Grantland's publication of an article outing a transsexual golf entrepreneur has vaulted transgender issues in sports into the spotlight. As a therapist and educator specializing in gender diversity issues, I'm fascinated: wasn't it just yesterday that sports dragged its muscled ass into the 21st century by acknowledging the existence of gay athletes, replete with straight fellow players speaking up for their gay brethren? Now, quite suddenly, trans issues are making a fast break down the court, and sports media is scrambling to catch up.
Their gross neglect of journalistic ethics notwithstanding, Grantland can -- and must -- seize this opportunity to start a game-changing conversation about gender diversity in sports.
The wide world of sports is woefully narrow on issues of gender diversity. Sports rivals only conservative religion in its strict gender rules. Other than Ultimate Frisbee, every organized sport is divided strictly by gender, and by biological sex at that.
Sports and sports media enforce gender role stereotypes by making heroes out of the manliest men and those tomboy women willing to don makeup and heels when out of uniform. There are virtually no publicly out trans athletes in professional sports; the rules of competitive play don't allow it. Similar rules and conventions prevail in high school, college and Olympic competition. Once little Cody graduates from T-ball, there are little to no opportunities for competitive sports that do not segregate players by biological sex.
Gender-bending kids like Cody have a long way to go before they find their place in sports. "Progress in the sports media has been a mixed bag over the years," according to Outsports reporters Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski. "While some journalists have written stories on the rise of the gay athlete, many others continue the narrative that it's 'impossible' to come out in sports. For every successful coming-out story that gets national attention, 10 more incidents of homophobia in sports drive segments on SportsCenter and headlines in USA Today."
Given this conservatism about sexual identity, the fundamental gender division in athletics, and the virtual silence on gender diversity in sports, is anyone besides me impressed that sports journalists, including Grantland's editorial team, even have a conscience (though an uneducated one) around trans issues?
Yes, Grantland screwed up, but there is an obvious way to make it up to Transamerica and offer athletic gender-nonconforming youth the possibility of future participation in sports. Grantland should create a gender channel to report on the tough questions and encourage debate.
These questions would include:
- What is the role of trans athletes or intersex athletes in competitive sports?
- What would be a trans-positive agenda for sports?
- Given the impact of sports on American youth, how could sports contribute to more progressive, thoughtful, inclusive messaging about gender?
- What would the world of sports be like if it was gender-free, or even gender-flexible?
- Is the strict division between men and women vital to maintaining the competitive potential of women in sports?
- How can competitive athletics at the high school and college levels make room for age-appropriate identity experimentation around gender that many teens and young adults engage in?
- How would we amend Title IX to protect trans people in sports?
Tragically, the subject of the Grantland profile, Essay Anna Vanderbilt, took her own life prior to publication. A staggering 41 percent of trans individuals attempt suicide. Grantland can honor her memory, acknowledge this national crisis and set an example in sports media by leading a much needed discussion about tolerance, inclusion and the full range of ways that people express their gender in athletics.
When the kids of this country drop out of sports altogether because it just doesn't feel right for a born-female to play on the girls' team when you feel yourself inside to be a boy, or for a born-male to play on the boys team when you go home from practice and change into a dress, the world loses potential MVPs, Heisman winners, and Olympic medalists. More importantly, a whole bunch of kids (more than we'll ever know) miss out on the joy, character building and community that sports offers us. Who knows, maybe Cody is a future Grantland fan?