Student athletes fight transphobia and racism in Connecticut

Oct. 2019 Terry Miller (Mark Mirko:Hartford Courant)
Terry Miller, from Bloomfield High School. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

By ROZWELL SIMMONS

In central Connecticut, two high school students are confronted by foes all too familiar—transphobia and racism. The students, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, from Bloomfield and Cromwell respectively, are both young trans women of color who enthusiastically participate on their schools’ track teams with the support of the majority of their teammates. Suddenly, after several years of athletic accomplishment, Miller’s and Yearwood’s right to compete alongside young cis women on their respective high school track teams is being brought into question.

On June 24, the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a Title IX Discrimination Complaint to the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of three cis high school runners who claim that the participation of trans girls on their teams infringe on their civil rights. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alliance Defending Freedom is a hate group that  “has become one of the most influential groups informing the administration’s attack on LGBT rights working with an ally in Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”

This lawsuit comes as no surprise in the larger contexts of the United States and of a capitalist world. The Trump administration attacks trans people and their rights week after week. On April 12, the ban on transgender troops was put into action. The next month on May 2, the Department of Health and Human Services published documents encouraging health-care providers and insurance companies to deny health care to trans patients based on “religious beliefs.”

Other forms of care that trans folks rely on were threatened as the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced plans to roll back anti-discrimination protections for trans people in homeless shelters on May 22. Aug. 14 saw the proposition of a rule that would allow refusing to hire and firing employees based on their LGBTQ+ status. Just two days later, on Aug.16, the Department of Justice issued a statement saying that federal law “does not prohibit discrimination against transgender persons based on their transgender status.”

It’s clear that the two young athletes have an uphill battle ahead of them, but they’re prepared to fight. Terry Miller pledges to “continue to fight for all trans people to compete and participate consistent with who [they] are. There is a long history of excluding Black girls from sport and policing our bodies.” According to the Hartford Courant, Miller insists that she is “a runner and she will keep running and keep fighting for her existence, her community and her rights.”

Andraya Yearwood told the Courant that she hopes “that the next generation of trans youth doesn’t have to fight the fights” that she has and that “they can be celebrated when they succeed, not demonized.”

For the next generation,” she said, “I run for you!” In response to critics who imagine that trans girls face the challenge of competition differently than cis girls, Yearwood explained to the Courant, “I am lucky to live in a state that protects my rights and to have a family that supports me. This is what keeps me going. Every day I train hard—I work hard to succeed on the track, to support my teammates, and to make my community proud.”

Connecticut does have more protections in place for trans people than many other states, but it wasn’t always this way. It is one of at least 17 states that allow trans high school athletes to compete without restrictions, and these rules were put in place due to the tireless work of activists across the state over decades.

In 2002, after several years of building a grassroots coalition of trans rights activists, It’s Time Connecticut and over 20 other groups organized the state’s first Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil in Hartford. Attended by 100 trans people, allies, and community members, the success of this vigil helped shape ITCT into the CT Trans Advocacy Coalition (CTAC). Since then, the CTAC and other organizations have continued to fight for and win protections and freedoms for trans people across the state.

In 2015, a birth certificate law was passed in Connecticut, allowing a trans person’s gender marker to be changed to align with their gender identity without requiring surgery. Guidelines for homeless shelters and schools detailing gender identity and expression were created. The work has made it easier for trans high school students to avoid overt bigotry and related trauma in adolescence.

Seventeen years of grassroots collaboration in defense of trans rights in the state meant that when Miller and Yearwood became the victims of the Alliance for Defending Freedom, 16 Connecticut rights organizations—including New Haven Pride Center, Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and National Abortion Rights Action League—put out a letter in their support, saying, “Together, we reject unfounded fears about transgender athletes in our state and reject the suggestion that cisgender women and girls benefit from the exclusion of women and girls who happen to be transgender. Instead, we recognize that all women and girls are harmed when some are denied opportunities to participate in sports because of stereotypes and fear.”

Right-wing groups, like the Alliance Defending Freedom, however, continue to try to divide cis and trans women by claiming that trans inclusion will destroy the modest protections for equality of the sexes that is codified in Title IX. The National Women’s Law Center has put the lie to this claim. Neena Chaudhry, the general consul for the National Women’s Law Center, in a recent editorial for the Washington Post, argues that in terms of the law, “gender” is treated as “sex,” and protections against gender discrimination do nothing to change the protections available under Title IX for cis women. Gender rights do “not change Title IX or the landscape that schools face, because courts have already found that Title IX protects against gender-identity discrimination,” she wrote.

This legal logic is also codified in the Equality Act, which passed the House in May and which, Chaudry says, “makes clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal sex discrimination, and it closes long-standing gaps in some civil rights law by adding protections from sex discrimination.” The use of the threat of loss of Title IX protections by the right to limit trans inclusion is just the old divide-and-conquer technique with new language.

Despite these clear analyses by feminist legal advocates like Chaudry, Selina Soule, a teammate of Miller and Yearwood and one of the three young women who are complainants in the Alliance Defending Freedom suit against them, remarks: “Girls should never be simply spectators in their own sport, they deserve to compete on a level playing field.” (CT Mirror) What level playing field is she referring to here? Certainly not one that is based on actual fairness, one that truly allows all girls to succeed.

Aside from this blatantly transphobic push to exclude trans girls from their sports teams, this complaint is also problematic in its reduction of the two girls to being scholarship thieves. In a recent issue of OutSports, Robin McHealen, Executive Director of True Colors Inc., a Hartford-based support and advocacy organization for LGBTQ+ youth, explained just how ludicrous was Soule’s claim that trans girls were denying her an athletic scholarship.  “Around 100,000 athletic scholarships are awarded by the nation’s colleges and universities, and 98% of high school student-athletes will not earn one,” she was quoted as saying. “Is this a realistic concern because of these two girls running?”

The idea that the road for more financial aid for students wishing to attend college runs through trans-exclusionary policies for high school sports is ludicrous on the face of it, but this illogical assertion will die a hard death given its value to reaction.

Also worth noting is the role that race is playing here: As people of color are pushed aside and ignored, so are their talents, passions, and achievements. Devaluing women of color in sports is a common thread in the attacks on trans athletes of all ages. Caster Semenya, an Olympic runner from South Africa, has received constant berating and backlash from people who label her as a man due to her body naturally producing more testosterone than what is “typical.” Contrast Semenya’s case with Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and it’s clear that, in the eyes of society, not all bodies are created equal. Due to genetic mutations, Phelps’ body is almost made for swimming. His arm span is greater than his height, enabling him to make greater strokes and his body naturally produces less lactic acid, meaning it takes more for him to become fatigued. These traits give him a clear advantage over other swimmers, but are praised as biological blessings.

Yet Semenya is attacked left and right and dehumanized for her higher-than-average testosterone levels, which do not definitively give her an advantage. Aside from the fact that this type of thinking only serves to perpetuate the policing of women’s and Black bodies, this is problematic in that it serves to oppress women and reinforce damaging stereotypes. It also creates a context for the effort of the far right to roll back gender discrimination legislation and discipline the population to perform only as two distinct, mutually exclusive gender groups.

The stakes in the Connecticut struggle to support Miller and Yearwood are huge. On the one side are queer and women’s advocacy groups defending progressive rules won through struggle. On the other is an ultra-conservative think tank and action group whose leaders speak of uniting the church and state, recriminalizing homosexuality and abortion, and otherwise turning back the clock.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alliance Defending Freedom, “[u]ses its international platforms, works with policymakers and other organizations to outlaw abortion, deny equality and marriage to LGBT people worldwide, and continue to push for a hard-right Christian theocratic worldview that is reflected in legislation and policies.”

Could such a firm actually be an aid to reinforcing sex equality? Of course not! The firm is predatory in its use of students across the country; it seeks out and capitalizes on any instances of homophobia, transphobia, and sexism with legal potential. Clearly, the ADF did not pick up this case to protect women’s rights or defend Title IX but to lead an offensive on trans folks by pushing for rollbacks in protective legislation. Soule and the two others girls on whose behalf the ADF is supposedly working are not truly being defended; they are being exploited. The law firm is using them as tools to drive a wedge between different oppressed groups within the working class. The welcoming of the ADF into the White House as a consultant demonstrates that powerful sections of the U.S. ruling elite share this agenda and modus operandi.

Only a united movement in defense of transgender and cisgender women’s rights will be powerful enough to slow and reverse this offensive. The defense of Miller and Yearwood is a key step in building such a movement. The history of the fight for women’s liberation and the end of LGBTQI+ oppression demonstrates that no rights won are safe from reversal. Offensives, like the current wave of government attacks on trans people, will not cease until the capitalist system is replaced with one not economically dependent on the subordination of women and the oppression of LGBTQI people that is the corollary of this social set-up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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