The second issue that Andrew Sullivan takes up in his New York Magazine column this week is that of transgender athletes and transphobia. The inspiration for his piece was the actions of Martina Navatilova, an openly gay ex-athlete who was a friend of the LGBTQ community. That is, until she recently declared that it was unfair in some instances for transwomen to compete in sports against biological women. That, as you know, is enough to brand someone as transphobic. The Guardian reports what happened to Navatilova:
The tennis player and gay rights campaigner first drew criticism from equalities activists and trans athletes when she tweeted in December: “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard.”
Writing in the Sunday Times, Navratilova said she had subsequently promised to keep quiet on the subject until she had done some research on it. “Well, I’ve now done that and, if anything, my views have strengthened,” she wrote.
“To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires.
“It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.”
Her comments attracted criticism across social media. “We’re pretty devastated to discover that Martina Navratilova is transphobic,” tweeted the rights group Trans Actual. “If trans women had an advantage in sport, why aren’t trans women winning gold medals left, right and centre?”
But I think Navratoliva has a point, for the issue is not at all clearcut. Some organizations, like the Olympics, require specific hormone titers for trans women to compete in women’s events, while other just require self-identification. Given the physical differences in upperbody strength and muscularity between biological men and women, self-identification clearly creates an unfair situation. And I’m not even sure that a specified hormone level is enough to level the playing field, for muscularity of your youth doesn’t just go away.
I’ve written about this before (see here and here), and, as always, I remain conflicted. Clearly transgender people should be able to participate in athletics, but what are good criteria for competing in “men’s” and “women’s” events? Should there be a third category: “transgender women’s sports”? I don’t know. But I do believe that simple self-identification that conflicts with biological sex is not sufficient to allow you to compete in a gendered event. In 2018 in a Connecticut state high school track meet, both first and second places in the women’s 100-meter dash went to transgender women (see the video here). As I wrote at the time:
In Connecticut, where first and second place went to transgender women in the race above, “self identification” is the rule, so you can be a fully biological male, not having transitioned in any way, and enter a race if you say you identify as a women. Other states are more stringent: Texas, for instance, insists that you compete as the gender given on your birth certificate.
Both seem problematic. Surely there is something unfair about the above: in which transgender women who are physically men, by virtue of greater strength, clean up in a women’s athletic event by “self-identifying” as women. That may well be true and not just a ploy, but the problem is not psychology but physicality. A liberal response would be “the civil rights of gender self-identification outweighs the disappointment of non-transgender losers.” But that answer doesn’t satisfy me. The unfairness is deep and pervasive, and “self-identification” seems a dubious solution.
And I raised some difficult questions:
- Should there be any testing of athletes, or should they simply be allowed to compete based on self-identification of gender? (This would, of course, mostly affect women’s sports; some say it would destroy women’s sports.)
- If not, how many categories of competition do we want? The traditional men’s and women’s sports, or an intermediate category? (The latter would, of course, cause huge problems.)
- If we don’t accept self-identification and want to retain traditional “men’s” and “women’s” sports, how do we determine the category in which an athlete belongs?
- If the identification is based on hormones, can we set limits, as the IOC has done, to demarcate the classes? If we don’t use hormones, how do we classify?
As transgenderism becomes more common in Western society—and it will—the issue of how it should be treated in sports will become more important. Of course, that’s a different issue from how transgender people should be treated in society, for all decent-thinking people agree that they should be treated the same as everyone else. But there’s that annoying thing about biological difference—most prominently manifested as upper-body strength—that cannot be waved away as simply a “social construct.”
These questions remain, and Sullivan agrees that they’re not simple:
But this is the current orthodoxy according to the widely read digital-media publisher PinkNews: “Trans women are women. So trans women’s bodies are women’s bodies. So trans women’s penises are women’s penises.” Um. “Regardless [of] the biological makeup of the trans woman — she remains a woman with her biology, therefore defining her as a biological woman,” said Pose star Indya Moore. In pursuit of this vision, the LGBTQIA++ movement is rallying around the new Minnesota powerlifting state champion, a recently transitioned trans woman, who — somehow —managed to crush her nearest biological female rivals on her first attempt.
If you take this argument seriously — that biology is entirely a function of gender identity — then the whole notion of separate male and female sports events is in doubt. A trans woman should, in my view, be treated exactly as a woman — unless, as in this case, it clashes with biological reality. There aren’t many contexts in which this really counts, but sports is one of them. Yes, it sucks. But denying reality is stupid, can easily backfire, and will alienate countless otherwise sympathetic people. And note that if the Equality Act were to pass — a priority for Nancy Pelosi — it would be illegal to bar a trans woman from competing against biological females, as it is already in many states.
This is not going to go away, for sports is the one area—and the only one I can think of—where it’s problematic to accept someone’s self-designated gender identity. If you have a solution, by all means offer it in the comments.
But Sullivan, who will clearly be labeled a transphobe (so far I’ve avoided the label), does draw a firm line at one issue: he will not let transgender people tell him that he should be sleeping with transgender men, and he’s a transphobe if he won’t. There’s something deeply offensive about people telling you whom you should be attracted to and copulating with when that attraction is largely based on biology. Perhaps some people can overcome it, or even enjoy it, but if you can’t you shouldn’t be demonized. As Sullivan says, and I agree with him:
It is even transphobic, I am now informed, for a gay man not to want to sleep with a trans man who has a vagina. In response to my recent column on the subject, I was told by Sue Hyde, a woman who is at the very heart of the LGBTQIA++ movement, to, yes, give it a try: “Maybe Sullivan … would give [a handsome trans man with a vagina who uses a dildo as a penis] a toss in the hay and next day, be singing a different tune about category woman/girl >>> category man/boy persons’ capacities to uphold and expand the experiences and meanings of homosex.” Maybe. Or maybe I’ll sleep with whomever I want — you know, something we used to call sexual freedom.
But this is how deep the ideology runs. It wants to control not only the public discourse, and language, and rig sports contests, but also insinuate itself into the most intimate areas of an individual’s sex life. Once upon a time, the religious right would tell me that I should sleep with women because I might find the right one and finally be happy. Now the intersectional left is telling me something almost exactly the same. What has happened to this movement? Where on earth has it gone?
The last paragraph is powerful. Yes, perhaps in some cases sexual desire—or the lack of it—is based on bigotry. But I don’t think that’s generally true. Sue Hyde and her like-minded ideologues should leave Sullivan’s sex life alone.