Analysis: Lance Armstrong, trans athletes and the policing of women’s bodies in sports

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There are only about 100 trans women athletes competing in the U.S., but trans women and girls in sports is one of the hottest topics in the country. GOP presidential candidates are discussing it, GOP state legislatures are passing laws over it and on June 24, disgraced former world-class cyclist Lance Armstrong, added his commentary to the “debate.”

Armstrong launched his new podcast, “The Forward Podcast with Lance Armstrong,” on Twitter where he tweeted, “Have we really come to a time and place where spirited debate is not only frowned upon, but feared? Where people’s greatest concern is being fired, shamed or cancelled? As someone all too familiar with this phenomenon, I feel I’m uniquely positioned to have these conversations.” 

Attached to the tweet was Armstrong’s opening episode, in which he and Caitlyn Jenner, Trump-supporting former GOP candidate for governor of California and, many decades pre-transition, an Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete, “delve into the compelling topic of transgender athletes in sports.”

The podcast declares, “As both a trans woman and athlete, Caitlyn provides her invaluable insights and impassioned viewpoint, shedding light on the crucial aspects of the subject. Together, they [Armstrong and Jenner] thoughtfully discuss the effects transgender athletes competing in women’s sports has on women’s sports as a whole.”

Well, not really. No one is less qualified to discuss what’s fair in sports than Armstrong, the world’s best-known cheater. And Jenner has consistently come out against trans women and girls in women’s sports, calling their inclusion “unfair.”

“I oppose biological boys who are trans competing in girls’ sports in school,” Jenner has claimed. “It just isn’t fair. And we have to protect girls’ sports in our schools.”

As for Armstrong, there is no more blatant example of unfairness in sports than the former cyclist, who was determined to have used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his award-winning cycling career. Armstrong was stripped of his seven consecutive Tour de France titles, along with one Olympic medal in 2012, and banned from the sport when the UCI accepted USADA’s findings on his doping.

And yet there’s this podcast with Armstrong and Jenner.

And so much more. In her CNN GOP candidate town hall on June 4, Nikki Haley made the extreme — and false — claim that trans girls in sports is causing teenage girls to contemplate suicide.

“How are we supposed to get our girls used to the fact that biological boys are in their locker room? And then they wonder why a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year,” Haley said. “We should be growing strong girls; confident girls.”

Haley said, “The idea that we have biological boys playing in girls’ sports — it is the women’s issue of our time.” 

It is not and what Haley said is dangerously false, as verified by the CDC and reported in PGN in February. But Haley’s assertion — which she fully believes — speaks to how much traction this issue has gotten. 

But who is actually being victimized? There is only one trans woman athlete in the U.S. who anyone can name — University of Pennsylvania NCAA champion swimmer Lia Thomas. Thomas, who ceased competing upon graduation last year, has become the flashpoint for trans competitors, in part due to her height — 6-foot-4 — and former status from swimming pre-transition on the men’s team. 

Former competitive college swimmer Riley Gaines has been building a new career in right-wing media as she tours the country speaking about losing to Thomas and on trans women in sports with much the same alarmist tone as Haley’s. 

Gaines told the Senate Judiciary Committee June 21 that some swimmers felt so “uncomfortable” and “violated” by Thomas that they “undressed in the janitor’s closet” during a tournament last year. Gaines described Thomas as a “6-foot-4, 22-year-old male equipped with and exposing male genitalia.”

While some current women athletes like Gaines have come out against trans women and girls in women’s sports, claiming that “unfair” advantage Jenner spoke of, others have been supportive, like Olympic gold medalist and out lesbian soccer star Megan Rapinoe who said she supports trans athletes because “lives are at stake.”

The GOP have made trans women and girl athletes a focal point, passing legislation, but trans girls/women are barely engaged in sports. These laws actually harm girls deemed not feminine enough, who are targeted as trans.

This happened just weeks ago in British Columbia to a nine-year-old girl after a grandparent at the competition declared the girl trans (she wasn’t) and stopped the competition, demanding to see a birth certificate.

The same people who were claiming a few years ago that women’s sports were tainted by too many lesbians are now claiming the issue is trans girls/women. Lesbians in sports, which are many of the top competitors in the world — like Olympic Gold Medalists Megan Rapinoe, Brittney Griner, Sue Bird, Abby Wambach, Chris Witty and more — have often been accused of not being “truly” female. Misogyny and bigotry are a slippery slope.

It was only a few years ago that the issue for women’s sports was the predominance of lesbians in basketball, soccer, tennis, golf and volleyball. 

Tennis great Martina Navratilova was among those targeted, with Margaret Court, the fifth-greatest woman tennis champion of all time, claiming lesbians were “ruining” tennis. Ironically, Navratilova has been strident in her opposition to trans women and girls in women’s sports.

While the tennis controversy was several years ago, similar claims about lesbians taking over women’s sports have been made more recently about basketball and soccer. Olympian Brittney Griner, who is 6-foot-9, has also been accused of being a male (she isn’t). 

Just two weeks ago, Griner was hounded and harassed at an airport while traveling with her team, the Phoenix Mercury. The police report noted that “inappropriate comments” were made to Griner and that the man, Alex Stein, a conservative YouTube personality, was “aggressive.”

The repeated attacks on and harassment of Griner typifies the problem of women who don’t adhere to what is deemed feminine body types. The facts of how different the bodies of some women athletes are complicates the question of trans women and girls in sports. The bodies of women and girls in sports have always been challenged, most notably the bodies of Black women.

Tennis great Serena Williams has spoken out about how her body was seen as too different for tennis. Regarding comments and behavior towards her for having a less feminine build, Williams said, “There was a time when I didn’t feel incredibly comfortable about my body because I felt like I was too strong.”

As PGN reported during the 2021 Summer Olympics, Black women were being tested when white women were not and their gender being questioned due to naturally high testosterone levels.

The fact is, if women and girls have bodies that don’t conform to a male ideal of what women and girls should look like, they get targeted.

Florida was tracking girls’ menstrual cycles to try and weed out trans athletes. Instead, they got a lot of girls with irregular periods. 

Some legislators have also put forward laws where girls’ genitalia get checked. One such bill passed in Ohio and another in Kansas. 

Last June, a N.J. bill had genital checks to guard against transgender athletes.

Girls who look different or who are better at their sport than others can be seen as trans, like that nine-year-old competitor. If a girl misses her periods, as is common among female athletes, will she be under suspicion? Who will be performing the genital checks? Where will this all end?

Legislating women’s bodies is as old as the U.S. itself. But what many seem not to grasp in this “debate” over trans competitors in women’s sports, is that it won’t just affect the small number of trans competitors. It will affect all girls and women in sports. That’s the slippery slope we are on. And that could damage women’s sports irreparably.