Texas high school wrestler Mack Beggs did what a lot of teens do when the reality of a state title hits them.
He raised his arms in triumph, and then he cried.
But unlike most other high school champions, he didn’t get to bask in a communal celebration of his accomplishment.
The boos that followed his victory were quickly overpowered by cheers, but he heard the expression of disapproval; he understood them, and then, after a quick internal conversation, he chose to ignore them.
Beggs, who was designated a female at birth but identifies as a male, was forced to wrestle in the girls state tournament last weekend because Texas’ high school rules force him to do so, even though he takes testosterone as part of his transition.
In an interview with ESPN this weekend, the 17-year-old junior discussed being forced to wrestle girls when he would rather wrestle boys, how it felt to win a state title, and what he thought of those who felt he shouldn’t be allowed to compete in high school sports at all. The prep governing body, the University Interscholastic League, passed a rule in 2016 that uses a student’s birth certificate to determine student athlete participation in sports.
“It’s not like I’m doing this because I want to, like, call myself a boy and just dominate all these girls,” Beggs told ESPN. “What do I get out of that? I don’t get anything out of that. I was put in this position. Change the laws and then watch me wrestle boys.”
He also addressed his use of testosterone, which is allowed because it is being taken as part of medical treatment.
He said he takes a lower dose than he could because he doesn’t want to be seen as a cheater.
Needless to say, his victory ignited a firestorm of controversy — and a lawsuit. The lawsuit was part of the criticism leveled at the UIL for allowing Beggs to compete against girls while taking testosterone.
For me the controversy comes down to why we should or should not allow transgender athletes to compete in sanctioned high school athletics.
Let me say unequivocally, we should allow them to compete. Not only that, we should allow them to compete as the gender they identify with.
The reason is very simple. I believe sports enhance one’s life. Dozens of studies have shown that teens who participate in athletics do better in school, have higher grades and graduation rates, they have better self-esteem and they feel a sense of belonging to their school and community.
It’s those last two benefits — self-esteem and sense of belonging — that are what I thought of as I watched Beggs’ interview.
According to ESPN, there are 700,000 transgender people living in the U.S., and 41 percent have attempted suicide. That’s 25 times higher than the general population.
That reality alone convinces me that compassion has to guide any policy that deals with high school athletes. Chris Mosier, a transgender member of Team USA’s cycling team, created Transathlete.com as a resource in navigating what is a complex subject. He told ESPN that high school rules were the level of athletics in most need of reform.
The website lists the policies of all high school associations, with Utah’s being one of the inclusive policies. It says a “student shall be permitted to participate on a gender specific sports team that is consistent with the public gender identify of that student for all other purposes.”
I was in the room when the UHSAA’s executive committee discussed that policy — and whether or not controversy would arise from it. The sentiment was that no boy or girl would live as the opposite sex just to gain access to competition against or with the other gender.
There are tangential issues that are more difficult to solve, but principals wisely thought it best to deal with those on a case by case basis. One principal said he allowed a transgender student who’d come to him about where he or she might use the restroom, and they mutually decided that student should use a unisex faculty bathroom.
He told his colleagues then that a time would come when they would have to deal with these issues in a broader, more uniform way. But until then, he said, his only goal was to make his students feel safe and welcome.
Beggs' situation forces us to confront the growing reality that while transgender people have likely always been part of society, they are being allowed to live more authentically at younger and younger ages thanks to social and medical support.
I’ve heard critics say allowing transgender girls to compete in women’s sports will destroy them.
These arguments echoed what I heard this summer when I was in Rio for the 2016 Olympics as South African sprinter Caster Semenya won her second Olympic gold medal in the 800 meters.
I don’t buy it.
In fact, it sounds a lot like the arguments against allowing transgender women to use the women’s restroom. As a woman who alters a lot of what she does so she doesn’t end up a victim of sexual violence, let me say, it is not transgender women I fear.
In fact, there have been no documented cases of women (or children) being sexually assaulted by transgender women in restrooms. There have, however, been numerous women and children sexually assaulted, and even killed, by what the world would describe as heterosexual men.
In fact, as a woman, there is very little about the LGBTQ community that I fear.
If you are a woman who does fear transgender women using the restroom alongside you, consider that they’ve been using women’s bathrooms, maybe even next to you, for decades without incident.
So why did it become an issue? My belief is that as the transgender community sought to live as authentically and normally as the rest of us, some of us became confused, worried and then scared.
It is OK to find something confusing or frightening. It is not OK to impose your fear on someone else without first attempting to understand what it is you’re battling. When I listen to discussions about transgender people, especially athletes, what I hear is ignorance and fear. I've yet to see good policy based on speculation and fear.
As I listened to Beggs, I wondered how many issues could be solved if those in power sought understanding before they enacted solutions that have far-reaching, damaging and mostly unintended consequences.
I don’t think Texas officials anticipated the scenario that forced Beggs to become a case study for if or how these student athletes should be allowed to compete. In doing so, they created a situation that was fair to none of the participants, and one that will continue to reverberate thanks to the lawsuit seeking to bar someone like Beggs, who is being treated with hormones, from prep competition in the future.
The courts are often asked to decide these issues for our society, but it doesn’t need to be that way. New Jersey has a comprehensive, compassionate rule that not only allows transgender students to participate in and receive the benefits of interscholastic sports, but it also provides an appeals process in case there are issues of fairness that need to be addressed.
That rule anticipates a governing body unafraid to deal with tough, complicated, politically sensitive issues. And that might be the most crucial aspect of trying to navigate complex situations like this.
Beggs said wrestling was his refuge as he dealt with the turmoil of knowing he was a boy, and understanding that the world saw a girl.
“I want to wrestle,” he said. “Doesn’t matter who you put in front of me, you come in front of me, want to wrestle, all right, let’s wrestle. Let’s go. That’s all I want to do.”
Critics who crave a simple solution to a complex problem would simply eliminate the right of transgender students to compete.
That would be the biggest mistake of all. As the mother of a transgender track athlete put it, the world may see this as a simply competition issue, but she is fighting for her child’s life. With courage and compassion, there is certainly a way to find and balance both.