Via The Washington Post, an article on how – in the fight over transgender participation in U.S. sports – the right to play is simply an opening act:

Before the hate, she changed in peace, transforming out of her body and into herself. She started to look the way she felt. She saw it in her breasts, hair, skin, muscles, fat, bones. She knew the person in the mirror.

Then she would go to the track — her refuge — and experience a different reality. As she ran, her legs would not fire the way they once did. She could not shift gears. She did a standard 150-meter acceleration drill, progressing from jog to stride to sprint every 50 meters. Her calf muscles begged her to stop. After the workout, she struggled to walk. She did not know this person.

“I could feel how abysmally slow I was,” she said. “It started to take a mental toll.”

So she did what athletes do. She spent more than a year adjusting to the effects of the gender-affirming hormone therapy. She relearned her body — every movement, every twitch — amending a lifetime of instincts. She dared to compete again. In December, at a college invitational, she had the nerve to win again.

Immediately, the success thrust her into the fiercest political battle in American sports. Sadie Schreiner became the latest exception made to seem like a widespread threat: a transgender women’s sports standout.

Over the past few years, there has been no better way to fuel division in sports than to target the few Sadies and characterize them as nefarious gender interlopers. Schreiner prepared for it as best she could. For months, she had feared two outcomes. She would either run slow, which she could not bear, or she would become the unbearably fast impostor. She knew she was about to live a dilemma, no middle ground. She became herself, and at the same time, she rediscovered herself. Now Schreiner, a sophomore at Rochester Institute of Technology in Upstate New York, is forced to defend herself.

The social media outrage arrived on cue: Biological male. Pathetic. Disgusting. Revolting. Fraud. Cheater. Coward. Bully.

And then came a more venomous and telling sentiment.

Sadie does not deserve respect.

Such extreme reactions represent more than overflowing passion. The topic of transgender sports inclusion is not isolated to fair play. Conservative politicians have used it as an emotional thruway to a sweeping anti-trans movement that seeks to erode fundamental human decency. The right to play is simply an opening act. The right to exist is the discriminating headliner.

It is a vexing problem that cannot be solved in a single essay. Actually, the words solve and problem are the real issue. This shouldn’t be about fixing something as much as it should be about understanding, but angst, fear and resentment impede that search. Transgender sports participation has emerged as a flash point mostly for the sake of being a flash point. We are not a tomorrow away from some kind of trans takeover. But rather than delving into the complexity and wrestling with how to create fair competition as gender norms shift, we are succumbing to a panic that forces us to choose between the extremes of firm exclusion and full inclusion.

The level of indignation is disproportionate to the minuscule number of known trans athletes at all levels of sport. Yet a preemptive war rages, threatening to complicate the lives of even nonelite athletes, who simply seek access to the social, emotional and health benefits of organized activities.

Grievance Games

Washington Post columnist Jerry Brewer has used athletics to chronicle the successes and failings of American society throughout his three decades as a sportswriter. Over the past three months, he interviewed dozens of people to explore an unnerving trend: the splintering of sports along ideological lines. Grievance Games is an in-depth look at how the promise of sports as a national unifier has buckled under the pressures of grievance and division.

In 2020, Idaho became the first state to restrict transgender sports participation, and in the past several years, half the country has passed similar laws. Many of them are blanket bans that fail to accommodate any nuance. The success of those measures has created momentum for states to pass legislation limiting gender-affirming health care.

Science remains inconclusive about the extent to which transgender women have physiological advantages over cisgender women. Some studies support the assumption of an inherent edge. Other research shows areas in which transgender women are at a competitive disadvantage. But to many, further study sounds like punishment.

The most aggressive people own the messaging, and culture-war politicians have leeched onto the tension. It might be the most effective wedge issue in their arsenal.

For as much as she dislikes the tactic, Jules Gill-Peterson cannot think of a more brilliant political strategy. Gill-Peterson, a Johns Hopkins professor and author who specializes in transgender history, sees how the message is framed with succinct urgency: Save women’s sports. It does not present the rare dominant trans athlete as a complicated anomaly that warrants deep thought but rather as an existential threat that must be eliminated to protect the sanctity of our sex-segregated sports structure.

“If I were creating an issue in a laboratory, I couldn’t come up with something better than trans people in sports,” Gill-Peterson said. “It’s the deployment of a grievance made in the name of supposedly defending women and girls who are under attack.”

The strategy makes an oversimplified nod to science, but it’s an approach that appeals to common sense: She was born a male, period. It also repurposes old anti-gay rhetoric to stir the least tolerant people by emphasizing the most extreme cases.

“If you disagree, you have a woke view of science and reality,” Gill-Peterson said. “How do you respond to that? By offering some incredibly dry, complicated academic science? Sports and the depiction of girls as vulnerable creates powerful emotional politics. The approach dares you to come up with something better that’s logical and easy to translate. It’s been a large failure that the progressive side can’t articulate anything pro-trans.”

When Schreiner broke her Division III school’s 300-meter record during an indoor race in December, the social media account Libs of TikTok posted a graphic of her triumph on top of some old high school results.

“Before he pretended to be a woman, he competed on the men’s team in high school where he was ranked in 19th place,” the post read in part.

But it was a misrepresentation of the graphic. Schreiner had run the 19th-fastest 100 meters in the history of Hillsborough High in New Jersey. Schreiner is a long sprinter who focuses on 400 meters, so she competes in the 100 on occasion for speed training. Do a simple search of Hillsborough’s track records, and you find that Schreiner is No. 2 in school history in the boys’ 400.

But those annoying details don’t lead to headlines such as the one Breitbart used in aggregating the news: “Mediocre Male Athlete Switches to Women’s Team, Breaks College Track Records.”

The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, sank deeper into inaccuracy when it wrote: “Schreiner reportedly competed at the same meet a year ago in the men’s category of the 100m, where she came home in 19th place.”

But the facts can’t bend the narrative. Schreiner is always the shameful, enhanced swindler doing things she couldn’t as a man. Every victory earns her a fresh put-down. In early May, she won at 200 and 400 meters during the Liberty League championship meet. A story on the Fox News website discredited the results, pointing out correctly that she ran times that “would’ve been in last place among men.”

“I always knew news could be warped,” Schreiner said, “but I didn’t realize how it works until now.”

The media characterizations bother Schreiner. She takes six pills a day, suppressing her testosterone levels. She spends a few hundred dollars per lab visit for testing and submits the results to the NCAA at least twice per indoor and outdoor track season to stay eligible. In addition, she gets tested as much as she can afford to be certain she remains in the permitted range of estrogen and testosterone.

Schreiner transitioned during her final month of high school, and to comply with NCAA guidelines, she didn’t compete during the first year of her gender-affirming hormone therapy.

In middle school, she ran the 400 meters in 55 seconds. In high school, she set a personal-best time of 50.49. In college, she’s back at 55. The medication has made a clear impact. Before transitioning, Schreiner was a good boys’ high school runner. Division III schools do not offer scholarships, but Schreiner committed to RIT as one of the best male track athletes in the incoming freshman class. After hormone therapy, she’s slower — and in the women’s category, she is fulfilling the expectations she already had.

“I’m not a good athlete because I’m trans,” Schreiner said. “It’s because running has been my entire life.”

Sometimes she wonders how her life would be if she hadn’t transitioned. She entertains a few what-ifs and then decides the hypothetical isn’t worth her time.

“Who knows where I would be if I never let myself be myself,” Schreiner said. “Transitioning has had such an immensely positive impact on my life. My only wish is that I could’ve done it sooner.”

Megan Rapinoe grew tired of people speaking for her. She did not appreciate the notion that women’s sports needed protection, especially if politicians and others who hadn’t shown interest in them before were suddenly the protectors. In the transgender discussion, she sensed female athletes were being used — by the same people who so often had been contemptuous about women’s sports.

Rapinoe, a soccer legend, decided to lend her voice to another fight for inclusion.

“We as a country are trying to legislate away people’s full humanity,” she told Time magazine before she retired last year.

She and fiancée Sue Bird are among many prominent sports figures who have become allies for transgender athletes. It has led to some intense disagreement in the women’s sports community. Martina Navratilova, the tennis luminary who does not support transgender women competing as females, once responded to Rapinoe’s views with a simple, dismissive word: “Yikes.”

Riley Gaines, a former all-American college swimmer and a vocal proponent of excluding trans athletes from women’s sports, often rails against Rapinoe and other advocates. She considers their stance virtue signaling. But Rapinoe doesn’t care about the criticism.

She and Jessica Clarendon, the chief operating officer of Rapinoe Ventures, have spoken often about the effort to exclude transgender women. They share a similar view. They have worked to refine how Rapinoe and those representing her brand talk about the issue.

“It’s such a farce,” said Clarendon, who is married to Layshia Clarendon, the first openly nonbinary WNBA player.

Later, she elaborated: “We are telling you that we are not under attack from trans women. If you want to know the things we are protecting ourselves from, there is a really long list, and trans women are not on it.”

Clarendon worries that some people are acting in bad faith to manufacture a disturbance in a women’s sports enterprise that is thriving, breaking free of misogyny, making strides in long-sought equality and showing a full range of inclusion along the way. Athletes from the past and present often celebrate a spectrum of femininity. They don’t always agree, but their alignment has been powerful. To some, it makes them a threat.

“I think it’s by design, creating a wedge issue to disrupt a really unified group of people,” Clarendon said of conservatives campaigning against trans participation in sports. “They were losing the narrative on gay people and gay marriage, and the backlash has found a new target. It’s absolutely designed to divide people like Megan and Martina on ideological lines.”

Sports seem really simple at the participatory level. Whether it’s youth sports or adult recreation, the spirit is to include. “I don’t think our right to participate is a debate,” Brittney Miller said.

In Seattle, Miller leads the Puget Sound Pronouns. It is an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization that emphasizes sports participation. The Pronouns have an adult softball team that plays in the Emerald City Softball Association. It’s a team where you can belong, where the four transgender players on the current roster are just players.

“We’re every stripe of the rainbow, essentially,” Miller said.

The transgender conversation changes shape at every level. Before puberty, it’s barely worth considering. Then the stakes start to rise, and physiological differences become a consideration. Once college scholarships, Olympic medals and professional careers become factors, it gets complicated. But at the elite levels, there are also governing bodies deciding and constantly reevaluating what’s fair.

The decision to segregate sexes in sports was made long before significant contemplation of gender fluidity. It remains the most logical way to create meaningful competitions and acknowledge the inherent biological advantage that men possess. But the binary system is starting to fray as society changes. While transgender participation is still too small to create another sports category, the hysteria has elevated the importance of more creative and inclusive counter-policies. If we believe sport has a greater purpose, then we tarnish its value if we cannot find a better solution than to banish those we don’t quite understand.

In 1887, French Prime Minister Jules Simon said during a speech: “The right which I demand for our children is the right to play.” It planted a seed that, over 137 years, has grown into an essential premise of the Olympic charter.

It is spelled out clearly in a section labeled the Principles of Olympism: “The practice of sport is a human right.”

In human rights, the default is inclusion. The burden of proof is on exclusion, and it is an extreme standard. Banning away fears and prejudices does not meet that standard.

For a photography class assignment, Schreiner took a self-portrait and overlaid some of the nastiest social media comments about her. In the image, she aches in black and white, head lowered, comforting herself. The taunts crawl over her face, neck, arms, hands and torso. One word stretches across the top: CHEAT.

“I wanted to represent how internally painful it can be to have so much hatred thrown at you,” Schreiner said. “Cheat is the most common word used. I can’t count how many times I’ve been called that today alone. It’s an incredible slap in the face to me. With everything that’s happened, I often feel like I’ve completely lost a voice as people more famous and powerful than me speak for and about me.”

She ran every race this season wondering whether it would be her last. The NCAA is under pressure to ban transgender athletes from women’s sports, a policy the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a smaller federation, adopted in April. Schreiner concluded a successful spring season by earning all-American honors after finishing third in the 200 meters during the Division III outdoor track and field national championships. She advanced to the final in the 400 but came in last. She and her coach now dream of a national title. But the more she wins, the more ridicule she will endure.

“Racing is stressful enough as is. It only doubles when every race you’re worried could be your last,” Schreiner said. “At every meet I go to, in the crowd, there’s always at least someone taunting. It’s impossible to escape something so personal and persistent like that. At nationals, I was in such a constant state of fight or flight that, by the time I finally got home, I just collapsed.”

In the top right corner of her self-portrait, there’s a silhouette of an “omnipotent watcher that I can’t control.” It is Schreiner’s signature. She uses it when making illustrations about her transition.

Someone is looking down at her. It is not the same as being seen.


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