A squabble: Andrew Sullivan and Mara Keisling on transgender women in women’s sports

February 27, 2021 • 12:45 pm

I don’t have time to listen to podcasts, as they’re invariably at least 90 minutes long, but this is a manageable six-minute extract from a recent podcast discussion between Andrew Sullivan and Mara Keisling, the founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (Keisling is a transgender woman, which I mention only because it’s relevant to the discussion).

Keisling claims not only that transgender women and girls have no advantage over biological women in sports, but that clearly that includes transgender women who have had no medical treatment. That, of course, is the same as asserting that there’s no difference between the performance of men and women and sports—a palpably false statement (see the data here). And, as I reported last week, there are substantial data that even hormone treatment of transgender girls after puberty leaves strength and size differences between them and biological girls in place.  To obscure the average sex difference or gender difference between biological and transgender women, Keisling bangs on about the variation within any class, which is irrelevant to average difference between classes, which is the issue.

Keisling hardens her position as the discussion proceeds, basically asserting that any difference between men and women in sports (and she’s clearly reluctant to admit the existence of such differences) may rest merely on “height” differences.  That, too, is not true, as height is largely irrelevant to sports like weightlifting except insofar as it’s correlated with weight and muscle mass.

Keisling’s is the position of extreme transgender advocates: there are no average differences in sports performance between men and women.

Note that Biden’s executive order of January 20—prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation—pretty clearly states that there should be no discrimination in sports based on gender identity, so that if your gender identity is that of a woman, regardless of whether you’ve undergone medical treatment, you should be able to compete as a woman. There is nothing in his order about any kind of medical treatment. Taken literally, Biden’s order spells the end of women’s sports in secondary schools. Here’s one quote (emphasis is mine).

Section 1.  Policy.  Every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love.  Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.  Adults should be able to earn a living and pursue a vocation knowing that they will not be fired, demoted, or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes.  People should be able to access healthcare and secure a roof over their heads without being subjected to sex discrimination.  All persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.

In nearly all other respects, Biden’s order is not only useful, but salubrious. But sports is one of the exceptions, and it amazes me that transgender advocates like Keisling or Chase Strangio of the ACLU can maintain that there’s nothing wrong or unfair with medically untreated biological males, who’ve nevertheless assumed the identity of women, competing in sports against biological women.  The logical conclusion of that argument is that men and women should be able to compete in sports with each other even if nobody is transgender—that is, that there should be no division between men’s and women’s sports. And that’s the position that Keisling comes close to.

You can listen to the full podcast (yep, 90 minutes long) here.

h/t: Paul

55 thoughts on “A squabble: Andrew Sullivan and Mara Keisling on transgender women in women’s sports

  1. I am thinking of the year when my daughter’s travel fastball team played the boys travel fastball team. This wasn’t a single game but for the whole season because travel calibre competition was difficult to find in our area between actual travel tournaments. The boys team was an age group younger, but the boys won every time, except maybe for once in the whole season. We are talking about prepubescent children in this case. I don’t know what to make of this, but it might be relevant.

    1. My kiddo did elementary school wrestling – which was co-ed. The girls did great. You could see, at the oldest tier where things would start to change, but mostly they were all well matched by weight class. In fact, in the 110lb class that kiddo was in, a little (or not so little) girl (named Trinity, who sported a sparkly pink and purple singlet) would win almost every match. She had five older brothers who wrestled too. So, anecdata ahoy, I think that prepubescent co-ed sports make fine sense, not so much after.

      1. Wrestling weight classes is a great example of how some sports have always recognized what makes a fair competition. There is no point in seeing what happens when a 120 lb person wrestles a 180 lb person. Some of the MMA audiences boo matches with a transgender woman vs a cis women, since it is just obviously unfair and not good sport and not interesting to watch.

        1. No good sport and not interesting to watch… Yeah, that’s the point : the show is not good. In other words, would the audience appreciate watching a woman who always was female be manhandled by a lumberjack, they would be cool with those matches.

  2. Ages identifying as LGBT:
    75 and older = 1.3%
    57-75 = 2.0%
    41-56 = 3.8%
    25-40 = 9.1%
    19-24 = 15.9%
    Really intriguing statistics…
    –Gallup Poll

    1. Mike Z.–I’m thinking that the stats reflect the diminishing societal costs over time of coming out of the closet.

    2. The media does a disservice by insisting on the fictitious “LGBT” “identity,” as if it’s not obvious, for example, that one cannot be both gay AND bisexual. As far as these surveys go, Gallup’s is far from the most methodologically rigorous. Nevertheless, if you look at the breakdown, there has been no statistically significant change in the number of homosexuals (i.e., gay men and lesbians) between generations. This phenomenon is almost entirely attributable to bisexual self-identification among younger adolescents and younger adults, mostly women. It’s clearly a fad, the product of victimhood culture and standpoint theory, according to which one’s “lived experience” (and “identity”) is sacrosanct—unless you’re a white woman who identifies as black.

  3. I think that Keisling is on to something here! Just think…after LeBron is old and no longer competitive, he should have, what? Maybe another thirty years or so as a dominating star in the WNBA? And he won’t even have to shave his beard.

  4. So Keisling is saying, let’s undo several generations of work to make women’s athletic opportunities parallel and comparable to men’s: the only way she’ll allow women to play is under circumstances where they’ll face male opponents or trans ‘women’ opponents or both. The ethical stupidity of that position is, well, breathtaking. Since the outcome is pretty much guaranteed when a male and female player with essentially the same talent, experience and training compete against each other, how on earth would you ever get, say, Olympic teams in *any* sport with women on them? How would you get sponsorship for professional teams that were mixed men and women, when they’d be facing other teams that exclusively male membership?

    So how does someone who takes Keisling’s stance have any shred of credibility left? I cannot believe—I don’t *want* to believe—that she won’t get ferocious backlash for pushing that position.

    1. “So how does someone who takes Keisling’s stance have any shred of credibility left?”

      I surely don’t know but she has picked the right time to take such a stand. Her position will fit right in with all the other ridiculous Woke positions.

  5. A tangentially relevant story appeared in the NYT last November. It reported:
    “If you’re looking for a competition where you don’t have to worry about whether the losers will concede, you might try the Genius Dog Contest. Episodes of the contest, which is also a scientific experiment, will be live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube every Wednesday at 1 p.m. until Dec. 16. It will test six of the world’s smartest dogs, found by word of mouth and social media, on their ability to learn the names of new objects.” If this contest were held in Connecticut, where I could take on the identity of
    a border collie by simply asserting I am one, I could enter the contest and walk off with the trophy. Alas, the contest was actually held in Hungary, where I believe they impose some biological criteria as opposed to self-identification.

    1. You wouldn’t walk off with the trophy, your owner would. You wouldn’t get any of the money either.

      It would be dog food for you.

  6. Yes, do not deny them access. That doesn’t mean access to a particular team. Perhaps there now need to be trans teams. We can then also see if trans women and trans men feel it is fair to compete against each other.

  7. Keisling hardens her position as the discussion proceeds, basically asserting that any difference between men and women in sports (and she’s clearly reluctant to admit the existence of such differences) may rest merely on “height” differences. That, too, is not true, as height is largely irrelevant to sports like weightlifting except insofar as it’s correlated with weight and muscle mass.

    It might possibly be relevant to billiards which was the sport she was talking about at the time and using to divert the conversation away from answering Sullivan’s point which that she was essentially advocating for no separate category for women in sports.

    Also an example came up in rugby union and Mara claimed that it was just one isolated case. But of course, the rugby union authorities commissioned a study and concluded it was too dangerous for trans women to compete with women in RU.


    1. I’ve shot a fair amount of pool in my day and run into hustlers of all sizes — short, fat, tall, skinny. Hell, the greatest pocket-pool player of all time, Willie Mosconi, was only 5′ 5″.

      And I’ve watched women in poolhalls who convinced me to walk away with my betting roll still in my pocket. 🙂

    2. “using to divert the conversation away from answering Sullivan’s point”

      She did this over and over. She’s highly skilled at the politician’s glide: Away from the subject question.

      Andrew is talking about women’s sport (in general) and she then talks about 6 or 8 year olds.
      I listened to the entire conversation (Andrew is a very good interviewer) and I got very frustrated. Andrew talked about studies (like the ones Jerry posted on Thursday or Friday) and then she says: There are no such studies, 6-year old children haven’t been studied. Who the hell said we were talking about 6-year olds?

      1. Right out of the gate she says “herding children”. She wants us to think of everything from toddler to teenager (well, less of the teenager). You don’t need studies to know that teenage boys have a terrific advantage over teenage girls in physical sports. You just need to look at their respective performance in the same sports. But there is quite a bit more uncertainty when to comes to prepubescent children.

  8. Note that Biden’s executive order of January 20—prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation—pretty clearly states that there should be no discrimination in sports based on gender identity</i., so that if your gender identity is that of a woman, regardless of whether you’ve undergone medical treatment, you should be able to compete as a woman.

    I think that’s a possible interpretation of Biden’s 1/20 EO, but not a necessary one.

    I sure hope this isn’t the direction the Biden administration goes on this issue.

    1. Even if it gets interpreted that way initially, I doubt it would stand for long without getting corrected. It is hard for me to believe that the US population would stand for it or the Biden administration would really back it.

  9. As to the last topic addressed in the clip of the Sullivan-Keisling conversation, tennis, I think there was a false sense initially given when the first transgender athlete to compete on the women’s tour, Renée Richards, turned out not to be a top-flight player.

    A nice thing about tennis, though, in terms of allowing players of different sexes, but equivalent relative talent, to compete on roughly even playing terms, is that you can limit the men to a single serve (so that they’re discouraged from going for aces at the risk losing the point through a fault) and require them to cover the doubles alleys as well as the singles court on their side of the net.

    1. Kind of knocks the hell out of mixed doubles, eh. Richards was a above average tennis player and could beat some of the lower tier of women’s tennis players but could not come close generally to the top level. So not much danger in winning any tournaments that I recall. Her advantage was in service as she was tall. Taller is an advantage to all in the service part of the game but not so in the volley. Richards was also prior to tennis becoming such a power game that it is today.

      1. Richards never ranked higher than 20th in singles (and didn’t stay anywhere near that high for long). She was more successful in doubles, where she once made it to the US Open finals, in 1977 (losing to Martina and her playing partner, Betty Stöve).

        In mixed doubles, she sometimes partnered with the wild man of Romania, Ilie Năstase.

        1. Renée Richards (‘Reborn’ Richards, previously Richard Raskin) was a good male tennis player, but never reaching the top. Navratilova, women’s world no 1 for more than a decade could only just beat him/her, and he did ‘transition’.
          Richards and Navratilova became good friends, and Richards (an ophthalmologist 🙂 ) even became one of her coaches.
          Point is that a ‘sub-top’ male always will be close to beating a top female in almost any sport. Navratilova called trans-females competing in female competitions ‘cheats’, and I concur.
          As they say here in vernacular: “Keisling praat kak!”

  10. “Note that Biden’s executive order of January 20—prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation”

    Gender identity. Sexual orientation. All right. How about discrimination based on caryotype ?

    My question is serious.

  11. Especially blank slatists are still afforded too much weasel-space. To get to the point of their annoying games, we should just agree with them, and say “let’s do away with these sex/gender categories altogether, since there are no differences at all”. Everyone would be just treated as if a “man” since that’s the most powerful category, surely the best one. Each person would be given the full privileges of the patriarchy. We could name it anything, but since categories are meaningless, we wouldn’t need a name, “person” would suffice.

    Obviously, there would be no “woman” category anymore, either. Not needed. Like the designation “slave” we would not want to “assign at birth” anyone into this oppressed category. All problems solved, just “persons”.

    Such persons could then participate in whichever sports they want, with whoever they want. We’d also solve the cis-heteronormative tyranny, as any hints of preference and orientation would become obsolete, too — anyway just culturally imposed with nothing biological going on.

    I’d pay money to see this play out, and would give extra for a nice seat and popcorn.

  12. I read the text of the Biden executive order and noticed the following.
    [the Supreme Court held that Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination “because of . . . sex” covers discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Under Bostock‘s reasoning, laws that prohibit sex discrimination…]

    I think a lawyer could argue that [discrimination “because of . . . sex] and [discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation] are not the same thing: the former relates specifically to “sex” and the latter to “gender”.

    It could be argued that the new executive order fails to make clear legal distinction between sex (which i assume to be chromosomal) and gender (which I take to be a question of identity).

    It seems that the new law allows the transgender female to gain material advantage over cis-gender females based on a difference of chromosomal sex. This constitutes discrimination against cis-gender females.
    Since cis-gender males are not similarly disadvantaged, the recent order would appear therfore to be disciminatory against cis-gender females based on chromosomal sex.

  13. Listen people, I want to come out about something.

    I’ve read the LeBron comment and the fact he wouldn’t even have to shave his beard.

    I’m not an North American and I don’t live in North America. I don’t even live in the anglophone world.

    I don’t understand any of that s**t, none at all. Those things are a complete mindf**k to me, and now they’re reaching my country (France).

    Transgender women competing against women in MMA ?… I mean, why not against children then ? Because why not ? In the name of the fight against ageism. Seriously, why not children ?

    Supposedly anti-racist activists who are, in my book, the dictionary picture of racists…

    I don’t get any of it. How did that come about ? I don’t even understand to what point these things are prevalent in North America (because it is not just the US, now, it is the same thing in Canada, isn’t it ?).

    I’m not asking you to work for me here, but do you know for instance, of a website or something, a reference that could explain me how things got were they are, what are the causations, what are the forces directing these changes in society ? How did it start ?

    Obviously, these new ways of dealing with the world are going to have a tremendous effect on my life, so…

    1. It’s not as bad in Canada but it’s still around. I am afraid of it becoming as bad here as in the US because weird ideas like this tend to cross the border easily.

    2. Well Diana (can we be on first names terms ?), thank you. As usual you’ve been informative and helpful and such, although you had no duty to do so, so… Thanks.

    3. I think Cheetahs and Greyhounds should be allowed in the sprint event. And African wild dogs in the marathon.
      Down with specieism!

      1. And let’s hunt humans too, for sport and food. I cannot wait to get my hands on a fat man’s liver. Probably delicious steatosis.

  14. “People should be able to access healthcare and secure a roof over their heads without being subjected to sex discrimination.”

    Not the most noted point of this but I am trying to imagine the point of a transgender woman being guaranteed of being able to have an appointment with an OB/GYN.
    This doctrine seems to require allowing the appointment. The hormone therapy is clearly in the endocrinology realm so I can not imagine why such a visit would be required (amongst other obvious questions).

    Strikes me as a short sighted sound bite with some real problems in practice.

    1. The medical implications are large and complex. Having a person without actual female organs visit an OB/GYN is sort of awkward, but probably not dangerous.
      A doctor being expected to prescribe drugs with serious possible side effects to a physically healthy child or adolescent, or life changing surgery on a healthy young adult faces serious ethical concerns. The truth is, there are a lot of people out there telling kids experiencing the awkwardness of normal puberty that the reason they feel uncomfortable in their bodies is because they are probably transgender, and embracing that idea will solve all their problems. There are whole networks of therapists whose main business is “affirming” these confused kids. Once they get on the train, it is hard to get off. The hormones add a whole new set of problems, physically and emotionally. But they always are assured that the next stage of transitioning will be the one that finally brings happiness and self-acceptance. That never happens, but each step makes getting off the train harder. There is always more affirmation for those developing doubt or concerns, and threats against family and friends who do not show the expected enthusiasm.

      I think that is how Scientology works, except without a bunch of surgeries. The next course or level is the one that will make all the difference.

      I am sure there are some legitimately trans individuals. But the vast majority that i am interacting with are participating in a dangerous fad. When the fad starts to wane, there are going to be a great many people who feel betrayed and abused, and lots of doctors and mental health professionals who will be facing litigation.

  15. Just noticing: these recent WEIT conversations about transgender women in women’s sports seem to be dominated by men.

    1. Just noticing that you don’t address the point of the article, that you have NO knowledge of the sex of anyone, many of whom use pseudonyms, and that most of the commenters here always use male names, so there is no control for your snarky and passive-aggressive implication.

      If you can’t discuss the topic rather than make innuendos, you need to go somewhere else.

    2. OMG ! You’re right ! What are them women doing ? Ladies, step up your game and get busy ! Why let men do all the work ? Sue wants to see some action, so… For her ? Right ?

    3. Wrong, I just decided today I’ll identify as a female, so at least my comments are certified 100% female.

    4. Sue: OK, then! As a woman, I entirely recognize a difference between gender and biological sex, and I know women athletes in competitive sports who have been negatively impacted by the ‘I say I’m a woman, therefore that should be enough’ competitors.

      And as a longtime member / participant on this site, the *implication* that women don’t have a voice here, or are hesitant to speak out, is ridiculous.

      1. Remember when a woman came here years ago and told all of us that we were oppressed by the men on the site? I still laugh about that one.

    5. Seriously, there are far too many men who ponder about women’s issues like they’re important. Who cares ? And whatever happened to the “don’t know, don’t care” type of yore ? When men were men and, you know… America was great.

      Plus what is this sudden male interest for competitive sports ? What next ? Sex ? Suspicious, I say.

    6. Sue, I have exhausted my supply of bs. I think I have amply demonstrated I do not get your point. Assuming you’re still willing to answer me after I dumped so much sarcasm, what is it ? Men should not ponder that topic ? Or should there be, like, a quota ? Or am I totally off ? Were you just noticing some interesting fact about men (as the cliché goes : more research is needed) ?

  16. Ah! Chance for an experiment here. Do away with mens’ and womens’ sports and just have people sports. After 5 years survey amateur and professional sports to see the relative proportions of men and women. Men and women should be equally successful according to Mara Keisling.

    Now I suspect a lot of women will suffer because of lack of scholarships and sponsorships, but lets see where the data take us.

  17. Keisling hardens her position as the discussion proceeds, basically asserting that any difference between men and women in sports (and she’s clearly reluctant to admit the existence of such differences) may rest merely on “height” differences.

    This is not an argument for allowing trans women in women’s sports; it’s an argument for eliminating sex-limited sports altogether.

    Is she intentionally going for the cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face argument? I.e. is this an “if we can’t have it, nobody can” sort of demand?

  18. Perhaps there are mental as well as physical differences between the sexes. Steve Davis ( six times World snooker champion ) doubts that a female will ever display sufficient skill so as to compete at, or even near to, the closing stages of major tournaments. ( It should be noted that although like golf there is a women’s game, females are eligible to play in all events. However, so far as I know, no woman has ever got beyond the first or second round of any major championship. )
    Davis reckoned that the reason for this is because ‘ the male of the species has got a single minded, obsessional type of brain that I think not so many females have ‘. And, ‘ women lacked that single minded determination in something that must be said to be a complete waste of time, trying to put snooker balls into pockets with a pointed stick. ‘
    Apparently, a number of top female players agreed with him.

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