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At the beginning of this year, I got a phone call from my brother and his wife. They asked me, “What are your thoughts about trans girls playing high school sports?”
This question and the conversation that followed requires some context.
My brother and his wife are both athletes. My brother was a good soccer player, and my sister-in-law ran track at North Carolina State University. Sports have always been a big part of their identities — and they are both competitive. They were asking me this question because they wanted sports to remain fair. They don’t like it when someone has an unfair advantage. If someone whose sex assigned at birth was male wanted to play high school sports as a female, wouldn’t that give them an unfair advantage?
A similar concerned was recently raised by Gov. Kim Reynolds. When asked if she would want to pass legislation prohibiting transgender girls from participating in high school sports, she responded, “I’m going to do what’s right for girls. I’m a mom of three daughters and a grandmother of three granddaughters who compete … They should have the same opportunities.”
I’m not a good athlete. Sports have never been a huge part of my life — though I do enjoy watching the Iowa Hawkeyes. My brother and sister-in-law brought this question to me, not because of my athletic prowess, but because part of my job is directing the LGBTQ Counseling Clinic at the University of Iowa. In this clinic we mostly work with transgender and nonbinary folks.
While others have talked more eloquently than I could about why transgender girls don’t have an unfair advantage — there’s a great article about this in Scientific American — I want to stick to my expertise, relationships.
What I told my brother and sister-in-law, and what I’d tell Gov. Reynolds, is this: Healthy identity and relationship development comes about when teenagers can express their individuality and still feel connected to others. Most trans girls aren’t striving to be star athletes, but I can guarantee you that all trans girls want to be themselves and feel connected to their schools and communities.
When we make it harder for trans girls to be themselves and have close relationships — like ones they could build on sports teams — we put their lives at risk. Trans girls are at higher risk for mental health challenges then their cisgender peers. This isn’t because trans girls are inherently more likely to have a mental illness. It’s because they live in a world that is designed for cisgender people.
If we want to help transgender girls live their fullest lives, we need to focus on changing policies that exclude them — not creating more. Trans girls are girls, and they should be treated as such. They should have access to all the opportunities, just like Gov. Reynolds’ granddaughters.
This is what would make things fairer: Creating families, schools, and communities that aren’t just designed for cisgender folks, but for people of all genders would level the playing field. Trans and nonbinary folks have been sidelined for years. If we can actively include them — instead of actively excluding them — sports teams, schools and communities will be better off.
Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and University of Iowa professor. He co-hosts the Attached Podcast. Comments: email@example.com