On March 3, Mississippi state legislators voted to pass a bill to ban transgender athletes from participating in women’s elementary, high school and college sports in the state. The vote passed through the state house in a landslide, 81-28, and passed by a similarly large margin of 34-9 in the senate last month.
This legislation follows a set of events that took place throughout 2020, when lawmakers introduced more than 20 bills that sought to ban transgender people from participating in athletics, according to the ACLU. As of March 4, over two dozen other states nationwide have similar bills making their way through state legislatures. North Dakota and Idaho have even already passed such bills. However, Idaho’s bill is currently in litigation in federal court after a judge issued an injunction last August.
The policies even extend to the national level. In Congress, Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) introduced the “Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act of 2021,” which would make it illegal for schools that receive federal funds to allow students who were assigned male at birth to participate on women’s sports teams. The law also defines sex as “recognized based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”
Despite this, there is no guarantee that any of these policies will be enacted — often, governors have decided to veto anti-LGBTQ+ legislation following pressure from leagues, both professional and collegiate. Over the summer, the NCAA said it would consider pulling March Madness games from Boise in response to the passage of the state’s anti-transgender law, and as long ago as 2017, the NBA moved its annual All-Star Game from Charlotte to Las Vegas after North Carolina’s anti-transgender restroom policies were passed.
These laws come following President Joe Biden’s executive orders rolling back the previous administration’s anti-transgender policies, including removing the ban on transgender military service and allowing transgender students to use the their preferred restroom in public schools. And, while not directly stated as being a response to Biden’s actions, the timing of the events of the last few weeks, both in Mississippi and other states around the country, seems to be closely related to the signing and implementation of those policies.
However, policy changes aren’t the only reason that this type of legislative action is happening now. The sudden response can also be attributed to a wave of recent instances in women’s sports where people with more biologically masculine qualities, regardless of gender identity, have been singled out for having a supposed “competitive advantage” over their peers.
Over the past year, a group of girls in Connecticut have been challenging a law that allows transgender althletes to participate in women’s sports. The suit centers on two transgender sprinters who have frequently outperformed their cisgender competitors. The girls claim that transgender sprinters have an advangtage racing against them because they were assigned male at birth. But, the case has a glaring flaw: One of the plaintiffs actually beat one of the “advantaged” athletes in question twice in an eight-day span in February 2020.
Research has actually found that feminizing therapy does impact athletic performance of these transgender athletes: The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the international governing body for track, recommeds that athletes spend about a year on testosterone blockers and oestrogen in order to “ensure a level playing field.” So, making these laws seems repetitive.
And, these events aren’t nationally exclusive. Another prominent and related international incident started back in 2019, when South African Olympic sprinter Castor Semenya was banned from international competition due to her naturally elevated testosterone levels resulting from being born intersex.
Semenya has been extremely successful at the international level, winning three world championships and two gold medals in the 800 meter dash. The IAAF has had Semenya in its sights since she won the 2009 world championship in the 800 meters. Initially, the IAFF’s focus was on whether she’d used banned performance-enhancing drugs. When those tests turned up negative, because of her muscular build and more masculine features, she was repeatedly subjected to gender verification tests to continue racing internationally, despite it not being designed for and never before used for intersex athletes.
The tension came to a head in early 2019, when the IAAF banned Semenya from running in her favored middle distance events (the 800m and 1500m) because of the “competitive advantage” that her biology presents. This is despite there being “no evidence that female athletes with DSDs have displayed any sport-relevant physical attributes which have not been seen in biologically normal female athletes.”
In the aftermath of the IAAF’s decision, she was told that she either had to take medication to lower her testosterone levels to continue competing or stop racing altogether. Because she was ruled ineligible to compete as a woman, and can’t compete as a man, Semenya has been left unable to compete since the policy was put into place. She has twice appealed the ruling, but both have been denied. But, there is still hope for the South African sprinter. Two weeks ago, Semenya filed an application to the European court of human rights in a final bid to save her career and overturn the ban on her defending her 2016 Olympic golds at Tokyo 2021.
Policies like the one that Mississippi has passed will continue to put athletes in situations similar to those experienced by both professional and amateur athletes alike, and cases like Semenya’s will only keep arising. It remains to be seen how both lawmakers and athletes respond to the new laws, and if the phenomenon of the level playing field can be achieved through these means.