In an op-ed for Inside Higher Education, Angie Kirk went to bat to defend anti-trans legislation that aims to keep trans women out of women’s sports. In the op-ed, published on Jan. 27, Kirk continuously uses the phrase “biological male” in reference to trans women, which is a warning bell if I’ve ever heard one. If you must for some reason refer to sex assigned at birth, that’s what you call it: sex assigned at birth. “Biological” male (or female, for that matter) is archaic and culturally insensitive. If you’re remotely an ally to trans folks, don’t use it.
Kirk actually brings up the importance of language herself in the piece. After identifying herself as an English professor, Kirk writes that she finds it important to “urge those directing policy to remain mindful about their and others’ use of language, especially to coerce or create reality.” Coerce or create reality are some big words that carry serious weight. Kirk goes on to say that people should “remain focused on fact, not emotion or rhetoric” and use language to “highlight what is essential and real.”
How about this: Trans women are women. Trans women may have been assigned male (or intersex) at birth, but they’re still women. Kirk, for example, consistently uses “women” and “females” to refer to cisgender women, implicitly leaving out trans women. Yet she chooses to repeatedly use “biological males” to refer to trans women. One could say that’s coercing or creating a certain reality via language too, no?
Kirk goes on to bring up the titles of many of the anti-trans sports bills we’ve seen. I myself have often commented that these bills tend to have intentionally misleading framing in that they present the issue of sports as a matter of fairness to (cisgender) women, all the while excluding vulnerable trans folks. Kirk notices the same thing but argues in the opposite direction.
In reference to legislation in Florida, titled the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, Kirk praises the language for putting “reality” in the forefront and using terms “factually.” But the title (and mission behind the bill) has it wrong—it’s not fair if it’s discriminatory and exclusionary. It’s not fair to all women if trans women are excluded. (It’s not even fair to people who are intersex, but I digress.)
Kirk goes in on this point again, trying to—in her own words—coerce reality into seeing trans women as “biologically male” folks who “believe or wish” themselves to be female. Kirk argues it’s important to identify trans women this way, saying it’s “more accurate, reflecting reality” and that using phrases like “transgender women” is an attempt to “appropriate a word and change its meaning to obscure or distort reality.” Unfortunately for Kirk (and the editors who decided to work on and publish this piece), trans women are women, and their disagreement with this fact does not change reality.
The idea that cisgender men and women are fundamentally different relies on bio-essentialist arguments that do not hold water. It’s backward, archaic, and just a few side steps away from arguing that cisgender women should stay home and raise babies while men should go hunt for food with their big brains and big muscles. How people can frame these arguments as though they’re in favor of protecting (cisgender) women and fairness continues to baffle me.
The issue of fairness in sports comes up again and again when it comes to who earns a spot on a team, a title, or a scholarship. Trans women have been playing sports at all levels for years and the world didn’t explode. Yes, people continue to raise alarm bells over trans girls potentially having higher testosterone levels—but some cis women have high testosterone levels without any medical intervention at all, and some trans girls receive gender-affirming care that lowers their testosterone levels. Also, testosterone does not make or break an athlete, especially when we’re talking about legislating little kids out of after-school sports. Anti-trans folks keep talking as though science is on their side, but links have been sparse or nonexistent in peer-reviewed, legitimate medical journals.
As we’ve seen with Republican lawmakers time and time again, few people are able to identify this issue as an actual problem in their community—they claim a teacher or coach is worried about it, or concerned about upset parents, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find specific examples of trans girls dominating girls sports teams and leaving cisgender girls on the sidelines.
And that’s a point I keep circling back to myself. Yes, trans youth (and trans adults) are routinely marginalized in housing, employment, health care, and even physical safety. Trans people face disproportionate rates of physical and sexual violence, bullying, and harassment. Trans youth are more likely to live with mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. Demonizing trans people—and especially trans youth—in politics and the media is cruel.
But even if we close our eyes and pretend everything between cisgender and transgender folks is “equal,” this is still an issue made out of thin air. Trans girls are not toppling over cis girls to get onto the playing field. Trans women are not winning games or titles at disproportionate levels. Cis girls are not losing opportunities en masse. We do not need to legislate discriminatory measures into law, period, but especially not when the issue is actually one of transphobia, not a real, active problem that needs to be solved.