When I occasionally write about the issue of how to deal with transsexual people in sports—a problem nearly always involving transsexual women competing against cissexual women—I often get pushback along these lines: “There are so few of these athletes, so why bother about the issue? Let them compete!” I bother for three reasons. First, the possibility of such competition sits at the intersection of biology, morality, and society, which interests me; and there are real data that can inform the debate.
Second, the problem may be small now, but it will grow. The number of transsexuals, particularly transsexual women, is growing exponentially, and we are going to face many more cases than the one inspiring the article below: Lia Thomas, a transsexual women who, after transitioning post puberty, began winning many races against cis-sexual women when swimming for the University of Pennsylvania women’s team.
Finally, the problem involves conflicting issues of liberal morality: fairness towards women versus fairness towards sexual minorities. And it also calls for solutions, most of which involve data that we don’t have, and probably won’t ever get.
I was surprised to see a pretty objective piece in the New York Times about transgender women competing against biological women in sports. By “objective”, it doesn’t mean that all sides make equally weighty arguments. Rather, the paper admits that biology itself gives post-puberty transgender women a distinct athletic advantage over cis-gender women. Rather, the arguments of both sides are given equal airing. And several solutions are discussed.
This hasn’t convinced me that “trans women are women” when it comes to sports, though of course in nearly all other respects I urge others to treat all transgender people just like they treat everyone else. If this makes me transphobic, you can call me that, but I reject the adjective.
And although the issue is characterized by Robin Harris, director of the Ivy League swimming conference, as a “culture war,” it is more than that. It cuts to the very issue of fairness, philosophy, and ethics: how does one balance or mitigate different degrees of harm. It does of course demarcate cultural segments, with the more “progressive” Leftists arguing that even medically or surgically untreated biological men who identify as women should be allowed to compete against biological women.
And above all, it’s an empirical question (at least to me). Do transsexual women really have a substantial athletic advantage over cissexual women?
If you’ve been reading the posts on this site about transsexuality and athletics, you probably won’t learn that much from the piece, at least about the biology. And the biology is clear: those biological men who transition to women after puberty retain a distinct athletic advantage against biological women. A few quotes from the article underscore that/
Michael J. Joyner, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., studies the physiology of male and female athletes. He sees in competitive swimming a petri dish. It is a century old, and the sexes follow similar practice and nutrition regimens.
Since prepubescent girls grow faster than boys, they have a competitive advantage early on. Puberty washes away that advantage. “You see the divergence immediately as the testosterone surges into the boys,” Dr. Joyner said. “There are dramatic differences in performances.”
The records for elite adult male swimmers are on average 10 percent to 12 percent faster than the records of elite female swimmers, an advantage that has held for decades.
Little mystery attends to this. Beginning in the womb, men are bathed in testosterone and puberty accelerates that. Men on average have broader shoulders, bigger hands and longer torsos, and greater lung and heart capacity. Muscles are denser.
“There are social aspects to sport, but physiology and biology underpin it,” Dr. Joyner noted. “Testosterone is the 800-pound gorilla.”
When a male athlete transitions to female, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs college sports, requires a year of hormone-suppressing therapy to bring down testosterone levels. The N.C.A.A. put this in place to diminish the inherent biological advantage held by those born male.
Ms. Thomas followed this regimen.
But peer reviewed studies show that even after testosterone suppression, top trans women retain a substantial edge when racing against top biological women. . .
. . .“Athletic performance depends on a lot of factors: access to coaches and nutritionists and technical skill,” Mr. Mosier said. “We are making broad generalizations about men being bigger, stronger, faster.”
Most scientists, however, view performance differences between elite male and female athletes as near immutable. The Israeli physicist Ira S. Hammerman in 2010 examined 82 events across six sports and found women’s world record times were 10 percent slower than those of men’s records.
“Activists conflate sex and gender in a way that is really confusing,” noted Dr. Carole Hooven, lecturer and co-director of undergraduate studies in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. She wrote the book “T: The Story of Testosterone.” “There is a large performance gap between healthy normal populations of males and females, and that is driven by testosterone.”
The sprinter Allyson Felix won the most world championship medals in history. Her lifetime best in the 400 meters was 49.26 seconds; in 2018, 275 high school boys ran faster.
It’s hard to argue with the data, but one gets the feeling that, for trans advocates, data are largely irrelevant. And so we hear from voices both in favor of and against allowing transsexual women to compete against biological women. I’ve collected quotes from both sides:
The American Civil Liberties Union offers a counterpoint. “It’s not a women’s sport if it doesn’t include ALL women athletes,” the group tweeted. “Lia Thomas belongs on the Penn swimming and diving team.”
. . .Griffin Maxwell Brooks, a trans nonbinary diver at Princeton who competes on the men’s team, released a TikTok video accusing “cisgender women” of leveraging “misogyny to perpetuate transphobia.”
Not long afterward, a Princeton eating club barred a female swimmer from joining, saying her “transphobia” might bring it disrepute, according to a Princeton swimmer.
. . .Joanna Harper, a competitive transgender female runner and Ph.D. student studying elite transgender athletic performance at Loughborough University in Britain, agreed that testosterone gives transgender female athletes some advantage.
But she spoke of inexorable emotional and psychological pressures on transgender athletes.
“Is it so horrible,” she said, “if a handful of us are more successful than they were in men’s sports?”
It sounds as if Ms. Richards favors allowing free competition between transsexual and biological women, which is one solution to the problem, though not a wildly popular one. These two people agree with Harper:
Some trans activists and academics welcome that. Nathan Palmer, a lecturer at Georgia Southern University, wrote in Sociology in Focus: “Nature loves diversity, but humans love simplicity. Separating males from females may be socially useful, but when the dividing lines limit and oppress, we have to acknowledge they are social constructions.”
Anna Posbergh, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, is a former pole-vaulter who studies the mechanics of human movement and gender and athletes. She sees notions of gender disadvantage in sports as rooted in culture and an outdated view of what women can achieve.
“I’m beginning to question the idea of sex segregation in sport,” she said. “We need to learn to sit with discomfort.”
No, the difference between male and female humans is NOT a social construct; it is a biological reality, and given an individual, we can accurate classify them with 99.9% accuracy—or greater. Social constructs are immune to that kind of empirical discrimination.
It’s pretty clear that ending sex segregation in sport will eventually destroy women’s sports if transexual women become numerous. But the bit I oppose above is the wildly misguided claim that sex, and the athletic advantages of male sex, is not a social construction. It is real and amply documented in biology. This is the deliberate distortion of biology for ideological purposes.
But the issue is what to do with that real male/female difference.
Sebastian Coe, the Olympic champion runner and head of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which governs world track, speaks of biological difference as inescapable. “Gender,” he said recently, “cannot trump biology.”
. . .Some trans activists try to silence critics, whom they derisively call TERFs, which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminists. A spokeswoman for a gay rights group urged a reporter not to “platform” — that is not to quote — those she said held objectionable views, including Martina Navratilova, the retired tennis legend, a champion of liberal and lesbian causes. Ms. Navratilova argues that transgender female athletes possess insurmountable biological advantages.
“So I’m a ‘TERF’ — OK, that’s the way you want to go?” Ms. Navratilova said in response. “I played against taller women, I played against stronger women, and I beat them all. But if I faced the male equivalent of Lia in tennis, that’s biology. I would have had no shot. And I would have been livid.”
. . . Reka Gyorgy, a 2016 Olympian and a swimmer at Virginia Tech. . . placed 17th in the preliminaries for the 500-yard freestyle in the N.C.A.A. championships — a slot short of making the finals. She wrote an open letter, affirming her respect for Ms. Thomas’s work ethic.
She was less forgiving of the N.C.A.A.
“This was my last college meet ever and I feel frustrated,” she wrote. “It feels like that final spot was taken away from me because of the N.C.A.A.’s decision to let someone who is not a biological female compete.”
. . .Renée Richards was a pioneer among transgender athletes. An ophthalmologist and accomplished amateur tennis player — she played in the U.S. Open and ranked 13th in the men’s 35-and-over division — she transitioned in 1975 at age 41. She joined the women’s pro tennis tour at age 43, ancient in athletic terms. Ms. Richards then made it to the doubles final at Wimbledon and ranked 19th in the world before retiring at 47.
Ms. Richards has said she no longer believes it is fair for transgender women to compete at the elite level.
“I know if I’d had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me,” she said in an interview. “I’ve reconsidered my opinion.”
. . .Kathleen Stock, a British philosopher whose work is often grounded in her feminist and lesbian identity, has carved out positions on transgender rights that have made her a lightning rod. She has written “Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism,” and argues against the insistence that one’s gender identity is all. That is to miss, she said, the profound importance of the lived experience of being born a biological female.
“We are caught up in this fever dream,” she said in an interview. “How could it be that a social construct and not the material reality of being a woman is guiding our thoughts and our physical performance?
“I find it incredible that we have to point this out.”
So there we have the diversity of opinion, which pits the fairness of preventing biological women from having to compete against transsexual women who have clear athletic advantages, versus the fairness of allowing transsexual women to adhere to the mantra of “trans women are women” and thus competing as women.
Is there an equitable solution? It’s hard to see one, at least one that involves hormone titers, and other measures of “maleness” and “femaleness”. We know that even testosterone suppression in post-puberty transexual women does not efface their athletic advantage after several years, and I doubt we’ll have the experimental data to create the fabled “level playing field.”
One solution is the one offered above: let transsexual women compete against biological women. In light of the data we have, this seems untenable.
Another solution is this:
By way of solution, some point to golf, where in amateur competitions, a superior golfer takes a handicap — docking herself strokes — when competing against lesser players. Applied to swimming, a panel might examine Ms. Thomas’s race times and subtract seconds and let her swim.
The problem here is that the handicaps will vary among women, and will depend on having a lot of data that we simply won’t get. It’s akin to guessing.
The solution I favor, or something close to it, is this:
The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a policy organization based in Ottawa, argues for an “open category” for men, transgender athletes and biological females, anyone who cares to try her/his/their hand.
An exclusively female category would remain for biological women. This solution would forestall the need for transgender women to take hormone-suppressing drugs.
One could modify this by allowing transgender men to compete against biological men if they wish, since they already have an athletic handicap—lack of testosterone during puberty—to overcome.
But, as the article notes, “some transgender activists argue that such distinctions would be insulting.” I’m sorry about that, but to me fundamental fairness and biology should trump the feeling of being insulted.
As I said, I’m surprised that the NYT published such an objective and readable piece on an inflammatory issue like this, and I wonder if this is a sign of the new editorial leadership. Will they produce an editorial?