Almost 50 years since Title IX was passed into law—mandating the equal treatment of boys and girls in school athletics—young women and girls still face barriers their male counterparts do not. While the rate of girls participating in high school athletics has increased more than tenfold since 1972, it’s never reached the level of participation boys had when the law was passed.
And even those few gains have left behind Black, brown, and indigenous girls. According to a joint report between the Law Center and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, schools where less than 10% of the student body is white are more than twice as likely to have opportunity gaps for girl athletes than schools where 90% of the student body is white.
Overall school athletic participation reached a 30-year low even before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered school sports programs nationwide. But instead of addressing these genuine crises facing women and girl athletes, a vocal minority of lawmakers are more interested in weaponizing the forced scarcity facing girls’ athletics programs against transgender students, themselves facing a long litany of barriers including physical violence, sexual violence, mental health crises, and rejection by their own families.
Inclusive policies for transgender students are already in place for millions of students, covering 16 states and countless districts nationwide that have given trans kids the same opportunities as their peers for years. They’re also supported by a broad base of organizations with lengthy records fighting for more opportunities for female athletes, including the Women’s Sports Foundation, the YWCA, the National Organization for Women, and many more. But lawmakers in 12 states have introduced bills to categorically ban all transgender girls from school athletics in 2021, baselessly accusing them of “stealing” opportunities from their cisgender peers.
In 2020, Idaho passed such a bill into law, banning all transgender girls from competition. The ACLU challenged the law on behalf of Lindsey Hecox, a Boise State cross country runner and transgender girl. A federal judge agreed the law violated Hecox’s right to compete, ruling the state acted in “an invalid interest of excluding transgender women and girls from women’s sports entirely, regardless of their physiological characteristics.”
Now we—along with feminist sports icons like Megan Rapinoe and Billie Jean King—are fighting alongside Hecox as the case goes to appeal. Given the many forms of violence and prejudice trans kids already face at school, banning trans girls from participation further tilts the scales against them while doing nothing to solve the genuine problems facing girls’ athletics programs. In fact, many of these laws would subject all girl athletes to invasive medical examinations—all in the name of policing the bodies of trans students and any girl who doesn’t conform to their school’s stereotypes of femininity.
If, as many of these lawmakers claim, fairness is their goal, they should turn their attention to the unfair advantages many cisgender, white athletes receive by virtue of little more than their zip code—including the remaining gap in resources between boys and girls programs. Auditing school funding for racial disparities, funding efforts to integrate sports programs in racially segregated areas, and making the Department of Education an active partner in this fight are all critical steps lawmakers can take to strengthen girls’ sports opportunities and close the gaps many girls still fall through.
Banning transgender students solves none of these problems and reduces female athletes to a political and bigoted talking point. Title IX remains a landmark civil rights law, and its prohibition on sex discrimination includes any effort to lock out any student because of who they are. But caring about girls’ sports means tearing down the barriers athletes face—not using them as a cudgel against transgender girls.