What Does Acceptance of Women's Sports Mean for LGBT Discrimination?

| by Pat Griffin

On Sunday ESPN’s Outside the Lines aired a segment on Kye Allums, the transgender man who plays on the George Washington University women’s basketball team.

The segment focused on Kye and his mother with a follow-up interview with Helen Carroll from NCLR; Wendy Parker, a sportswriter/blogger and Kevin Blackistone, also a sports reporter. You can see these OTL segments here and here.

Kye impresses me as a young man with incredible courage who has a clear sense of his identity and is willing to be open about his transition journey so that others can learn from and benefit from his experience. I am also impressed with GWU staff and the basketball team who have addressed Kye’s transition and the public attention it has drawn with fairness and sensitivity.

Kye’s mother shared her struggles with his transition and still thinks of him as her daughter, repeatedly referring to Kye as “she” during the interview. I can empathize with the emotions a parent must experience when a child announces that her or his gender identity contradicts the gender she or he was assigned at birth.

We have a long way to go before most people understand transgender identity let alone accept it. Kye’s mother is wrestling with her own feelings and her hopes for her child. She deserves more support in this struggle. I hope she will reach out to some of the great organizations and people who could fill that role. One I would suggest is Gender Spectrum.

One of the final questions the interviewer asked Kye was did he believe that it was “healthy” for him to be playing on the women’s team. What a curve ball question. Kye was clearly taken aback by the question and wasn’t sure how to respond. I don’t blame him. What was the interviewer looking for? Was he assuming that it is somehow not healthy for Kye to play basketball at all? To play on the women’s team? Is he concerned about the general “health” of women’s basketball or women’s sports in general when transgender people participate? What did he mean? I think the question reflects ignorance about transgender identity and also anxieties about gender, especially when our preconceived notions of gender as fixed and binary get challenged as they do by transgender people. I’ll pick this theme up in a discussion of the interview with Helen, Wendy and Kevin that followed the OTL segment on Kye.

Helen Carroll worked with GW to help them respond to Kye’s wish to make his transition public in a way that was fair to Kye, the team and the university. She has worked with other transgender student-athletes, their parents and schools on these issues. As a former athlete, championship coach and athletic director Helen knows what she is talking about when she discusses transgender issues and is also committed to women’s sports in general. Wendy Parker is a knowledgeable sports reporter who focuses on and is committed to women’s sports. How she was tapped for this interview however is an interesting question. Her comments reflected a lack of understanding of transgender issues and insinuated that somehow Kye’s participation on a women’s team threatens the mainstream acceptance of women’s basketball. That is a big burden to place on the shoulders of an athlete who is merely trying to live his life openly according to what is true for him. Wendy even questioned Kye’s integrity by implying that he was only participating on the women’s team to retain his scholarship. How cynical of Wendy. Kye was very clear that he is attending GW to get an education and play ball. Having a scholarship is enabling him to do both. He earned the scholarship. Why would he suddenly not have a right to keep it?

Wendy also wondered why Kye would want to be so public about what she apparently considers a private issue no one should talk about. She misses the point that Kye is probably saving lives by being public about his own experience. As Kevin points out, we have a suicide problem among young people who are bullied because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity. Wendy, though professing to admire Kye, seemed more concerned about the effects on his teammates of playing on a team with a transgender man. In, perhaps, her most ridiculous comment, Wendy even implied that the GWU team’s fall from the top ranks is somehow Kye’s fault and that Kye’s participation on the women’s team reflects a selfish disregard for the effects of his presence on the GW program and his teammates.

I know from reading Wendy’s blog and from her comments on my blog that she considers discussions of “social causes” in sport to be nothing more than politically correct distractions from more important issues in sport. Wendy’s message to LGBT people in sport: Shut up and keep your identities to yourself. You make women’s sport look like a freak show and impede our ability to draw mainstream sports fans and writers. Wendy was especially upset that ESPN aired this segment on the opening day of the women’s final four for this reason.

Wendy continues this line of thinking in her blog, where she expresses “some puzzlement over a self-identified male who wishes to be true to himself but still wants a place — and a scholarship — on a women’s team…Those were questions he avoided during the interview, and the lack of candor was obvious.”

There was no lack of candor in Kye’s responses, only a lack of understanding on Wendy’s part. I think Kye was incredibly open in his responses about his experiences and his relationship with his mother. It is really cynical to accuse him of lacking candor.

However, I am sure Wendy is asking a question that others who also lack information about transgender issues in athletics might also want an answer to. So, let me try. First, it is none of Wendy’s business (or anyone else’s) why Kye chooses to play on the women’s team. It is completely within NCAA rules for him to do so as long as he is not taking testosterone, which he is not. His teammates support Kye and have expressed that support publicly. His coach supports Kye and has said so also, even as he struggles to understand Kye’s identity. Kye’s basketball skills and abilities have not changed. He does not have any unfair physical advantage over his teammates or opponents. Don’t worry, Wendy, the women’s semi-final games were incredibly exciting Sunday night demonstrating the increasing talent and parity in the game so Kye’s participation hasn’t hurt women’s basketball as far as I can tell.

There is no relevant reason why Kye should not play on the women’s team. Perhaps the only reason is that having a transgender man on a women’s basketball team makes some people uncomfortable.

On the other hand there are lots of good reasons why Kye would want to play on the women’s team rather than the men’s team. His teammates on the women’s team are his friends. They are a source of support for him. Anyone who knows athletics understands the important role that teammates often play as a second family. Why would Kye want to separate himself from this, especially at this time in his life? Kye is a basketball player. For any student who loves the game and has played it throughout her or his school life, why would they give it up? To force Kye to play on the men’s team would mean, in all likelihood, that he would sit on the bench if he made the team at all. Why would he, why should he, give up participating on a team where he is accepted, supported and can get playing time when his participation is completely within the rules?

Wendy also writes in her blog that, “the women’s game is a full-fledged enterprise that long ago dwarfed narrow social causes but that still generate a very bright — and I think unwarranted — media spotlight.”

What on earth makes Wendy Parker think that sport, men’s or women’s, is somehow exempt from the need to address what she pejoratively calls “narrow social causes” that receive an “unwarranted” media spotlight? In other words she believes the expectation that sports, especially school sports, should reflect basic social justice values of equality, fairness and inclusion is only the concern of marginalized special interest groups who are forcing their agenda on women’s sports and impeding mainstream acceptance in the process.

Insisting that mainstream acceptance requires that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes and coaches must suffer discrimination in silence or give up their right to participate in sports is so 1950s, Wendy. I believe that both sports and the general public who watch it are better than that. Things are changing. Not because we have been silent about social justice issues in sport or dismiss them as distractions, but because some of us insist that sports must change with the times. Kye’s participation and acceptance on his team are only one sign that this is so.