Should Transgender Athletes Compete in Women's Sports?
By Meghan Gallary
The 1977 US Open was held at the West Side Tennis Club in Queens, New York, and ran from August 29 to September 11. Among the lineup of female athletes competing in the two-week tournament was 43-year-old Renée Richards, the first professional athlete to identify as transgender. Two years prior, Richards, who grew up as “Richard Raskind,” underwent gender affirmation surgery after decades of struggling with self-identity. In 1976, she applied to play in the women’s division of the US Open. When the United States Tennis Association did not allow her to, she sued them for violating the New York Human Rights Law. The court case ruled in Richards’ favor, and she was granted the right to compete in the Open in 1977. Although she did not win a singles or doubles title in the tournament, her presence alone had a substantial impact and opened many doors for transgender female athletes. Forty years later, the public is still divided on whether this has been an asset or a detriment to the world of women’s sports.
The WSL: Bethany Hamilton
On February 3, 2023, the World Surf League adopted the International Surfing Association’s Transgender Policy, which allows transgender surfers to compete in either the men’s or women’s events, so long as they meet certain eligibility requirements. While the news elicited mixed reactions from fans and surfers across the globe, one particular response garnered the most attention. Just a day after the announcement, 15-year WSL veteran Bethany Hamilton posted a two-part video on her Instagram page, sharing her thoughts on the matter: “I think many of the girls currently on tour are not in support with this new rule and they fear being ostracized if they speak up.” Hamilton then posed questions she felt were not taken into consideration when the rule was passed: “Have any of the current surfers in the World Surf League been asked what their thoughts and opinions are? Is this better for the women in surfing? If so, how? How did whoever decided these hormone rules come to the conclusion that 12 months of testing testosterone makes it a fair and legal switch?”
Hamilton also informed viewers that she will be pulling out of the league unless the law is retracted. Her combined videos received over 235,000 likes and more than 38,000 comments, many of which came from fans and professional surfers voicing their support. Other commenters found her claims to be ‘hateful,’ ‘transphobic,’ and ‘disappointing.’
Once her posts made headlines as big as CNN, Fox News and NBC, she published an additional statement aimed at her critics: “I really don’t think at this point there is a solution that will please everyone. There are different world views and that is part of life. I may not have the perfect answer. But I do feel the way I do and will continue to stand firm in what I shared here.” As a number of other big-name surfers continue to reshare her videos in agreement, WSL fans and athletes are left wondering what this means for the future of professional surfing.
USA Soccer: Alex Morgan
Such rules and regulations are not only impacting the pros. The same week Hamilton’s Instagram reels went viral, Alex Morgan, starting forward for the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, relayed her thoughts on the topic of youth transgender athletes. During a press conference leading up to the SheBelieves Cup, Morgan expressed that “the inclusion of trans kids in sports is the inclusion of kids in sports.” She encouraged inclusivity, emphasizing how politics should have no place in sports and that the debate endangers trans kids’ lives.
Policies against transgender athletes have the potential to uphold female and racial stereotypes. Assuming that individuals who are assigned male at birth will inevitably dominate when competing against individuals assigned female at birth enforces the idea that women are less athletic than men. Such conventional images often exclude black women and girls, who are frequently typecast as stronger and more masculine. These concepts are also echoed in the fact that there is significantly less dialogue surrounding trans men in sports, since it is a common supposition that they will be less likely to keep up with cis men, much less pose a threat to their teammates' or competitors' standings.
Morgan also continues to advocate that the National Team should discuss playing more games in Florida and Texas, two states that have legislation restricting transgender girls from playing with biological girls. “We’re not ones to shy away from hard conversation or taking a stand for what’s right,” she says. The National Women's Soccer League's current transgender policies state that trans women are allowed to compete for them, so long as the individual has identified themselves as female and does not change their declaration for a minimum of four years. This decision was made in the spring of 2021. Similar to the World Surf League’s more recent announcement, it too has received a mix of support and backlash.
NCAA Swimming: Riley Gaines and Lia Thomas
The public debate about transgender women in sports extends beyond just tennis, surfing, and soccer. Lia Thomas graduated from the University of Pennsylvania last May, and during her four years at Penn, she competed on both the men’s and women’s swim teams, becoming the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in 2022. Thomas won first place at nationals for the 500-yard freestyle event. She also competed in the 200-yard freestyle, tying for fifth place with University of Kentucky’s Riley Gaines.
A 12-time NCAA All-American, Gaines was also in her senior season when she swam against Thomas, hoping to podium her final year as a Wildcat. She claims that when she and Thomas tied down the hundredth of a second, the NCAA official told her the trophy would be given to Thomas for “photo purposes.” Many have criticized this statement, arguing that it would not have made a difference: in accordance with NCAA rules in the case of a tie, the trophy is given to whichever athlete is older. Thomas was born in 1999, and Gaines was born in 2000.
Nearly a year after both women graduated from their respective universities, Gaines has continued to speak out against transgender women in sports, pushing for a rewrite of Title IX. “I realized it's my duty as a female athlete who experienced this injustice to really use my voice and my platform to advocate for those female athletes who are emotionally blackmailed and gaslit into silence,” she told the Washington Examiner in February.
Gaines’ and Thomas’ interviews have sustained a decades-long debate, and have brought a massive amount of attention to the question: should transgender female athletes be allowed to compete in women’s sports? While there is no way to please everyone, keeping informed, being respectful, and staying open-minded are essential when making decisions or speaking about a topic that impacts human rights.