What’s in a Question?
Recently, NPR asked 1028 American adults these three questions:
Do you support allowing transgender female student athletes to compete on women’s and girls’ teams?
Do you support state laws or policies that prevent transgender youth from accessing gender transition medical care?
Do you support state laws or policies that classify gender transition medical care for youth as child abuse?
While there is considerable need for reporting to be done on the lives and realities of being transgender in America, and our inclusion or exclusion, I’d like to explain why the framework of these questions is biased in itself and ultimately harmful. While I do not believe that the intent of this poll and its presentation of findings was meant to be malicious in any way, its effect nonetheless is. This effect is exactly what the anti-trans movement, fueled-by and fueling the far-right at this moment, have been working to set up in the public opinion. NPR even asked the questions in the exact order that discriminatory bills of the same nature have been introduced over and over again these last few years. The order is very important and is an integral and conscious part of the strategy. If a strong enough emotional reaction can be elicited, logic can be circumnavigated. The sports question is used in exactly this way. It creates a panic that short-circuits reason. It evokes in a large and purposefully misinformed portion of the public, a knee-jerk reaction of “that’s not fair!” We develop a sense of fairness very early on in our lives. By age two, babies recognize and react to situations they perceive as fair or unfair. This is an incredibly deep and incredibly strong button to push, and it has been manipulated to set off alarm bells in the population about a problem that simply does not exist. Transgender student athletes, children, and young adults are not pushing aside cisgendered athletes. They are not dominating sports leagues and tournaments. There is ZERO evidence of this happening, and yet state after state, there are laws and policies being presented to “preserve fairness” and people are falling for it. They are not falling for it out of a desire to oppress; they are falling for it because their instinct to protect is being twisted and usurped for political gains. If you have kids, or remember in any way being one, you may be familiar with the fact that up until puberty, they are all a bunch of little goobers with a whole lot of energy and not much difference in physical ability related in any way to sex or gender. These are the same kids playing tag or hide-and-go-seek all together. My child was on a soccer team all through elementary school. The team was co-ed, and not only was there no marked difference between groups of players assigned this or that at birth, it was such a joyful and chaotic scene at every practice and every game, that I would challenge anyone to try to somehow define what being the “best player” would even constitute. They were children being CHILDREN, and that was enough. It was great. Nobody was getting a scholarship because they remembered to chase the ball and not that really cool butterfly on the field. Fortunes were not made or lost. It was kids being kids, playing a game after memorizing their multiplication tables or how to play Hot-Crossed Buns on the recorder, and these laws and policies often include elementary-age children with no distinction.
Even the phrasing “women’s and girls’ teams” is vague and imprecise language, because yes, the world of play for children does involve very different stakes than that of elite college athletes, but no separation is made in the asking of this poll’s question or in much of the anti-trans legislation being presented right now. This is purposeful to maximize the emotional response, and muddy the waters of logic. “Protecting women and girls” has been used over and over again as a rallying cry by the powerful or power-hungry to enact and encite discrimination and violence, from the halls of governing bodies to hate-crimes in the streets. Trans kids are not a threat to cisgendered kids on sports fields, in bathrooms or anywhere else, but the adults using this cry to cause panic and push these tender buttons that make us human for their own ends, are a very real threat to trans kids and their families, to their safety and very survival.
When it comes to female transgender student athletes that are in competitions, that are at an elite level, with scholarships on the line and rankings and titles, there still is no measured threat to their cisgendered counter parts. Transgender athletes have been competing, and they have not destroyed or dominated high school sports. They have not taken all of the college championships. They have not made a marked difference in how these games are played or moved the metrics of achievement for them. I encourage you to read the previous blog post on this subject and the linked Scientific American article for more information. There is a lot there that I am not including here.
Before a person even answers the first question in the NPR poll, another trick is played on the mind. The phrasing of this first question about sports is exclusionary in its very language, and language shapes our perspectives. It molds the edges of thought and defines what is “us” and “them” and so much more. “Should transgender girls and women be allowed to play on the same teams with cisgendered girls and women?” is the actual question being asked, and as problematic as that question would be, it would be more accurate in meaning. Any team with trangender girls and women on it is a girls’ and women’s team, because trans girls are girls and trans women are women. Full stop. If I say, “Should left-handed people be allowed to compete in the batting competition?” then the implication is that right-handed people are the default and centered population that the batting competition is unassailably and unquestionably for. We all now get to weigh in on our feelings about left-handed access whether we are personally affected or not. The same imbalance is present in the language of the NPR poll.
Transgender people are talked about in mainstream media sources a lot more than we are talked to, which leads directly to our dehumanisation. In that absence of representation, all manner of things can be projected onto us. We can become a topic of debate instead of your neighbor. We can become an enemy to be feared, instead of a kid playing kickball. I appreciate that NPR spoke with Chris Mosier, a transgender man, athlete and advocate, and included some quotes from him in the brief article attached, but would like to have seen the perspective of a trans girl and trans woman directly affected by these sports bans. Seeing the face and hearing the thoughts of a person that has had their real life, their way of life, their opportunities for enrichment and joy changed, is the human touch that is missing. If a cisgender female athlete that missed out on their spot in the WNBA because a transgender woman took it existed, it would absolutely make since to interview her as well, but that woman does not exist. Though the WNBA, arguably one of the most prominent showcases for the talent of female athletes in America and the world, does not have any policies in place expressly allowing or forbiding transgender athletes, no transgender woman has ever made a single team. This question does not live in the cold and distant air of the hypothetical. For the people it affects, it is on the warm but lonely bench of the soft-ball field or on the rapturous grass with friends.
On the questions posed pertaining to transgender youths’ legal access to gender-affirming care, which is instead labelled “gender transition therapy,” one quarter to one fifth of those answering checked that they were not familiar with these laws, which should be acknowledged as a massive failure of most major news outlets. I know that we are living in some truly unprecedented times with no slow-news days, but the people replying that they hadn’t heard about these attacks on trans human rights, surely weren’t trans. We have been loudly trying to bring attention to these cruel bills and harmful, sometimes deadly policies for years now, and have overwhelmingly been ignored. We have been saying, “They are coming for us, and they are coming for you!” but with little response. Translash Media, a trans run news source, has a thoughtful and comprehensive series of podcasts that carefully demonstrates how the model of Republican fund raising and fear mongering over abortion rights pivoted to focus on transgender rights when it was perceived as a more profitable and successful tool to use. Relative exclusion from mainstream news outlets, especially in self representation, for trangender people has created a vacuum for an unfortunately predictable and systematic stripping of rights to occur. If you are concerned with your own rights, in any way, regarding your own body, you SHOULD care about these attacks on trans healthcare, the framing of our personhood, and our exclusion from some public spaces and institutions. This is a well-worn play-book, and it simply will not end with one group or another as Clarence Thomas has made abundantly clear, so I challenge everyone to challenge the very framing of othering questions. I challenge everyone to pay attention to the voices that are missing, and I challenge everyone to pay attention when the rights of your fellow human beings are treated as up for debate. Transgender adults and trans youth deserve the right to exist. We deserve hope and inclusion, and so do you no matter who you are. We are people, human beings, kids. Gender-affirming care is life-saving, and these questions about healthcaren that NPR asked 1028 people, if they weren’t answered explicitly and exclusively by transgender youth, their families, and their doctors, then what is really being asked here? We all deserve to direct our own health and happiness. We all deserve doctors that follow best practices and scientific evidence instead of political whim. We all deserve to live as ourselves in peace and safety, and above all, we deserve to simply be, and that, should not be up for debate.