A U.S. court ruled to uphold the rights of trans athletes. Will the verdict stick?

OPINION: The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision is a huge victory but the future of trans athletes remains uncertain

The debate over whether trans athletes should be entitled to equal participation in sports has seemingly exploded on to the political scene over the last few years, with conservative states and sporting organizations rushing to restrict trans women’s and girls’ access to sporting opportunities.

One of the controversies that first kicked off the political discourse was that of two trans sprinters, Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, who seemingly dominated girls’ sprint events at the Connecticut high school championships. Several girls who had lost to the two trans girls—and their families—have quickly become faces of the anti-trans movement and filed a federal lawsuit challenging Connecticut’s trans-inclusion policy in high school sports.

The United States 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision on the Connecticut case last week, finding that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing and were unlikely to succeed with their claims even if they did have standing. In doing so, the court determined that the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) can implement a policy that allows trans students to compete on women’s and girls’ sports teams.The decision is the biggest win for trans athletes in the issue’s history and is a broad shot across the bow in a highly contentious issue that has recently trended away from LGBTQ2S+ advocates.

The 2nd court’s decision comes as dozens of sporting organizations, from USA Swimming to professional disc golf, rush to ban or restrict trans women from participating in women’s sports. If upheld by the Supreme Court, the decision could have wide repercussions, particularly for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which administers most of the college athletics landscape.

The question of which gendered category trans athletes should compete in is perhaps one of the most widely misunderstood debates of the current political landscape. Many people feel in their gut that trans women have an automatic athletic advantage over cis women because they understand that cis men are generally better athletes than cis women—and they assume trans women are just a variable of men. However, the actual science behind trans athletes is much more muddled.

It’s pretty well established that trans women do lose statistically significant athletic ability when they undergo a medical transition—even anti-trans researchers who have looked into the topic have conceded that there is at least some loss of athleticism. But because trans women are widely perceived as men across society, it’s an easy sell to convince the so-called “neutral middle” that something untoward and unfair is happening when a trans woman competes in sports against cis women.


The actual results on the field, court or in the pool paint something far from a dominating picture for trans women. The only openly trans woman to ever qualify for the Olympics, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, finished dead last in the field. More recently, college swimmer Lia Thomas dominated the Ivy League before losing two of her three events at a national championship meet where other swimmers clearly outshone her performance.

In fact, there has never been a completely dominant trans woman athlete in any sport in the history of sports. But that hasn’t stopped sporting organizations from panicking and ceding ground to the political mob that has demonized trans athletes for the last several years.

Earlier this year, the NCAA changed their once-inclusive trans participation policy to one that allows individual sporting organizations to administer the rules for each sport. But the court Friday ruled that Title IX, which guarantees equal access to educational opportunities according to sex, protects trans athletes from discrimination in school sports.

“Title IX includes language identical to that in Title VII, broadly prohibiting discrimination ‘on the basis of sex,’” the judges wrote. “Thus, it cannot be said that the Policy—which prohibits discrimination based on a student’s transgender status by allowing all students to participate on gender specific teams consistent with their gender identity—falls within the scope of Title IX’s proscriptions.”

This could mean that a trans woman denied an opportunity to compete on the women’s school team could have a valid Title IX claim. This is just the first case, and there’s little doubt that more conservative courts will find differently, and thus the Supreme Court will ultimately decide this issue. Passing the Equality Act would effectively settle this issue, but the Senate is broken, and it will never pass as long as the filibuster remains in place.

It will be judges, not sports or school administrators, who end up determining the fate of trans athletes. None of these judges have undergone a transition, as there are no openly trans federal judges. They will all bring their premade biases about men and women into these decisions without possibly understanding how transition drastically changes the bodies of trans people.

In the end, however, trans people and our allies should breathe a little easier knowing that the first big court decision about trans athletes went our way. That doesn’t guarantee future success, but at least we know someone within the legal system sees and values our rights within the law—and that’s got to count for something.

Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and columnist for Xtra and MSNBC. She was the first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in U.S. history.

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