You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Mothers Leading the Battle Against Trans Student Athletes

Their tactics mirror those employed by white mothers who fought school integration: disguising bigotry with pleas to protect children.

Three young women runners run by, blurred, on an indoor track, as other young runners and spectators look on.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

To the extent that there is a real national debate about the participation of trans people in sports, it is almost exclusively concerned with teenagers in student athletics programs. This is despite the fact that there are not very many of them; one trans student in Idaho described realizing the state’s (currently challenged) law, which requires athletes to compete only on the teams corresponding to the sex they were assigned at birth, likely only had one potential challenger in court: her. “I said to myself that this applies exactly to me,” Lindsay Hecox told ESPN last June. “How many other trans women athletes are in the state of Idaho?” Idaho was one of 20 states to introduce bills restricting trans athletes’ participation in sports in 2020, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress, and in the first month of 2021, 11 state legislatures advanced such bills. Now, in mid-February, the website Transathlete counts 21 states considering trans-exclusionary legislation specific to sports.

“We are on the brink of creating dystopian government systems of sex surveillance,” Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, said on Twitter this week, where he has been tracking each bill’s progress. In Georgia, if their anti-trans bill passes as currently drafted, students may have to submit “a written petition which shall include, at a minimum, information regarding the student’s gender based on the student’s reproductive organs, genetic makeup, and other medically relevant factors” to be reviewed by “a panel of three physicians” appointed by “the governing body of the athletic association” to determine what teams they can play on. It is not the only state where lawmakers could subject students to examinations of their genitals. “A dispute regarding a student’s sex,” a new bill introduced in Kansas states, “shall be resolved” by “a healthcare provider,” who “may verify the student’s biological sex” through a “physical examination,” determined by one or more of the following: “(A) The student’s reproductive anatomy; (B) genetic makeup; or (C) normal endogenously produced testosterone levels.” 

It’s no accident that the wave of trans exclusionary bills picked up in the last two years. An Arizona state legislator said her bill was inspired by a lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of three cis girls, all student athletes in Connecticut, claiming that trans girls who the cis girls competed against had an unfair “physiological athletic advantage.” The trans girls who have competed against those cis girls, who allegedly have this advantage, are supported by the American Civil Liberties Union. Strangio said that in addition to the complaint itself persistently misgendering trans youth, it compromises students’ equality, dignity, and privacy with its “demands that high school athletics be organized by chromosomes.”

The religious-right law and policy shop Alliance Defending Freedom, who have been described as a “Christian legal army,” brought the suit. They have taken such legal action against trans students as part of a larger strategy to roll back LGBTQ rights. While ADF professes a commitment to “save women’s sports,” that’s only because they are trying to advance the fiction that they were under attack from trans people. It’s a framing right-wing news outlets have seized on, likewise, in the name of equal opportunity. Under the guise of championing girls, they give a platform to anti-trans commentary: 51 minutes over 19 segments in one week in January, a Media Matters for America analysis showed, which in turn generated half a million Facebook interactions in under two days. This is a fake debate pitting cis and trans women against one another, one which has benefited from both-sideism in other news media, from The New Yorker to the BBC. Such stories help drive the idea that there are two competing spheres—trans rights and women’s rights. The domain of the competition is a familiar one: the bodies of women and girls through which the “real” women and girls can be kept separate and safe from the rest. 

ADF’s lawsuit accused trans girls of “displacing” cis girls, calling policies of trans inclusion “discrimination” and calling the trans girl athletes “boys” throughout. The lawsuit had its origins in a petition created by one of the cis girls’ mothers to segregate sports based on what the mothers say is “biological”—as opposed to what they sometimes have called gender ideology. “The genders are segregated for a reason,” Bianca Stamescu told the Hartford Courant. If schools refused, “They might as well just say women don’t exist as a category.” All this is reminiscent, wrote Matt Tracy at Gay City News, of “the kinds of talking points made by white segregationists who resisted integration.” 

After the mother’s petition took off, transphobic harassment against the trans girls followed. Both of those trans girls are also Black. In a Bleacher Report profile by Mirin Fader, Andraya Yearwood recalled the parents who hurled transphobic abuse at her at a meet. Waiting to collect her number near the starting line, she found two women ahead of her in conversation: “He shouldn’t be running!” one said. “Why is he running on the girls’ team? HE IS A BOY!” They had their backs to her, but she could hear them. “The two women turn around,” wrote Fader. “They look at Andraya. She looks at them. It is as if months pass between blinks. ‘Why are you on the team?!’ one of the women shouts at Andraya. ‘Why are you here?!’”

Somehow, cisgender mothers of cisgender girls have positioned themselves as having a stake in the fight for trans rights. They follow from a cadre of mothers in American civil rights history who have at times successfully repackaged discriminatory policies as necessary in order to protect the children—their children and children of people like them. In the late 1970s, there was Anita Bryant, the conservative orange juice pitchwoman who lobbied against gay rights on the false premise that gay and lesbian teachers were a danger to their (presumed straight) students. Before that, but throughout the post–Brown v. Board of Education era, women in their role as mothers organized to block school integration. Maternalism is a handy shield against being accurately identified as fueling homophobia and racism. Here, the tactic has found a new face in the fight against trans rights. It is one that will be especially pernicious as anti-trans groups on the right scramble for influence in the post-Trump era in which they will have to reconnect their politics to something less obviously bigoted yet no less damaging.

The Connecticut girls’ mothers have used the idea of defending their daughters to fight for trans exclusionary laws and policies. Their appeals are couched in the language of protection and womanhood, which have long been calls to preserve a racial hierarchy. In these efforts to legalize discrimination in school athletics, there is a parallel to the fight—though it is a different one—to maintain school segregation based on race.  When right-wing media look to illustrate the trans student athlete “debate,” they often pick Black trans girls and women to make these accomplished athletes seem like outsiders, like threats.

The parallel to school segregation becomes even clearer when we understand that white women’s work in the name of “protecting girls” was fundamental to the effort. As Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, associate professor of history at Western Carolina University, writes in her 2018 book Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy, we neglect to recognize their participation for the same reasons it is so effective. They may be overlooked in the history of Jim Crow because they worked outside the official halls of power, their racist ideas misperceived as something they absorbed from their husbands and their participation obscured because they were not typically the ones writing the laws or arguing them in court. 

Yet women did the daily work of segregation—as midwives, teachers, and social workers essentially deputized by the state to maintain the color line, legally categorizing who was white and who was not with each birth recorded, each student’s “delinquency” monitored, each welfare case investigated. The very public fight over school segregation was just one part of that, preserving a social order in which some benefits accrued to them as white people who were also women. “With them at the center,” wrote McRae, we can see that their era of segregation “is no longer solely about maintaining lily-white schools; rather, it is about sustaining white supremacist politics through a system, however modified, of racial segregation.”

Mothers in the ADF challenge to trans inclusion in sports claim they are simply defending their daughters. One mother, Cheryl Radachowsky, appeared alongside an ADF attorney on one radio interview, referring to the trans girls as “biological males” who are, perhaps confusingly stated, “bumping other females out of potential opportunities at the podium.” Excluding trans girls from competing against her daughter, she said, was “not about a lifestyle choice,” it was about being “fair.” (More recently, she has protested the closure of student athletics due to Covid-19. “We’re taking away something from the kids,” she told a local reporter in August.) 

Radachowsky rejects the idea, too, that her fight is racist, yet she does so in terms sure to perk up a Tucker Carlson booker. “Lest I be assailed by the PC crowd: This has nothing to do with ‘white privilege,’” she wrote in The New York Post. “My daughter is a beautiful young woman of color.” Both she and her daughter have made appearances on Fox programs, as have other mothers in the Connecticut case.

Motherhood can be a tactical political identity through which these women could assert some power and claim dominion while also playing to societal judgments about failed mothering. “Viewing schools as an extension of their home and a place where they wielded particular authority, many white segregationist women claimed that because school integration eroded their ability to secure the benefits of white supremacy for their children it compromised their ability to be good mothers,” wrote McRae, the historian. “This political language minimized racial identity and replaced it with a particular gender identity, prioritizing motherhood while burying how whiteness shaped their understanding of it.” 

As Radachowsky recounts her struggle as a mother defending her cis daughter from trans girls, she sees her daughter as the victim. “As a parent, it is gut-wrenching to know that no matter how hard my daughter works to achieve her goals, she will lose athletic opportunities to a pernicious gender ideology,” she wrote in the Post. Bianca Stamescu, who created the petition, echoed this, claiming that her daughter wasn’t the only victim, since she was “heckled” as part of ADF’s rally against employment protections for LGBTQ workers outside the Supreme Court in October 2019, “all for saying that women deserve fairness in sports.” She and her daughter were being “bullied into silence,” she wrote. “[I]magine your child is marginalized and ridiculed just for raising questions. Could you overlook the injustice?”

Alliance Defending Freedom is at the forefront of religious-right groups, who, after losing their war on same-sex marriage, tried to redirect their attack to trans people. Women and children have figured prominently in their campaigns—like those they say would be endangered unless laws are passed to segregate bathrooms based on sex as assigned at birth, a means of excluding trans and nonbinary people from public accomodations. Historian Gillian Frank has noted the parallels between the myths about trans women making bathrooms unsafe for cis women and girls, which ADF and others have deployed in such campaigns across the United States, and the racist myths pushed by segregationists stoking fears about integration’s purported threat to white women’s virtue and purity. The idea of protecting girls is meant to win, and with it, they can fuel a stigmatizing moral panic about trans people. 

Sports are their next issue. On the day the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the three anti-LGBT employment discrimination cases (now known as Bostock v. Clayton County) in October 2019, ADF supporters were there, waving baby-pink mass-produced posters that read “Protect Women’s Sports.” This is all the same culture war to them. 

Where ADF is situated clearly on the religious right, their anti-trans politics have led them to work alongside feminist groups, including women’s sports groups. They have tried to portray trans exclusion in sports as a non-partisan issue. “This isn’t bathrooms. Sports are different,” Doriane Coleman, professor of law and codirector of the Center for Sports Law & Policy at Duke Law School, said in 2019. “It’s wrong,” she added, to think of ADF’s claims that cis girls in sports are being discriminated against by trans girls as “reflecting a right wing or conservative Christian position. It’s not. People across the political spectrum care about ensuring that girls and women have an equal chance at the goods that flow from sport.” In that respect, she isn’t entirely wrong—one reason ADF has zeroed in on sports is precisely to enjoy the feminist cover it provides, and some prominent women who have stood against sexism in sports, like Coleman and Martina Navratilova, have joined the cause. Their work has already been cited in the Kansas bill requiring genital examinations. 

Coleman and Navratilova are part of a new initiative that launched itself deliberately into the center of anti-trans politics. The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, as its members described it, is meant to straddle an ideological divide on the issue of including or excluding athletes who are trans, and believes it meets opposing sides with “extreme” views in the middle with science. There is a problem already with all of this: To state that there are two sides to the issue of trans exclusion is to stake out an ideological position in and of itself. Appeals to “the science” cannot be made outside of politics, either. 

At the launch press conference held via Zoom earlier this month, when I asked any of the working group members to define the two “extreme” sides, the answer came from the world of student athletics. Donna Lopiano, the former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said she sees “trans orgs” on one side saying that those who dont support full inclusion “are transphobic,” and on the other, she sees “mothers of cis girls” who say inclusion in sports “is based on sex, period.”

It’s mothers like those in the Connecticut suit, then, which the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group identified as one “extreme” side—the injury against them being that they have been accurately called transphobic—who want to meet in the middle. The other side is “trans orgs.” 

Trans athletes are presumably nowhere to be found. They aren’t on the working group, either. Trans inclusion in the working group presumably takes a backseat to the “science,” which the group said they spent two years working through in order to come to their policy recommendations: Exclude trans girls from competing with cis girls unless their testosterone is kept below a certain threshold. 

No one on the working group conducts such research (though Coleman has written about hormones for the publication Quillette.) The scientific evidence, however, for a causal relationship between testosterone and enhanced sports performance is “very weak,” as endocrinologist Dr. Shalender Bhasin told The New York Times. Still, arguing with this group on what they have deemed to be the reputable science rather than the principle that trans people are who they are is making a concession like the one they have already offered to anti-trans groups and transphobic mothers working with them. The group’s other recommendation reveals this, too: They want the Biden administration to exempt competitive girls’ sports from his day-one executive order, which essentially extended the anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people affirmed in the Bostock cases at the Supreme Court to all federal agencies. Out of the gate, the “compromise” is to roll back anti-discrimination policies. 

For a working group like this, an esteemed one whose launch was cosponsored and promoted by the Duke Center for Sports Law & Policy, to pitch itself as the reasonable middle in a debate defined by “extremes’’ is a win for ADF and their allies. It means they have succeeded in defining this fight, with rights for cis and trans women pitted in an artifical opposition. The idea that trans athletes present us with a problem to solve is something invented by those who seek to exclude them. 

Entering into this fight as they have, the working group has staked a side. It is also a profoundly disturbing one, marshalling a history of “protecting women” for a cause that harms us all. “Make no mistake, the fight to keep trans people out of sports is about power and control, not the protection of cis women in sports,” wrote WNBA star Layshia Clarendon in Marie Claire this month. “Under no circumstances can we abide by segregating trans athletes, policing their bodies, and then claiming it somehow serves the larger fight for gender justice.” 

These “compromises” tossed to an imaginary middleground between anti-trans groups and trans people are the means by which to reinforce that coercive power, one that women have long wielded to preserve separate but equal spheres. Imagine a compromise in which an expert panel suggested to white segregationist mothers that not prejudice but science be used to determine which students will be allowed to enjoy an equal educational experience. The students who are then excluded, they tell in turn, should accept that experts just know what’s best—and tell their supporters, please, to tone down the rhetoric. You don’t want to hurt these mothers’ feelings.