Addendum: Some may accuse those opposed to unrestricted access of transgender women to women’s sports as being “transphobes.” I don’t think this is the case since nobody I know of opposes the participation of transgender men in men’s sports. Coupled with the observation that many of the writers on this issue, like Andrew Sullivan, state plainly that they have no problem with transgender equality in nearly every other realm, one has to conclude that this is about fairness, not about demonizing transsexuals.
Addendum 2: As a commenter (#12) below notes, one website reports that author Jack Turban has taken at least $15,000 from a pharmaceutical company that makes puberty blockers. That alone compromises his integrity to the extent that Scientific American should not have published the article below, or at the very least inserted a caveat.
An article that appears in Scientific American surely carries the cachet of SCIENCE, so it’s unfortunate that yesterday’s article (below), written by a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford who specializes in the mental health of transgender youth, claims that science gives no data for excluding transgender girls from girls’ sports. In fact, science does support such a case. Author Jack Turban’s argument rests largely on his admirable concern for the mental health of transgender youths, but he’s also forced to rely on distorted claims about biology and medicine to make his case.
We all know that Biden’s recent executive order on gender rights, very good in the main, implies that you’re whatever gender you claim you are, and further decrees that nobody will be denied access to “the restroom, the locker room, and school sports” on the grounds of claimed gender or sex.
This can be—and is being—taken by the ACLU and others as allowing one to access facilities reserved for your identified sex—even if you’ve undergone no medical treatment for transitioning. If you’re an untreated biological male but identify as a woman, in some states you can just join a woman’s sports team and compete with biological women. This is what happened in Connecticut, where two biological men joined a high-school women’s track team and cleaned up. Three biological women on that team brought a federal suit against that policy, alleging Title IX violations, and Biden’s Justice Department has withdrawn from that case. That withdrawal is a sign that his administration will regard self-identification alone as sufficient evidence for one’s gender.
Below I show Jack Turban’s arguments for the Connecticut practice. Let me add that I’m adamantly opposed, on the grounds of fairness, of allowing medically untreated biological men who claim that they’re women to compete on women’s teams. The question of what to do with men treated with hormones and/or surgery during transitioning is more difficult, and remains beyond my capacity to judge. The Olympics has a rule based on testosterone titer, but it’s a seat-of-the pants rule. But it’s already clear that no resolution of where to place transgender women will satisfy everyone.
And, of course, participation in sports is not the major issue with gender identity these days. But most of us already agree on the moral and legal equality of people when it comes to their self-identified gender. It’s just that sports is the sticking point, and poses an interesting but very hard ethical dilemma. (There are other issues as well, like who goes to what prison, shelter, or who does rape counseling, but I’ll leave those aside.) And besides, if Scientific American deems it important enough to write a publish a piece on this, I deem that piece important enough to critique.
Here’s the piece; click on the screenshot to read.
Turban claims that transgender girls belong on girls’ sports teams (I use his term “girl”, though I’d consider high-school students to be “women”), and makes no distinction about whether they’ve started medical transitioning or not. His grounds (Turban’s quotes are indented):
a. Sometimes cisgender girls can beat transgender girls.
. . . two days after the Connecticut lawsuit was filed by the cisgender girls’ families, one of those girls beat one of the transgender girls named in the lawsuit in a Connecticut state championship. It turns out that when transgender girls play on girls’ sports teams, cisgender girls can win. In fact, the vast majority of female athletes are cisgender, as are the vast majority of winners. There is no epidemic of transgender girls dominating female sports.
This is irrelevant. The principle is what is important, not the number of people testing it, and of course there will be some cisgender girls who beat transgender girls. It’s a case of overlapping performance curves, with transgender girls (especially untreated ones who are biologically male) being higher on the performance scale. With the rapidly increasing number of transgender girls appearing in society, the issue will certainly become more important.
b. There isn’t really a correlation between testosterone and performance. This claim is relevant to both untreated males or males given hormones that increase estrogen and reduce testosterone. And the claim is wrong. I won’t reprise the studies showing this, but you can go here and here for more recent ones, including evidence that muscle mass and bone size appearing at puberty in biological males does not revert to the level of biological women after hormone treatment. Nor does performance revert.
c. Transgender girls will suffer mental-health issues if not allowed to compete with biological girls.
Claiming that transgender girls have an unfair advantage in sports also neglects the fact that these kids have the deck stacked against them in nearly every other way imaginable. They suffer from higher rates of bullying, anxiety and depression—all of which make it more difficult for them to train and compete. They also have higher rates of homelessness and poverty because of common experiences of family rejection. This is likely a major driver of why we see so few transgender athletes in collegiate sports and none in the Olympics.
. . . Beyond the trauma of sex-verification exams, these bills would cause further emotional damage to transgender youth. While we haven’t seen an epidemic of transgender girls dominating sports leagues, we have seen high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide attempts. Research highlights that a major driver of these mental health problems is rejection of someone’s gender identity. Forcing trans youth to play on sports teams that don’t match their identity will worsen these disparities. It’s a classic form of transgender conversion therapy, a discredited practice of trying to force transgender people to be cisgender and gender-conforming.
I have some sympathy for these views, although one must realize that some of the mental illness accompanying gender conversion predated that conversion, or was not due to bullying or mistreatment but to the continuation of preexisting conditions like dysphoria or the difficulty of transitioning itself. That aside, yes, I can see how segregation into either an “other” league or some kind of hormone-based rules for participation could cause problems. But it seems to me that resolving more fundamental unfairness to transgender people, like their legal or moral treatment in society, which can be done much more easily, is at least as important. And we have to balance the feelings of these transgender athletes against those of biological women (and of society) who see it as unfair that they must compete against biological men or women who retain a residuum of the performance advantage that they acquired as biological males.
d. “Separate is not equal”. Here Turban evokes historical downplaying of the success of black athletes, as in the creation of the second-class Negro League for baseball. But this is not the same thing as the issue of transgender athletes. There was no clear biological basis for preventing back athletes from competing with white ones, and if fact they’ve excelled disproportionately to their representation in the general population.
And there’s this:
Recently, some have even harkened back to eras of “separate but equal,” suggesting that transgender athletes should be forced into their own leagues. In addition to all the reasons why this is unnecessary that I’ve already explained, it is also unjust. As we’ve learned from women’s sports leagues, separate is not equal. Female athletes consistently have to deal with fewer accolades, less press coverage and lower pay. A transgender sports league would undoubtedly be plagued with the same issues.
But putting transgender girls into girls’ leagues doesn’t improve their pay and press-coverage situation, so I’m not clear what the argument is here. And the reverse situation, allowing transgender boys to compete with biological males, isn’t that relevant since nobody argues that this would create an unfairness due to disparities in performance.
An epidemic of transgender women or girls competing with biological women or girls may not be in the offing, but the numbers don’t matter so much. If just one or a few transgender woman, particularly a medically untreated one, gets gold medals or first places, that puts every other competing woman in a situation of having been unfairly treated. There doesn’t have to be an “epidemic” of trans women to make the question of how they’re dealt with a pressing one.
In the end, science doesn’t tell us at all that transgender girls can compete on girls’ teams. It tells us that
1.) Medically untreated transgender women should not be competing on girls teams, for they have an inherent performance advantage acquired at puberty, an advantage that doesn’t seem to disappear with hormone treatment. It is for this reason that we don’t allow non-transgender athletes to treat themselves with hormones.
2.) There is still an unresolved question about how to deal with transgender girls and women who have undergone medical treatment. This is a thorny ethical issue that depends on scientific data that we don’t have, although there are some data suggesting that a performance advantage after transitioning treatment can persist for at least a couple of years, if not forever. If there were a medical treatment for transgender girls that would give them no performance advantage over biological girls, then by all means let them compete with each other. But we’re nowhere near that point yet.
I have to conclude that Scientific American chose to publish this misleading article on the basis of ideology, not “science.” And its author, who deals with mental problems of transgender adolescents and children, is hardly objective enough to make pronouncements about what we should or should not do with respect to athletics. His concern is mental health alone, and he completely ignores the issues that athletic competition poses for non-transgender girls, and for society.