As a young girl in the small town of Cromwell, Connecticut, all Andraya Yearwood wanted to do was run. Born into a family that prized athleticism, she dabbled in soccer, basketball, football, and dance as a child. But one day in the sixth grade, she saw older students running around the track oval, and she was hooked. She pictured herself, like them, flying on two fast feet. In the seventh and eighth grades, Andraya competed on her school’s boys track and field team, but that increasingly felt wrong. From an early age, Andraya had been drawn to her mom’s heels, to wearing skirts and wigs with long hair. It was a therapist in middle school who gave her the words to understand who she always had been, a girl who was transgender. When she entered high school in the fall of 2016, she wanted to run on the girls’ team. She was a girl, after all. She knew that, and now she wanted the world, or at least a slightly bigger world beyond her family, her friends, and her school to acknowledge that too.
Andraya was lucky to live in Connecticut. In a report published in 2010, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Women’s Sports Foundation had recommended that trans high school students be allowed to play on teams that matched their gender identity, without any need to change their birth certificate or to undergo medical transition. But rules governing the participation of trans athletes in high school sports, which are largely determined by each state’s high school athletics association, are a patchwork that tend to reflect the dominant political leanings of each state. If Andraya had lived in a state like Kentucky, which demands that trans students undergo gender reassignment surgery in order to compete according to their gender identity, it would have been, practically speaking, impossible for her to join the girls’ team. But Connecticut’s policy, which was changed in 2013, allowed athletes to participate on teams that matched their gender identity, with no barriers like a requirement to medically or physically transition, though Andraya would start hormone therapy shortly after entering high school.
Now 19, she remembers her first track meet as a freshman on the girls’ team in the spring of 2017. “I felt very liberated, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” she told Jezebel. “I was finally able to compete as who I knew that I was.” Thinking back to that day, when she won both the 100-meter and 200-meter dash, her long braids tied in a ponytail, still brings a smile to her face. But it was also that day, at her very first meet in high school, when Andraya had her first inkling that she would be seen as someone more than just a good runner. The Hartford Courant, her small state’s biggest newspaper, had sent a reporter to write about her. “Even during the interview, it hadn’t hit me that what I was doing was so controversial,” she said.
That would become apparent to her soon enough. A few months later, shortly after Andraya placed third in the state’s girls’ outdoor 100-meter competition, the rightwing outrage machine zeroed in on the then-15-year-old as its next target. The New York Post and newspapers in the U.K., where a rabid transphobia pushed by groups like Fair Play for Women was flourishing, began writing about her. Adult men ranted about her in YouTube videos with titles like “How to Stop Andraya Yearwood from Beating Girls for Three More Years.” The next year, after Terry Miller—another Black trans girl in Connecticut whom Andraya would befriend—began running and at times winning races in their state, the attacks on Andraya, and now Terry as well, only intensified.
In 2018, after Terry and Andraya won gold and silver, respectively, in the state’s girls 100-meter event, Bianca Stanescu, the disgruntled mother of the girl who finished in sixth place in that race, circulated a petition during meets that called for the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference to change its policy on trans athlete participation. Though Stanescu’s daughter, Selina Soule, had lost to three other girls in addition to Andraya and Terry, Stanescu and Selina focused solely on the two trans girls. The mother-daughter duo became regular guests on Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, which was soon flooded with content that warned girls like Andraya and Terry would “destroy” girls’ and women’s sports. To rightwing fearmongers like Tucker Carlson, who devoted a segment of his show in 2018 to the topic of trans athletes, the two girls were “biological boys” who “dominated the rest of the field” and had a “massive and unfair advantage over biologically female competitors,” a wildly oversimplified argument that cloaks transphobia under the guise of so-called common sense and falls apart under scrutiny. (Those who would use biology as a method of discrimination also conveniently neglect to mention that the “science” on trans athletes they wield so eagerly is largely inconclusive, and is premised on fundamental bigotry—the belief that trans girls and women are not girls and women.)
Andraya tried to ignore the incessant attention, but it wasn’t just happening in the opinion pages of newspapers and on her television screen. At one meet, she overheard two women talking about her and repeatedly misgendering her; when they saw her, they shouted at her, telling her she shouldn’t be there. At the start of Andraya’s junior year, she contemplated quitting track altogether. “I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” she thought. Her friends convinced her to keep running, but she was frustrated by the narrative that she didn’t deserve her success—she worked just as hard to train as everyone else, and people rarely ever highlighted the races that she lost. Few people seemed to care that while she and Terry were good runners—at times very good, medal-winning runners on the state-wide level—their best times in races like the 100-meters weren’t close to cracking the top results nationwide for girls their age. Other girls, a lot of cisgender girls, were faster, were better. Even in Connecticut, Andraya and Terry weren’t the only competitors who bested Selina in races. No one was talking about the supposed “competitive advantage” of those girls, or talking about how they had “stolen” something from Selina.
Karissa Niehoff, who was the head of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference at the time and has since become the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, started getting hate-filled emails and letters. “Not only were they saying that those young ladies didn’t have a right to compete and win, they were saying they didn’t have a right to be who they are as people,” Niehoff said, which deeply disturbed her. To Niehoff, who had championed the state’s inclusive policy—one that she pointed out was in line with Connecticut’s broader anti-discrimination laws—high school sports were first and foremost about the benefits of participation. It was cruel and wrong to want to deny that to trans students, who already faced extreme levels of discrimination. “Let’s not talk about college. Let’s not talk scholarships. Let’s talk about a young person in the most critical, pivotal phase of their growth and development,” Niehoff said. “This is not about an advantage in sports. This is about deep, deep identity and growth and development.”
Niehoff noted that a few other trans athletes, including trans girls, were competing in Connecticut at the same time, but with far less scrutiny. “Nobody’s paying attention to the transgender student-athlete that’s not winning the medals,” she said. At competitions, she encountered parents of athletes who jeered at Andraya and Terry from the stands. “Is that the direction we want to go or do we want to be supportive and encouraging so that a young person goes through high school and comes out with some personal strength and a healthy self-esteem and a positive outlook?” Niehoff said. It was, she said, “horrible to see the lack of class, the lack of empathy, the lack of maturity by the adults.”
At the same time, Selina Soule was eagerly establishing herself as the Abigail Fisher of high school sports, an inspiration to conservatives and a symbol of entitlement, parroting false claims of reverse discrimination to others. Shortly after Selina came in eighth place—eighth!—in a state-level race at the start of 2019, the teenager was invited onto Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s show. “What happens—forget about people identifying—what happens to every sport?” Ingraham asked Selina, launching into a series of nonsensical questions. “What happens to field hockey when the soccer players start to play? What happens with girls’ basketball? What happens with girls’ volleyball? What happens with tennis?”
A calm and determined Selina, her dark brown hair in two long braids, replied: “My teammates and my fellow competitors, we are happy for these athletes, of course, but we do think it is unfair. And for us, it is upsetting when we work hard all season and put in a lot of effort only to turn up at the state meets and get beat by someone who is biologically a male and lose state championships over this.” She continued: “It’s very frustrating, because I know I have put in, and some of my friends and fellow competitors have put in, so much effort to take down our times and compete ourselves better, but we are not physically able to be competitive against someone who is biologically a male.”
By then, Selina, her mother, and the families of two other girls track athletes, Chelsea Mitchell and Alanna Smith, were working with the anti-LGBT group the Alliance Defending Freedom, an influential, well-funded conservative Christian legal organization that has pivoted in recent years towards pushing for the passage of anti-trans policies. A few months after Soule’s Fox News appearance, the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights on their behalf, claiming that Connecticut’s policy violated Title IX and that the state had discriminated against the three girls. That complaint was followed up by a lawsuit in federal court, which demanded that not only the state ban trans girls—or in the lawsuit’s words, “males” and “individuals with an XY genotype”—from girls’ competitions, but that the state and their school districts erase Andraya’s and Terry’s victories from the record and take away their medals.
Initially, Andraya had wanted to ignore it all, but then she asked herself, what message would other trans athletes take away from her story if she didn’t stand up for herself? She decided to intervene in the lawsuit, with the help of the ACLU. In a statement responding to the lawsuit, Andraya, who by then was a senior in high school, struck a note of defiance. “It is so painful that people not only want to tear down my successes but take down the laws and policies that protect people like me. I will never stop being me! I will never stop running!” Andraya wrote. “I hope that the next generation of trans youth doesn’t have to fight the fights that I have. I hope they can be celebrated when they succeed, not demonized. For the next generation, I run for you!”
None of this was happening in a vacuum. Andraya’s success came at the worst possible time for girls like her—a moment when trans girls and women competing in sports were quickly becoming the focus of the religious right’s efforts to legislate trans people out of public life, a coordinated assault that relied on a calculated partnership with so-called trans-exclusionary radical feminists and co-opting feminist rhetoric. After Christian conservatives lost their fight over marriage equality in 2015, they quickly pivoted to attacking trans rights, turning to collectively push for so-called bathroom bills in earnest the following year. When those failed, said Chase Strangio, the ACLU’s Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, “Our opponents started to shift very strategically to the areas of sports and healthcare for trans youth.”
Much like bathroom bills were framed as necessary to protect women and girls from the specter of predatory men, trans girls and women were now being deliberately painted as threats to gender equity in sports, to Title IX, to the supposed sanctity of competition. And it wasn’t only the typical conservative reactionaries who were jumping on board. At the end of 2018, Martina Navratilova, the tennis champion and longtime advocate for LGBT rights, announced that her push for inclusion stopped when it came to trans girls and women in sports. “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard,” she wrote in a tweet. A few months later, in an op-ed for the UK’s Sunday Times, she doubled down on her stance, using rhetoric that could have come straight out of the mouth of a Fox News pundit. “To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps even a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires,” Navratilova wrote. “It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.”
In response to her op-ed, Navratilova was dropped from the advisory board of the LGBTQ sports advocacy group Athlete Ally, which wrote in a statement that her comments were “transphobic, based on a false understanding of science and data, and perpetuate dangerous myths that lead to the ongoing targeting of trans people through discriminatory laws, hateful stereotypes and disproportionate violence.” The blowback was fierce enough that a month later, Navratilova issued an apology, though one that was still rooted, as she wrote, in her belief that if “everyone were included, women’s sports as we know them would cease to exist.” She claimed what she wanted was a “debate” based “not on feeling or emotion but science, objectivity and the best interests of women’s sport as a whole.” Navratilova concluded, “All I am trying to do is to make sure girls and women who were born female are competing on as level a playing field as possible within their sport.”
The month that Navratilova wrote her op-ed in 2019, Republicans in South Dakota, a state that has been described as a “laboratory for anti-trans legislation,” introduced bills to bar transgender high school athletes from participating in sports according to their gender identity. The sponsors of one of the bills, Lee Qualm, similarly framed his bigotry as an issue of fairness. “It’s unfair for girls to be subjected to competition against boys,” Qualm said. Around the same time, USA Powerlifting announced it would be banning trans women from its competitions, arguing it was necessary due to the “competitive advantage” trans women supposedly possessed. Perhaps inspired by that ban or by the U.K. group Fair Play for Women, Beth Stelzer, an amateur powerlifter from Minnesota, founded the group Save Women’s Sports in March of 2019, with the goal of pushing for “biology-based eligibility standards for participation in female sports.” At a Heritage Foundation panel held shortly after her group’s founding, Stelzer, along with Stanescu, were two of the featured speakers. “If biological men are allowed to compete in women’s sports, there will be men’s sports, there will be co-ed sports, but there will no longer be women’s sports,” Stelzer declared.
In April of 2019, the outlines of the onslaught that was to come were made clear at a hearing for the Equality Act, federal legislation that would broaden civil rights protections to include LGBT Americans under their umbrella. The bill’s opponents focused almost exclusively on women’s sports and the supposed threat of allowing trans girls to compete with other girls. Like with the “bathroom bills,” their arguments couched transphobia in the language of protecting and saving girls and women. Georgia Republican and then-Representative Doug Collins brought up Andraya and Terry, misgendering the teens, before approvingly quoting Navratilova. “It’s about fairness and it’s about science,” he said. In another sign of how conservatives were eager to appropriate feminist ideals, Republicans had invited Duke University law professor Doriane Coleman—a former elite runner who is a self-described women’s sports advocate but who is most known for arguing for the regulation of intersex women in elite competitions—to testify on their behalf. She framed her concern as rooted in the need for “parity of competitive opportunity,” but at one point dabbled in overt fearmongering. “This is just the beginning of a period of time in various states where trans kids are coming out as trans and are being welcomed and included for their authentic selves,” Coleman warned darkly, and falsely, before painting a scenario of “biological males” full of testosterone dominating women’s track events at the Olympics.
The ACLU’s Strangio and other advocates watched all of this—the media frenzy; the proposed legislation attacking trans children; the defense of transphobia and fear of trans bodies, especially Black trans bodies, cloaked in feminism and in dubious science—with alarm. They worried that the broader public, already fed so much misinformation about trans people, would find arguments made to exclude trans girls from sports persuasive, especially as they were grafted onto existing gendered stereotypes about boys’ inherently superior athleticism, and racist discourses about Black athletes. The need to “save” girls sports—merely the latest variation of the “save our (white) children” rhetoric that has long animated rightwing social movements—fed neatly into an existing, paternalistic moral panic about trans young people, stirred up by writers like the Wall Street Journal’s Abigail Shrier, whose book Irreversible Damage warns absurdly of the “transgender craze” that is “seducing our daughters.” “All of those things sort of came together just at the perfect time, when people were looking for that next anti-LGBTQ topic,” said Chris Mosier, a trans sports advocate and triathlete who in 2016 became the first publicly out trans athlete to compete for the U.S. at the international level. “By 2019, I’m like, this is our fight,” Strangio told Jezebel.
Strangio was right. The drumbeat that began in 2019 gained in intensity in 2020—that year alone, Republican legislators in 20 states introduced bills attempting to ban trans athletes, and specifically trans girls, from competing in high school and collegiate sports according to their gender identity. One of those, Idaho’s HB 500, or the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, ended up passing and was signed into law by the state’s Republican Governor Brad Little, before swiftly being tied up in litigation by the ACLU.
Already in 2021, similar bills have been introduced in 23 states. One of them, Minnesota’s HF 1657, goes as far as to criminalize trans girls who play sports or use the girls’ locker room, turning those activities into a misdemeanor or a fineable offense. Several are advancing rapidly, and will likely end up on the desks of their states’ governors. These nearly identical bills are given feminist-sounding names, like the Save Women’s Sports Act or the Fair Play Act, and introduced by legislators—many of whom are women—who are working hand-in-hand with groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Policy Alliance, Save Women’s Sports, and the Women’s Liberation Front, all of whom have joined forces to target trans kids more broadly and trans girls in particular. (In a 2019 guide targeted towards parents authored by the Heritage Foundation, the Family Policy Alliance, WoLF, and the anti-trans organizations the Kelsey Coalition and Parents of ROGD Kids, the groups warned of what they called the “transgender trend” among young people, which they described as a form of “social contagion,” and singled out sports as an arena for potential parent-led activism.)
Much like in 2016, when the ADF boasted that states used the group’s model legislation in crafting bills targeting bathroom access, the ADF’s fingerprints are everywhere on these bills, pointing to the possibility of a similar, and no less coldly efficient, roll-out. In Idaho, the sponsor of HB 500, Barbara Ehardt, credited the ADF with helping her to craft the bill’s language; WoLF paid for a poll meant to show support for the bill. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s Kate Oakley, the ADF is also behind Montana’s bill targeting trans athletes.
Federal lawmakers, too, are jumping into the fray. In a 2020 bid to revive her flagging campaign, then-Senator Kelly Loeffler introduced the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act. In December of last year, Tulsi Gabbard sponsored a similar bill. The goal of proponents of these bills, said Gillian Branstetter of the National Women’s Law Center, is “to instill in their audience a sense that something is being taken from them or an opportunity is being taken from them, or from their daughters.” Branstetter added, “These people did not wake up and decide that suddenly they care a whole lot about women’s athletics, a topic that most of them have likely never cared about in their lives. They needed a reason for people to view trans people with the same sense of suspicion and fear that they do.”
In many states, as Republican legislators push to ban trans girls from sports, they are also simultaneously introducing bills that criminalize gender-affirming care for trans youth. Collectively, these bills represent “the most relentless legislative attacks on trans lives that I have ever seen,” according to the ACLU’s Strangio. Lately, Strangio has taken to calling them “dystopian,” a characterization that is particularly apt for the bills proposing the creation of sex verification boards that would scrutinize a young athlete’s genitals, chromosomal make-up, and hormone levels. Strangio is leading the ACLU’s challenge to Idaho’s HB 500, which included a provision that mandated a student provide proof of their eligibility based on their “internal and external reproductive anatomy,” chromosomes, and testosterone levels. Strangio is representing two clients, Lindsay Hecox, a trans college student at Boise State who hopes to try out for the cross-country team, and a cisgender girl who chose to go by Jane Doe. “Both are saying this harms all women and girls,” Strangio said, making the argument that “if you single out only women’s sports for this type of bodily scrutiny and regulation, that is another form of sex discrimination.”
The day that we spoke over Zoom, Georgia’s House held a hearing on one of its bills targeting trans athletes, and North Dakota’s bill as well as Tennessee’s passed out of committee. Strangio was multi-tasking, feeling the urgency of his work. “I”m like, we have two days to stop this Mississippi bill,” he told me. The speed with which lawmakers were introducing bill after bill reminded Strangio of the rush of bathroom bills being proposed in state legislatures around the country in 2016 and 2017. But unlike the bathroom bills, which largely went nowhere, Strangio said, the passage of this round of proposed legislation seemed imminent. “These are different in terms of the likelihood that many of them are going to move and also, especially with the healthcare bills, in the magnitude of the harm they would cause,” he said. Unlike the outcry generated in 2016 after North Carolina passed its bathroom bill, which included a massive boycott of the state, the response to Idaho’s passage of HB 500 has been considerably more muted—a possible sign that the rhetoric of “fairness” has been as compelling to the broader public as trans rights advocates worried it would be.
To Athlete Ally’s Anne Lieberman, “these sports bills are a slippery slope to dehumanizing trans folks in other ways.” Lieberman added, “You can’t separate this conversation about sport from the wider conversation about what’s happening with trans folks in general, because it is just a microcosm of what’s happening in the rest of society.” Cut through the “fairness” rhetoric that dresses these bills up in the hopes of making them palatable, and what lies underneath is, as Strangio put it, “a fundamental dislike and anxiety about the presence of trans people in the world.” “We’re seeing a revitalization of a sort of eugenics discourse around the abolition of the trans person and the idea that transness is itself a threat,” Strangio said. “The masks are off, so to speak.”
Lieberman often describes these bills as a “solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.” Since 2003, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has had a formal policy for transgender athletes, one that since 2015 requires that trans women (and notably not trans men) ensure their testosterone levels remain under a certain—and some would argue arbitrary—threshold. On the collegiate level, the NCAA has had a trans-inclusive policy since 2011. And in 2007, Washington became the first state to adopt a policy for trans high school athletes, one that, like more than a dozen other states including Connecticut, allows students to compete based on their gender identity, with no need for a medical transition. A recent study by the Center for American Progress found that states that had trans-inclusive policies for high school athletes saw no decrease in the percentage of girls who competed in sports from 2011 to 2019; for all other states without such policies, that percentage actually dropped during the same time period.
Advocates point out that no openly transgender athlete has even competed in the Olympics since the IOC’s policy was enacted almost 20 years ago, let alone win medals. “This mythical takeover of sport has not happened,” Lieberman said. For all of the fearmongering about young trans athletes, no such upheaval has occurred on the high school or college level, either. The longtime LGBT sports advocate Pat Griffin, who co-authored the 2010 report by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Women’s Sports Foundation on trans-inclusive policies, rejects arguments that claim trans girls are threats. “The thing that’s so frustrating is that in many cases, those state policies have been in effect for over 10 years, and working fine,” Griffin said. The only difference, she said, is that a few girls started winning, and “the rightwing discovered that this was a great wedge issue.”
To many women’s sports advocates, the fretting over girls’ and women’s sports is merely a convenient cover for transphobia. In 2020, the Women’s Sports Foundation, a group founded by Billie Jean King in the 1970s, released a report on the challenges and barriers facing girls and women in sports at all levels, based on surveys with more than 2,000 women’s sports leaders. According to those surveys, the most widely shared concern was the cost of competition, a barrier to entry that many parents of young girls couldn’t afford. “If we want to have a true conversation about what needs to be done to really enhance opportunities and expand opportunities, let’s have it,” said the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Sarah Axelson. “There are so many things that we could be talking about that are real concerns for women and girls in sports. The participation of trans athletes and especially trans youth, trans girls—that is not the threat to women and girls in sports.” Axelson added, “This is about sometimes a literal lifeline for children: having access to sports.”
Sports has always been an arena where broader anxieties about race, about gender, about sexuality play out, at times in extremely public ways. Sports is never just about sports. This quality, as well as its ubiquity in social life, is what gives athletics its power as a proxy for society as a whole. Sports is also the only arena of human activity where gender segregation is not only widely accepted, but praised as a necessary stricture to achieve some semblance of equality between girls and boys and men and women, an idea that the implementation of Title IX in the 1970s solidified. As athletic opportunities for girls in sports expanded, the gender binary became more entrenched. Baked into the argument for gender segregation in sports is the notion of men’s inherent physical superiority to women, a form of biological essentialism (and some would argue sexism) that has become so widespread that it is seen as common sense and used to justify discrimination, including paying women athletes less than men and now, excluding trans girls from sports competition. As the scholars Kimberly Kelly and Adam Love have noted, “Gender divisions and men’s superiority are more naturalized in sport than perhaps any other institution.”
Trans girls who wish to play sports, then, enter a gendered playing field that is already primed with ideas that are easily wielded to exclude and dehumanize them. (Tellingly, trans boys are rarely, if ever, seen as a threat to boys’ sports.) Lindsay Pieper, a professor of sport management at Lynchburg College and the author of Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sports, sees today’s efforts to restrict and ban trans girls and women from sports as the latest attempt to regulate women athletes’ bodies, a timeline that stretches back decades in the form of invasive—and debunked—gender verification tests meant to, as she puts it in her book, “eliminate competitors” who were viewed as “too strong, too fast, too successful or too unfeminine for women’s competition.”
Pieper points out that the IOC through its history has defended the use of flawed gender verification tests as part of their goal of ensuring “fair competition”—a noble ideal that falls apart because, in her words, “genetic and physiological equality simply does not exist in sport.” Everyone has genetic variation that leads to physical advantages and disadvantages, and in one sport, what’s considered an advantage might be a disadvantage in others. A level playing field based on an athlete’s physical attributes just does not exist. As the sports scholar Jaime Schultz has written, “Why are genetic variations that affect autosomal chromosomes an advantageous endowment while those that affect sex chromosomes amount to a curse that can effectively drum one out of competitive sport?” No one ever questions, after all, if the swimmer Michael Phelps’s “biological advantage” means that he should be barred from competition.
The arguments deployed against trans athletes today, as Pieper put it to me, “are all scaffolded off of previous ideas and concerns” about women athletes, concerns that arose particularly whenever women deviated from a typically white, stereotypically feminine, Western ideal. It’s not lost on Pieper that so much rightwing frenzy has targeted Yearwood and Miller, relying on language that paints the two Black trans girls as too powerful and too muscular, despite their fairly petite size. “When anyone challenges those ideas, society tends to scrutinize them or try to cast them out and cast them aside,” Pieper said.
Pieper became interested in the history of gender verification in women’s sports when she learned about the trans tennis player Renée Richards while a graduate student. Richards transitioned as an adult and began playing in women’s tournaments shortly after. Richards never wanted to be seen as a trans pioneer; she was forced to publicly identify as a trans woman in 1976 when television anchor Dick Carlson—the father of Tucker Carlson, no less—outed her after she won a local tournament, a move that thrust her into a public spotlight that she had tried to avoid. (As Richards has recalled, she “pleaded” with Carlson not to out her: “I said, ‘You can’t do this. I am a private person.’”)
The similarities between Richards’s story and the bad-faith handwringing of today illustrate just how little has changed. Once Richards announced she would play in the U.S. Open that year, the USTA and the WTA responded by instituting a chromosome test used by other sports bodies like the IOC to ban “persons not genetically female” from competition, despite, as Pieper has written, “warnings from scientists who argued that chromosomes did not unequivocally identify sex.” The USTA defended its invasive and scientifically flawed requirement as necessary in order to prevent an “element of inequality” at the Open; Richards, in her memoir, wrote that the USTA and WTA believed “the floodgates would be opened and through them would come tumbling an endless stream of made-over Neanderthals who would brutalize” tennis stars like Chris Evert, an idea that Richards dismissed as “sheer nonsense.”
While tennis star Billie Jean King supported Richards in her quest for inclusion, other feminists of all stripes, including Gloria Steinem and the rabidly transphobic Janice Raymond, questioned Richards’s womanhood and her push to compete. In her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire, Raymond wrote that Richards “has succeeded in hitting the benefits of sex discrimination back into the male half of the court.” She added, “The new bumper stickers might well read: ‘It takes castrated balls to play women’s tennis.’” Richards sued to be able to play on the women’s circuit. She won her case, and went on to lose in the first round of the U.S. Open in 1977, retiring a few years later after an unremarkable career; the “endless stream” of trans women dominating tennis never materialized.
To Pieper, Richards’s story is just one example that shows the perils of believing science to be value-neutral, and of wielding “science” as a tool to discriminate. “Sport organizers and thought leaders have been trying to delineate this very neat and clear line between men and women, using science. And it has proven to be flawed and biased over and over and over again,” she said. She sees the same bias and flaws today in the obsessive, almost singular focus on testosterone levels, which has translated into scrutinizing girls and women’s hormone levels to either argue that trans athletes shouldn’t play at all, or to determine all girls and women’s eligibility to compete based on an arbitrary hormone threshold. “What looks like a controversy rooted firmly in science is ultimately a social and ethical one concerning how we understand and frame human diversity,” wrote Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young, the authors of Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography, in 2015 about the push to test women athletes’ testosterone levels. What they wrote could easily be extended to the move to ban or regulate trans girls and women athletes as well.
In the Guardian, Karkazis expanded on her views. Summarizing inconclusive studies of adult athletes that she wrote “fail[ed] to show consistent relationships between T and performance,” Karkazis concluded: “Labelling women ‘biological males’ draws a dubious connection between sex, testosterone, and athleticism that relies on long-discarded ideas that men and women can have a ‘true sex’, that testosterone is a ‘male sex hormone’, and that testosterone is the key to superior athleticism. None of these are true, and it’s long overdue that people stop saying they are.”
Mosier has come to a similar conclusion. “There’s a real lack of science of data around testosterone and performance in athletics,” Mosier said. “I’m not a person who would deny that testosterone has very real effects on people’s bodies, but all people have testosterone in their bodies. So this sort of positioning of testosterone as an exclusively male hormone or as the sole decider of athletic ability is just incredibly false.”
Ultimately, the outcomes of “science” are based on how it is wielded, a reflection of what one hopes to prove rather than any conclusive proof. And to many advocates and researchers, the focus on science is particularly inappropriate when it comes to high school athletes. Mosier recalled that when he was a teenager, playing sports was one of the few times he felt a level of comfort and ease in his own body. “We’re talking about high school kids here. We’re talking about middle school kids. We’re talking about college kids,” Mosier said. “And for them to hear that they are not worthy or valid, that their identities are not valid, that they’re not worthy of having the same experiences as their peers… Whether these bills pass or not, this is going to have long-lasting effects on how trans people are treated in our country.”
In May of last year, the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights publicly announced it had sided with the ADF in its complaint targeting the state of Connecticut, arguing that CIAC’s policy had “denied female student-athletes benefits and opportunities” and thus was in violation of Title IX. OCR’s decision, which threatened to revoke federal funding if the policy remained unchanged, was unsurprising. The Trump administration represented a stark departure from President Barack Obama’s relatively inclusive posture when it came to transgender rights, and no federal agency best exemplified the shift in priorities than the DOE. One of the first acts of Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education had been to rescind the previous administration’s guidance on the rights of trans students, and trans students who filed civil rights complaints with the DOE regularly had their complaints tossed out. The agency was more than eager to extend its support to students and families who were attacking trans kids, as the OCR decision demonstrated.
The advent of a new presidential administration has signaled a welcome shift when it comes to the rights of trans students. The day after Joe Biden’s inauguration, he issued an executive order that made clear that federal agencies under his tenure would work to “prevent and combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.” Notably, the executive order included the line, “Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports,” and stated that Bostock, the Supreme Court’s 2020 landmark—and surprising—ruling that expanded the definition of sex discrimination to include discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation and gender identity, should also apply to Title IX.
Asaf Orr, the director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Transgender Youth Project, described Biden’s executive order as a “watershed moment.” “It is the federal government once again saying, ‘LGBT people, trans people, trans young people, we see you, you matter, and we’re going to take the time to to do our due diligence and figure out what policies and what regulations and what things we can implement to ensure that you have equal access to sports and equal access to your education generally,” Orr said.
When the OCR decision came down, Andraya was finishing up her senior year of high school, four years defined by a hostile Trump administration (even Don Jr. had tweeted about her) and what had felt like relentless attacks. In a deeply ironic twist, by then, Andraya’s final high school track season was over, as was Selina Soule’s—the pandemic had canceled the remainder of their meets.
At the end of February, the Biden administration moved again to demonstrate its support for trans students, announcing that it was withdrawing the previous OCR decision on Connecticut’s trans-inclusive policies; it also announced it was withdrawing the Trump administration’s statement of interest filed in the related lawsuit, as well as the brief filed over Idaho’s HB 500.
But for Andraya, these welcome actions by the Biden administration came too late. Now a freshman at North Carolina Central University, Andraya had decided not to pursue track and field in college. She wanted to explore all the other aspects of life outside of sports; focus on mastering Spanish, her major; and maybe even study abroad one year. But her experience in high school had also left deep scars, and Andraya was wary of opening herself up again to the public spotlight. “I didn’t know how I’d be able to handle another four years of either the same criticism, or even worse criticism,” she said. We were video chatting, and Andraya, dressed in an off-the-shoulder blouse, her neck ringed in thin gold chains, was in her single-occupancy dorm room, decorated on one wall with the baby blue, pink, and white trans rights flag. “When I watch track videos, I still go, ‘Oh, I wish that was me,’” she said. “I miss it.”
Selina Soule, contrary to all of her claims that girls like Andraya were taking away opportunities from her, is running competitively in college. Last May, Selina announced in an Instagram post that she would be going to the College of Charleston, and would “run at the Division I level.” When Andraya saw Selina’s post, she decided to leave a comment. “Congratulations,” she wrote, tagging her note with a heart emoji.
I asked her why she had congratulated Selina. “I felt that after everything that’s happened, I should still show her kindness,” she said. She paused for a moment, as if figuring out what she wanted to say. “That’s a big accomplishment, being able to run at a Division I university,” Andraya said. “That’s a big accomplishment.”