How Journalists Can Responsibly Report on Transgender Athletes

LGBTQ rights supporters gather at the Texas State Capitol to protest legislation that would restrict the participation of trans student athletes on September 20, 2021. (Tamir Kalifa / Getty Images)

Data is not just for journalists to report on, but to explain.  

Take, for instance, the recent Gallup poll that found most Americans do not support transgender athletes competing on teams that match their gender identity. At face value, the 69% majority is a striking number, but it needs unpacking: Why has public support of trans athletes dropped 7 percentage points from last year? What has changed in the cultural climate? Is there a valid concern?  

Sign up for our newsletter! Right Arrow

Journalists must contextualize that the Gallup poll comes amid an unprecedented wave of Republican-led anti-trans legislation — the ACLU reports that nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year. So far, 22 states have passed laws that prevent transgender athletes from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity — even though in many of these states, trans kids wanting to play school sports are in the single digits.  

Journalists must also explain what these laws mean — that no matter how they identify or how their peers accept them, if a trans athlete wants to play school sports in these states, they must play on teams that match what a doctor determined their sex to be at birth. They also refer to transgender girls as “biological males,” a tactic often used by conservative lawmakers and repeated by other conservatives to suggest transgender women are in fact men and do not deserve to be in these spaces. 

With the Biden administration expected to soon release Title IX guidelines in support of trans athletes and a Republican presidential primary around the corner, trans athletes will continue to be a major news narrative. Journalists covering these issues should include the context with the developments and talk to the people most impacted by it. Here are a few key points to consider when reporting on laws and rhetoric concerning trans athletes. 

Most athletes are not elite 

When most people think about sports journalism and the stakes of competition, they often think of the glamor and drama of professional leagues. 

However, few elite athletes are openly trans, and most athletes affected by transgender sports policies are children who compete in school sports. 

Journalist Frankie de la Cretaz, who has covered the intersection of LGBTQ identities and sports for many years, has noticed a pattern in the conversation generated by these stories as more outlets begin to cover transgender athletes. 

“Different levels of sport require different conversations, and comparing a young middle or high school athlete to an Olympian is an unfair and inaccurate comparison,” they said. 

For many transgender athletes, these laws mostly prevent them from participating at all. That lack of access has major effects on child and adolescent mental health. According to the Trevor Project’s 2022 LGBTQ Youth Survey, over 80% of trans youth worried about losing access to playing sports in school because of current legislation. The survey also showed over 70% of LGBTQ youth say they have symptoms of anxiety. 

Researcher and medical physicist Joanna Harper estimates that the number of trans girls playing public school sports can’t exceed 100 nationwide. In many states with anti-trans bans, legislators could not name a single transgender athlete competing at the time of passing these laws.  

The impact of limiting access to such a small group of vulnerable students often gets lost when the focus is on performance and built on misinformation that trans athletes are overrunning school sports. 

Remember who you are centering 

Journalists need to consider who their stories focus on. A story about trans kids who play sports should include the voices of trans kids who play sports.  

A “mistake I see often is in the framing — rather than centering the perspective of the trans athletes, journalists often center the lens and experience of their cis counterparts,” they said. “In doing so, the stakes get lost.” 

If coverage only focuses on cisgender teammates affected by a trans athlete’s presence, then it will miss how trans athletes are navigating the very gendered world of sports and what that means — it is just another story about how their participation alone is a controversy. 

This happened again and again as Lia Thomas became the first transgender athlete to win an individual NCAA championship. Many of her teammates spoke anonymously with the press, and some of the loudest voices in the room spoke about how Thomas’ success overshadowed their seasons. 

While Thomas’ decision to not speak to the media during the 2022 season certainly led to a lack of pushback on these narratives, there are other ways to report on her win that aren’t just about athletes who find it unfair. For example, journalists can talk to other athletes who have transitioned in college or non-collegiate transgender athletes about their experiences surrounding transitioning while competing.  

Rarely do any other athletes have to deal with the type of framing their transgender counterparts do. Cisgender athletes’ prowess and body diversity are usually celebrated in coverage, such as Michael Phelps’ foot size or Usain Bolt’s muscle fibers. 

Add necessary context 

Covering transgender athletes is no longer just reporting on their successes or existence. It should also be about framing and contextualizing their athletic careers at a time when lawmakers and sports organizations seek to limit their participation. 

While many neutral observers want to discuss the science behind transgender athletes’ potential competitive advantage, it is nearly impossible to quantify the athletic difference between two individual athletes as some inherent advantage. Comparing transgender athletes to cisgender athletes ignores the wide range of bodies that cisgender athletes also have and how those bodies influence athletic prowess. While one study suggests that trans women might retain an athletic edge up to a year after hormone therapy, any possible “edge” mostly matters at the Olympic level, not in school sports, according to researcher and pediatrician Dr. Timothy Roberts. It also is unclear how the studies’ test of strength and endurance translates to more complicated athletic skills. 

Still, the muddled science has been used to bar trans athletes from competing and is part of a larger narrative Republican legislators have used to successfully limit the civil rights of trans people. 

Heron Greenesmith, a researcher for Political Research Associates, said that focusing on sports has helped right-wing groups boost “exposure and income” to further their anti-LGBTQ legislative agenda. By focusing on trans athletes, Greenesmith said, “the right can ignore the real threats to women’s and girls’ sports: underfunding, underpay, and rampant abuse.” 

Meet trans athletes where they are 

Sports is more than just winning or losing. What playing means for an athlete is also important. 

I have been an athlete nearly my entire life, competing in cross-country, track and field and rowing in high school, collegiate and post-collegiate settings. I don’t know what I would have done if I did not have sports to anchor me even after I transitioned. 

“I can’t underscore the value that swimming and sport had in my life, even today, even though I’m not competing anymore. I really don’t know who I would be without swimming,” Schuyler Bailar, one of the first openly transgender NCAA athletes, told me earlier this year in an interview. “But I know that if I had been out and I had been able to compete on the boys team, that would have been that much more freeing. That would have been, I wouldn’t have had anything to try to escape from.” 

Political policy is easier to grasp when journalists put a face on it. Journalists also have a duty to protect our sources and minimize harm when telling stories. When we are covering transgender athletes responsibly, we are asking questions, verifying facts and checking in with those who  understand this experience best.