About 25 years ago a friend invited me to join a basketball game he and his brothers-in-law had started at a local gym on Sunday nights. The first time I showed up, one of the regulars objected and an argument ensued, mostly in Armenian.
My friend turned to me and explained, in English, that they had all agreed this game would be for people six feet tall and under. I stood just over 6’1”. Watching the hand and arm gestures, I gathered that some of the guys believed that if they let me in, the game would soon be dominated by seven-footers. But my friend won the argument and I became a regular.
Soon there were other new guys taller than me, including one near 6’5”. Somehow we all competed, got a workout each week, and mostly got along.
Over the years that game has become increasingly competitive — and younger — while I’ve gotten older and slower. I keep trying because I love to play and what matters to me is being able to compete, to test myself against any level of competition. It is who I am and who I hope to be for as long as I can. I consider myself fortunate to still be playing at my age and particularly blessed to have spent my entire life being exactly who I am, on or off a basketball court, unashamed and unchallenged about it.
Transgender people, athletes included, enjoy no such fortune.
Competitive equity is an elusive goal
Not in Arkansas, where the legislature overrode Gov. Asa Hutchinson's veto of a bill banning transitional surgeries and hormone supplements for trans youth. Not in South Dakota, where Gov. Kristi Noem and the state legislature have mandated that high school athletes may compete only according to the gender they were assigned at birth.
More than a dozen states have proposed or instituted bans on transgender athletes. Mississippi calls its version “the Mississippi Fairness Act,” offering up the popular concern that trans female athletes have an unfair advantage over other female athletes and that their presence would violate the competitive equity that is the very reason for separate girls’ and boys’ sports and women’s and men’s sports.
Such fears, in and of themselves, are not bigotry. But they do reflect a sadly limited understanding of high school sports and high school athletes.
Competitive equity is a beautiful and elusive objective for those of us who coach or oversee high school athletics. It is why we have junior varsity teams and freshmen and sophomore teams and why we try to match up teams that won’t slaughter one another. It often does not work out that way and we have all seen and heard about lopsided scores in high school football and basketball and pretty much every other sport.
There are athletes whose physical gifts and athletic talent make them so dominant that it really doesn’t seem fair (I know firsthand, having coached against some of them). And does anyone believe there is any justice in the so-called “genetic lottery”?
The possibility that a trans female athlete might enjoy any degree of physical advantage, then, will in no meaningful way alter the competitive equation.
In fact, it rarely has. In the more than eight years since the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) began allowing high school athletes to compete as the gender with which they identify — regardless of what they were assigned at birth — there has not been a single case in which a trans female athlete has been dominant enough to stir protest.
This shouldn’t surprise us since the best athletes, of any gender, keep getting faster and stronger and more skilled. In 1970, Mark Spitz swam the 100-meter freestyle in 51.94 seconds. The current female world record for the 100-meter freestyle is Sarah Sjöström’s 51.71 seconds. That’s about 5 seconds slower than the current men’s record of 46.91 seconds, but very few swimmers will ever come close to either time.
So while a trans female might be a dominant athlete for some high school teams in some prep leagues, it is very unlikely she will be superior to the most elite female athletes. A few years ago, a school here in Los Angeles won a girls tennis state championship with a trans female player on the roster — but she didn’t get to play in the championship match because she wasn't one of the top 11 players on the team.
Our mission should be inclusion
Offering inclusion to some of our most vulnerable young people, who are at great risk for depression, drug abuse and suicide, ought to be the mission of every educator and every other thinking and loving human being.
I am proud to be part of the CIF, one of the state high school governing bodies leading the way on this issue. I expected no less. For all of the grotesque injustices in California's past (Japanese internment, deporting U.S. citizens of Mexican descent and the racism that is the legacy of every state), our state was where Jackie Robinson showcased his athletic genius as a UCLA four-sport athlete before he went on to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947.
Pass the Equality Act: Discriminatory rhetoric and laws are devastating to LGBTQ youth
You don’t see too many people in Mississippi or anywhere else still carrying a banner for the exclusion of athletes of color in high school or college athletics. I wonder how many more years they will disgrace themselves hoisting the banner for the exclusion of transgender athletes.
Larry Strauss is a high school English teacher and retired basketball coach in South Los Angeles. A member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, he is the author of more than a dozen books, most recently "Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher" and, on audio, "Now's the Time" (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Transgender girls don't dominate high school sports on real life teams