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?