Phillip Westry is legal director at Free State Justice, a Maryland organization that acts as an advocate for members of the LGBTQ+ community. When he saw a poll showing most Americans oppose transgender women competing in sports against cisgender women, it confirmed what he’d already suspected.
“I’m not surprised by the polling,” Westry said. “I think some of the media coverage, especially with organizations like Fox News, oftentimes use the trans community and marginalized folks in general as a boogeyman.”
Advocacy groups like Westry’s aren’t alone in thinking about the future of trans women and their place in sports competition. Sports leagues and organizations across the world are grappling with the question of whether to separate cisgender and transgender women in sports.
Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA), the world’s swimming governing body, said earlier this month that it would not allow most transgender athletes to participate in elite women’s events. The organization said it will try to create an “open” category for swimmers who have a gender identity that does not match their sex.
Recently, the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, in collaboration with the university’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and The Washington Post, surveyed 1,503 people for their views of transgender girls and women in sports competitions.
The poll shows considerable opposition to transgender women and girls competing against cisgender women and girls at all levels.
But the poll also reflected increased empathy for members of the trans community. Forty percent of respondents said “greater social acceptance of transgender people” was good for society — higher than the 38% that said so in a July 2021 Pew Research Poll.
In the Povich Center-CDCE-Post poll, 55% of respondents answered that they are opposed to letting transgender girls compete with cisgender girls in high school sports. For college and professional sports, that was 58%.
Forty-nine percent of respondents said they oppose letting transgender girls participate in youth sports.
Of those surveyed, 28% said transgender women and girls should be allowed to compete in professional and college sports alongside cisgender women and girls, 30% for high school sports and 33% for youth sports.
Those who support excluding transgender women and girls from competing against cisgender women and girls in sports point to a competitive edge they believe the transgender athletes would have.
Sixty-eight percent of respondents in the Povich Center-CDCE-Post poll said that transgender girls would have an advantage over other girls in youth sports.
“At the moment, I understand that if you spent half your life with testosterone, your bones and then you got larger muscles, then, I mean I think there was a reason why they separated out the two to begin with,” poll respondent Thomas Cherry, a 47-year-old software engineer in Baltimore County, said.
He noted that his view could change in the future as more information about transgender athletes becomes available.
Bladensburg’s Tim Woody, another respondent, had a different view. The 49-year-old accounts manager for a flooring distributor said that separating transgender and cisgender girls in sports concerned him because it could lead to mental health issues.
“If a [transgender girl] can’t play a game because everybody else doesn’t understand it might lead to more of a suicide rate where something that they want they can’t achieve. It labels them for possibly the rest of their life,” he said.
At least 18 states in the United States have banned transgender women and girls from competing with cisgender women and girls on sports teams.
Earlier this year, Republican Maryland House Delegate Kathy Szeliga introduced the “Save Women’s Sport’s Act,” a bill that would have had similar effects. It was defeated in committee.
Szeliga, who said she plans to re-introduce the bill and narrow its scope to just apply to high school sports, said the bill and the larger movement was not about transgender people but instead was about “protecting fairness in women’s sports.”
“I certainly have no desire to limit anybody’s opportunity to participate in sports, the sports of their choice,” Szeliga said. “However, when it comes to elite competition, I do think [cisgender] women need to be protected.”
But some in the trans community voiced concerns about the impact that such restrictions could have on trans women and girls.
Noted Lee Blinder, executive director at Trans Maryland, “I think we really need to be very cautious and look to the examples of how we’ve already failed our young people and ensure that we are not creating a binary that doesn’t exist and therefore will always be failed.”