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The Transgender Tipping Point: Caitlyn Jenner and a New Era of Inspiring Athletes

We believe that every human being deserves the right to play, regardless of gender, race, ability or sexual orientation. When Caitlyn Jenner, former Olympic icon and gold medalist at the 1976 Montreal Games in the men’s decathlon, announced that she would be transitioning to a woman it sparked a worldwide conversation about the transgender community and transgender athletes. The benefits of sports for all peoples are clear and opportunities to participate should be made readily available to anyone who wishes to play.

While there have been others before Jenner and there will be many after, her celebrity status has brought an impressive amount of attention to the issue of transgender athlete participation. Most recently, Jenner accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award and stated that she would do whatever she can to “reshape the landscape of how transgender people are viewed and treated.” Dr. Renée Richards revealed in 1976, while competing in amateur tennis competitions, that she had once been a man. The following year the USTA attempted to prevent her from playing, but she brought the case to the New York Supreme Court and won the right to compete. Richards, without intending to, became a pioneer for transgender athletes. Jenner, once looked at as a symbol of machismo, is set to assume that role for today’s generation, for athletes and non-athletes alike.

Today, there are an estimated 700,000 transgender individuals in the United States, according to a study by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. Assessing the number of those individuals who identify as athletes is even more difficult to determine. There are a few collegiate and professional athletes who have begun to publicly identify as transgender but despite existing policies regarding transgender athlete inclusion, many schools have not implemented such a policy. This lack of policies at individual schools likely deters some athletes from coming out.

The first NCAA Division I athlete to openly identify as being transgender was Kye Allums, a former member of the women’s basketball team at George Washington University. What individuals, such as Allums, want to show is that it does not matter what gender they identify as, they still are athletes and deserve the right to compete as such. Keelin Godsey, a 16 time All-American in the hammer, discus, shot put and weight throw, Fallon Fox, the world’s first trans professional MMA fighter, and Chris Mosier, the first known out trans athlete to earn a spot on a US National team that matches his gender identity, are living proof of the ability they possess to compete at the elite level regardless of their gender identity.

Policies have been put forth by the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee to provide the safe environment and participation opportunities members of the transgender community desire and deserve, but these policies are not being implemented quickly. Transgender athletes need these inclusive policies to be in place at the individual college level prior to them coming out to their school so that they can feel comfortable that they will continue to be permitted to compete.

As mentioned in our position paper ‘Participation of Transgender Athletes in Women’s Sports’, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and Title IX’s prohibitions against sex discrimination have both been interpreted by state and federal courts to encompass discrimination based on gender stereotyping. However, despite these laws, many athletes are hesitant to reveal themselves as being transgender because the schools are not adequately prepared to accommodate them, since they have not adopted the policies.

In 2008, the Women’s Sports Foundation published a research study, Go Out and Play, which focuses on the benefit of sports in relation with the wellness of families. The study showed that young people who participate in sports are provided with a sense of belonging and affiliation at school, which in turn elevates their self-esteem and self-confidence. This is critical for all young people, including transgender children and young adults.

Our mission is to advance the lives of women and girls through sports and physical activity because the benefits are endless and carry on throughout their lives. Sports and physical activity can help transgender individuals feel included because all that matters when they compete is simply their ability to compete.

If you are interested in learning more about policies surrounding transgender athlete inclusion please refer to the resources below:
1. Women’s Sports Foundation Position Paper, ‘Participation of Transgender Athletes in Women’s Sports’
2. NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes Handbook
3. International Olympic Committee policy
4. Policies for transgender athletes at every level of play: