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Fair Play ? How pro and anti-Trans movements compete over similar frames

This article is a first draft of a discussion paper. We invite all interested parties to send us comments.


While there are many issues relating to Trans people’s rights that are worth fighting for, the past months have seen a specific focus on the rights of Trans people to play sports in the category of their gender. Arguably, this focus has shifted more as a reaction from initial campaigns by conservatives who were asking for the explicit exclusion of Trans women from women’s teams1 than from a proactive strategy of the Trans movement which focused largerly on hate crimes, harassment, verbal and physical abuse, job discrimination, homelessness, exclusion from the military, etc.

In this respect, this focus on sports functions very much like the earlier focus on bathrooms, wherein conservatives have been (sadly) very effective in using to fearmongering amongst the “moveable middle” (or even people who were mildly supportive of Trans rights), changing the debate to hit upon the perceived dangers surrounding the intimacy of bathrooms.

In fact, more than 8 in 10 Americans say they favor laws that would protect LGBTQ people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing, according to a Public Religion Research Institute 2020 American Values Survey. Yet while public opinion polls across the board show support for transgender military service and other transgender rights, support softens when it comes to public accommodations and sports. This strategy is obviously well informed, as conservatives are careful not to step those arenas where pro-Trans public support is already strong.

This state of public opinion may result, in part, from the conservative campaigns, but it is also evident that conservatives had done their homework to identify the issues on which audiences were moveable.

Whether or not it is a good idea to defend against these attacks at all, or to ignore them and stay focused on the movement’s own agenda, is a heated topic. For general insights into this aspect of campaigning, please take the special lesson on “neutralisation” in our course “Communications for advocacy”

If the choice is to react and engage with the opposition, the big challenge in most campaigns becomes one of how to confront the arguments of the opposition without falling into the trap of being lured onto their ground. An essential lesson in campaigning is to absolutely avoid repeating the arguments of the opposition. Affirming that “Being Trans is not a choice,” for example, will reinforce the notion that it could be a choice, and it could therefore serve the opposition. This cognitive bias has been developed by renowned author George Lakoff in his seminal work “Don’t think of an elephant”.

This is why most campaigns that support the inclusion of Trans women in women’s teams have refrained from entering the “physical advantage” debate. This tactic is employed by many anti-Trans movements, for example the Fair Play for Women campaign. Indeed, mudslinging with opponents over the validity of scientific “evidence” would only serve to reopen the debate on whether Trans women are women.

While couching their arguments strongly in “science”, the Fair Play campaign also frames its narrative within the values of fairness. They are certainly not the only ones doing this. The American Principles Project also framed their pre-US election campaign around these values, which have a strong resonance in American society.

One the other side, this emphasis on fairness is also being utilized by pro-Trans player, such as the US National Collegiate Athletic Association which issued a Trans-supportive statement that is grounded in “the values of  inclusion and fair competition”. 

Other values have also been invoked by the pro-Trans campaigners. In this short documentary, which is almost exclusively based on testimonies from Trans people, we hear about values of “dedication, hard work, community”, which will surely resonate with many audiences.

While pro- and anti-Trans movements have both been waging a battle underneath the umbrella of perceived fairness, the value of “Care for children” has also been engaged by both sides. 2

In the US, for example, the very conservative Promise to America’s Children coalition argues that “every child deserves an education that is suited for their specific needs and development as guided by their parents, and one that is free from (…) politicized ideas about sexual orientation and gender identity”.

Conservative movements around the world have mainly built their strategies around the promotion of family values and the protection of children.

To counter this, LGBTQI+ movements have entered the debate on their own terms.

The Human Rights Campaign has released a campaign video that focuses on solid shared values such as courage, team spirit, effort, excellence and performance, exploiting values that cleverly tap into rather conservative profiles. The campaign naturally also focuses upon values that appeal to a more progressive audience, such as wanting to make the world a better place.



Other initiatives have taken the debate on the ground of humanistic values, such as the moving letter of NFL player RK Russell published in April 2021, in which he replaces the debate in a wider social and political perspective as he writes that “to exclude trans athletes is to use sport in direct opposition of where its true power lies. Sport is about change, about rooting for the underdog and building a dynasty from nothing but hard work, perseverance and love; love for your team, for your sport and for yourself. The exclusion of Black athletes back in the 40s and 50s wasn’t about the integrity of the sport but the division of our society. The rumor of a gay, bisexual or queer player in professional men’s sports isn’t about a media distraction but about the repositioning of toxic masculinity. The reason women athletes aren’t paid as much isn’t because their platform or performance is less but that media, business organizations, and ultimately our misogynistic society are afraid of just how big women’s influence and power is. The more than 200 anti-trans bills currently under consideration in state legislatures across the US are not about trans youth in sports, but about attacking, harming and eradicating the most vulnerable of us all.”

These values-based, positive frames create a reassuring climate that aims at balancing the fearmongering approach that most anti-Trans campaigns take, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom. This legal advocacy group for socially conservative causes published a blog post that charges transgender athletes with hijacking competitive opportunities and attacking legal protections for women and girls.

Whether it is even possible to leave certain narrative frames entirely to the opposition and ignore those debates altogether is again a heated topic. Some campaign strategists prefer to stick to the “Don’t think of an elephant” rule, whatever the circumstances. For others, an “inoculation” strategy is sometimes needed. The latter works as a “social vaccine” through which people are exposed to a negative frame at the same time as they are armed with the contradictory arguments that allow them to dispute.

Inoculation strategies are based on two elements: threat and “refutational preemption”. Put simply, if you want to protect your target audience from falling for your opponents’ messages, you must A) warn your audience that the opponents are coming for them B) help them resist the arguments by exposing their communications strategies. We could add that inoculation strategies should also provide a “blueprint” for the counter-argument, a model that audiences can follow and use to effectively express their attitudes and beliefs.

One example of inoculation frames, reported by the Washington post, quotes Katrina Karkazis, a cultural anthropologist and bioethicist: “I’ve seen arguments that this will be the end of women’s sports. If so, it should have ended already.”

For many campaign analysts, deciding whether or not to use an inoculation strategy depends on the prevalence of the issue: if the argument is already prominent in everybody’s mind, it is un-strategic to not deal with it upfront. If the argument is not, then focusing on it will mainly serve to help make it more salient.

In short, many activists are currently facing two dilemmas: Should they enter the debate on access to sports or “stay on track” of their own policy agendas, where they can build on their own narratives and stronger public support? And if they enter the debate, should they enter it on the terms of the opposition to help people resist the attacks or should they remain focused on their own narratives? Difficult choices.




1 In the US, the campaigns were clearly situated within  broader strategies, such as the Presidential 2020 election, or the passing of the Equality Act in 2021.

2 Which is an age-old tactic. See eg Anita Bryant in the 70s