At a White House press briefing on Tuesday, Fox News reporter Rachel Sutherland asked press secretary Jen Psaki a question about the likely impact on female athletes of President Joe Biden’s January 20 executive order on transgender discrimination: “What message would the White House have to trans girls and cis girls who may end up competing against each other?” Sutherland said. “It’s sparking some lawsuits and concern among parents, so does this administration have guidance for schools in dealing with the issue arising over trans girls competing against and with cis girls?”
After Psaki attempted to punt on answering the question at all, saying, “I’m not sure what your question is,” Sutherland pressed her. “Does the president have a message for local school officials in dealing with these kinds of disputes that are already starting to arise between trans girls who are competing against cis girls, and a level playing field, particularly in high school sports when it leads to college scholarships?” she asked.
It’s an important question, one that has prompted widespread concern among student-athletes and their parents. Psaki’s response? A ridiculous cliche: “I would just say that the president’s belief is that trans rights are human rights, and that’s why he signed that executive order,” Psaki said. She said the administration would “defer” to universities and colleges on how to handle the details.
In his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert Jay Lifton described the way the Chinese Communist Party used language to further its ideological aims. One of his examples was something he called the “thought-terminating cliche.” As Lifton described when ideologues deploy such language, “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized, and easily expressed. They become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”
Lifton added that such cliches usually carry with them the demand for “all or nothing emotional alignment.” Or, in this case, if you challenge the impact of trans rights as the Biden administration defines them, you are also challenging all human rights.
Biden’s eagerness to bypass the legislative process in favor of rule-by-executive order has been well-documented and criticized even by those sympathetic to his politics (“Ease up on the executive actions, Joe,” the New York Times editorial board suggested, as if talking to a sloppy friend who had had one too many beers). But should such governing hubris extend to refusing to answer serious questions about the impact of those orders?
Despite the overheated rhetoric of trans activists, most Americans who are concerned about the impact of these new policies aren’t driven by transphobia or bias, but by a desire for fairness and an equal playing field—as well as a commonsense recognition of the physical differences between men and women. As former UN ambassador Nikki Haley argued in National Review:
“Transgender kids deserve support and respect. The fact remains, however, that biological boys and girls are built differently. The best male athletes have a natural advantage over the best female athletes. You have to ignore science not to see it. The world’s fastest female sprinter has nine Olympics medals, but nearly 300 high-school boys are still faster than her. In states where biological boys compete against girls, the girls almost always lose — not just the match, but also possible college scholarships and a lifetime of success in their favorite sport. Their chance to shine is being stolen.”
Psaki’s flippant response ignored the facts we already have about the impact of trans athletes on women’s sports. As student-athlete Selina Soule, one of the plaintiffs in a Connecticut lawsuit filed after her school district allowed trans women to compete in women’s track and field, noted, “It’s really heartbreaking and disappointing to watch the Biden administration push this gender identity policy because I know how it affects girls. I’ve lived under this policy in Connecticut. Girls like me lose championships, podium spots, advancement opportunities, and the recognition we deserve because we’re forced to compete against biological males in our races.”
Worse, the Biden White House, which loves to remind the public that they are “following the science” on everything from pandemic policy to solar panels, is engaging in ideological pandering. By refusing to engage the evidence of boys’ natural physical advantages over girls in athletics, Psaki sounds less like a defender of science-based policymaking than she does like Joan Quigley advising Nancy Reagan on the fortuitous aspect of the stars.
There has already been a very public pushback to these policies from brave women’s sports advocates (few of whom would ever call themselves conservative). Tennis legend Martina Navratilova and several other former professional athletes recently formed the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, which pursues a “science-based, ethical approach” to “establish a middle ground that both protects girls’ and women’s sport and accommodates transgender athletes.” Navratilova also proposed “a separate provision from the executive order to ensure a level playing field in elite women’s sports.”
For this, Navratilova and other women’s sports advocates have been called “transphobic.”
Trans activists prefer to focus on amorphous potential harms that might befall trans athletes rather than the concrete denial of opportunity that born-female athletes are already facing. As former Obama Department of Justice official and Lambda Legal activist Sharon McGowan complained to ESPN, different categories for trans athletes would mean that “trans students who are already experiencing higher levels of stigmatization, [and] bullying are going to now be once again marked as separate and ‘othered.’”
While student-athletes wait for the courts to provide greater clarity on the legal questions at issue, many young women will lose out on opportunities for fair competition and college scholarships. What should one say to a promising female high school athlete in a school district that allows born-male competitors to dominate her sport? “Trans rights are human rights” doesn’t begin to engage the unfairness she will experience—an unfairness the Biden administration’s policy codifies.
No wonder the Biden administration is more comfortable trafficking in thought-terminating cliches than in having an honest debate about competing rights and fair competition for America’s female athletes.