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DeVos’s Attack on Trans Athletes Is Not About Equity — It’s About Social Control

The Education Department is pulling resources from underfunded districts to punish them for trans-inclusive policies.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos listens during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the U.S. Department of Education on July 8, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

The Trump administration’s attack on transgender students intensified this week with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos threatening to withhold millions of dollars in federal funding from Connecticut schools that refused to withdraw from the statewide athletic conference that allows transgender students to participate in athletics consistent with their gender identity.

With the election looming, the administration is zeroing in on trans athletes and on August 31st issued a letter of impending enforcement action against Connecticut schools for adopting trans-affirming policies, claiming that such policies violate Title IX — the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education-by discriminating against non-transgender women and girls. Days after the August 31st letter, on September 2, the Department began to threaten additional school districts with a loss of federal funding if they didn’t provide assurances that they would discriminate against trans students in the future. Deviating from typical policy-setting processes, the agency is ignoring Supreme Court precedent and their own practice to expand the reach of anti-trans policy and rhetoric.

This unprecedent assault is the latest example of a Trump administration strategy that has everything to do with social control and nothing to do with equity. Capitalizing on an anti-trans discourse that derives from fear of trans people and our bodies, the administration is poised to deprive districts with predominantly Black and Brown students and faculty of critical federal funding designated for school integration. In other words, in the midst of a global pandemic where schools are struggling to provide students with basic needs, the Education Department is pulling resources from the most underfunded districts to punish them for having trans-inclusive policies.

Connecticut, consistent with state and federal law, has a statewide policy permitting transgender students to participate in sports consistent with the sex with which they live and identify. Though Connecticut’s policy has been in effect for nine years, it was only when Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, two young Black trans women, began to experience success in track and field in 2018 that the policy became a flash point for anti-trans rhetoric and efforts to cast some women and girls out of the category of “woman.”

The campaign against Miller and Yearwood began in early 2019 on Fox News and in right-wing blogs and progressed to legal action brought by anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and is now culminating in action by the federal government threatening to cut off federal funding to Connecticut schools. These entities and agencies propagate the idea that women and girls who are transgender are really “biological males” who threaten the integrity of women’s sport simply by participating alongside cisgender women and girls.

Though ADF and the Trump administration purport to care about the integrity of women’s sports, neither has a record of investing in women’s athletics in any context. There is no history, for example, of fighting for pay equity in women’s sports, ensuring support for women’s sports programs in schools, or combating sexual violence and harassment.

Rather, after largely losing the battle to ban transgender students from restrooms and locker rooms, ADF and the organization’s allies in the Trump administration have shifted attention to sport because of the long history in athletics of controlling people’s bodies through intrusive sex verification procedures.

“Arguments about who is really ‘female’ have been used against women athletes for as long as women have played sports,” Zirin writes. And these arguments have been tied to colonialist and white supremacist projects to use categorization as a method of social control.

Where state and quasi-state entities are given control over what and who something is, they are empowered to strategically exclude some people from the societally legitimized categories. As such, this is a continuation of the fight to exclude women and girls who are trans from public space and situate some people’s bodies as a threat to others.

Here, the centerpiece of the argument is that “sex … is an objective fact that exists from the moment of conception, and from that instant every nucleated cell in the child’s body is either XX or XY.” Sport becomes the site through which a construction of womanhood and femaleness is tied to genetics.

In other words, regulating sport is not about ensuring fair competition for women or protecting Title IX’s promise of sex equity in education, but rather it is a fight over how our bodies are sexed and who gets to decide the contours of manhood and womanhood in law and public discourse.

This framework is animated by an assumption that there is a clear and fixed thing called “biological sex” that the law can easily identify in each individual. As such, the Trump administration has taken the position that Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination in education “authorize[s] single-sex teams based only on biological sex at birth — male or female — as opposed to a person’s gender identity.”

This argument, dangerous as it is, remains resonant in a society and world where we are generally taught to accept a fixed, biological and binary understanding of sex. We are fed the facile argument, with no appreciation for its inaccuracy or its violence, that sex is simple: Males have a penis and make sperm and females have a vagina and make eggs. In reality, however our bodily characteristics are far more complex and nonbinary. We possess many sex characteristics all of which exist on a continuum not the easily identifiable binary that these arguments presume and reify.

Playing on the pervasive acceptance of an uncomplicated binary understanding of sex, the ADF argues in court, “What we were taught in sixth grade biology is true.” But, the reality (as it often is) is much more complex. Sex is not limited to genitals or chromosomes, and all sex characteristics exist on a spectrum, not in a binary. All people have sex hormones and every body responds to them differently. And the ever-shifting definition of “biological sex” is linked neither to athleticism nor to a straightforward objective, scientific truth.

One’s genitals do not define personhood nor are they a predictor of athleticism. We are instead each an assemblage of different pieces of this sexed puzzle that can only be understood when our body is situated in a particular context. Just as we have come to understand that our sexed behaviors take on meaning in a social and political context, so too, must we appreciate that the meaning assigned to our physiological characteristics is contingent on social and political context. Sport then, can be a site of breaking down notions of binary and restrictive sexed embodiment rather than a site of entrenching them.

Through sport, we can reimagine what our bodies can do, how we engage with and understand the limits and capacities of our bodies, and the social and political structures we build together. “We love [sport],” The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin wrote in 2015, “because it’s exciting, interesting and at its best, rises to the level of art.” And while we are accustomed to celebrating the power and magic of our bodies in some contexts — like Michael Phelps’ extraordinary wingspan and atypical lactic acid production — we have an impulse to police and control our exceptional bodies in others, like Caster Semenya’s testosterone production.

This is an opportunity to questions our assumptions about how we live in and understand our bodies as we resist the powerful and destructive rhetoric being propagated by the administration. Our bodies, what they can do and how we can understand them, are capacious. If we reclaim control over the nature of sex and sexed embodiment, we can instead relish the magic of our unconstrained potential to feel pleasure, exhilaration and possibility. We might experience sport through an entry point of joy rather than of exclusion.

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