Now more than ever, cis female athletes must show solidarity with trans athletes | Sport

Kathryn Bromwich argued that the main threat to us cisgender women comes from cisgender men, and not trans women. It is the same in sport: historically and currently, the common perpetrators of sexual assault, abuse and harassment in sport are cisgender men. They also tend to be heterosexual and white. They hold nearly all the levers of power in sport by leading international and national sport organizations and governing bodies, the NCAA, pro leagues, coaching staffs, mainstream sports media and more.

They give themselves near-unfettered access to use and abuse athletes of all genders. They face almost no accountability as they seem to purposefully leave SafeSport in the US, for example, understaffed and powerless in countless ways.

Yet anti-trans activists want us to believe that transgender female athletes pose the gravest danger to cisgender girls’ and women’s bodies, sport success and scholarships. Led by the Republican party, a shocking 22 states passed laws excluding transgender athletes from joining the teams of their gender identity. Politicians have attempted to pass nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills in state legislatures in 2023. Right-wing pundits such as Matt Walsh profit from their peddling of transphobia, making as much as $100,000 monthly from YouTube ads. Elon Musk’s recent declaration that the term “cis” is a slur indicates just how much transphobia is now central to Twitter.

Although much of their outrage is directed at the few examples of elite transgender athletes like Lia Thomas, children are the biggest group impacted by these laws. Sydney Bauer reported how the number of transgender children in school sports can’t be larger than 100. The GOP is using sporting exclusion as an entry point to gain support for their proto-genocidal assault to eliminate trans people. While politicians are trying to ban trans people’s access to gender-affirming care – trying to eliminate them from existence – Walsh and others falsely claimed that Boston Children’s Hospital’s Gender Multispecialty Services Clinic conducted genital surgeries on minors. Their efforts spurred severe harassment and one documented bomb threat against the clinic.

Anti-trans activists are building off the failed locker room and bathroom bills of several years ago to claim that transgender female athletes present the sexual threat to us. This claim is baseless; the UCLA School of Law’s Williams’ Institute showed that trans people are four times more likely than cis people to be victims of violent crime such as rape and sexual assault.

They are instrumentalizing us cisgender women as weapons in their anti-trans assault. It seems a convenient political tactic to draw media attention to girls’ and women’s sport – to “save women’s sport”, they claim – as I’ve mentioned on my podcast. Their strategy also tries to limit our athletic success and opportunities by reinforcing sexist notions of cisgender girls and women as the “weaker, slower sex”. This was perhaps why cisgender men began segregating sports by sex initially. It strengthens patriarchal control by weakening the #MeToo movement and anti-abuse push in sport after the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

Frankie de la Cretaz recently reported that there are three reasons why women’s swimming houses a virulent anti-trans movement: the sport’s whiteness and anti-Blackness, its rampant and unaddressed sexual abuse history, and the East German state’s doping program against its female swimmers. Transphobia, however, runs deep in all sports. Nearly every sport is battling – if not controlled by – people who declare transgender people to be “cheaters” and “unsafe” to exclude them from their gender category.

Crucially, the call is coming from inside the house as members of our community yell these dangerous views the loudest. Cisgender, white female US Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar was raped in 1981 – not in a locker room by a trans woman – but while on a jog by an unknown person. She worked hard for decades trying to hold sport organizations accountable for sexual abuse and assault; yet a scan of her Twitter shows the bulk of her work now obsesses over “protecting” us from trans people. In the last year she’s repeated the dangerously false claim that trans women are “violent at the same rate as other males”. She spoke about “protecting women” alongside the ADF at the Icons conference in summer 2022. The Human Rights Campaign labelled her Women’s Sports Policy Working Group a “hate group”. Her Twitter follower count increased by 30% between October 2022 and July 2023.

Former University of Kentucky cisgender, white female swimmer, Riley Gaines, is famously making a right-wing career after tying with transgender white female swimmer Lia Thomas in 2022. Gaines has used 79% of her interviews to argue that trans women have an unfair athletic advantage over cis women – a claim with no evidence. In 28% of her interviews, Gaines has argued that cis women are at risk of being sexually assaulted by trans women in locker rooms. Hogshead-Makar and Gaines’s chosen work provides cover for the cisgender men who hurt us, who control our access to sporting opportunities, etc.

Evidence from my experiences as a cisgender, white female swimmer show that their claims are a complete lie. Telling our stories of sporting abuse and harassment to identify the specifically cisgender perpetrators show why we must stand locked in solidarity with trans people in our common fight against the cisgender white patriarchy. To not do so implicates us in this emergent genocide. It reinforces patriarchal attempts to control not just trans’ people’s bodies, but ours too through sexual abuse, harassment, forced pregnancies, and other eugenic schemes.

Former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas has found herself in the crosshairs of the anti-trans movement.
Former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas has found herself in the crosshairs of the anti-trans movement. Photograph: Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

As a former Division I swimmer, former club swim coach, and current historian and activist, I consider myself extremely lucky that I was never sexually assaulted nor abused in the 1990s and 2000s. Sexual harassment was a near-daily occurrence though. As I near middle age, I am still dealing with the trauma from it. None of the perpetrators were transgender people.

In high school, it was my cisgender, white male teammates – including a guy I carpooled with – who fat-shamed, sexualized, and masculinized my body by calling me a “chode” in front of everyone. Their actions likely resulted from sexist beliefs – connected to transphobia too – that cisgender boys should always defeat cisgender girls, as I would beat some of them in distance butterfly sets. My cisgender, white male head coach told teammates at a meet that my racing suit was see-through, leading them to openly mock me while I prepared for the 500 freestyle. Both instances left me sobbing and shaking, clouding every interaction with them thereafter. Raised conservatively and without an understanding of sexism and misogyny, I was led to believe these were isolated incidents. It was expressed to me that I needed to ignore them, be “strong”, etc.

What happened in college compounded my high school experiences. My high school and college head swim coaches – cisgender, white men – both fat-shamed me into bouts of anorexia that led to decades of disordered eating. “Slimming down” would supposedly make me “lighter” – faster –in the water. They wanted me to become the desired lean, “feminine” swimmer, and not bulky nor masculine. In my mind, their remarks “proved” that my teammates’ nickname for me was correct.

My career peaked my sophomore year of college: I became a Colonial Athletic Association conference champion by winning the 400 individual medley – one of the most challenging events as it requires expertise, speed and endurance in every stroke. I also earned a bronze medal in the 200 butterfly. Frustratingly, I slid into anorexia again my senior year due to my coach’s insistence to lose weight to drop time. Without enough food you cannot train nor race fast: I shrunk to my smallest size and lost hard-earned muscle mass. It tanked my core swimming talent, my endurance, and I swam the slowest since high school.

Likewise, it was not trans athletes, but my cisgender male teammates who were accused of sexually harassing a cisgender white female teammate in college. The men’s team enacted what amounted to acts of retribution against those of us who supported the victim.

While coaching during my PhD program, a cisgender white male head coach for whom I worked was caught in a sex sting. I regularly heard coaches at swim meets discussing which cisgender girl swimmers were undergoing puberty. Coaches’ obsession with monitoring cis girls’ bodies illustrates their belief that it is their duty to “train” us how to eat, who to date, how to practice, etc. as part of “coaching us to swim our best”.

I share these experiences to express how and why we must extend muscled solidarity with trans people in the fight against fascist transphobia. There is a tradition of feminist activism through the telling of stories; whisper networks and gossip are tools to combat sexual predators. It is not to receive sympathy nor declare myself more of a victim than transgender people; there are differentiated kinds of suffering we face due to our different proximities to the cisgender white patriarchy.

Cisgender men’s sexual harassment of me was multi-faceted and unceasing in sport. It was not just about boiling my body down to male genitals with a nickname; they sought control by sexualizing and degrading my sense of self, body, weight, and humanity to shreds, all of which will be a lifelong process to repair. Other stories I’ve heard and/or observed are infinitely more traumatic than mine. Only paying attention to the worst cases though lowers the bar for acceptable behavior. We need to be raising that bar for us all.

More representative evidence exists, too. Scott Reid reported in 2018 how USA Swimming ignored hundreds of male coaches who sexually abused girl swimmers. USA Swimming also botched investigating cisgender white male coach Sean Hutchinson: it cleared him in 2011, despite evidence that he’d groomed and sexually abused cisgender white female US Olympian Ariana Kukors-Smith.

We cisgender white women can abet abuse too. Then-director of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport, Susan Woessner, did not disclose her personal relationship with Hutchinson that impeded the investigation. Kelsey Parker Gislason is still employed by US Figure Skating despite publicly supporting four-time accused sexual assaulter-coach John Coughlin. We are also fully capable of perpetrating sexual abuse.

Every sport is dealing with these cases, such that it’s overwhelming to keep up with them. At a quick glance in the US, this includes rowing, women’s soccer, women’s running, fencing, men’s basketball, men’s football and countless more. More than two dozen Canadian sport and activist organizations are pushing their government to conduct a national inquiry into sexual and other forms of abuse in sport. Cases abound further, from France, Australia, Germany to South Korea. A June 2021 survey found that one in four NCAA athletes – men and women – endured sexual abuse.

Transgender athletes are not sexually endangering us in the locker room. Rather, it was cisgender reporters who spied on trans female swimmer Lia Thomas, behaving as Peeping Toms per sports journalist Karleigh Chardonnay Webb. One teammate anonymously shared Thomas’s locker room habits with the Daily Mail. Their obsession with Thomas’s body betrayed a horrific exoticization of trans people’s bodies. Talk about possible sexual harassment and trauma.

The anti-trans movement appears to be strengthening by the day. Politicians are trying to legalize forcing high schoolers to undergo genital exams and spectators have openly challenged the gender of cisgender girl athletes at competitions. As Niko Stratis articulated, cisgender people should not wait to openly resist transphobia until we “regular people” suffer from it. Sexual assault and harassment are some of the most dangerous issues that we face collectively and as different groups.

It is essential that as the group with closer proximity to the cisgender white patriarchy in charge of sport – and thus with more power and protection – we loudly use our agency to lock arms with transgender people to resist transphobia. Not doing so will harm us both to varying degrees, with transgender people standing alone to face dire genocidal policies. Our causes are inextricably linked and strengthened when we march together. It is trans people’s human right to exist peacefully, be healthy, and thrive, just as it is ours.

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