How Sports Have Been Used to Attack Trans People

How Sports Have Been Used to Attack Trans People

How Sports Have Been Used to Attack Trans People

Chris Mosier, the first openly transgender athlete for Team USA, answers five questions about the struggle for trans lives.


The legislative attacks against trans people and their families have been relentless. This goes beyond Texas, where the GOP wants to outlaw all health care for trans kids and Governor Greg Abbott signed a document last week affirming his belief that any emotional, let alone medical, assistance given to trans youth would now qualify as child abuse. They want to be able to jail teachers who do not “report” their trans students to authorities and parents, no matter the situation for the students at home.

One of the key ways the radical right has made inroads against trans people, after years of obsessing over “bathroom bills,” is through sports. They have seized upon the successful experiences of the very few trans women athletes in elite competition and proclaimed that protecting cisgender female athletes from trans women must be priority number one. These women, gleefully misgendered by their political tormentors, are accused of robbing cisgender women athletes of medals and championships by using their superior “male” physicality. This campaign has now found a focus for their ire in trans swimmer Lia Thomas, a Penn University competitor and 2022 Ivy League champion. Lia’s athletic exploits have created bedfellows between the radical right and liberal feminists in the sports world that is helping to push through legislation, which has been linked to a rise in hate crimes and proven to be a gateway measure to other attacks on trans youth. This has been successful also because Democrats have been largely silent as these assaults have made their way through state houses.

That’s why I e-mailed five questions to Chris Mosier, the first openly transgender athlete in the history of Team USA. It’s time for clarity and action in the struggle for trans lives.

—Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin: So much of the response to Lia Thomas’s existence and performance has been outrage. What are your thoughts?

Chris Mosier: The right-wing outrage about Lia Thomas’s participation and performance is part of a larger campaign to bar trans athletes from competing in sports at any level of play. In 2021, nine states signed bills into law that would ban trans athletes from competing on teams consistent with their gender identity. South Dakota already signed a bill into law this year, and there are currently at least 34 more bills under consideration at the state level to limit participation from trans athletes at the high school or college level. The outrage has been fueled by poor media coverage, which has largely highlighted only the voices of opposition and not the many supporters of Lia and other transgender athletes.

I think the root of this issue is that many people lack a foundational understanding of what it means to be transgender and how we as transgender athletes fit into sport. No one is pretending to be trans or transitioning to gain a competitive advantage. Trans people play sports for the same reasons as everyone else: to be a part of a team, to move our bodies, to master new skills, to have fun, and so on. At the end of the day, we are talking about a person—a real-life person who has spent her entire life training to be good at her sport. That has nothing to do with her gender identity.

DZ: What should the rules be regarding trans women athletes?

CM: For many rules in many sports, policies are different depending on the level of play. This is what makes the landscape of sport so incredibly difficult to navigate as a trans person: Policies and rules differ depending on an athlete’s age, level of play, sport, and state they live in or are competing in. Add in the new state laws banning trans athletes, and there are a lot of factors at play. There is no universal policy in sport, but the clickbait headlines and tweets have set up a false choice between “inclusion” and “fairness,” which is a choice we don’t have to make. Sports can be fair and inclusive at the same time, and we’ve seen policies in place for decades that have been working.

Trans women are women and should be allowed in women’s sports. In fact, trans women and girls have been competing in women’s sports at all levels of play around the world—but only a handful have had any success at the high school and collegiate level, and those are the ones we hear about. It is absolutely unfair to ban trans people from sports, but also deeply unfair to say we can play but not excel at what we love. For model policies and good examples of inclusive policies, visit

DZ: Why do you think “protect girls’ sports” has been such an effective rallying cry for the far right?

CM: The concept of “protecting girls’ sports” is playing into the idea that women and girls are in need of “protection,” when really they are in need of opportunities and resources and investment in women’s and girls’ sports. The attacks on trans people in sports are rooted in the same type of gender discrimination and stereotyping that has held back cisgender women in sports for centuries. Trans girls are often told that they are not girls, based on grossly inaccurate stereotypes about athleticism, biology, and gender. When combined with the collective lack of understanding about trans identity, the right has found this is an effect strategy, playing off the bathroom bills we’ve seen in the past (and are currently seeing a resurgence of now). These phrases have been message-tested to see what resonates with voters and the messaging has been crafted to create “solutions” for a “problem” that doesn’t actually exist.

DZ: What would you say to Martina Navratilova and others on the liberal left who have decided to pick up this call? What would you say to those who think the Dems should take the issue off the table by allying with the far right and express their own opposition to trans women in sports?

CM: We are hearing the same cries of the “end of women’s sports” now as we did when Renee Richards played in the late 1970s. This fight is not about sports. It’s about erasing and excluding trans people from participation in all aspects of public life. It’s about creating “solutions” to “problems” that don’t exist and, in the process, causing great harm some of the most vulnerable young people in our country. It’s about starting the attacks on the bodily autonomy of all people and the policing of people’s bodies and care. If people are truly concerned with protecting women’s sports, they should be focusing on the real issues women and girls face in sports: issues like inequity in resources, compensation, and media attention; harassment and abuse of athletes and women working in sports; a lack of Title IX compliance; and so on. There are many very real problems facing women in sports—having a teammate who is transgender is not one of them.

DZ: What will it take to build a movement to protect trans lives?

CM: This is an intersectional movement and will take collaboration between groups—because this is about sports, but it’s absolutely about more than sports. It’s worth noting that attempts to legislate who is or isn’t a woman are not new. Historically and repeatedly, we’ve seen lawmakers target and try to exclude poor women, Black women, unmarried women, and others from legal protections. There is a lot going on in our world and country right now, but we need to sound the alarms on these attacks on the trans community. Despite being a small part of the population, there has been a disproportionate amount of energy and effort put in to attempting to create an environment in which we cannot live safe and open lives. People in opposition to my existence, to the existence of trans people and specifically trans women and girls, have been loud and we need to match that energy.

There are many ways to take action: Have conversations with your friends, family, and coworkers. Amplify the voices of trans people and trans-led organizations. Donate to trans-led organizations. Vote for candidates who support the LGBTQ community. Call or e-mail your state lawmakers and tell them to oppose anti-trans legislation. Do not be quiet; we need all of our allies to understand that these attacks will have very real impacts well beyond the trans community and we need to take action now.

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