Beedle: Trans athletes targeted in 2020 legislation

Jillian Bearden is a 39-year-old professional cyclist, Master National Champion in Time Trial, and trans woman who founded the Trans National Women’s Cycling Team.

Last week, we discussed one of two anti-transgender bills, sponsored in the Colorado House by Republican Rep. Shane Sandridge. That bill, HB20-1114, would have criminalized transition-related medical care for minors — all based on fears of those who don’t pay attention to science or the lived experiences of transgender people.

[content-1] This week, we want to talk about Sandridge’s other bill, HB20-1273, the “Equality and Fairness in Youth Sports Act,” which aimed to “prohibit male students from participating on any athletic team for students in sixth through twelfth grade that participates in an athletic activity sponsored by a school and is designated for ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls.’” This bill was designed to prevent transgender girls, who are assigned male at birth, from participating in girls’ sports.

Even though HB20-1114 and 20-1273 failed to pass in Colorado, similar bills are being considered in Arizona and Idaho.

The concern over transgender girls and women participating in sports stems from a case in Connecticut in which two transgender girls were the subject of a Title IX complaint after placing in girls’ state track events. This case has drawn attention from groups like the right-leaning Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel, and resulted in a federal Department of Education employee, Dwayne Bensing, being fired for exposing potential bias within the department. In August 2019, Bensing revealed emails that showed the Department of Education was rushing to take this case and violating protocols.

The Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) is the regulating body for high school athletics in Colorado, and already has a policy for transgender athletes that leaves decisions regarding participation of trans students in athletics up to individual schools, and allows for an appeals process when the school’s decisions are contested. According to CHSAA Commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green, there have been no issues with the current policy, or any specific cases of trans athletes winning any contested or controversial events here in Colorado.

The issue of transgender athletes does raise questions about competitive equity, especially in girls’ sports. Different states are addressing it in different ways. Washington’s proposed law, HB-2201, only bans trans athletes from “individual competition sports,” such as track and field events. The Idaho High School Activities Association requires trans girls to complete one year of hormone replacement therapy before competing on a girls team, though Idaho Republican Barbara Ehardt plans to introduce legislation similar to Sandridge’s bill here in Colorado.

However, it is important to note that the use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone replacement therapy has been shown to negate many of the “biological advantages” that critics claim transgender women have over cisgender women in sports. So it is doubly cruel for Sandridge to propose banning trans girls from participating in sports because of perceived “biological advantages” while simultaneously trying (with HB20-1114) to ban the medical care that would erase those unwanted advantages.

Jillian Bearden is a 39-year-old professional cyclist, Master National Champion in Time Trial, and trans woman who founded the Trans National Women’s Cycling Team. Prior to her transition, Bearden was a professional road and mountain cyclist as well. During her transition, Bearden participated in a study — conducted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), USA Cycling (USAC) and Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) — from October 2016 to September 2019 to measure the effects of gender reassignment therapies on athletic performance. She took part in regular tests that measured things like her VO2 Max, or maximal oxygen uptake, her lactic threshold, or the maximal effort an athlete can maintain for an extended period, and her average watts and watts per kilo, a measure of a cyclist’s power-to-weight ratio.

[pullquote-1] “They started monitoring me as I started my transition, but I was also tested pre-transition, back in 2010,” says Bearden, who came out as trans in 2015. “We did a timeline from 2010, through my hormone replacement therapy, and before and after surgery to make sure my medication pre-bottom surgery was suppressing my testosterone. I was a decade case study at CTS. What we found was that I had an 11.4 percent reduction in power.” The average difference in performance levels between cisgender male and female athletes, or the “gender gap,” as measured in 1983 and re-evaluated in a 2010 study by the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, is about 10 percent.

As a transgender athlete, and especially as a trans athlete who wins, Bearden has faced intense scrutiny. She is quick to note that being transgender does not automatically make someone an athletic prodigy. She sees herself as something of an outlier, and says of her cycling team: “Out of a cycle of about 60 trans women, [there] was only one other person who performed at my level.”

Little attention is given to the trans women who lose, or simply fall within the average performance band for cisgender women. Bearden also points to the relatively small number of trans athletes in a sport like cycling.

“If you look at all of the professional races that occur in a season, trans women win races like .001 percent of the time,” she said.

Sandridge’s bill aiming to ban trans athletes in high school sports is strikingly similar to New Hampshire’s HB1251 and Arizona’s HB2706, and not just in terms of intent. Like these other bills, HB20-1273 provides a provision for girls to prove their sex: “by presenting to the school district of the student’s team a signed statement from a physician ... that indicates the student’s sex based solely upon:

(I) The student’s internal and external reproductive anatomy

(II) The student’s naturally occurring level of testosterone; and

(III) An analysis of the student’s chromosomes”

The very specific wording of the bill raises concerns that, in addition to discriminating against transgender girls, it could be used to unfairly single out cisgender girls who deviate from largely subjective gender norms. This mandates assessments similar to the kind required of Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose status as a female athlete, despite her having been assigned female at birth, was the subject of intense scrutiny based on her testosterone levels.

Women of color in athletics often face questions about femininity and gender, as illustrated by years of racist coverage of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, and bills like this would almost certainly exacerbate the problem.

What is weirder than a “constitutional conservative” trying to pass legislation requiring genital inspections to play girls’ sports is the fact that this exact language appears in both the Arizona and New Hampshire bills.

When asked about the sourcing for the information in both HB20-1114 and HB20-1273, Sandridge says: “I worked with two physicians. One of them works for a children’s hospital locally, another one works in Denver. This is physician-written.” New Hampshire Representative Mark Pearson, the sponsor of HB125, contends that “this bill was a work in progress over many months, I’m sure there’s language from me personally, co-sponsors who may have consulted other persons or other groups. I don’t think I could reconstruct all the sources even if I had the time to.” The pertinent text of the bill is only 224 words.

It is incredibly frustrating when legislators like Sandridge ask, “What’s to stop a 17-year-old male from waking up one morning, writing a letter that says he now identifies as a female, joining the girls team, and playing all season?”

While it’s true that there is currently no clearly defined legal ruling about the eligibility of transgender student athletes in Colorado, most trans people would probably tell Sandridge that the fear of alienation from their friends and family, the fear of social ostracization, the fear of discriminatory violence and harassment, and the constant questioning and examination of your very identity by mean-spirited ideologues are all probably effective ways to prevent young people from transitioning.

It certainly stopped me.

News Reporter

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.