Cathy Young on trans athletes

June 15, 2022 • 10:15 am

Reading time:  However long it takes. (I hate these “reading time” indications, since they steer people away from long pieces and individuals vary tremendously in their speed of reading.)


The eminently sensible Cathy Young has a pretty balanced article in Bulwark on trans athletes, dealing with what criteria we should use to allow transexual people to participate in sports that correspond to their own gender; the “fairness” of various solutions; and more of the arguments we’ve hashed out before.

At the end, though, she offers her own solution, but it doesn’t really seem a solution. Beyond that—and I don’t think there is a solution beyond creating “a league of their own”—her piece is quite good. Click below to read (it’s free).

The title refers to a new bill, Ohio’s “Save Women’s Sports Act”, that hasn’t yet been signed into law. Moreover, it’s completely ambiguous since it specifies several criteria for determining an athlete’s sex for sports participation. Young quotes the bill:

If a participant’s sex is disputed, the participant shall establish the participant’s sex by presenting a signed physician’s statement indicating the participant’s sex based upon only the following:

(1) The participant’s internal and external reproductive anatomy;

(2) The participant’s normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone;

(3) An analysis of the participant’s genetic makeup.

Young specifies the obvious flaws with this bill, the most obvious being which criteria should be used? One of them, or all? It’s also not clear whether the doctor has to actually do an exam, or just sign a statement. At any rate, this is a typical fumbling Republican effort to deal with the “biological sex versus gender” issue.

Yet that issue still needs dealing with somehow, though the present paucity of transsexual women athletes may rule out the “league of their own” argument. (The alternative is to allow all transsexual athletes to compete against men.)

You should read the whole article, as I’m not going to reprise facts or arguments that I’ve covered before. There is, however, one fact that I didn’t know (Young’s words are indented):

First, a sports policy group has proposed what Young herself settles on (see later): a “middle way” (my bolding below):

But it is also true that the nominally “conservative” camp on this issue includes many people who can hardly be suspected of fake concern for women’s sports, or of anti-LGBT bias. They include tennis great Martina Navratilova, the first professional athlete to publicly and voluntarily come out as gay—back in 1981, when it cost her a lot of money in endorsements from skittish corporations.

In December 2018, Navratilova rankled many of her fans by tweeting, “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard.” After a backlash, she deleted the tweet and issued an apology of sorts: “I am sorry if I said anything anywhere near transphobic—certainly I meant no harm—I will educate myself better on this issue but meantime I will be quiet about it.” But those who expected Navratilova’s self-education to end in falling into lockstep with the progressive party line were disappointed. Less than two months later, she wrote an op-ed for the London Times reaffirming her view that requiring female athletes to “compete against people who, biologically, are still men” was “insane” and “cheating.” Since then, she has spoken out in support of Idaho’s law banning transgender athletes from competing in women’s and girls’ interscholastic sports. And, after President Biden issued an executive order on the day of his inauguration directing his administration to prevent and combat discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in a wide range of areas including school sports, Navratilova said that a “carve-out” was needed on “the higher level of high school, college and [professional]” athletics.

Navratilova is a cofounder of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, which opposes both blanket bans and full inclusion when it comes to transgender participation in girls’ and women’s sports, advocating instead a “middle way”: participation but not direct competition in some cases, and competition in others as long as the advantage conferred by male puberty is sufficiently mitigated. The group’s other members and supporters include Title IX pioneer and veteran gender equity advocate Donna Lopiano, civil rights lawyer and three-time Olympian swimming gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, and groundbreaking transgender tennis player Renée Richards.

The first part, “participation but not direct competition”, simply means a new league. That has its own problems, but the second bit, “direct competition so long as the advantage conferred by male puberty is sufficiently mitigated” is even more problematic.  That’s because we do not know, and may never know, what it would take to “level the playing field” for transwomen athletes. (We’re always talking about transwomen competing against biological women since there seems to be no controversy about transmen being allowed to compete against biological men). How do we monitor an individual so that the athletic advantages of having gone through male puberty—advantages that last at least several years, and probably forever—are eliminated completely? I have no idea, nor does anybody else.

But I’ve said that before. The Biden order about transgender athletes, however, implies that biological men who simply identify as women, without any medical intervention towards transitioning, must be allowed to compete against biological women. That is in fact a widespread law (again, my emphasis)”

While transgender inclusion in women’s sports has been a contentious issue on the professional and Olympic levels, that debate has been shaped by the stringent requirements an athlete must meet to qualify. Scholastic sports are different, especially in K-12. As of 2019, 17 states allowed high school students to participate in sports in accordance with their gender identity without undergoing any medical procedures—surgical or hormonal—related to what is often called “sex reassignment” or “gender reassignment.” One of those states is Connecticut, where Andraya Yearwood won the state championships in the girls’ 100- and 200-meter sprints in 2017 without either puberty blockers or hormone therapy.

I don’t know many people who say that this law is at all fair to biological women athletes, nor does it “level the playing field.” If you’re transitioning and want to use a new gender identity to change sports leagues, surely, the transition must be more than just psychological. If not, then there is no rationale from separating men and women’s sports.

What interests me most is the argument that there’s no need to determine what would “level the playing field” for transwomen because, after all, even among biological women (or among biological men) there are differences in physical and physiological endowment, training, and so on, that give some women (or men) advantages over others of their biological sex. Michael Phelps has big hands and feet, so he can swim faster, and so on. . . .  That was an argument made by Sabine Hossenfelder in her video on the question (link below), and I found it unconvincing.

Here’s how Young answers this argument:

Since the debate has often been framed as one between fairness and inclusiveness, the question of what’s “fair” inevitably comes up. In a recent video examining the issue of trans athletes, German physicist and science commentator Sabine Hossenfelder concludes that “it seems clear from the data that trans women keep an advantage over cis women, even after several years of hormonal therapy” and that “no amount of training that cis women can do is going to make up for male puberty.” In that sense, Hossenfelder admits, trans inclusion “isn’t fair”—but then she pivots to the position that “athletic competition has never been fair in that sense”: Superior athletes, male or female, have genetic advantages over other people, whether it’s the runner’s long legs, the swimmer’s lung capacity, or the basketball player’s height. Others say that the “fairness” question is further diluted by the indisputable fact that young people from affluent families have vastly greater opportunities to benefit from training and coaching.

Such arguments, I suspect, are unlikely to persuade. Most people find it self-evident that the advantage Lia Thomas’s natal sex gives her over biological females is a fundamentally different kind of “unfair” than the advantage Michael Jordan’s genes give him over other males—just as, for instance, they instinctively feel that the advantage conferred by doping is a fundamentally different kind of “unfair” than the advantage conferred by having more time and resources to train. Social justice activists would likely argue that such assumptions arise from precisely the sort of deeply ingrained, culturally constructed biases that we should be encouraged to question: If we feel that the trans advantage is different, they suggest, it’s because, deep down, we don’t believe that transgender women are women. And yet, without getting into the thorny “What is a woman?” question, it is entirely possible to believe that trans identities are real and should be respected and that, in some areas including sports, biological sex matters—especially post-puberty. It’s possible to question cultural biases and still come away with that conclusion.

The philosophical question that needs to be dealt with in depth—and I haven’t seen it dealt with properly—is why a natal advantage in biological sex is fundamentally different from a natal (presumably largely genetic) advantage in future size, strength, and so on. The second set of advantages can be somewhat affected by the environment (training), but so can the gender difference. Yet we feel somehow that normal variation within a biological sex is fine for competition, but not variation due to differences between sexes. All I know is that I’d love to see an article on this, but haven’t, and woe to the person who writes it! (They’d better have the guts of Rebecca Tuvel.)

At the end, Young again proposes that there’s a middle ground, at least for college sports (K-12 sports is more difficult). Bolding again is mine:

Obviously, there is a huge swath of middle ground between “abolish women’s sports” and “assign athletes to teams based on birth sex only.” The USA Swimming guidelines, for instance, seem like a fairly reasonable compromise, at least if the experts on the review panels take seriously the responsibility to screen out transgender athletes who have a clear biological sex-related advantage over biologically female competitors. The NCAA’s decision to phase in those guidelines gradually rather than spring the new rules on Thomas after a season of grueling training is understandable. But the NCAA also created a situation in which the asterisk next to Thomas’s name was undeniable, and that could have been handled far better: for instance, by giving a co-championship to Weyant, the second-place finisher.

And here are the USA Swimming Guidelines:

In January 2022, the NCAA changed its policy so that eligibility rules in each sport were determined by the policies of that sport’s governing body—in Thomas’s case, USA Swimming. But then, in early February, USA Swimming changed its own rules, announcing two new requirements: Athletes applying to compete in women’s events must have at least 36 months of tests showing blood testosterone levels less than 5 nanomoles per liter (average female levels are 0.5-2.4, compared to 10-35 for males) and must provide evidence, to be assessed by a panel of three independent experts, that the effects of male puberty do not give them “a competitive advantage over . . . cisgender female competitors.” This would have likely disqualified Thomas, who had only started hormone therapy in March 2019.

But there is not an iota of evidence that those hormone levels eliminate any competitive advantage of transsexual women resulting from having gone through puberty as a biological man.  Again, we have no data bearing on the issue of “how to eliminate advantages” at all.

And it doesn’t make it any better to stipulate that “three independent experts” have testified that male puberty has not given a transsexual woman a competitive advantage. How could the experts possibly know that without the relevant data? And what would that data actually be?

h/t: Paul

45 thoughts on “Cathy Young on trans athletes

  1. It seems to me we have a model of how to deal with athletes of different physical abilities regardless of their gender identity. Physically handicapped athletes compete against each other. Trans women are physically different from non trans women (sorry for this awkward phrasing but …) because of their physical and therefor athletic development due to years of testosterone. This makes competition unequal. Seems simple to me.

  2. Still not certain about a solution for this problem, but it might be worth pointing out that even in some men’s sports competitors are divided based on size (wrestling and boxing). At least some of the time in women’s bodybuilder, competitors are grouped based on height and age.

    1. But wouldn’t that be sort of silly? Maybe it’s just me, but having read thousands of books and seen tens of thousands of art works, I just can’t accept this sort of what I like to call “nonsense”. Open to discussion, as always….

    2. Well, some “top men” could get together and declare that gravity is a social construct. They could codify it into law. Still, people would not start floating into the skies.

      1. “Who?”
        [Tobacco pipe in mouth while speaking] :
        “Top…. Men….”

        ^^^ did I catch that movie scene or no?

  3. Contention about this matter reflects two phenomena. One is the way a
    few determined, single-minded individuals can seize control of an issue or an organization and distort it for their own purpose. [This presumably explains how the ACLU came to favor book censorship in certain areas.]

    The other is the general “Progressive” animus against all standards of excellence or proficiency, which underlies the campaigns against the SATs, against school testing, against advanced classes, and so on. A literal reading of the words “equity” and “ableism” (and wokies are nothing if not literal-minded) ought to militate against all biologically determined distinctions. Before long, then, we may expect boxers the size of Primo Carnera (6’6″”, 260 lbs.) to demand the right to fight for the welter-weight championship—in the interest, of course, of “Equity” and “Inclusion”, a
    perfectly woke argument. But when we reach that point—and we are almost there—then the whole “Progressive” mythology (that egalitarianism = perfect uniformity) will be laughed out of court, allowing the culture to move on.

      1. And then you have Tyson Fury, who’s 6’9 and possibly the most technically proficient heavyweight we’ve ever seen. He also has a wonderful life story, lifting himself and those around him out of poverty and fighting through suicidal depression (and the obesity that came with it).

        1. There’s some doubt about how big an advantage height is in a boxing ring. I recall there being a lot of talk about it back when Muhammad Ali (before he was stripped of his title and license to fight for refusing the draft) had run out of credible challengers, and there was talk of sticking 7’1″ basketball player Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain in the ring with him. Here’s Ali, Chamberlain, and Howard Cosell hyping the prospect:

          1. Oh, it can be an advantage, but usually it’s more about the reach that often comes with a significant height advantage. Without the reach, height can just as easily be turned into a disadvantage by a highly skilled shorter boxer, unless the taller fellow is especially good at using the extra tools that come with only height. Fury is a great example of someone who knows exactly how to use his physical advantages.

    1. Yes, I don’t think we can ignore that much of this discourse is aimed not at the bourgeois concept of reform, but at dissolving bourgeois institutions.

  4. > individuals vary tremendously in their speed of reading.

    Very true. People should learn their reading speed coefficient in a particular language and calculate based on that (My English coefficient might be 2X; my French coefficient might be 0.8X). Of course, the coefficient might need some extra factors like technical jargon (I read faster through jargon in my fields of interest than … say, arcane legal jargon.)

    > I hate these “reading time” indications, since they steer people away from long pieces

    It’s a flexible gatekeeper mechanism, not quite a hurdle. People know what they’re getting themselves into and can make an informed choice, especially if they take their coefficient into account. It dissuades people who would otherwise not finish the article and, with any luck, stops them from reading the first sentence, scrolling to the bottom, and posting. Unfortunately, we know it is not always the case. (I swear that’s not what I did here. I just don’t feel like commenting on gender issues today.)

    And I definitely prefer them to ‘trigger warnings’. Sigh.

    1. Isn’t it easier just to see how long the piece is? And perhaps it would persuade people to read the article who otherwise wouldn’t. And shouldn’t at any rate, they give a range, say two standard error bars above and below the mean reading time?

      1. When I’m reading a piece (or particularly a book) I’m really enjoying, sometimes I skip ahead to see how much is left so I know to slow down to savor what’s left.

        Probably plays hell with my “reading speed coefficient.”

        1. Ken, I go one step further. When as a young teen, any book I particularly enjoyed I would stop reading about 2/3 of the way through and return the book to the shelf. One book in particular suffered this fate: ‘Bevis’ by Richard Jeffreys. I have two copies, both partially read at least twice, and I am now in my 70s. I am planning to give it to a friend to read so he can tell me the ending!

      2. Isn’t it easier just to see how long the piece is? Absolutely, a word count would be a much better indicator – people could then judge it for themselves, making an adjustment for the anticipated technical complexity depending on the source of the material if necessary.

      3. I had just that question last night. I had a newsletter from Nature with an article I wanted to read. It said 14 minutes and I had 10 before I wanted to watch TV. I decided I’d watch the TV delayed by a few minutes by using my phone if necessary ( You can do this with BBC channels). I didn’t rush and timed myself. It took 8 minutes! I’d prefer to know how long something is.

    2. One of the first forms I filled in when moving to the USA had “Estimated Burden Time: 5 minutes” printed on it. (1990-ish). I thought that was incredibly cool – and still do. Why NOT give the reader an idea of the general length something like a form or an article?

      And yes, do forget trigger warnings: they make me feel infantilized.
      (estimated burden time 1 min) 🙂

    3. They steer me toward longer pieces. one of my little joys in life is finishing a book a thoroughly enjoyed, and learning that there are six more volumes in the series.

  5. I feel that we can “respect trans identities” all we want, but when it comes to sports, it is self-evidently unfair for men to compete against women. How about this solution, if this is what it takes to appease the transwomen and their supporters: abolish competitive sports entirely!

    1. I’d suggest a refinement — no organized top down sports in the nonprofit arena. Like rugby at Stanford, back when, was not run by University athletic department (which, of course, even at Snodfart is incredibly tied into the commercial, not academic, world). Anyone can put up teams for roller derby or mud rassling, this being America, but schools need to stop sponsoring/controlling/profiting-from organized sports. Let groups form and do their thing. Like ultimate frisbee or rugby in the old days, or hacky sack, or ….

  6. I wonder what will happen if the data ends up showing that transmen are still at a sporting disadvantage compared to cis-men. Will there be demands to give the former “headstarts” to make the competition fairer?

    I watched the Sabine Hossenfelder video recently and thought it started out quite well and then went a bit off the rails, starting with when she claimed that, historically, men and women’s sport was separated to prevent it becoming “predictable and boring”. I don’t know if that is historically correct but I am sure that if the separation were abolished today, there would be justifiable complaints and the words used would not be “boring” or “predictable”. I, too, would like to see an article discuss the question of fairness and biological variation and other advantages existing within a gender. I think many of us have an intuitive feeling that certain advantages are unfair to a different degree – perhaps “grossly unfair” – but intuitions need examining and aren’t always right. Nonetheless, as I listened to Hossenfelder, I wondered what would happen in life in general if we decided to do nothing about the obvious big unfairnesses because of the numerous small ones which will never be eliminated.

    1. >Will there be demands to give [transmen] “headstarts” [over cis-men] to make the competition fairer?

      Of course not. Transmen are biological women and as we know, biological women’s interests take last priority in all these rights slugfests. (MacPherson’s Law.)

    2. Maybe I misinterpreted her, but I took Sabine to mean it would be predictable and boring because women would almost never be competitive with the men. Predictable because that outcome is a given that anyone and everyone would predict (a few inconsequential outliers no doubt) and boring because the prediction would be born out every single time (again, a few inconsequential outliers no doubt).

      1. It seems that WP has deleted the link to the YouTube video. For those interested, go to the channel Professor Dave Explains.

  7. I’m confused – what’s this “reading time” thing – is it a new WordPress thing?

    Or is it from that speed reader guy on the old TV ad – remember him? Glasses. Sorta big. Geeky.

    ^^^ I’m just having fun here – I know we all took his course and read wicked fast now.

      1. A bit of worthless trivia stuck in my head from childhood is that Batman’s sidekick Robin (Burt Ward) was a heck of a speed reader. Claimed 30,000 words a minute with 90% comprehension. Holy Crap Batman!

  8. I think criterion 3 is the best, and definitely the fairest. If the athlete possesses a Y chromosome, -or an SRY gene to be more precise- no competition in women’s sports. It prevents all the devious and speculative discussions about the significance of testosterone levels and the like.
    I’m sorry for the biologically male trans ‘women’ athletes, but their wish to fully become a real woman simply cannot be completely fulfilled. Reality has some say, and I’m hopeful it will kick in. One has to live with what life has offered you, and, in mammals, life does not offer a complete and thorough transition from one sex to another. I’d say to our (beloved) trans-people: it is difficult to accept, but live with it and deal with it. And for the athletes among them: stop trying to cheat, you’re not doing your case any service.
    I used to be very sympathetic to the plight of trans persons, but the exploits of the trans activists -biological men competing as women not the least- seriously cooled my sympathy, to put it mildly.
    I always wanted to be a fountain of knowledge and a ‘Uomo Universale’, but Internet beats me hands down every time. I accept and live with this failure, I’m reduced to someone who knows some trivia. Trans-women will have to deal with the fact they don’t make the top in their biological sex’s competitions. Deal with it and for the love of Ceiling Cat, stop cheating.

    1. I know I shouldn’t comment, it serves no purpose.
      But on reading your post – ugh…you filled my bingo card.
      But it’s not your fault that your that way – you have to ‘live with what life has offered you’ (vapidity alert). You haven’t been offered much, apparently.
      Thanks for clarifying that you ‘used to be sympathetic to the plight of trans people’ and now you decided to conflate stuff , and you decided to be a d#ck to ALL trans – in the service of fairness.
      Yes, our (beloved) (disdain alert) trans-people – they will miss your enlightened tolerance of their existence.

      Oh, Uomo Ultra-Maroon, please spare me any reply. If I want to engage in dialectic, I’d rather go over your head and read the trolls and bots on twitter.
      I see, by reading your post, that your chosen pronouns are ‘I’, ‘I’, and again ‘I’. “He has I’s but would not see.”

      (Apologies Jerry – not worthy of your site. I come for the great articles and your insights, I stay for the often wonderful comments, and I leave (with snark) at the stupid, the bigoted, the ridiculous).

      1. You tell me I should not bother to reply. What does that tell us?
        I still have sympathy and empathy for trans people, my ire is directed at the activists (always biological males that are trans-women, rarely, if ever, the other way round) who appear to be keen to destroy any sympathy for their case. The over the top activists, that state that a trans woman is a woman in all respects. That simply isn’t so. It is the excesses I oppose. Denying biological facts, forcing sports bodies to allow biological males to compete in women’s competitions, biological male ‘trans-women’ to be incarcerated with vulnerable females – resulting in predictable rape. Those kind of things.
        That is what I oppose. I stand with Navratilova and Rowling.
        I think these trans excesses will be instrumental in the ‘red tsunami’ in November (of course not only, US-ians for some unfathomable reasons blame Biden for the high inflation). But yes, you should look at yourself and say: Yeah, I contributed to that. Bingo!

        [The ‘I, I and I’ you should cherish: lived experience, remember?]

  9. Paul Viminitz is a philosopher who has written about this*. He says that allowing men to compete as and with women will mean the death of women’s sports. (And, I would add, the death of opportunities for XY-trans to compete because they cannot win against men. So the parasite will die itself as it kills its host. Problem solved, until they go find something else to destroy.).

    But getting back to Viminitz, he asks, But what is that to me? So what if women’s sport dies? Quoting Hume, there is no reason why I should not prefer the death of the whole world to spare me a cut finger. Surely it matters only to women athletes. (The business people involved with women’s sport will find some other way to make money.). If it matters to them let them duke it out with the trans activists who want to destroy their shtick. History tells us that when people cannot settle their irreconcilable differences peacefully and legally, but also neither can abide either the decision or the status quo, they resort to force of arms. Don’t make popcorn for that battle just yet.
    *Paulosophical Vimplications, WordPress.

  10. If men and women weren’t sexually dimorphic, we wouldn’t have men’s and women’s leagues in the first place. We’d just have open leagues where both sexes competed against each other. The reason for women’s leagues isn’t about their gender identity, but about physical differences because of their sex.

    As Young pointed out in that one excerpt, sports have never been entirely ‘fair’, because some people simply win the genetic lottery while others don’t, and life is going to be unfair for some people. The best we can do is make it as fair as practical.

    I’d go with an option already mentioned above, for varsity and pro sports, of sticking with just two leagues, but converting the men’s league to an open league (which many actually already are, e.g. you’ll occasionally hear about women as potential kickers in the NFL, and we had a couple girls on my high school wrestling team). Trans men and trans women would be allowed to play in the open league, while the women’s leagues would be reserved for non-trans women. And if people are unlucky enough to not have the physique to make it in the open league, well, join the club with the great multitudes of the rest of us who don’t have the genetics to be elite athletes.

  11. The hurt feelings of biological men denied the opportunity to participate in women’s sports do NOT outweigh the unfairness experienced by the women who are disadvantaged by allowing those men to compete against them. It seems that women are always expected to put the feelings of others first, be quiet, and suck it up. If transwomen are women, they could try doing a little of that themselves – or is that not the part of “womanhood” that they aspire to?

  12. By the way, as predicted by a law I read somewhere, the answer to the question posed in the headline of the Bulwark article is “No.” It’s worth a read, even if the headline is way too histrionic.
    Specifically the vagueness of the bill (one or all three criteria?) will likely by resolved as the bill makes its way through the Ohio Senate, which it hasn’t passed yet.

  13. In answer to Jerry’s question, I’d say the relevant difference between sex-based differences in athletic abilities and natural variation within a biological sex is that the former are systematic and predictable.

    But there is a further, more fundamental point. Suppose we were to accept the claim that variations are just variations, and we should not make any special provision for sex-based differences: this is not an argument for allowing trans-women to compete in female sport. It is an argument for not having any sex-distinction in sport. For if the advantage of trans women is just a variation, then so is the advantage of men. This line of argument wouldn’t allow trans women to compete in female sport, for if we took it seriously there would be no female sport.

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