A group of anti-trans sports figures with connections to right-wing organizations, the Independent Council on Women’s Sports — with the help of right-wing media — has escalated its targeting of trans athletes and is now identifying individual high schoolers for its supporters to stalk and harass. Once instrumental in sowing outrage and pushing legislative restrictions on trans participation in sports, ICONS’ supporters, who the group implores to join its network of local chapters, are now engaging in in-person harassment and threats, leading to concerns for the safety of students. The group has responded by naming more underage athletes to be targeted.
Two trans high school runners in California were targeted with protests, threats, and days of right-wing media coverage — for races they did not win
On May 20, protesters from Women Are Real, a Bay Area anti-trans group, descended on the North Coast Section high school track event in Northern California, arguing with attendees outside the entrance before proceeding to harass spectators and unfurl a banner reading “Protect Female Sports.” The group said the protesters were there because they heard one of the competitors was a trans girl, still a junior in high school, and they were worried “that a boy was about to take a girl’s place.”
After she came in second, the group posted a Twitter thread on May 21 calling her participation a “travesty” and tagging the two organizers of the protest as well as ICONS, an organization whose supporters include such notable athletes-turned-bigots as Martina Navratilova, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, and Donna de Varona. Half an hour later, ICONS tweeted a video of the runner, misgendering her and celebrating the protesters at the event.
That same weekend, at a separate track meet on the other side of the state, a small group of spectators heckled another high school runner (also a trans girl), misgendering her and calling for someone to “trip her.” The same day of the group’s post targeting the high schooler from Northern California, ICONS tweeted out an interview with the second runner. The group misgendered her and complained that the high schooler had “displac[ed] female runners.” She finished third in the race.
ICONS’ tweets put the two high schoolers into view of the right-wing outrage machine. Fox News published three articles on the story, as did the Daily Wire, with initial coverage consistently citing ICONS’ tweet from May 21. Fox News even started embedding footage of one of the track meets above unrelated articles on anti-trans legislation and policy. To discuss the matter on-air, Fox News Live brought on Matt Sharp, the senior counsel and director of the Center for Legislative Advocacy for anti-LGBTQ law group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) who proceeded to claim that the real victims in the situation were the high schoolers’ cis competitors.
Right-wing media outlets and personalities including National Review, OutKick, Stephen Crowder, and Riley Gaines blasted the names and images of one or both of the two minors to their sizable audiences, misgendering the high schoolers and accusing them of cheating simply for competing with other athletes of their gender. On Twitter, Fox News contributor Caitlyn Jenner even used the story to promote her political action committee.
As coverage grew, organizers of the protest in Northern California were already directing people to the runners’ next meet, calling for more Twitter users to join them in another protest. ICONS replied to posts from the organizers, calling for users to “join the network” of its local chapters.
The escalation ultimately proved insurmountable for the California Interscholastic Federation, which announced that the runners had been forced to drop out of their next qualifying race out of concern for their well-being. Even after they dropped out, anti-trans media continued targeting the two high school athletes.
When asked how she felt that her group had been instrumental in driving a national harassment campaign against two children, ICONS co-founder Kim Jones told the Los Angeles Times, “Girls are suffering right now, and this concern for the boys is being placed at a higher value than safety and respect for girls.” (A Williams Institute study found trans people are more than four times as likely as cis people to be the victims of violent crime.)
ICONS functions as an intermediary between its extremist members and deferential mainstream media
ICONS launched in May 2022, and like the earlier Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, its stated goal was to “protect women’s sports.” Although the two groups share a number of high-profile members, ICONS directly aligns itself with more radical anti-trans groups, from fringe organizations like Women’s Liberation Front to foundational drivers of anti-LGBTQ policy like ADF.
Many of the significant figures behind the moral outrage over trans athletes belong to ICONS. Navratilova, who has gone from a role as a respected gay figure in sports to become an early proponent of anti-trans sports policy (turning the attacks once levied against her for her sexuality against the newest generation of LGBTQ athletes), is a key public figure who regularly speaks forICONS. Navratilova’s 2019 op-ed for The Washington Post arguing that trans girls and women represent a threat to women’s sports was also cited in the first trans sports bans. Both Navratilova and de Varona signed onto a 2020 letter pressuring the NCAA not to boycott Idaho in response to the state passing the nation’s first trans athlete ban.
The group continues to lobby in support of legislation banning trans athletes, recently filing a brief signed by 67 of its members in support of West Virginia's trans athlete ban. The law, which was challenged by civil rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, was the first such challenge to reach the Supreme Court.
The group has also played a vital role in the media, functioning as an intermediary between members whose extremism is better documented and more mainstream outlets looking to sell their audience presentable bigotry. When WSPWG first emerged on the political scene, billing itself as a “middle way” group on trans inclusion, plenty of mainstream media took the group’s claim at face value despite the hateful rhetoric of its members. This year, mainstream outlets did the same with ICONS, nebulously describing the brief signed by its members as coming from “a group of female athletes,” “famous athletes,” and “dozens of female athletes.”
ICONS is directly inciting in-person harassment of specific high school athletes
The group held its inaugural conference at the end of June 2022, including speakers from a laundry list of organizations dedicated to targeting the rights of trans people and the broader LGBTQ community. Also involved in the conference was Save Women’s Sports, a group that had recently protested trans college athlete Lia Thomas’ final swim meet, heckling Thomas from the stands.
Another attendee at the conference was one of the two organizers responsible for the protest at the high school track competition this year, who started the Twitter account SF_TERF_Central a month after attending the ICONS kickoff event. TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist, a group that allies with right-wing groups behind a fig leaf of feminism in pursuit of fighting against the rights of trans people. One of their first tweets from the newly minted account praised ICONS’ conference, stating that they found the event “incredibly empowering” and adding, “We are organizing!”
Less than three months later, ICONS started posting about the high school runner from Northern California, tweeting about her in September and again in November. In December, ICONS co-founder Jones responded to a tweet asking for names of “the men who won women's awards this year in sports” with a list that included the high school junior. ICONS and Jones were among only a handful of users not actually involved in high school sports who named the runner prior to the protest.
This was not the first time the group targeted high school students — ICONS also shared an article about a high school sophomore last September and warned of a “Lia Thomas situation.” However, it wasn’t until November 17, after the group shared an article from well-known agent of anti-LGBTQ harassment Libs of TikTok, that ICONS started identifying underage athletes by name. The group’s tweet naming and picturing the trans girl (while obscuring the faces of the other minors) was its top-performing tweet that month, garnering hundreds more likes and shares than its other posts. This success was a possible motivating factor for the group when two days later it tweeted a link to an interview with the runner from Northern California.
In late April, the individuals harassing the trans high schooler in Northern California held an awkward and poorly attended protest by the Golden Gate Bridge, a video of which was then shared by WoLF co-chair and ICONS contributor Kara Dansky. In the week leading up to the protest at the track meet, the organizers retweeted other posts from ICONS targeting trans athletes, quote-tweeted in support of Jones, and promoted Riley Gaines' appearance at the upcoming second ICONS conference.
After the protests this May, ICONS’ tweet targeting the runner in Northern California again became the group’s most-liked tweet of the month. A few days later the group posted about another high school trans athlete, and then another, and another, and another, and another. Only one of the high school girls they targeted had come in first in their competition. Two of them came in eighth.
While its attacks targeting minors were boosted by other opportunistic figures including GOP presidential candidate and frequent Fox News guest Vivek Ramaswamy, professional hospital harasser Chris Elston (known online as “Billboard Chris”), and Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice, the group continued to use those tweets to direct users to its website, which includes prompts to join ICONS’ “network” of local chapters. The figure behind SF_TERF_Central echoed this promotion, calling for people to “Get mad. Take action. Join @icons_women.”
After concerns for their safety prompted the end of the season for the two high school runners in California following the protests, ICONS thanked the group responsible for the harassment “for showing up for the girls.”
What is a moderate position when it comes to harassing and threatening violence against high schoolers?
Of the myriad rights under attack in yet another unprecedented year of anti-trans legislation, no issue evokes the equivocation of mainstream media and the liberal political status quo like trans participation in sports. On-air personalities such as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough regularly claim that defending the rights of trans athletes to participate is sure to scuttle other Democratic priorities.
Yet the trans youth who face the sharp end of this dull ambivalence are almost always lost amid contrived and hollow “disagreements” about lung capacity and muscle retention. Just over three years ago, when many of the girls targeted by ICONS would still have been in middle school, no state had enacted a ban on trans athletes. Now, about one-third of trans youth live in a state where they cannot participate in sports with kids of the same gender.
ICONS claims to advocate for “safety, fairness and opportunity for girls and women.” When trans girls are being targeted with threats and just the suspicion that a girl may be trans is leading adults to harass children, perhaps it is time the group — and the media — took honest stock of its accomplishments.