Over the past few months, Florida’s Republican legislature and governor have combined to create “culture war” legislation aimed at rallying their base for next year’s mid-term elections. Florida is not alone in doing this; many “red” states have enacted or are considering enacting similar pieces of legislation. As a sociologist, I follow a lot of national discussions and debates, but I don’t feel the need to comment on them all. However, I’ve had 4 or 5 people reach out to me and ask my thoughts on these, so I figured I’d say something about them, over three separate posts. Part One will discuss Critical Race Theory (CRT), Part Two will discuss the banning of transgender girls from state high school sporting teams and Part Three will discuss what Republicans call socialist indoctrination in higher education.
Fairness for Women?
On the first day of Pride Month, June 1, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 1028 into law, effective July 1. The ironically titled “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” was added as a provision to a measure involving universities and charter schools in the state. The purported goal of this act is to “allow women to have an opportunity to compete in women’s sports” according to Republican Representative Kelli Stargel, but the effect will actually be to keep transgender girls and women from competing in women’s sports.
It should first be noted that this law would appear to overrule the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) policy on gender identity participation, which states, “All eligible students should have the opportunity to participate in interscholastic athletics in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity and expression, irrespective of the gender listed on a student’s birth certificate and/or records."
Florida is one of at least 30 states that have adopted, or are considering adopting, legislation aimed at excluding transgender athletes under the guise of “fairness.” All of these have been, or will soon be challenged in federal court, meaning tax payers will foot the bill to protect discriminatory legislation. It also makes it less likely the NCAA will award championship tournaments to Florida colleges and universities.
Supporters of these measures say they are necessary to promote equity in athletics, even though few, if any, of these measures include any reported instances of a transgender woman adversely affecting the participation of other female athletes. According to the FHSAA, there have only been 11 cases where a student has requested screening to participate as a trans athlete in the last 8 years. This measure is not only superfluous, it is harmful to transgender students who wish to enjoy the real or perceived advantages of engaging in interscholastic athletics.
When interviewed by Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, DeSantis stated: “We’re going to protect our girls. We want to have opportunities for our girls. They deserve an even playing field, and that’s what we’re doing.” While this sounds noble, it is flawed in a few respects:
1) Transgender girls are girls. The notion that there are strict, binary categories of biological “men” and “women” is simply not supported in scientific literature. At least 6 biological markers have been used to determine one’s sex (hormones, chromosomes, etc.) and none of them are binary. Rather, human sex groups are found along a continuum, and governing sports bodies have consistently changed their markers of what determines sex over the years.
I believe this is at the heart of many stated concerns about transgender girls playing girls sports. Many people subscribe to an essentialist notion of sex and gender, feeling that people have a biologically created essence as either male or female, which then predicts a whole host of emotional and behavioral outcomes. An earlier draft of this essay elicited the following reader comment: “Total misinformation. It IS settled science. Chromosomes determine sex. Learn it, know it, live it.” But this is incorrect! While it may sound straight forward to people walking down the street, physicians and researchers have long known that an individual’s chromosomes (usually XX or XY) don’t always match their gonads (ovaries or testes) or other sexual anatomy. To the eye, sex might be as clear as black and white; under the surface however, there is a ton of variation.
2) The major governing body of international athletics uses testosterone as the defining factor in female participation, but there is no scientific research that shows a direct causal relationship between levels of testosterone and how good an athlete one is. Correlations, perhaps. But not causation; testosterone may help build muscle mass, but the factors that go into producing an athlete are far more numerous and complex than just hormones, and are spread across biological, social, environmental, and mental gradations.
Additionally, testosterone levels are another continuous trait and there is no perfect line to draw when trying to determine sex. Just as you can find higher levels of testosterone in many male elite athletes compared to many female elite athletes, you can also find lower levels of testosterone in some male elite athletes than in some female elite athletes! (For a detailed analysis of the science, and lack thereof, in sex testing in athletics, I point the reader to “Including Trans Women Athletes in Competitive Sport” by Ivy & Conrad in the Fall 2018 issue of Philosophical Topics.) Therefore, protecting “real” girls from “trans girls” is dubious.
3) Finally, if the governor and the Republican legislature are truly concerned about “an even playing field” in sports, there are a shit-ton more productive means to assure equity than going after a phantom set of “fake women” trying to take over girls’ sports. They could begin by addressing poverty, health care, racism and sexism, societal issues that preclude fair competition in sport on a far grander scale. Despite the common sport rhetoric, calls for fairness in sport have always been trumped by access. Instead of focusing legislation on reducing social inequality, which would open up sport opportunities to all who want to be involved, Tallahassee is using fear of transgender girls as a partisan political ploy.
Shame on Floridians for voting such trans-phobic politicians into office- let’s vote them out!