Trans Athletes

A Narrative Analysis

Across the United States and in many other countries, transgender people and communities are facing increased threats to their safety, autonomy, and ability to live free and full lives. Even as we watch Laverne Cox boss the red carpet, Rachel Levine ascend to the highest levels of government service, or Kim Petras win a Grammy, violence against trans and LGBTQIA+ people continues to rise, and an increasing number of state legislatures are enacting policies that harm trans people and their loved ones. Conversations about trans athletes play a particular and critical role in this narrative landscape. They tap into deeply rooted, sometimes conflicting beliefs people hold about sports, gender, fairness, and race that can be exploited to advance harmful narratives that have real-world impacts on both trans and cisgender people. 

Conversations at the intersection of gender and sports have a long and racialized history. While most current stories about trans athletes center white women in predominantly elite individual sports, Black athletes like Caster Semenya or Andraya Yearwood have long been subject to scrutiny about their gender, invasive sex verification tests, and racism in their efforts to simply compete with excellence in the sport they love. Black and Brown cis and trans women have been used by the right wing as scapegoats to advance broader anti-trans agendas across sports, health care, and overall body autonomy. These efforts are escalating as part of long-standing messaging playbooks leveraging trans and non-trans LGBTQIA+ people as villains in the so-called “culture wars.” 

 Transgender communities, organizations and individuals, including athletes, operate within complex narrative conditions. Today’s conversations about trans people occur in a broader landscape of conversations within and about LGBTQIA+ communities. Insights in this trend report are particular to conversations about trans athletes, but many of them apply to broader discussions on trans rights and liberation. 

Trans visibility across pop culture, sports, journalism, politics, and everyday life has increased dramatically over the last decade. Increased visibility is due, in large part, to sustained trans-centered and trans-led leadership, advocacy, and organizing. The right wing ecosystem has responded to the expansion of rights and increased visibility of trans and non-trans LGBTQIA+ people by fueling and amplifying a cultural and political backlash. 

This backlash manifests in conversations using old narratives that characterize any and all LGBTQIA+ people as groomers, abusers, deviants, and dangers to society, especially children. These narratives create room in society for violence against trans people. Stories, messages and networks in this anti-trans narrative ecosystem seek to exclude trans people, especially trans women, on and off the playing field. 

Alongside the right wing ecosystem are stories, messages, and networks fighting for  trans inclusion and equal rights in the world of sports and beyond. There are also many stories, messages, and people with conflicting views trying to make sense of the issue while searching for uniform markers of fairness based on their own beliefs about gender, biology, science or fair play. While some may have immovable beliefs about gender identity, many people do not. There is a tremendous opening here to contend for narrative power by expanding the understanding of fairness, gender and the body across audiences. 

This complex narrative landscape is home to competing notions of who belongs and what it means to uphold and expand rights without flattening difference. Its messages and stories often conflate ideas about identity, inclusion, and human rights. This dynamic context informs our narrative analysis and insights into conversations about trans athletes.

A note on narrative insights and trends: ReFrame is committed to building narrative power. We identify narratives by analyzing data at scale and across conversations, regardless of ideology or worldview in service of crafting liberatory narrative strategy and interventions. ReFrame does not determine what is true or false, nor the intent behind narratives and content. Rather, we analyze narratives - and their origin, speed, spread, makeup, drivers, and automation levels - across their life cycles to map narrative landscapes to support strategy development and implementation.

Trigger warning: the analysis outlined below includes anti-trans language

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key Insights

ReFrame’s analysis focused on the time period from January 2021-January 2023. We identified several critical narrative insights about trans athletes to help us test assumptions and consider openings for intervening or inoculating against anti-trans narratives in the short and long term. These insights include:

  1. The United States has the highest volume of conversations about trans athletes 
  2. Conversations about trans athletes are low volume but high impact
  3. Policy fights and individual sports, rather than team sports, dominate trans athlete conversations
  4. Messages supporting trans rights have a high volume and positive impact in flashpoint moments
  5. White cis and trans women in elite individual sports are the central characters in the conversation

The U.S. Leads the WAy

The United Kingdom is often identified as driving anti-trans conversations. We found, however, that the United States has the highest volume of conversations about trans athletes and sports. Policies and comments by U.S. athletes drive these conversations and shifting the narrative landscape will require targeted intervention and engagement with U.S. stories, messages and people. Right wing institutions, influencers, and accounts in the U.S. that oppose trans inclusion in sports are connected to each other and amplify transphobic stories. They also demonstrate strong ties with anti-trans groups in the United Kingdom, often participating and amplifying conversations across borders.

Qanon Ecosystem at large

These two images compare conversations about trans athletes - both positive and negative - in the United States (30.7k) and the United Kingdom (8.6k) over a 30-day period. These maps only include mentions where the specific country origin is confirmed or explicitly identified. It only represents a slice of conversation within a geographic area.

Geographic map of the United States showing conversational volume about trans athletes over a 30 day period.
Geographic map of the United Kingdom showing conversational volume about trans athletes over a 30 day period.
Conversations about Trans Athletes in the United States and the UK | December 1, 2022-January 1, 2023 | Zignal Labs

A Low Volume, High Impact Conversation

Conversations about trans athletes and their participation in sports operate at a much lower volume compared to other conversations we encounter on the news or at the dinner table.  Mentions of trans athletes typically range from 40,000-90,000 mentions per month, exceeding 100,000 mentions during flashpoint moments. Mentions of reproductive justice or the climate crisis reach into the millions.  

Conversations about trans athletes wield great influence despite their relatively low volume. They shape school-based policies about both sports and gender identity at local and state levels. They inform statements made by political leaders. Discussions of trans athletes also play a key role in the recent shifts in standards used by regulatory bodies governing organized sports. A lower volume may indicate that there is more space to reshape the conversation by amplifying narratives that support trans liberation.

total mentions of Climate Crisis, Reproductive Justice,Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Trans Athletes

This chart compares conversational volume between four distinct topics over the course of 30 days. The Climate Crisis operates at the highest volume. Spikes in Reproductive Justice and Critical Race Theory (CRT) conversations were driven by the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and Governor DeSantis’ attack on Black history curriculum in Florida at the start of Black History Month, respectively. Trans Athlete conversations operate at the lowest volume during this time period.

Line graphs measuring conversational volume between four distinct topics between January 16 2023 and February 17 2023 of conversations about keywords Climate Crisis, Reproductive Justice, CRT, and Trans Athletes where the green line for Climate Crisis, purple line for Reproductive Justice,  the dark blue line for CRT, and the orange line for Trans Athletes show volume comparison
Conversations about Climate Crisis, Reproductive Justice, Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Trans Athletes | January 16-February 17, 2023 |  Zignal Labs

Individual Sports and
Policy Fights

Two concepts, both relying on a narrow definition of fairness centered on sex-based differences, drive conversations about trans people and sports. The first driver focuses on the wins and losses of individual athletes. These stories typically center white trans and cis women. There are few stories about non-binary, trans male athletes or athletes of color in these conversations. The absence of these stories underscores the targeted attacks against trans women, the invisibility of harms against Black and Brown athletes and reinforces a gender binary that suggests trans men don’t hold a competitive advantage over cis men because they were assigned female at birth.

Policy fights are a second driver, particularly when right wing legislators introduce or pass anti-trans regulations and legislation. State legislatures and governors like Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin are main characters in these stories. These stories are connected by a focus on collegiate and K-12 sports in public schools. They’re also connected to the ongoing attacks on Black bodies seen in the sex and gender-based scrutiny of athletes like Caster Semeyna and the more recent manufactured crisis around Critical Race Theory (CRT). 

Many of the same politicians, leaders, and groups behind today’s anti-trans stories also amplified the CRT panic in the summer of 2021 and sought to ban Black history in public schools. This is part of a broad and historically successful Republican strategy to energize its base using fights around public schools and the trope of “innocent white children” while dividing people outside of their base using issues like gender, race or sexuality. 

A December 2022 spike in conversations about trans athletes was driven by Ohio’s sports ban, the Olympic Committee's new IOC framework, and the dismissal of a challenge to Connecticut’s policy allowing trans girls to compete in sports. We can expect more spikes as state legislatures across the country introduce and debate bills impinging on trans rights.

Total Mentions of Conversations about Trans Athletes

This chart demonstrates the rise and fall of conversations driven by policy fights and stories about trans athletes from January 1, 2021 to January 15, 2023. Spike descriptions:

Line graphs measuring conversational volume of keywords Trans Athletes between January 1, 2021 and January 20, 2023 of conversations about where the orange line is for Trans Athletes showing peaks and valleys in volume comparison
Total Mentions of Trans Athletes | January 1, 2021 - January 15, 2023 |  Zignal Labs

The Power of Pro-Trans Messages

Many state and local leaders are introducing policies that threaten the health and well-being of trans people. In these flashpoint moments, pro-trans hashtags such as #ProtectTransKids and #TransRightsAreHumanRights can outflank anti-trans hashtags that aim to exclude trans people from sports like #SaveWomensSports. 

Messages like #LetKidsPlay that support trans athletes operate at a relatively low volume within broader pro-trans conversations. Overall, pro-trans conversations maintain a consistent volume over time and operate at a higher volume than anti-trans sports conversations. 

We have seen a growing chorus of athletes, coaches, and sports leagues like the WNBA and NCAA apply pressure against states who ban trans youth from participating in sports. These voices of influence are thanks to the work of LGBTQIA+ activists and organizations who, in 2016, responded to anti-trans bathroom bills and forced some sports leagues to relocate championship games. These campaigns effectively undermined a common narrative operating at that time that trans people were dangerous.

Conversational Volume of Pro-Trans and Anti-Trans Hashtags in 2022

This chart compares the conversational volume of pro and anti-trans hashtags. Spike descriptions: 

  • Week of February 21, 2022 (67.2k): Spike for “trans rights are human rights” conversation includes a Texas order to investigate reports of trans children receiving gender-affirming care as child abuse.
  • Week of February 21, 2022 (64k): Spike for “protect trans kids” stems from Greg Abbott’s attacks on trans children and their families and mutual aid resource guides shared in response; and a show of solidarity from the U.S. women’s national soccer team.
  • Week of March 13, 2022 (49.1k): Spike for “save women's sports” was driven by stories that either supported or attacked swimmer Lia Thomas.
Line graphs measuring conversational volume between four distinct keywords on Twitter between January 1 2022 and December 31, 2022 of conversations about keywords #LetKidsPlay or “let kids play,” #ProtectTransKids or “protect trans kids,” #TransRightsAreHumanRights or “trans rights are human rights,” and #SaveWomensSports or “save womens sports” where the blue line for #LetKidsPlay or “let kids play,” golden yellow line is for #ProtectTransKids or “protect trans kids,” the red line is for #TransRightsAreHumanRights or “trans rights are human rights,” and the cyan line is for #SaveWomensSports or “save womens sports” show volume comparison
Total Mentions on Twitter | #LetKidsPlay or “let kids play,”#ProtectTransKids or “protect trans kids,” and #TransRightsAreHumanRights or “trans rights are human rights” and #savewomenssports or “save womens sports” on Twitter |
January 1, 2022 - December 31, 2022 | Zignal Discover

Trans and Cis Women Take Center Stage

White cis and trans women in elite individual sports were the main characters in stories driving conversations about trans athletes from January 2021-January 2023. Despite a long history of racialized gender policing and its impacts, stories featuring Black or Brown women, cis or trans, or about sports in which Black and Brown athletes make up the majority of participants do not receive the same attention. 

These stories center the concept of harm. This includes harms against white cis women by including trans women in sports or simply affirming that cis women have been harmed, a statement often presented as fact. These stories are also often highly racialized; excluding Black trans or Black female athletes from these conversations indicates the high value placed on the safety of white cis women within the narrative landscape. Conversations about harm to cis women in sports are a key feature in stories about Title IX. Stories about trans boys and men – their successes, failures, or safety – are few and far between.

In this context, elite individual women’s competition acts as a stand-in for all sports. Stories focus on competitive collegiate sports, national competitions, and the Olympics rather than team sports, intramural sports, or places where people learn to compete. 

Individual competition stories are repeated over and over again, shaping the narrative terrain and influencing how people define and talk about the issue at large. The outsized focus, in news media and beyond, on individual women’s sports with little attention to team sports poses both a risk of ongoing attacks against individual trans athletes and an opportunity to focus on belonging, connection and other communal aspects of team sports.

Network insights

Networks are groups of connected people, and they can be organic or organized entities. In narrative analysis, we study networks within and beyond a given conversation to understand who is driving conversations, if and how they are connected or coordinated, and places where we can deepen connection or build new bridges in support of liberatory narratives. Networks can be evergreen, nascent, or temporary. They may have strong or weak ties to other networks and often overlap across narrative domains.

Defined sets of networks play an important role in conversations about trans athletes, their participation in sports and trans rights. Influencers come from different walks of life and include elected officials, activists, cis and trans athletes, organizations and coalitions, legacy news media and cultural workers. Sometimes, these influencers interact with each other in shared conversations, but they also drive and participate in distinct conversations. This means that many influencers can act as bridges between communities and transmit stories and narratives between groups.

The networks and influencers described below are not meant to reflect the entirety of the narrative landscape but to give a sense of key actors who reproduce and reinforce critical, often competing narratives related to trans athletes in sports.

Save women's sports

visual representation of the #SaveWomensSports network showing circles with images of representative influencers connected by red lines on a black background where the size of the circle represents the reach of individual influencers”

These anti-trans influencers leverage conversations about sports to reinforce the gender binary and spread narratives with a narrow definition of fairness as an attempt to undermine trans athletes. One network example, #SaveWomensSports, has been in the narrative ecosystem for several years. Cisgender athletes who oppose trans athletes are leveraged as loudspeakers in this conversation by the right wing and legacy media outlets. These influencers also contribute to broader anti-trans conversations related to healthcare access, attacks on public school curricula, and groomer rhetoric. Influencers within this conversation include cis athletes, media pundits, and right wing organizations like Mara Yamauchi, Seth Dillon, Taylormay Silverman, Tom DeBlass, Bethany Hamilton, and the Independent Women’s Forum. These conversations are held on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan. The mood and tone within them is urgent, intense, condescending and domineering.

network snapshot | #SaveWomensSports

This chart demonstrates the highly networked nature of the #SaveWomensSports conversation by Retweeted Authors, shown in the concentration of clustered accounts that have been retweeted in the middle of this visualization. Retweeted authors indicate coordination and connection in a conversation.

Mentions of #SaveWomensSports clustered by Retweeted Authors on Twitter | December 1-31, 2022 |  Research by ReFrame via Zignal Influence Intelligence

Let them play

visual representation of the #LetThemPlay network showing circles with images of representative influencers connected by red lines on a black background where the size of the circle represents the reach of individual influencers

Queer, non-binary and transgender athletes, LGBTQIA+ collectives, parents, politicians, and trans-forward sports publications can be found within this network. They create and influence stories, messages, and content opposing narrow definitions of fairness and the gender binary while elevating representation and participation in sports for all. They also contribute to broader conversations on trans rights. The mood and tone in this conversation is informative, dedicated, protective and friendly.

The Let Them Play network can be found on Instagram and Twitter. Its members also serve as loudspeakers in conversations about trans athletes on TikTok, often experiencing virality there. This content does not make it onto other platforms like Facebook or Reddit, creating a narrative void where anti-trans narratives proliferate. We have seen pro-trans athlete content play out in hashtags like #LetKidsPlay. While #LetKidsPlay had various spikes in conversational volume in 2021, we found very little evidence that demonstrates networked or coordinated efforts to advance this messaging in 2022.

While the influencers and organizations within the Trans Rights Are Human Rights and Let Them Play networks do not display the same level of coordination as the Save Women’s Sports network does, they are moving shared messages and stories across the same set of platforms. Deeper coordination between this network and the Trans Rights Are Human Rights network described below can help siloed conversations by and about trans athletes break out and spread to persuadable audiences while also inviting other values aligned influencers into the conversation. Some cis athletes have vocalized their support of trans athletes, including  Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe, and Kelly Holmes. Influencers within this network include Parker Landon, Dan P. Rice, Elliot Page, Griffin Maxwell Brooks, and Schuyler Bailar.

Network Snapshot | #letkidsplay

This chart demonstrates the uncoordinated nature of the #LetKidsPlay conversation by Retweeted Authors, shown in the many different clusters and smaller spread-out individual accounts that have been retweeted in the middle of this visualization. Retweeted authors indicate coordination and connection in a conversation.  

Mentions of #LetKidsPlay clustered by Retweeted Authors on Twitter | December 1-31, 2022 | Research by ReFrame via Zignal Influence Intelligence

Trans rights are human rights

visual representation of the #TransRightsAreHumanRights network showing circles with images of representative influencers connected by red lines on a black background where the size of the circle represents the reach of individual influencers

This network of influencers mostly supports trans rights but is not always found in conversations about trans inclusion in sports. There is evidence that a small group of anti-trans trolls uplift groomer messages in this network. Trans-positive influencers inside the network are the loudest during events like Trans Day of Visibility, moving to take advantage of political and cultural moments. The messages, stories, and narratives within “trans rights are human rights” conversations operate at a higher volume because of the ways they emerge across LGBTQIA+ issues inside of the narrative ecosystem. There is room to organize and actively engage these folks in conversations about trans athletes. Influencers within this conversation include politicians, LGBTQIA+ media, queer and trans activists, and cultural workers. Influencers include Jamie Lee Curtis, Erin Reed, and Laverne Cox. These conversations happen primarily on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Reddit. The mood and tone within conversations inside of this network is informative, easygoing, warm and persuasive.

#TransRightsAreHumanRights Conversation Cluster on Twitter

This chart demonstrates the uncoordinated nature of the #TransRightsAreHumanRights conversation by Retweeted Authors, shown in the many different clusters and smaller spread out individual accounts in the middle of this visualization. Retweeted authors indicate coordination and connection in a conversation.

Mentions of #TransRightsAreHumanRights clustered by Retweeted Authors on Twitter | December 1-31, 2022 | Research by ReFrame via Zignal Influence Intelligence

The narrative and network analysis in this report is meant to provide a snapshot of the current landscape to develop short and long term strategies that support trans lives and LGBTQIA+ liberation. Right now, there are competing narratives around trans athletes. But that also means there are many opportunities to make narrative interventions and reshape the conversations. The lower volume nature of this conversation means there are openings to shift it by amplifying pro-trans messages and stories in flashpoint moments and beyond. There is space to contest the narrow definitions of fairness and gender by leveraging powerful narratives around sports - like teamwork, problem solving and resilience - and connecting the struggles of cis and trans women on and off the field.






hermelinda cortés







LGBTQ+ Educator













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