I’ve stolen a mantra from ethical philosopher John Rawls for my title here. And that’s because this article, by Tanya Aldred, argues that we need to have a hard look at the rules for allowing transgender people in sports, because the present system, allowing transgender women to compete with biological women, seems unfair in several ways. What surprises me is that this piece, which is rational and considers all the counterarguments, appears in the Guardian. Tanya Aldred writes about sports for the Guardian, and you can be sure that she’ll be labeled a transphobe for her views.
As always, I begin with a disclaimer, which is that I think that in almost every way possible, we should respect the desire of transgender men and women to be regarded as members of the sex they feel they belong to. That goes for law, moral treatment, and so on. But I can’t sign on to the mantra “trans women are women” in every way, for you can make rational arguments for exceptions. The big one is sports, but other ones are shelters, rape counseling, sex-segregated prisons, and so on. Aldred apparently agrees, at least about sports.
Click on the screenshot to read.
The issue, of course, is whether transgender women being allowed to compete in both school and Olympic sports is a fair decision. There is a reason why men’s and women’s sports are separated, and that’s because men have a biological advantage in bone density, strength, and muscle mass, and if you let everybody compete all together, the women would win almost nothing. I doubt that most people would consider that fair. I can’t think of a single sport, though maybe there is one, in which people should allow everyone to compete with everyone. Here’s Aldred’s summary of relative performance by biological sex:
By conflating gender and sex, I would argue we fudge the very reason we have sex categories in sport: the male performance advantage. Without a separate category for females, there would be no women in Olympic finals. Even in the 100m, one of the events with the smallest performance gap, approximately 10,000 men worldwide have personal bests faster than the current Olympic female champion, Elaine Thompson-Herah (10.70sec). And it’s not just track and field. While the smallest attainment gap between the sexes comes in running, rowing and swimming events (11-13%), this moves up to 16%-22% in track cycling, and between 29% and 34% when it comes to bowling cricket balls and weightlifting. The difference in punch power between men and women is a whopping 162%. Not, then, to be sniffed at.
I would also consider it unfair for medically untreated transgender women to compete in sports against biological women. (They are in fact allowed to do this in some states, and the American Civil Liberties Union favors that stance.) That is basically taking the position that biological men can compete with biological women, effacing the very reason for separating sports by sex. (There is no issue, of course, with trangender men competing against biological men.)
The hard part is what to do when the transgender women who want to compete in women’s sports have had some medical treatment. The requirement is usually lowering testosterone titer by use of hormones and other treatments. The Olympics, for instance, allows transgender women to compete with biological women if the former have a testosterone titer of 10 nanomoles per liter or less, and have kept that level or below for a year. But there’s no hard evidence to support this category; it’s more or less a guess. And, increasingly, that guess has been shown to be misguided. One reason is that once a biological male hits puberty, the muscle mass and bone density are already set to be higher, on average, than those traits in women. In other words, the advantage of being born a biological male is likely to persist for years, if not forever. (I need hardly mention that these are averages I’m talking about; some treated and untreated transgender women will not outcompete high-performing biological women.) Here’s what Aldred says about newer research:
Increasingly, however, research is showing that these testosterone guidelines do not guarantee the “fair competition” the IOC was hoping for. Ross Tucker, a sports scientist and expert on testosterone advantage in sport, succinctly sums it up: “Lowering of testosterone is almost completely ineffective in taking away the biological differences between males and females.” There is just no proof that reducing testosterone takes away the advantage of muscle mass, strength, lean body mass, muscle size or bone density. Despite this new evidence from Drs Emma Hilton and Tommy Lundberg, the IOC has put off any further decisions making until after Tokyo and left it up to individual sports federations to decide their own transgender policies. Some have been bold, others have written their policies alongside trans lobby groups without consulting women’s organisations or sports scientists. Those questioning the narrative are accused of transphobia – as Martina Navratilova and Nicola Adams have discovered.
I’ve already dealt with one criticism: “Well, some biological women can beat some transgender women.” Here’s another: “Nobody, even within a biological sex, is equal. Some men have natural advantages over others, so why not just throw transgender women into the mix of women’s sports?” Aldred answers that by referring to champion swimmer Michael Phelps:
The most common argument used in favour of inclusion is that sport is all about natural advantage and that being a trans woman is just another factor to add to the list alongside Michael Phelps’s size 14 feet and double-jointed ankles. The problem with this argument is that we don’t compete according to foot-size, but we do protect the integrity of women’s sport because the advantage gained from male puberty is so comprehensive in terms of speed, power, strength and so much else. Phelps’s feet gave him an advantage as a swimmer; male puberty gave him a much bigger advantage across the board. At the Beijing Olympics, he won the 200m freestyle in 1.42.96, breaking the world record. Federica Pellegrini broke the women’s world record at the same distance, finishing in 1.54.82 – a time that wouldn’t have got her into the men’s semi-finals. It wasn’t internalised misogyny slowing her down.
So what do we do with transgender women who want to compete in women’s sports? It seems unfair to ban them from all competition; after all, participating in sports is the dream of many people, and we should try to accommodate them.
Can science solve the problem? Perhaps, but it would take years of research, and much of that research would be unethical, as it would involve testing various transgender women who had been treated differently to see what is required to make the “average” transgender woman perform on par with the “average” biological woman. The sample size to do that would be enormous, and remember that the advantages of biological men vary from sport to sport, so you’d have to do it separately for all sports. All I can say now is that medically untreated transgender women should not be allowed to compete in sports with biological women. World Rugby has dealt with the problem by banning the participation of transgender women in international women’s rugby, on the basis that the transgender women could hurt biological women in this rough contact sport.
Aldred has a solution that I and many others have offered. It’s not perfect, but maybe it’s the best we can do at present. We do need to address the issue now because the number of transgender athletes is increasing, even if now they only form a tiny minority of competitors; and the law and governments are starting to get involved.
Aldred (I’ve put her solution in bold):
The American cyclist Veronica Ivy (previously known as Rachel McKinnon) says hang the heartache, trans women are women and should simply be able to self-identify themselves into the women’s category at every level. This argument has got some traction. In which case, why bother having sex categories for sport at all? Just put everyone in together and watch biological males win the lot. I’d argue the opposite. The science is young. Stop. Breathe. Trans women should be able to live their sporting lives to the fullest so if research can find a way for them to participate in female sports without advantage, brilliant. Until then, remove the idea of gender altogether and revert to sex-based categories – a female category and an open category that can cater for trans men who have taken testosterone, trans women and men.
I doubt that this will happen, but it at least evinces a modicum of fairness and is based on recent research. Feel free to weigh in below.