Those of us who have questioned the fairness to biological women of allowing transgender women to compete against cisgender women in sports have been tarred with the adjective “transphobe”. That’s palpably unfair, but such slurs are often used to shut down debate, as they have been in this case.
I wonder, then, what trans activists will call this new decision of FINA, the body governing international competition in water sports like swimming, water polo, and diving. (“FINA” stands for Fédération Internationale de Natation, or “the international swimming foundation”.)
The organization, advised by a board that included a “science group”, an “athlete group,” and a “legal and human rights group”, including transgender swimmers, has decided largely against allowing transgender women to compete internationally against biological women. (The policy passed with 71% of a vote from 152 members of FINA.) You can see FINA’s eligibility standards here, and read a summary of the conclusions by clicking on the NYT or BBC screenshots below.
From the BBC
The scientific basis of the regulations, which I’ll summarize in a second, came from this bit of the FINA report, which rests on a conclusion that’s pretty firm, and one we’ve discussed before (bolding is mine):
According to the Science Group, if gender-affirming male-to-female transition consistent with the medical standard of care is initiated after the onset of puberty, it will blunt some, but not all, of the effects of testosterone on body structure, muscle function, and other determinants of performance, but there will be persistent legacy effects that will give male-to-female transgender athletes (transgender women) a relative performance advantage over biological females. A biological female athlete cannot overcome that advantage through training or nutrition. Nor can they take additional testosterone to obtain the same advantage, because testosterone is a prohibited substance under the World Anti-Doping Code.
The policy, with the main points below, applies to all international (“elite”) competitions, but is likely to be adopted by other swimming (or athletic) organizations, which until now have had a confusing mixture of eligibility criteria based on levels of circulating testosterone over various periods. (USA Swimming, which regulates American college meets, recently changed its policy, which is still based on testosterone suppression and circulating hormone levels.)
- Trangender females can compete in “elite” events only if they have either not gone through male puberty or only part of it. As the BBC notes,
“The 34-page policy document says that male-to-female transgender athletes can compete in the women’s category – but only “provided they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 [which marks the start of physical development], or before age 12, whichever is later”.
The “Tanner Stages” of puberty, of which there are five, define Stage 2 for women as follows:
Stage 2 marks the beginning of physical development. Hormones begin to send signals throughout the body.
Puberty usually starts between ages 9 and 11. Visible changes include:
Puberty usually starts around age 11. Changes include:
- Testicles and skin around the testicles (scrotum) begin to get bigger.
- Early stages of pubic hair form on the base of the penis.
If you’ve gone past Tanner stage 2 by the age of 12, you appear to be ineligible. This would rule out transsexual swimmer Lia Thomas—who went through full male puberty before deciding that her gender was female—from competing in the “women’s” category. In fact, it rules out anybody who’s gone through full male puberty from competing. But the statement about age 12 is a bit ambiguous, and any readers who want to explain it are welcome.
- There are also rules for people with the “46 XY DSD” syndrome, a syndrome defined as follows by the National Institutes of Health:
A 46, XY disorders of sexual development (DSD) is a condition in which an individual with one X chromosome and one Y chromosome in each cell, the pattern normally found in males, have genitalia that is not clearly male or female. Infants with this condition tend to have penoscrotal hypospadias, abnormal development of the testes, and reduced to no sperm production. Some individuals with 46, XY DSD have fully to underdeveloped female reproductive organs (e.g., uterus and fallopian tubes), while others do not. People with with 46, XY DSD may be raised as males or females.
The FINA rules for these individuals are that they must compete against biological males. From the FINA report:
All male athletes, including athletes with 46 XY DSD, are eligible to compete in FINA competitions and to set FINA World Records in the men’s category, regardless of their legal gender, gender identity, or gender expression.
- The rules for female to male transgender athletes are these, which allows them to compete against biological males (from the FINA report):
Female-to-male transgender athletes (transgender men) are eligible to compete in FINA competitions and to set FINA World Records in the men’s category, except that: i. For the disciplines of Water Polo and High Diving, the athlete must provide to FINA an assumption of risk form (in the form set out in Appendix One to this Policy) signed and dated by the athlete or, if the athlete is a minor, by their legal proxy.
The risk form is in the FINA rules; this frees FINA from any responsibility for injury to transsexual males. Presumably Water Polo and High Diving are riskier for those born as biological females. This is the reason why the World Rugby barred all transgender women from playing women’s rugby: they worried that the strength and size advantages of transgender women would be dangerous to biological women in this heavy contact sport.
- Finally, FINA is working on establishing an “open” category for those who can’t or don’t wish to compete in the “men’s” or “women’s” category. From the FINA guidelines:
Athletes who do not meet the applicable criteria for the men’s category or the women’s category may compete in any open events that FINA may develop in the future. FINA will begin work following the final promulgation of this Policy to determine the feasibility of establishing an open category in Aquatics sport disciplines, in which an athlete who meets the eligibility criteria for that event would be able to compete without regard to their sex, their legal gender, or their gender identity.
My take is that, given the science we know so far about the strength, size, and physiological advantages conferred on men during their puberty, and the evidence that these advantages last several years (and perhaps forever), these rules are fair. What’s good about them is that they were informed by science, and can thus be modified in light of further scientific findings.
The fact is that although we have pretty good evidence that going through male puberty confers very long lasting athletic advantages, the studies investigating this are few. All I can say is that the data on puberty itself is better than the data relating testosterone titer to athletic performance, for which we have little evidence, and evidence that’s conflicting and more controversial.
Reading the NYT and BBC article together, I got the distinct impression that the NYT tried to include a lot more criticism of these rules than did the BBC. I may be wrong, but it seems that the NYT went out of their way in a news article to level criticism of the FINA decision. But read both for yourself, for given my animus against the NYT I may be mistaken.
But if you want to see the rules in extenso, without any outside takes from non-FINA people, read the report for yourself. The first 18 pages of the 24-page report will give you the gist.
h/t: Jez, Enrico