Catherine Sullivan (she/her)
Soccer has been a lifelong passion of mine. Growing up, making the varsity team one day was always my goal. But once I realized I was trans, things got complicated. Though I never ended up playing for a woman-only team, my experience around it could provide a look into this complicated and contentious issue.
The Joining Process
My senior year of high school, I was very on the fence about trying out for the women’s varsity team. On one hand, I had always wanted to play varsity. On the other, it’s not easy socially being a trans woman in sports, and I wasn’t sure if I had the time anyway. Nonetheless, I decided to start the joining process in case I chose to go for it when tryouts rolled around.
The first hurdle was logistical. The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) is the governing body for my school’s varsity sports. Their policy was simple: the gender transgender students compete under would be decided on a case-by-case basis. No further information was available to me. The athletic director of my school sent a request to MHSAA, and a month later I was notified that I would be allowed to compete as a woman. Considering they had no medical information, I can’t imagine what criteria the MHSAA uses to make the decision, but thankfully, they are currently openly accepting of trans students.
The second hurdle was interpersonal. After I went to the info meeting, a rumor started spreading that I had never played soccer before, but that I had threatened to sue the school for discrimination if they didn’t give me a spot on the team. Never mind that I grew up playing with the very same girls whom I was looking to become teammates with. In the end, I decided not to try out, both due to the time commitment and because I felt wholly unwelcome.
It’s often hard to compare trans women to cis women because of gender inequality in sports. Luckily, I happen to have a control group. Though we played in separate gender divisions, my cis female friend Maya and I had very similar soccer experiences growing up: we were on the same club team and high school team, had the same access to coaches, spent the same amount of time in official practice, and even went to goalkeeper practices together. By and large, the only difference in opportunity we had was biological.
Nonetheless, she is far better than me. We performed roughly the same until the end of middle school, but since then, we’ve diverged quite a bit. I never got past junior varsity. She played varsity, was in the Olympic Development Program and another top club, got recruited to Baylor, and is currently playing for Yale (Yes, that Yale). When I asked her about when she noticeably exceeded me, she said, “I think that by eighth grade I was getting to be better, but it has to do with the fact that I was driven to play at the college level.”
When I considered trying out for the women’s varsity team, there was no question in my mind that I would have to try out for a position other than goalkeeper. I just had no chance at beating her. In the end, hard work beats innate ability, and I simply didn’t work as hard as her. Biology does play a role, and I think my physical advantages could have helped in getting a spot on the team, but I certainly wouldn’t have been exceptional. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have had any chance at all without at least decent soccer skills and athletic ability.
That’s not to say that the physical difference is always negligible. By high school, I was physically stronger than many cis girls who exercised more than me. As Maya put it, “I think in general kids are pretty equal in playing ability, but once seventh/eighth grade hits you start getting more stratified groups of players and puberty starts playing a role in athletic ability.” It’s hardly a cut-and-dry issue.
The accusation that trans-friendly laws will lead to cis men and trans women dominating women’s sports is… strange to me. First, I can’t imagine there being a significant number of cis men claiming to be trans to play women’s sports. Between the logistical hurdles, the social barriers, the fact that they’d be leaving their friends behind, and the general absurdity of this as a serious strategy, it’s just not going to become a problem. For trans women, it’s more of a question of numbers. Trans people make up about 0.7% of the youth population. Within that, we’re only concerned with people who play sports at a fairly exceptional level. Unless your high school has tens of thousands of students, the odds that your sports teams will be overrun by trans women is slim to none.
Even then, there are plenty of other considerations. I won’t get into each line of discussion here, but some considerations are:
There has been a spike in legislation keeping trans women out of youth sports in the past year. Just this year, more than 30 states have introduced such legislation, including in Michigan. Some of these have been more extreme than others, like Florida’s now-rejected bill that would require students suspected of being trans to have their genitals examined.
There is no question that this is a complicated issue, but I think it’s fair to say that this is not the way to handle it. In the end, we’re talking about children. We ought to find a way to let them play.