Feminists who oppose transgender rights are ‘not true feminists’, says pioneering trans athlete

The first openly transgender athlete to compete in the NCAA’s top division talks to Io Dodds about transphobia, abortion rights, and his friendship with swimming star Lia Thomas

Io Dodds
San Francisco
Tuesday 21 June 2022 16:45 BST
Schuyler Bailar at an abortion rights rally in October 2021
Schuyler Bailar at an abortion rights rally in October 2021 (Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women’s March)

When Schuyler Bailar dived into the water at Harvard University in November 2015, he made history as the first openly transgender athlete to compete in America's top college sports competition.

In high school, Bailar had set a national record swimming on the women's team alongside future Olympic champion Katie Ledecky. However, after realising he was a trans man and began hormone therapy, he joined the Harvard men's team and graduated four years later as an elite swimmer in the National Collegiate Athletics Association's (NCAA's) first division.

Today, the 26-year-old Korean-American is a powerful voice in the debate over whether trans athletes should be allowed to compete in the category that matches their gender – and he has sharp words for feminists who believe they should be barred (a group more colloquially known as TERFs or “gender critical”).

"People who claim to be feminists and then exclude people who should be included in feminism are not true feminists," Bailar tells The Independent. "I think they think that they are, that they're protecting people, but they don't understand the extent to which they are not.”

"In order to exclude trans women from sport, you must reduce people to their reproductive capacity and reduce women to their bodies only. To do that, you have to legally enforce the policing of all women's bodies, because any woman could be accused of being trans.

"What this does is disproportionately affect black and brown women who are already called too manly and too masculine... and a lot of people in my community would call that white feminism – which isn't really feminism, it's racism.

"I get why people might think that they're protecting women's sports. I think that this world is actively brainwashing people to believe that excluding trans people is going to protect non-trans people. But the reality is that these anti-trans laws are far more dangerous than they are protective of anything."

Some sporting officials disagree. On Sunday, the world governing body of competitive swimming, known as FINA, voted to ban almost all trans women from racing against cisgender (or non-trans) women, promising instead to establish a new “open” category with fewer entry rules.

Bailar blasted the new policy on Instagram, saying: “This is not about preserving fairness, this is not about protecting women’s sports, this is about trying to exclude trans people. And it continues the policing of women’s bodies in sports [and] the degradation and othering of trans people.”

The people who dominate sports are cisgender people’

When Bailar joined the Harvard men's team in 2015, it attracted widespread media attention including appearances on both 60 Minutes and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

At the time, Bailar feared he would place last in everything. It was only five months since he had begun taking testosterone to bring his hormone levels in line with those of his cis teammates; the other guys, he quipped, had "been on it for eight years".

Four years later, he graduated in the fastest 34 per cent of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA)'s first division for breaststroke swimming, having helped the Harvard men's team to its best season in fifty years.

By then, trans athletes – and especially trans women – were beginning to attract more controversy. Cyclist Veronica Ivy (then known as Rachel McKinnon) and weightlifter Laurel Hubbard received criticism, vitriol, and sometimes death threats for winning competitions, with some anti-trans critics accusing trans women athletes of transitioning specifically to gain an unfair edge.

The root of this criticism is testosterone and its effects on the body. During puberty, cis men receive far more of it than cis women far less, which accounts for much of the difference between their bodies and most of the average advantage held by male athletes.

The question, then, is how much of that advantage stays with trans women after they begin hormone therapy, which radically reshapes their bodies over months and years, and what level of advantage would count as unfair. Scientists are divided on the answer, and trans women remain underrepresented in elite sport compared to their prevalence in the general population.

While most elite sport institutions require trans athletes to undergo hormone therapy – something Bailar broadly supports – Republican governments in many US states have gone further and sought to ban school and college athletes from competing as their lived gender, sometimes mandating medical examinations for any that are suspected to be trans.

Hence, Bailar has waded frequently into culture war battles on Instagram and on his blog, engaging with critics and countering myths and disinformation about trans athletes.

"We all live in a transphobic world," he tells The Independent. "And we all live in a racist world, we all live in a sexist world, we live in a patriarchal world, we live in a homophobic world. If you grew up in that world, of course you're going to have transphobic biases. So how can we then unpack [the fact] that we 'feel' it's unfair?

"People have this knee-jerk reaction, and my response to them is: 'listen, your knee-jerk feelings are valid, I can't change those. But you have to understand where they come from, and they absolutely are influenced by this world we live in that is transphobic as hell.'"

He notes that when Utah's Republican governor vetoed a school sports ban in March, there were as few as four trans school athletes in the entire state. "People are going crazy over a very small percentage of the population that has no ability to threaten anything," he says. "The people who dominate sports are cis people, absolutely without question."

‘It’s thrilling to see how much happier Lia Thomas is now’

Amid the conflict, Bailar has also become a mentor to younger trans athletes, trying to offer them a voice of experience that he never had access to. One of them is Lia Thomas, the Pennsylvania University (UPenn) swimming star who in March became the first openly trans athlete to win an NCAA first division trophy.

Her victory was attacked by sports stars, politicians, competitors, and Florida's Republican governor Ron DeSantis, but an analysis by The Independent found little evidence that Thomas had an unfair advantage over other women at her level.

"The hatred that I received doesn't compare to the hatred that she has received," says Bailar. "People are far more angry about her and her participation in sports than me. She has become like the flashpoint of athletics this this year, pretty much globally.

"I don't want to downplay my experience; there were absolutely people who were hateful, and lots of articles, direct messages, emails, whatever, that were not kind... but I didn't receive nearly the pushback that Lia has. There's a very simple reason for that: misogyny is at the core."

Bailar was one of the few people to dig deeply into Thomas's performance statistics, debunking widely shared claims that she had not been competitive in men's events. On Instagram last month, he addressed Thomas's switch from longer-distance races to shorter swims by explaining that she had refocused her training to help the UPenn women's team fill a gap in its roster.

"People think that she came from being mediocre on the men's team at best to winning everything on the women's team, and that that's just not true." Bailar says. "She was definitely a standout athlete before she transitioned... she didn't come from nowhere."

Bailar now counts Thomas as a friend, advising her on coming out publicly and how to deal with the media. "Lia's doing really well. I'm really proud of her," he says.

"She's been great at making sure she focuses on what she needs to focus on, trying to tune out as much of the hatred as possible. She shouldn't have to do that – nobody should have to weather the amount of hatred and vitriol that she did – and still she's done an amazing job.

"I knew her before she transitioned, and I know her now, and she is in such a different emotional state in the best way possible. It's so thrilling and so heartwarming to see how much happier she is now than before."

When younger trans athletes come to him, "they're never unsure about their identities. They're unsure of what to do after they know their identities."

In a voice note after the interview, Bailar added: "Trans people don't transition in order to win. [Cis] people are so surprised when when that's communicated to them – that we don't transition for any outside gains, that transition is actually just for us to live our lives and to be ourselves, and sports happen to be something else that we might love doing."

‘People in power don’t want to lose power’

FINA’s decision on Sunday reportedly does not apply to national federations or to the NCAA, but it does mean that Thomas would not be allowed to compete as a woman at the Olympics.

While technically the ban does not ban all trans women, it requires them to have never gone through male puberty – meaning they would have to have begun puberty-blocking drugs around the age of 12.

Medical transitions almost never begin that early, in part because such treatments are often withheld by doctors or blocked by families. They are also staunchly opposed by gender critical feminists and state Republicans, who havesought to ban any transition procedures before the age of 18.

“They want you to have transitioned before 12 in order to compete in the women’s category, but in the US we have nearly 100 bills that have been trying to ban trans kids from receiving gender-affirming healthcare before 18,” said Bailar on Instagram on Sunday. “Make it make sense.”

To Bailar, attacks on trans athletes are not really about sports, or even purely about trans people. Instead he sees them as part of a wider and calculated assault on the rights of sexual, ethnic, and gender minorities, including the immediate crackdown on abortion that will take effect across the American South if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade.

"It's a fight to attack anybody who violates cis-heteronormativity," he says, referring to the idea that society is oriented around the expectation (or demand) that people be cis and straight. "That's really important to recognise. Because it's also queer people, it's also people who don't 'look straight', or however they're supposed to look.

"It's also white cis-heteronormativity, because we're seeing black women athletes being attacked for just being themselves, not even related to transness. We saw that with Serena Williams and her sister Venus, with Simone Biles, with Sha'carri Richardson – not even talking about the drug issue, people were accusing her of being too manly.

"The shorter way to say it, without all the fancy words, is that the people in power don't want to lose power, and they are going to attack anybody that threatens that. And a trans person in sports absolutely threatens the power that a white cis man has, because it might threaten what he sees as manhood, what he sees as normal."

That is why he ultimately does not have much time for feminists that make common cause with conservative Christians when it comes to trans rights. "Anybody can have good intentions," he says. "People can say the worst things in the world and have good intentions. But intentions don't always matter when the impact is so horrible."

Still, he believes in trying to persuade people whose minds are genuinely open, saying he often finds that their stances are based on a lack of knowledge about trans people.

"There's a lot of people who are uneducated, and those are the people that I try to reach," he says. "Those are people that I will have patience for, the people that, yes, I will trust – because they have good faith, we can have a conversation."

The Independent is the official publishing partner of Pride in London 2022 and a proud sponsor of NYC Pride

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