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Why Trans Kids Need to Be Allowed in Sports, According to Transgender Athlete Schuyler Bailar

Legislators across the country are trying to ban trans kids from sports. Swimmer and advocate Schuyler Bailar explains why they shouldn't.

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Schuyler Bailar started swimming at just a year old. By the time he was 12, he was training 20 hours per week. In his junior year of high school, all that hard work paid off. Bailar, a transgender man, was recruited to play for the Harvard University women’s swim team.

Bailar didn’t know that he was trans at the time Harvard recruited him. He took a gap year before college to get treatment for an eating disorder, and with all the mental health support he was receiving, he realized that he’s a trans guy. Bailar told his coach, and Harvard offered him a spot on the men’s swim team. He went back and forth deciding between the two. He really liked the athletes on the women’s team, but he eventually decided to swim with the men.

Bailar is the first transgender athlete to compete on any NCAA D1 men’s team. As such, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the other guys. But there was no need to be anxious about it. In his final swim, Bailar ranked in the top 15 percent of all swimmers in his event.

Growing up, swimming was a huge part of Bailar’s life. To see new bills proposed by Republicans in half of all US states that would prevent trans kids from competing in sports is devastating. 

“When you’re a kid, and the government is attacking you in 25 different states, you feel like you don’t belong. It’s very clear that when the government attacks trans people, trans kids take the brunt of that because they already don’t have support from their parents and from their teachers in many cases, and don’t have places to go,” he says. “So when the Internet is fighting about our livelihood, our existence — in sports and in healthcare — it makes a lot of trans kids feel pretty crappy. And when I say pretty crappy, I mean up to 41 percent of trans people attempt or complete suicide, and that’s usually before the age of 23. Which means these are kids.”

Bailar spoke to Fatherly, and laid out the facts — and his feelings — about why trans kids deserve to compete in sports.

With your history as a trans athlete, how do you feel about the new bills that would ban trans kids from sports? 

I mean, they’re terrible. At first, I felt a flurry of devastation and sadness and then sheer anger and fury. Because all of these bills are based on fear-mongering and usually incorrect, inaccurate, misapplied “science.” It makes me so angry when people use non-existent, incorrect science to support claims that are hateful.

There’s part of me that is really sad. Most of these bills are about children. It doesn’t even matter whether or not they have competitive differences. These are kids. I think that people forget that. People talk about these children as if they are threats to women’s sports, but they’re not. They’re just kids who want to play soccer and run around the track. 

What are your main arguments against the “science” of the bills?

It would take me an hour to explain to you all of that. (Editor’s note: You can read his whole stance here.) But I first remind people we’re not talking about Olympic athletes. For the most part, we’re literally talking about people playing with their friends. We’re not talking about competitive sports in an elite arena, because at all elite levels you have to have hormone regulation. Most elite-level sports allow trans women, but they have to have one year of testosterone suppression. You can’t just walk into a room and say ‘I identify as a woman today’ and compete as a woman.

The next thing I address is that people say trans girls and women have a biological advantage even if they’re on hormone suppression. Some people argue that having gone through a testosterone-driven puberty and the fact that they had previous changes gives them an advantage. They’ll say, ‘Oh, well, this person is taller,’ or ‘this person is bigger,’ or ‘this person has bigger hands,’ yada, yada, yada, all these biological things. 

But remember that biological advantages are everywhere. Cis women exhibit biological advantages. So do trans women. Sports are all about biological differences. There are many biological advantages that people have, but they’re not unfair. I always offer this example: Michael Phelps. The winningest Olympian of all time. His body is shaped exactly for swimming. They tested him, and he produces half the level of lactic acid of the typical athlete — that’s the thing that makes your muscles hurt and makes you stop when you’re too tired. And his body produces half of it. When the International Olympic Committee found that out, they praised him as a genetically superior specimen.

The trans athlete bans are largely based off the unbacked fear that trans girls will take awards and opportunities away from cis girls. Transmasculine kids are often left out of the conversation. What should people know about how these bills would affect trans boys?

This affects trans boys because it demonizes transness, period. It affects trans boys because in many of the bills, they wouldn’t be able to compete as boys, and they would have to compete with their designated gender at birth. Some of the bills don’t directly affect trans boys and some of them will because of the language of the bills. But most of the bills affect all kids. When you try to exclude trans people from sports, whether that be trans girls or trans boys, you are going to dissolve the fabric of that sport in many different ways that are going to be based on misogyny, sexism, and racism.

Let me break that down. If you’re trying to exclude a trans girl from a girl’s sport, you have to know which girls are trans in order to exclude them. In order to figure out which ones are trans, you need to test every single girl who competes in the sport, which is financially and logistically impossible. Or you do what most people are proposing, which is accusation-based testing. If somebody is accused of being trans, then you test them. This means that all cis girls could also be tested if they are accused of being trans. So it’s not just trans people that are affected by this. Anybody can be accused of being trans. This not only demonizes and weaponizes transness and trans identity, but it also is misogynistic and polices girls’ bodies. At what point is somebody too masculine, and they’re accused of being trans? At what point is a girl too good at her sport, and then she’s accused?

What can parents do to support the inclusion of trans kids in sports?

There’s two things. One, call governors’ offices, because they’re the people who can veto these bills. Two, raise awareness. Have conversations with people who disagree. Have those conversations that are difficult, with people who are going to say that trans girls don’t belong in sports. Advocacy and allyship are daily engagements, and conversation has to be had in the difficult places, not just with people who agree with you. In terms of where we go from here, follow Chase Strangio. He’s the ACLU attorney for trans rights. He’s a really great resource for all of this.

A lot of kids do feel agency and that they are able to fight because there are a lot of people talking about this and trying to advocate for it. That’s really, really important. Because it reminds trans kids that they’re not alone.