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A Conservative Christian Group Wants to Keep Transgender Athletes From Girls' Sports

Legal experts say this complaint resonates with a larger pattern of discrimination against transgender girls and women in sports.
Women running on a track

The lawsuit comes at a time of growing anti-transgender discrimination in the sports world.

Three high school track athletes represented by a conservative Christian group are seeking to overturn Connecticut's statewide policy allowing transgender student athletes to compete on sports teams without restrictions.

Alliance Defending Freedom, which has also represented plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging same-sex marriage and abortion rights, on Monday filed a federal discrimination complaint with the United States Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, the office that enforces laws prohibiting gender discrimination in schools, the Associated Press reports.

Citing Title IX protections, the ADF has suggested that the three cisgender female athletes who filed the complaint missed out on wins or scholarships, according to the AP.

Connecticut is one of at least 19 states with inclusive policies allowing transgender students to compete on the team that aligns with their gender identity. Legal experts say this complaint could threaten this protection—and it also resonates with a larger pattern of discrimination against transgender girls and women in sports.

"The more we are told that we don't belong and should be ashamed of who we are, the fewer opportunities we have to participate in sports at all," Terry Miller, one of the transgender track and field athletes affected by the complaint, said in a statement to the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday. "And being an athlete can help us survive. But instead we are being told to be quiet, to go home, to stop being who we are."

Fear of Transgender Athletes Dominating the Field

"ADF has a much larger agenda here, to attack and demonize transgender people," says Shannon Minter, an attorney and legal director with the LGBT advocacy group National Center for Lesbian Rights. "It's so upsetting that they would attack these young people, who are already facing so many barriers and so much bias and are so brave to be open and supposedly have the opportunity to participate, just like other students, in high school athletics."

The complaint capitalizes on the fear that female transgender athletes are dominating the field in a way that's somehow unfair to their cisgender peers—a transphobic assumption that's never held true, but has still garnered attention as conservative groups and the Trump administration continue to undermine protections for transgender people in schools and beyond.

"Over the past 10 years, a number of states have adopted policies allowing trans girls to play on girls' teams," Minter says. "There's now been quite a few transgender girls who have done that, and there's been no pattern whatsoever of those girls 'dominating' those sports. Most transgender girls, just like most girls, are average."

Title IX Protections

Title IX, as it's commonly applied to school athletics, ensures that men and women have equal opportunity to play sports. In the courts, Title IX protections have been used to protect, not target, transgender students. "ADF is trying to turn this completely upside down, arguing the opposite: that Title IX prohibits schools from protecting transgender students," Minter explains. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, since 2015, federal courts have ruled in more than 10 cases that Title IX extends to transgender people; many more have done the same for other federal sex discrimination laws.

The Obama administration, too, issued guidance making it clear that the law's protections against discrimination extend to transgender people—which the Department of Education quickly rescinded under President Donald Trump. (The Trump administration has drastically weakened transgender protections in a number of ways: allowing federally funded homeless shelters to deny transgender people, banning transgender military service members, and rolling back protections against health-care discrimination for transgender people.)

Advocates say it's likely a court would uphold the protection yet again. But Minter notes that the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is "particularly hostile" to transgender people. "I think we can expect a terrible decision by this agency," he says.

A staff attorney with the ACLU, which issued a statement against the ADF's complaint, echoed this on Wednesday. The lawsuit "is dangerous, and it is distorts Title IX," Chase Strangio says. "Efforts to undermine Title IX by claiming it doesn't apply to a subset of girls will ultimately hurt all students."

If students were to lose these protections, Minter says the consequences could be "devastating." Already, at the college level, most schools do not have a policy promoting the inclusion of transgender student-athletes, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Gender Discrimination in Sports

Aside from the legal significance, this challenge also represents the growing anti-transgender discrimination in the sports world. As writer and transgender rights activist Parker Molloy wrote on Twitter last month, transphobic groups and conservative media outlets often demonize transgender athletes by only covering the times they win over cisgender peers.

The fact remains that these attacks are grounded in a transphobic, sexist, and racist history of gender policing, which includes subjecting women athletes to "sex verification" tests. "It's easy to manipulate people's fears and misconceptions, and that's exactly what the ADF is trying to do here," Minter says.

Two of the transgender students named in the complaint responded by vowing to fight for their right to compete in sports this week. "I hope that the next generation of trans youth doesn't have to fight the fights that I have," Andraya Yearwood said. "For the next generation, I run for you."