For the first time since tennis player Renee Richards in the 1970s, transgender (trans) women athletes, including Lia Thomas and Laurel Hubbard, received major media coverage in 2021. However, these athletes weren’t spotlighted because of their athletic abilities per se, but because they became political targets caught in the crosshairs of arguments about fairness and competitive advantage in sport.
The state legislative sessions of 2021 were the worst in recent U.S. history for the political rights of trans people. Over 60 bills banning access to sport for trans youth passed in 31 states. These bills garnered significant media attention with thousands of online news articles, public statements, and opinion pieces published about trans athletes. For the first time, outlets like CNN and the New York Times introduced millions of readers to the topic of trans inclusion in sports.
In fact, the issue is not new, as trans people have competed in sport for centuries. And, currently, there are only a handful of trans youth competing in each state across the U.S. We wondered, then: why are these bills being introduced now? Where does this media frenzy around trans athletes originate? And who is benefiting from efforts to exclude trans athletes?
As scholars who study sport from a sociological perspective, we captured online texts written in English about trans athletes via a systematic algorithm through Google between the dates of December 1, 2020 and May 31, 2021. Our approach identified 1,224 relevant texts from web pages, newspaper articles, and blogs as well as transcribed podcasts, radio interviews, and videos during this six-month period. We examined each text as mediated—produced by the media to have political influence and socialization effects on readers. After conducting an analysis of the most common themes in the texts, we concluded that trans athletes were made into a spectacle as part of a larger, political agenda, aimed at creating a moral panic.
Periods of moral panic occur when a particular group is portrayed as a threat to societal values, stereotyped by the mass media and conservative politicians, and thrust in the limelight. The majority of the texts we examined discussed trans people in sport as a political issue, and nearly all included quotes from conservative politicians and lobbyists.
Lawmakers’ statements about trans athletes were primarily used to portray trans athletes, and particularly trans women, as spectres—invisible, alien beings feared as something dangerous. Most often, lawmakers engaged in fear-mongering tactics around trans athletes by focusing on trans women and equating them to cisgender men using terms like “biological males”.
Trans women were characterized as spectres through unfounded assertions that trans athletes have malevolent motives to participate in sports. For instance, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah argued that trans women will take opportunities and achievements from girls “just to prove that they can or for bragging rights… [or] in a deliberate, sadistic effort to harm girls.” This narrative invokes a sense of panic that may be used to justify the marginalization and policing of trans athletes. At the same time, it compares trans athletes to cisgender girls, who are presumed to be white, vulnerable, and fragile.
In other cases, lawmakers stated that trans women were aiming to steal sport opportunities from cisgender girls, that they want to physically harm girls, that being trans is something children should fear becoming, and that trans people are dangers to themselves.
Based on the timing of these statements (as 2022 is a congressional election year), we argue that politicians have leveraged the moral panic about trans athletes to present themselves as protectors of women’s sport in order to engender support from voters. In the texts we examined, politicians acted as pillars of moral integrity concerned about threats to cisgender women and girls in sport to establish themselves as moral entrepreneurs, a key aspect of moral panics.
Moral panics are initiated and fueled by moral entrepreneurs to construct social rules, penalize social deviance, and frame certain people as social deviants. In this case, politicians positioned themselves as moral entrepreneurs through rhetoric about protecting women’s sports, characterizing trans women as threats to fairness and safety.
Adding to the portrayal of trans athletes as spectres is the fact that only 7.8% of the texts named a specific trans athlete. Over 92% of the texts we read mentioned trans athletes from a general, theoretical perspective alone. Rather than amplifying the voices of the athletes at the center of these debates, the majority of the texts centered cisgender, conservative male politicians’ voices.
In March of 2021, the Associated Press asked conservative politicians in states where anti-trans legislation was being proposed to name a trans athlete. In almost every case, the politicians could not cite a single trans athlete in their jurisdiction. This lack of knowledge signals not only politicians’ ignorance—it also signals the ways trans athletes, by remaining unnamed, are dehumanized and made invisible in conversations about their own rights and sport participation.
While conservative lawmakers are ostensibly concerned about threats to sport opportunities for cisgender women and girls, they are in fact exploiting their role as moral entrepreneurs to win public support for right-wing political agendas that rationalize the exclusion of trans athletes and to reinstate primarily white, cisgender, male power in sport. While trans athletes are denied gender-affirming healthcare and sporting opportunities, politicians benefit from the moral panic they have incited by invoking anti-trans sentiments to “ignite” the conservative voter base.
Meanwhile, trans athletes bear the most harm from this moral panic. At its heart, we found the media attention in 2021 was not about trans athletes or even inclusion in sport. Rather, trans athletes are the latest marginalized group to be sidelined in sport (through the media) so politicians can get elected and uphold the power systems that benefit themselves as cisgender people, most often, cisgender men—systems that work against gender equity in sports.
Anna Baeth, Ph.D., a white woman who uses she/her pronouns, is the Director of Research at Athlete Ally. Baeth is a critical feminist scholar whose research centers on the gendering of sport spaces, the eternally moving body, and social movements and sport. Baeth is a coach and advocate for cultural awareness in sport spaces and can found on Twitter @BaethAnna
Anna Goorevich, a white woman who uses she/her pronouns, is the US-UK Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar in Health, Well-being and Sport at the University of Stirling, Scotland, where she is currently pursuing a MSc in Sport Management. Goorevich’s research interests revolve around gender identity, leadership, social justice, and sport. Goorevich can be found on Twitter at @AGoorevich