Scientific American: Transgender girls belong on girls’ sports teams

March 17, 2021 • 10:00 am

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.

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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.

h/t: Smith

53 thoughts on “Scientific American: Transgender girls belong on girls’ sports teams

    1. In the interest of furthering discussion, it would be good if you explained what you mean. I think you’re saying that the author, as a man, would naturally be in favor of allowing biological males, transitioned or not, to compete with women, but I’m not sure.

      1. I have the same feeling when male legislators or judges take away abortion rights. This does not mean that every male is callous to women, but I definitely see a “this would never happen to me” element.

      1. For me, it matters whether a person wishing away my rights as a woman (reproduction, safety etc.) is someone who would not personally suffer if these rights are taken away.

  1. Transgender girls will suffer mental-health issues if not allowed to compete with biological girls

    My first thought on that is “suck it up”. My first serious thought is “has anybody considered the mental health issues that cisgender girls will suffer as a result of having their opportunities squashed yet again by male bodied people”.

    1. That was also the view of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in its ruling on Caster Semenya’s participation in middle-distance athletics events. She is not trans, but identifies as a woman while having male gonads and physiology. The Court ruled that it was unfair to exclude Semenya from some athletics events, but the Court called that unfairness “necessary, reasonable, and proportionate” relative to the greater unfairness to other (female) athletes.

      1. Caster Semenia (toggle the letters and you get: Yes, a secret man) is not a cheat, like these trans ‘women’ in Connecticut. She grew up knowing no better that that she was a women. Male pseudo-hermaphrodites do have female external genitalia, a vulva and a vagina, but there it ends, When you look at her physiology she is male: deep voice, (first time I heard her, I thought it was her trainer talking), has the built of a man (slender hips, broad shoulders ), and (s)he is married to a woman.
        I think she should not compete with biological women.
        If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc.
        But those male pseudo-hermaphrodites obviously are a separate case, I’d think.

        Trans women, real of faked (I suspect the latter in the non-transitioned males competing as women), ‘transitioned’ or not should be brandished as cheats if they insist on competing in woman’s sports. With all the sympathy, and sometimes commiseration, with transgender people, it is not because you are ‘trans’ you cannot be a cheat. As recent history shows.

        1. I think rather than question their integrity, we try and fix our competitive categories so that everyone feels welcome and has a ‘place’ to compete. There is no perfect solution but IMO one of the better suggestions has been to get rid of the ‘men’s’ category and have an Open category instead – not just a ‘men plus trans women’ kludge but a true open category that welcomes all men (cis and trans) and all women (cis and trans). We then address the need for separate athletics for cis women by maintaining a separate category for those cis women who don’t wish to compete in the open category.

          Granted, this may not be materially different from the ‘kludge’ in some sports, at least not at first. But part of this IS about psychology, and helping trans people be respected and welcomed into a predominantly cis society. And I expect that in some sports, you might get quite a few cis women who are more than happy to compete in the Opens. Particularly below the professional level.

          1. Not “cis women”. Women. Female people. The kind of person in which every single one of us was gestated. “Identity”, whatever it is that is meant by that word, is irrelevant in sport.

        2. I apologize if my comment was unclear. I don’t think Caster Semenya (not “Semenia”) is a cheat. But I do think the CAS ruling was correct and I agree with you: Semenya should not compete against biological females. I don’t think her case is separate from trans women: biological males should not compete in women’s athletics events. IDK about ducks or quacking.

    2. I’m probably reading too much into it, but it is interesting that an emphasis on protecting rights and mental health seems to follow the male body (regardless of gender) doesn’t it? Transgender males are expected to just ‘suck it up’ when it comes to the expected performance disparity between them and cis males in sports. Cis females are likewise expected to just suck it up. It’s the transgender women we have to protect.

      1. Your statement seems a bit unclear here: “Cis females are likewise expected to just suck it up. It’s the transgender women we have to protect.”

        I think you mean the last two sentences of your statement are what the wokepolity expects (right?). Not: We need the cis women to suck it up and let the (even untransitioned) transwomen play in women’s category.

        1. Correct. The wokepolity seems inordinately concerned with protecting the rights of people who have male bodies, etc.

  2. NO, NO, NO. As an athlete and coach myself, NO! They are men and boys. PERIOD! They are bigger and stronger than girls. They have more testosterone than girls. They have a bigger lung capacity. Their brains work differently. They use oxygen differently. This is a recipe for disaster and will KILL girls’ and women’s sports, not to mention what it will do to the female athlete’s psyche. No matter how hard a girl trains, she will not be able to compete at the same level as they boys. And At some point, the girls will get seriously hurt. This is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!

    1. I don’t think biological males (untreated at the very least) should be able to compete in women’s sports. That being said, what do you mean by they use oxygen differently?

        1. I fully acknowledge that there are sex based performance differences, but I am not aware of this being the mechanism behind the differences. As far as I know, and correct me if I’m wrong, but almost none of the oxygen used in physical performance comes from a store within the body other than what is bound to hemoglobin, which would mean that your oxygen storage in the muscles would need some evidence. If we want to argue for fair competition, we need to have our facts straight.

          1. Well, O2 is what allows us to function. When people have larger muscles, they can store more O2 in them. And you are right about the hemoglobin. But just think of doping. The athletes are using their own blood to enhance their performances. I am not exactly sure how it works, but it is a big to-do in the world of sports and that is what got Lance Armstrong busted. People from all over the world train for all kinds of sports here in Colorado to get used to the higher altitudes and lower oxygen, which once they get used to it gives them an advantage over those who don’t. As elite athletes acclimate to high altitude, they acquire more red blood cells which allows their blood to carry more oxygen. Elite athletes should live and lightly train in high-altitude areas to acclimate their bodies to lower oxygen levels. Creating more blood vessels for oxygen to flow through, altitude training may lead to improved heart functionality, enhanced muscle performance and greater overall health. With more oxygen flowing through your body, recovery times are minimized while strength and endurance is enhanced. altitude training helps the body transport oxygen better, so it does seem to help endurance athletes, who are in aerobic competitions.

            I have no problem with trans people competing, but they CANNOT compete as women. They need to either have their own category, or just lump everyone together, which again, will kill ALL women’s sports.

  3. … and another thing (sorry for a second comment): the issue of safety needs to be discussed. The world rugby union authorities have already declared that allowing trans women onto women’s rugby teams is unacceptably dangerous and the same would almost certainly apply to any other team sports where individuals may be in contact with each other e.g. football (soccer), hockey (field) etc.

    1. 451: Unavailable due to legal reasons

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      Why they think there would be a legal problem with this when the GDPR is there to stop them from reading my (personal) stuff when it’s me that wants to read their stuff is a mystery…

      … Actually it’s not.

      ETA: it occurs to me that I am no longer in the EEA.

      1. I get the same issue trying to access from Germany (I can go to Scientific American with no problem). I think that the EEA requires certain data not to be transferred, or only with permission, and their website doesn’t have that functionality, so they block all attempts from the EEA.

          1. Yes, I pretty much overlooked that part. However, think about it. A conservative religious guy who is in the legislature is pleading they do not pass a bill that would separate the kids. It would throw his girl out of playing the sports she is now in. And in the end, who are the politicians trying to help. It sure is not the kids.

            I think it is wrong to allow this at the grown up level, professional sports level but for kids??

    1. It’s not the Lebron James’s. They are already cleaning up in the NBA. It’s the hundreds (or thousands) of guys who couldn’t make a team in the NBA.

  4. In “The Long Emergency” and “Too Much Magic”, James Howard Kunstler discussed the way conventional USians have evaded thinking seriously about the gathering environmental crisis by slipping into what he calls “the Jiminy Cricket syndrome”. This is the idea that you can accomplish or become anything you wish just by wishing it—by wishing on a star, as in Jiminy Cricket’s signature song. This fantasy, deeply ingrained in American culture, thanks to Disney and other propaganda, crops up in many places. One form, obviously prevalent in woke ideology, is the claim that an individual can be any sex they like by just saying so. The logical next step, as I’ve said before, is no doubt a claim that you can be any species you like by just saying so.

  5. This is not the first such column in Scientific American. I subscribe (at least for now) and have noticed an increasing number of non-scientific woke opinion articles.
    I don’t know if the ownership has changed, but this is disappointing for sure. Rational thought and logic are increasingly anathema these days. Sad.

  6. No one should be misled by Scientific American’s ancient reputation as the the éminence grise of popular science publication. They’ve been awful for decades and getting worse by the minute. On a huge range of topics, from ‘proto-World’ genetic linkage among all languages on earth to the current dismal string-theory/muliverse landscape debâcle in physics, they’ve pushed borderline-crank speculations as established sciences along lines driven by their editorial agenda, often full of sheer misinformation. We’re looking at a typical example here, where an author, clearly unqualified to make the kinds of claims about physiology and biochemistry that he’s pushing to make his case, has been given a platform because the Woke attitudes of the editors hold political outcomes to be more important than scientific accuracy. It’s hard to say whether SciAm or the UK’s New Scientist are worse in this respect, but both of them long ago forfeited any claims to credibility.

    1. I used to have a subscription to ‘Scientific American’, but stopped in the nineties, despite nice illustrations, because most of it was kinda shallow, not giving good references, among other things.

      1. I agree and did the same. They used to have articles written by the actual scientists involved in many of the subjects, and the nonscientists were consistently excellent. It’s been a while since that’s been the case. And their online blogs are often all but laughable.

  7. A transwomen has competed successfully in the Olympic. Caitlyn Jenner won the men’s decathlon in 1976 showing the ability to win at least a dozen women’s events.

    1. Is that suppose to be a joke. Jenner was a man then. He won the decathlon in the men’s division.

      1. It’s not a joke and apparently she knew she was a woman in 1976 but “transwoman” was not accepted term at the time. She was a woman who competed against men.

        My comment is a reminder of what some transwomen are capable of athletically and how it could make a mockery of women’s sports. Connecticut and Turban apparently believe Jenner should have been eligible to compete for the state championship and Olympics as a woman. She is the prime example of why this view is idiotic.

        I remember Jenner from the 1976 Olympics and have great respect for her. She is a incredibly dedicated, astoundingly great athlete who deserved all the accolades she got at the time. If she had competed against women, my feelings would be quite different regardless of any medical procedures.

  8. Sometimes cisgender girls can beat transgender girls.

    True, but not all that often. Here are some data comparing women olympic athletes in track and swimming compared to scores achieved by high school boys. Spoiler alert: doesn’t turn out well for the women athletes. In case you’re wondering about the validity of the numbers, I did a random check and found them to be accurate.

    http://boysvswomen.com/

  9. I contemplate Turban and his confreres trying to lay a guilt trip on females who decide that they have had enough of sports. (I trust that I can still simply say “females” without having to preface the term with “cis.”)

  10. I’ve read several of the posts around this theme on this blog and have a couple of thoughts I would like to share.

    First off I find the line of thought from this particular brand of transgender activists incredibly difficult to follow. On the one hand they seem to claim that there really isn’t such a thing as biological sex to begin with. It’s all in your head and you are whatever you say you are. What would seem apparent by looking at a persons physiology has very little (if anything) to do with it. Any differences you (think you) can spot in people’s bodies doesn’t make any difference anyway.

    Yet here they are – specifically demanding to compete in sports categories specifically created for biological women!

    Secondly, there is the recurring claim that there aren’t loads of transgender women dominating in sports anyway so there really is nothing worry about. As Jerry have noted multiple times, the amount of people has nothing to do with the basic (un)fairness of this issue.

    However, if you really make things so simple that any man can just tick the box “I’m a woman” and then the world of women’s professional sport is open to him – perhaps “she” will even even be called “extra stunning and brave” to boot – how many will take the opportunity?

    While this may seem unlikely at first glance I wonder if that really is the case? Given how many athletes are willing to cheat with things like performance enhancing drugs, some of them harmful to their overall health, it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely. After all there are many men who will never reach beyond the level of mediocre by international standards but would still easily dominate at the very highest levels of women’s sports.

    I don’t know how probable this scenario is, but if there is fame and fortune to be had that way why not? At least it seems like a potential concern that must be addressed at some point if they are going to take the route that many people and organisations now seem to be advocating for.

  11. This is anti-science. There is no scientific justification for allowing individuals with male bodies to compete against girls or women. Providing a safe place for women to flourish is the very purpose for Title IX. Any argument to the contrary is only justification for “wokeness”

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