that female athlete doesn’t look feminine enough

So one of the things I have said about my activism in the past is that my job is to work myself out of a job. I want to end domestic & sexual violence generally, fully fund services for all victims who have been (and will be) harmed before we finally do away with D/SV, and along the way to end heterosexist barriers to sex and gender variant victims ability to access relevant services. I want many other things, too, but these are at the core of my activist career, if I can be said to have had one.

I have always maintained that as the world changes, I’ll be the wrong person to talk to about next steps, because I won’t have lived my life where that next step is the biggest problem. i won’t have felt the lack of that next step so acutely. I won’t be able to speak from personal experience about how that next step would have changed my life for the better b/c we’ve already taken so many steps that it’s hard for me to imagine **only** lacking that next step.

And in many ways, I’ve been successful. Where once I was a voice in the wilderness talking about the interrelation between cissexism, heterosexism, and sexism, and how the first two play a role in how even straight, cis women are treated by our governments and our service providers, now many people are talking about these things, often with a specificity that makes them far more expert in their area than I could ever be.

But in some ways, I have been frighteningly unsuccessful. While I primarily discussed access to gender segregated services for victims of trauma, harassment, and stalking, as early as 1998 I was asked a question about trans athletes in women’s sport. Not an expert in sports (my close friends will recognize this as hilarious overstatement of the scope of my knowledge), I fell back on how I had seen cissexism and heterosexism used to exclude even straight, cis women from the services with which I was more familiar.

It is inevitable, I told the audience in approximately these words, that efforts to exclude trans people from any social pursuit will end up harming cis women. The reason is that people will look for hints that reveal a participant to be the stereotype of the deceptive transsexual who lies about her past to conceal the tenuous validity of her womanhood. This presupposes, however, that trans people can get away with passing as non-trans at least for a time. Clues revealing secret transness, then, must be subtle, and because they must be subtle, they can be found in any number of women. As a result, the desire to communicate cisgender and cissexual state of being will result in women voluntarily curtailing any social expressions deemed too masculine. Women who do exceed the boundaries of feminine behavior and presentation will initially receive the worst consequences of gender policing that nominally targets trans people, but as the outliers are pressured to conform, the boundaries of femininity collapse. As a result, freedom for all women is eventually constricted. And though trans people will suffer from gender policing, and out trans people will be the individuals who suffer more than any other individuals, because the group of cis women is so much larger than the group of trans persons, when considering all suffering in total, cis women will surely suffer more than trans people from any increased gender policing of social activities. 

Thus, I argued, even if you hate trans people, you should advocate against gender policing that targets trans persons. The investigation and accusation and prosecution process will never harm only trans people.

Well, if all y’all cis people had listened to me 24 years ago, we could have saved ourselves a world of hurt. Unfortunately some of you are bigoted Mormons who just can’t comprehend the benefits of gender liberation. Or, perhaps, they embrace sexism, so the incidental sexism of cissexist persecutions seem a feature not a bug.

From the Deseret News:

After one competitor “outclassed” the rest of the field in a girls’ state-level competition last year, the parents of the competitors who placed second and third lodged a complaint with the Utah High School Activities Association calling into question the winner’s gender.

Entirely unsurprising. Utah is one of the states that has legislated a system ostensibly banning k-12 trans students from participating in school sport save in categories open to their assigned gender at birth. What it actually does, however, is allow any random person to trigger a state investigation into the most private aspects of a child’s life. In the particular case here, the complaint was considered resolved through a thorough check of multiple records going back a decade or more, but more intrusive investigations, including medical ones, apparently are authorized by statute and cannot be said to be ruled out in the future.

And, of course, what’s compounding the horror here is that the excessive masculinity triggering the investigation wasn’t a tracheal prominence or tiny boobs. What triggered the investigation here was athletic excellence itself.

Given that the ostensible rationale for passing laws regulating trans children’s participation in school sports was to ensure that girls have a chance to experience being celebrated for their excellence, this punishment of excellence would seem to be proof that such laws not only fail to support and celebrate athletic girls, but rather punish them for their greatest successes, encouraging them to fail.

One might hope that this would cause some second thoughts, perhaps an effort to repeal this repellent and sexist regime. One would, of course, be mistaken. This is Utah, after all. Read and then weep over this most telling part of the Deseret News article:

Spatafore [David Spatafore, the UHSAA’s legislative representative] said the association has received other complaints, some that said “that female athlete doesn’t look feminine enough.”

The association took “every one of those complaints seriously. We followed up on all of those complaints with the school and the school system,” he said during an update on HB11, a ban on transgender girls from participating in female school sports, which was passed during the final hours of 2022 General Session.

And we come full circle. What I predicted 24 years ago has come to pass. Girls looking insufficiently feminine is now a complaint that the government takes “seriously”, and that the government then investigates.

I understand that women’s and girls’ athletic achievements are not sufficiently celebrated. And I understand that there’s fear that permitting trans children to participate in gender segregated sports in the manner that is most healthy for them, even if that means participating in sports originally conceived as being only for students of a different assigned sex at birth will inevitably mean a few celebrated wins for trans athletes that might otherwise have been wins for cis girls or cis women.

But giving the government the power to investigate deficient femininity, or to treat a woman or girl as an object of suspicion for her athletic excellence itself, does nothing to support cis girls or celebrate their achievements.

If you can’t oppose such laws because of their cissexism alone, oppose them for their sexist, for the power they give governments to crack down on anyone who violates gender norms even in so innocuous a manner as being a girl winning a medal in girls’ sports.





  1. moarscienceplz says

    This whole kerfuffle would have been avoided if the families had kept their girls out of sports altogether. After all, these precious lil’ darlings are risking tearing their hymens due to strenuous activity, thus damaging their future careers as sister wives.

  2. Allison says

    It is inevitable … that efforts to exclude trans people from any social pursuit will end up harming cis women.

    That’s a feature, not a bug.

    They go after trans women because they’re an easy target (most people don’t know any, or at least don’t know they know any), and while supposedly protecting women/girls/boys/ova from the trans-feminine bogeymen, they “unintentionally” also target all the other folks they like to stomp on.

    They used the same tactic to engineer the repeal of the Houston anti-discrimination ordinance. Unfortunately, the mainstream LGBT organizations didn’t counter the libels, perhaps because they didn’t think trans people were worth fighting for, and their protections were lost.

    We must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately, as the saying goes.

  3. lochaber says

    This isn’t even the first example like this…

    A couple years back, when bathrooms the trendy thing multiphobes were “concerned” about, there were several instances of individuals taking it on themselves to police and “guard” bathrooms, which led to numerous stories of cis women being denied access to bathrooms because they didn’t look “feminine” enough.

    Also not a sports type person, but I’ve generally been pretty active in my life, and I think the idea that any cis guy claiming to be a trans woman, will have an insurmountable advantage over any cis woman outright laughable. As a cis guy, I’m not terribly weak. I’m probably stronger than most women, and I’m probably slightly above average for men. But I could not just walk into a women’s powerlifting gym and compete. And even if I spent a couple months weight training, I may be able to lift more than the casual powerlifters in that hypothetical women’s gym, but I still wouldn’t likely be able to even approach what the actually competitive women are lifting.

    There are a lot of factors that go into athletic performance, and it varies not only for every sport/competition, but even for the various specialties and such within a given sport/competition. All else being equal, yeah, maybe some extra testosterone may give a strength advantage. But that’s only one potential advantage out of hundreds, maybe thousands? of other biology-based potential advantages. Nevermind that everything I’ve read indicates that trans women tend to have similar hormone levels to cis women, but I guess asking people to let facts get in the way of bigotry is a bit too big of an ask…

    Not being a sports person, I don’t know how to address this fairly, and honestly, I don’t really care too much, because I’m sure there are people (likely trans athletes…) who do have some good ideas about how to address this, and I think we should listen to those people, instead of just kneejerking to bigoted bullshit…

  4. marner says

    As someone who cares about sports and as someone whose first knee jerk reaction was, of course trans women should not compete in the women’s divisions, this is just more data showing that banning K-12 trans athletes is a solution in search of a problem. And that is actively harmful for everyone. Arguably even to that rare rare person who doesn’t get to compete because a trans athlete beat them out.

  5. mathscatherine says

    The last federal election in Australia included a whole stupid debate about the idea of trans women competing in women’s sports (either girls or professional athletes were the main focus depending on the audience), and my argument was similar – “I would much rather my daughter is in a sports team with someone with a penis than a team where the coach gets to check whether she has a penis”.

    Of course I’m perfectly happy for my daughter to compete in a team with trans girls, or indeed a mixed gender team – but this felt like the argument that ought to sway some of the “think of the children” lot.

    As far as professional sports are concerned, my general thought is that if the competition is one for which drug testing is appropriate, trans women athletes should expect to have a higher bar to pass to compete depending on the sport in question and how much of an advantage testosterone etc. actually is. If you would not normally be doing a drug test, then we’re back to umpires-checking-for-penises and really, just let trans women compete as women because that’s who they are.

  6. StevoR says

    @ ^ mathscatherine :

    “I would much rather my daughter is in a sports team with someone with a penis than a team where the coach gets to check whether she has a penis”.

    Of course I’m perfectly happy for my daughter to compete in a team with trans girls, or indeed a mixed gender team – but this felt like the argument that ought to sway some of the “think of the children” lot.

    Truth. Very well put. Thankyou.

    Thankfully Deves and Scummo were convincingly, overwhelmingly, rejected by the Aussie people so great to see that. The Gestapotato Dutton is polling 17% now too so more joy there.

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