Most people in the United States recently supported the idea that transgender athletes should be allowed to compete with whichever gender they identify with, according to new research based on large-scale national data. Additionally, many people do not believe that there is a need for testing athletes’ biological sex in sports.
The study, which has been published in the Sociology of Sport Journal, also sheds light on how people’s beliefs about gender and sports are influenced by factors such as their social group, age, education, and political and religious beliefs
“As sport sociologists, we were aware of the importance of sports interactions, cultures, and structures in reflecting societal views about sex and gender. Furthermore, we recognized that sports interactions, cultures, and structures profoundly contribute to how people are taught about sex and gender and how they perceive them,” said study author Chris Knoester, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University and chair of research for the OSU Sports and Society Initiative.
“It is also apparent that sports are uniquely and overwhelmingly organized based on assumed sex and gender binary categories that are expected to be clear-cut, consistent with one another, and stable over the life course. But, public opinions and social actions can challenge and sometimes change how sex and gender are enacted in sports.”
“So, we were interested in how U.S. adults viewed the appropriateness of the commonly constructed sex and gender binary systems in sports, what they thought were reasonable ways to address challenges to binary sex/gender systems — including their views about the protection of athletes’ rights, and to what extent they thought that there should be policing of sex/gender binaries in sports.”
While there have been some polls and studies on transgender athlete inclusion, there has not been a thorough examination of public opinion on these topics using large-scale national data.
To address this gap, the study analyzed data from 3,993 U.S. adults who participated in the National Sports and Society Survey (NSASS). Knoester and his colleagues specifically explored public opinion on four main topics: allowing transgender athletes to choose which gender they compete with, allowing individuals with both male and female characteristics (intersex individuals) to compete with female athletes, the necessity of sex testing in sports to prevent males from competing as females, and whether gender segregation in youth sports is a problem. The survey collected data from adults aged 21-65 years old.
The new research aimed to provide insights into public opinion on these topics and contribute to ongoing discussions about the inclusion of transgender athletes in sports and related policies.
By using statistical weights based on age, gender, race, education, work status, marital status, income, and region differentials, the researchers aimed to create a representative sample of the U.S. adult population and ensure that the results were not biased towards any particular group. In other words, the weights allowed the researchers to adjust the data to better reflect the actual distribution of the U.S. adult population.
The researchers estimated that 56% of U.S. adults somewhat or strongly agreed with transgender athletes’ right to choose which gender they compete with. Only 20% of adults somewhat or strongly agreed that athletes with varied sex characteristics should not be allowed to compete with females, and 54% somewhat or strongly agreed that gender segregation in youth sports is problematic. However, 39% of adults agreed that sex testing is necessary in sports, while 47% disagreed with this statement.
“We found rather impressive evidence that most Americans agreed with transgender athletes’ rights and rights for athletes with varied sex characteristics. Also, they were more opposed to sex testing and gender segregation than supportive of these practices,” Knoester told PsyPost.
“This suggests to us that in contrast to some of the heated, inflammatory, and discriminatory rhetoric and policy initiatives that have sought to divide various groups of Americans, and particularly stigmatize transgender and nonbinary individuals, most U.S. adults were supportive of transgender, intersex, and nonbinary rights in sports and at least a plurality wanted to see more gender integrated sports interactions when our study was conducted.”
“Yet, it seems, that targeted culture wars over the past few years that especially focused on transgender individuals, and have emphasized a divisive moral panic about transgender athletes, have dampened support for transgender, intersex, and nonbinary rights in sports and society,” Knoester said.
The researchers also found that social characteristics such as being male, heterosexual, older, and less educated would lead to less support for transgender athletes’ rights and more support for sex testing and gender segregation in sports. In addition, participants with Republican, Christian, and rural affiliations tended to be less supportive of transgender athletes’ rights and more supportive of sex testing and gender segregation in sports.
Lastly, they found that conservatism, endorsement of traditionally gendered separate spheres, and the belief that female athletes will never be as good as male athletes were associated with less support for transgender athletes’ rights and more support for sex testing and gender segregation in sports.
“Social forces connected to being a man, heterosexual, a member of older generations, and not having a college education — as well as being affiliated with Republican, Christian, and rural social groups — consistently encouraged opposition to athletes’ rights and inclusivity on these topics,” Knoester told PsyPost.
“Developed ideologies that expressed more conservative, gender specialization, and female athlete inferiority views also led to less support for athletes’ rights and inclusivity and were more likely to encourage practices that reinforced sex/gender binaries. It seems quite apparent that political backers of anti-trans initiatives recognized these social forces, and leveraged them, to incite culture war-related passions and further divide potential coalitions because of differing views about girls’ and women’s sports.”
“This suggested to us that these types of social forces and developed ideologies operate to defend the usefulness and appropriateness of socially constructed sex/gender binaries — in sports as well as in society,” Knoester added. “However, increased scientific knowledge, cultural awareness, and visibility of persons who do not fit neatly into constructed sex and gender binaries indicate that enforcing and expecting sex and gender binaries will continually present problems since these binary categories do not encompass everyone’s experiences.”
“These dynamics and patterns in public opinion surrounding sex/gender systems in sports and society are important to keep in mind as we collectively wrestle with appropriate adjustments to Title IX, state-level initiatives and enacted legislation designed to ban transgender athletes from competing in sex/gender categories that match their gender identities, and restrictive and discriminatory international regulations for athletic competitions—while working to institute appropriate ways to organize and conduct sports interactions.”
The study, “Reconstructing, Challenging, and Negotiating Sex/Gender in Sport: U.S. Public Opinion About Transgender Athletes’ Rights, Rights for Athletes With Varied Sex Characteristics, Sex Testing, and Gender Segregation“, was authored by Chris Knoester, Rachel Allison, and Victoria T. Fields.