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Opinion: Utah incident reveals this inherent threat in anti-trans efforts to ‘protect’ girls in sports

Opinion by Frankie de la Cretaz

(CNN) — A teenage girl in Utah has had to seek police protection after a member of the Utah State Board of Education suggested that she could be transgender (she is not). In a now-deleted Facebook post, board member Natalie Cline made false implications about the teenager’s gender identity. Following the incident, the girl’s parents described their daughter as a tomboy with a muscular build and short hair who favors baggy clothing, who is now being subjected to severe cyberbullying and harassment.

The Utah State Board of Education said in a statement that its leadership is “very concerned” about Cline’s Facebook post and “the harm it has caused to students and families in Utah.” Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson issued a joint statement calling her actions “unconscionable” and urging the district to hold her accountable; the district has demanded Cline resign. Cline cited free speech rights in a Facebook post that also included a public apology, reading in part: “My deepest apologies for the negative attention my post drew to innocent students and their families.”

But Cline’s post, while deeply harmful, didn’t occur in a vacuum. The reality here — that the insinuation of a secret, hidden trans girl on a school’s basketball team could provoke the risk of harm — is the product of an environment of growing trans panic in this country, particularly when it comes to girls’ and women’s sports teams.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the legislative attack on transgender Americans could have predicted that the fear-mongering rhetoric and exclusionary policies targeting trans women and girls would eventually harm cisgender girls, too. It was always going to.

What’s at stake

Currently, 24 states have passed legislation barring trans kids from playing sports consistent with their gender identity — legislation that predominantly impacts trans girls who want to participate in girls’ or women’s sports. This is in addition to the flurry of bills being passed to ban things like access to gender-affirming care or trans people’s ability to use restrooms or locker rooms consistent with their gender. So far in 2024, a staggering 455 anti-trans bills have been introduced in 41 different states, effectively amounting to a full-throated offensive on the rights of transgender people to exist in public.

In 2022, the Utah legislature banned transgender girls from high school girls’ sports. While Cox vetoed the bill, citing trans youth’s high suicide rates and the bill’s targeting of a vulnerable marginalized group, GOP officials overrode the governor’s veto and the ban passed. In August 2022, a Utah judge granted a preliminary injunction allowing trans girls to compete on girls’ teams after the parents of two trans girls filed a lawsuit. That case is still pending judicial review, as are several other challenges to sports bans in other states.

What is at stake in these cases is not just whether or not transgender girls are entitled to equal rights and to be free from discrimination — it is how we are defining what it means to “be a girl,” which is exactly what the right-wing politicians who are introducing these bills want.  The same movement is happening at the elite level of sports, where a rash of policies banning or limiting trans women’s ability to compete alongside cis women have been implemented over the last several years.

The main argument for passing these restrictions depends on characterizing trans girls, as Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, a cosponsor of a GOP House bill ludicrously titled “Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act” did: “a direct threat to women’s sports and all female athletes across our country.”

Policing gender hurts everyone

However, trans athletes and their allies have for years argued that these kinds of restrictive policies that police the gender of trans girls do exactly the opposite of protecting women and girls — they endanger all women and girls, including cisgender ones. “It’s particularly frustrating when women’s sports is weaponized,” soccer star and former US Women’s National Team member Megan Rapinoe has said. “Oh, now we care about fairness? Now we care about women’s sports? That’s total bulls–t. And show me all the trans people who are nefariously taking advantage of being trans in sports. It’s just not happening.” Rapinoe is not the only cisgender woman athlete to stress this sentiment. In fact, the first trans sports ban to be challenged, in Idaho, involves a cisgender plaintiff who recognized that her own safety could be compromised if policies allowed for the questioning of the gender of women athletes who didn’t conform to certain constructions of femininity.

This is exactly what happened to the teenage girl in Utah. “To look at someone’s outer appearance and make an assumption that they’re either playing in the right arena or not, based on how someone looks I don’t think is appropriate,” the girl’s mother told a local news outlet. “It just broke our hearts that we needed to have this conversation with our daughter.”

And this is not the first time that Utah has investigated the gender of a female student athlete — in 2022, officials looked into the gender identity of a girl after she won a competition and the parents of the second- and third-place finishers filed a complaint questioning the winner’s gender identity. Last year, adults in California interrupted a track meet to question the gender of a nine-year-old girl. Both of these girls are cisgender.

It is worth noting that, in all of these cases, it has been adults who target children to question their gender. Often, it is women — mothers — who claim they are “defending” their daughters from the “threat” of the outsider in the form of a transgender girl, bringing shades of the targeting of Black students by White mothers during school segregation under Jim Crow. This comparison is not accidental: Republican strategist Sarah Longwell told TIME that trans sports bans are “gaining steam for the same reason that election audits and [critical race theory] bans have been popular,” describing them as “PR campaigns masquerading as legislation, designed to keep culture wars at the center of the conversation” and prey on the anxieties of voters who fear losing systemic power.

As The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant writes, “cisgender mothers of cisgender girls have positioned themselves as having a stake in the fight for trans rights,” explaining that they “follow from a cadre of mothers in American civil rights history who have at times successfully repackaged discriminatory policies as necessary in order to protect the children — their children and children of people like them.” (No consideration is given to the mothers of transgender girls, who presumably also want to protect their children.)

But as long as transgender girls’ gender identities are policed, cisgender girls will continue to have theirs policed as well. The history of gender policing and sex testing in sports shows that to be true. In the Victorian era, women were not allowed to play most sports out of fears that they would become “too masculine.” Over the next century, those fears evolved to include things like chromosomal and hormonal testing whose beginnings can be traced to the Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany and which disproportionately impact Black and brown athletesas well as intersex athletes.

All girls will suffer

When we hold women and girls to arbitrary standards of gender markers — markers that rely on White, Western ideals of femininity and hold up oppressive ideas about bodies — all girls suffer. It should surprise no one that trans panic and restrictive legislation that relies on policing the gender conformity of girls is dangerous. We risk subjecting children to unnecessary genital checks (which amounts to sexual abuse) and harassment simply for being who they are.

There are lasting impacts to all of this, too. A 2021 study from The Trevor Project found that many LGBTQ+ young people have never participated in organized sports, with many citing fear of bullying and discrimination as a main reason they have refrained from playing. “I avoided athletic activities out of terror, not disinterest,” one participant said (a new study published last month also found that trans girls are primarily avoiding sports out of fear of harassment).

These fears have sobering costs, when one considers that sports have been shown to have a positive influence on the mental health of youth of all genders who participate, and the Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth had seriously considered suicide in the past year, and nearly 1 in 5 actually attempted suicide. Denying children the opportunity to seek the constructive outlet of sports by making them a place where their identities are policed robs already-vulnerable kids of those benefits. If cisgender girls avoid sports out of these fears as well, they stand to be similarly negatively impacted.

Anti-trans groups have created a false debate that pits cis girls and trans girls against each other to further their agenda — an effective tactic that leads to infighting against an imaginary enemy, rather than fostering the kind of solidarity that might allow for a marginalized group, like women, to target the actual enemy: the patriarchal system that puts them all at a disadvantage from birth. Even what many perceive to be legitimate questions about “fairness” are, in the end, weaponized to reinforce an anti-trans agenda that hurts all women — an effort further enabled by the public’s ignorance around the perceived (and largely exaggerated) physical differences between trans and cis athletes.

These anti-trans policies are cruel to trans kids and that should be enough to make the argument against them — but for those who only seem to care how their own children might be impacted, and for people who say they care about the safety of girls and women, we now have concrete proof that these policies designed to “protect” girls from their transgender counterparts are actually putting them in harm’s way.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 to connect with a trained counselor, or visit the 988 Lifeline website.

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