have a physical advantage. However, this study was done on only 11 transwomen and the researchers themselves say “it is important to note that we only examined a few selected performance markers and the participants were untrained.” Those researchers also pointed out that it “is very difficult to speculate on [physical changes in elite athletes] as there are no such studies.”
The people who uphold the belief that transgender female athletes aren’t actually girls or women, but instead are just biological men and boys who are just looking for a competitive advantage will continue to lean on thin pieces of evidence to support their transphobic views. Or they will rely on examples such as the US Women’s National Soccer Team losing to the FC Dallas 15 year old boy’s team as proof that testosterone bodies will always beat out estrogen bodies. The problem with relying on thin studies or one-off anecdotal moments is that it eliminates the recognition of variability in sports, bodies, hormones, and countless other aspects that determine one’s success in athletics.
The far greater damage is the removal of sport from the lives of transgender* people who may find their only solace in that very sport. That was the case for me as a young athlete who participated in year-round sports playing on the girl’s team. It was the place where I found my first identity. I was an athlete. However, I was also often deemed “too aggressive” or “arrogant” based on the way that I played sports. In front of a student body and parent audience of about 300 plus, a student yelled out “they’re putting the boy in!” as I was being subbed into my high school varsity soccer game.
My gender identity as a kid consumed my every waking thought. My competitiveness as an athlete soothed those anxious thoughts even when I was being shamed for being “the wrong kind of female athlete”. If we continue to only focus on the biological makeup of athletes in order to settle this once and for all we will continue to overlook the never-ending variables that exist with each athlete, each sport and each body. This issue must be taken on a case by case basis. Just like we cannot place every cisgender athlete into a presumptive category of ability based purely on their hormone profile we cannot categorize every transgender* athlete that way either.
I am absolutely in favor of making sure that cisgender women and girls continue to have a sports environment where they get to compete and find success, but it doesn’t need to come at the expense of exclusion of transgender* athletes. It does require us, as a society, to begin debating the rigid binary and patriarchal system in which our sports have been created.
It has to start with the willingness to have the conversation in the first place. It has to start with a recognition that the archaic definitions of how “girls” play versus how “boys” play doesn’t only do damage to transgender* athletes, but also to many cisgender athletes who may not fit into those narrow definitions. Coaches are the first line of defense against this damage. They can immediately cease to use derogatory, sexist language towards their boys when they aren’t performing well. Most people are familiar with the standard phrase “come on ladies, pick up the pace!” shouted across a field or court to a group of boys who are supposedly underperforming. Sports organizations and clubs can offer opportunities for co-ed play. League administrators can rewrite league rules to offer flexibility allowing athletes to play on the team that matches their skill level first and foremost.
We are currently living in a time of unprecedented social movements. Not only are white people seeming to actually wake up to the centuries of injustice and systemic racism in our country, but cisgender and straight people are also taking notice of their privilege, as was evident in the crowd of over 15,000 people in Brooklyn chanting “Black Trans Lives Matter!”. The right to not only participate in sports as your full self, but also to excel, is inextricably linked to the rights that millions are marching for across this country. Whether you are a sports fanatic or couldn’t name a sports team if your life depended on it, this fight needs you. Don’t get caught watching from the sidelines.
*transgender is used as an umbrella term for brevity sake to refer to people that may also identify as nonbinary, gender-fluid, agender or a number of other gender identities.
Kaig Lightner holds a Masters in Social Work degree from Portland State University, where he is also an adjunct professor. He started the gender diversity consulting agency Quantum Gender in 2017 and founded Portland Community FC in 2013, a nonprofit competitive soccer club for low-income, immigrant, and refugee youth in Portland, OR.