In today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “play”, Mo expresses approbation for the World Cup as a showcase for Islam. Jesus sets him straight, but Mo never learns. . .
by Greg Mayer
For all sorts of soccer reasons, staging the World Cup in Qatar was and is a bad idea, but that’s not what I want to bring up here.
As was widely reported earlier this week, Harry Kane, the England captain, had planned to wear a “One Love” armband as a statement about human rights, especially with regard to homosexuality. FIFA then threatened to yellow card (i.e., penalize) any player wearing the armband, because in Qatar homosexuality is a crime. Under this threat, Kane, and the other European team captains with similar plans, relented.
I don’t know that there was any such connection in the minds of the Dutch national football officials who started the “One Love” campaign, but I Immediately thought of the Bob Marley song “One Love,” which begins
One love, one heartLet’s get together and feel all right
Since Kane and the other European captains can’t express the thought on the pitch, I’ve been doing so by listening to the song, and thought I’d invite WEIT readers to listen along.
On September 17, Maggie Mertens published an article in The Atlantic, “Separating sports by sex doesn’t make sense“, which I wrote about here two days thereafter. Mertens adduced a number of dubious arguments for her argument that in “youth sports”, which includes sports through high school (students aged up to about 18), there should be no separate men’s and women’s teams, but the sexes should be combined. My criticisms included Mertens’s failure to distinguish sex from gender, her claim that—against all the data—men don’t have average biological advantages over women in athletic performance, her reliance on anecdotes instead of data, and the unworkability of her “solution”, which involves grouping all athletes together in teams whose members have roughly equal abilities.
Mertens’s article was widely criticized, including, as you see below, by Jesse Singal and Martina Navatilova.
It’s also so so wrong… I expected better journalism from the Atlantic…🤷🏼♀️🤷🏼♀️🤷🏼♀️
— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) September 19, 2022
Perhaps the criticism—or The Atlantic‘s realization that it had commissioned a wrongheaded article—made them commission a new rebuttal to Mertens’s piece, which you can read below for free by clicking on the screenshot. The author is Steve Magness, identified as “a performance coach and sports scientist” and “the author of Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness.”
First off, this article isn’t about whether transsexual athletes should compete against cissexual ones. That heated debate he leaves for the future. Nor is he arguing that men’s sports should draw more attention than women’s, nor that men should be paid more; in fact, he argues against that. His argument is simply that Mertens’s solution of mixing males and females in school sports is wrongheaded, at least for athletes who have gone through puberty.
Magness’s point rests on the simple acknowledgment that, on average, puberty gives men substantial athletic advantages against women—advantages not seen before either sex undergoes puberty. The higher levels of testosterone (a steroid hormone) accompanying male puberty causes the development of athletic differences between men and women, differences that give men a performance average of 10% or more over women—even higher in strength sports like weightlifting.
Why is this important to recognize? For several reasons that Magness mentions at the end (see below), with the foremost being that if one allows cisgender men and women to have mixed teams, as Mertens suggested, the men would eventually nose out the women if teams are assembled by performance. And this is unfair to biological (cis) women.
Magness on the data:
When looking at elite runners—whether sprinting 100 meters or racing many miles—once athletes hit physical maturity, the best men have anywhere from a 9 to a 12 percent advantage over the best women. A significant gap can be seen in cycling, swimming, speed skating, high-jumping, and a variety of other athletic feats. The gap is even larger in sports that depend highly on strength. For example, when looking at elite weight lifters in the same weight class, the performance gap is about 24 to 30 percent.
It’s important to note a few caveats. First, most of the best research is on sports that are easily quantifiable. For example, there’s no way to directly compare the skill levels of elite tennis players to measure for tiny performance differences unless they play one another. What we know is that the less a sport relies on speed, power, or endurance, and the more it relies on skill, the smaller the gap is. In sports like shooting and archery, the difference between men and women is negligible at best. Second, the performance gap of course doesn’t mean that all men will triumph over all women all the time. My comparatively unathletic brother would get beaten by thousands of women in a mile-long race. And if my wife showed up to a local turkey trot, she’d likely decimate all the men. Third, because there is significant overlap between males and females in performance, female outliers can shine, particularly in niche sports with a small number of competitors (e.g., ultrarunning).
But at the top of the top of the athletic world, in widely played sports with elite coaching, the gap between the sexes seems almost insurmountable. Take the queen of track and field, Allyson Felix. The 11-time Olympic medalist’s best 400-meter time ever is 49.26. In just the 2022 season, that would have put her 689th on the boys’ high-school performance list.
None of this is meant to disparage the phenomenal women athletes at the top of their game. But if we stopped dividing sport by sex, elite women’s sport as we know it could cease to exist. We might miss out on Megan Rapinoe at the World Cup or the spectacle of Sydney McLaughlin effortlessly gliding over hurdle after hurdle. Acknowledging the performance differential should encourage us to do everything possible to make sure female athletes can keep competing at these levels.
He also considers whether the sex differences in performance are “sociological”, and can be ascribed to things like sexism leading to differential training or investment, and for several reasons rejects those as the primary cause of sex differences—though perhaps a part of the cause. The data show that in the past 30 years, despite an improvement in women’s training and a lessening of sexism, the sex gap in five sports—cycling, weightlifting, swimming, speed skating, and track and field—remains. Though performance in both sexes is improving, they’re improving at roughly the same rate, so that the puberty-induced gap has stayed about the same.
I think this is a fair and evenhanded piece, as it takes pains to give the caveats and to avoid denigrating women’s sports, which shouldn’t be denigrated. And he also gives the advantages of acknowledging the post-puberty data, which raises several questions whose answers are driven by both data and ethics:
The upside of acknowledging that sex differences in performance exist is that we can discuss the vital, knotty debates that emerge from this biology. For example, would creating more coed sporting opportunities before, say, age 10, keep girls in sport longer? How should schools and clubs handle a young female athlete who wants to play football even though there’s no girls’ team? Should we get rid of sex-based divisions in sports like shooting, where the performance gap is minimal? We certainly need to figure out better answers for trans athletes and people like Caster Semenya, who, because she has differences of sexual development, is allowed to compete in the 5K but not the 800-meter race.
I find the first three questions especially interesting, because they are the easiest to answer. If there is no difference in sports ability between boys and girls before puberty, why not allow mixed teams? And surely there are some women who would qualify to be on men’s school teams; why not let them in? Finally, if the average performance of men and women in shooting is about the same (I’m not sure if there’s a gap), why not let the sexes compete against each other, even at “elite” levels like the Olympics?
Issues like those of transsexual athletes, or people with disorders of sex development, pose harder questions, and I have no solution save create an “other” category, or have two categories: “biological men + transsexual and DSD athletes” on the one hand and “biological women” on the other. That, of course, has its own downside, including stigmatization, but to me the increased fairness to the many cisgender women who compete in sport outweighs other considerations.
To Magness, though, all questions must begin with the admission of a puberty-induced athletic advantage of males over females. Why do people resist what is such an obvious answer. Because many “progressive” ideologues don’t want to believe that there are evolved biological differences between the sexes. Ergo, the differences we see are due entirely to socialization.
Here’ the salutary results Magness sees in admitting the truth (note: he and his wife were both runners, but she competed better against other women than he did against other men):
To solve these questions, we need to first accept the premise that puberty can create unequal sporting ability. Doing so doesn’t mean that we stop fighting inequality or dismiss tricky edge cases. It actually should free us from arguing over what should be a noncontroversial claim. We can then shift our focus to making sure women have the space, resources, and opportunities to show their talents. We can acknowledge that though I might have run faster at my peak, my wife’s performance and achievements are undoubtedly more impressive. We can stop judging female athletes against their male counterparts and enjoy their athleticism on its own accord.
Given that Magness opposes mixed men’s and women’s teams after puberty, he would surely oppose something that the ACLU and the Biden Administration has supported: the right of medically untreated men and women to compete with members of the sex to which they say they belong. This would result in medically untreated biological men who identify as women competing against biological women, and only a witless ideologue could support that.
The only question I have about this article is this: how did it come to be? Did The Atlantic realize it screwed up by publishing Mertens’s piece and asked someone to write a rebuttal? Or did it commission both pieces to show both sides of a “controversy”? If so, Magness has the better arguments by far.
Now you might say that this is all a tempest in a teapot, but it’s not. The number of adolescent men who identify as women is increasing rapidly (and women who identify as men even faster), and that teapot is going to get pretty big pretty fast.
I’m not going to dissect this entire article from Nature; I’m too dispirited about how it, its American equivalent Science, and, indeed, nearly all scientific journals I read, are acting, tinting their science for ideology. You can read the article by clicking on the screenshot below, but I want to highlight just one of its assertions.
The author identifies himself, and it’s clear that he’s somewhat of a trans activist:
I am founding co-editor of the journal TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, and the author of a book on how sex classification is regulated. It’s naive to think that politics and social mores have no place in lawmaking, but seldom has policy been so disconnected from science and data. The rights of trans people, including myself, have been weaponized in a culture war.
There’s nothing wrong with being a “trans activist” if you’re fighting genuine wrongs inflicted on transgender or transsexual people. And to Currah’s credit, he does claim that one must use real data if you’re making assertions. If you claim that having transsexuals use the bathrooms of the sex they identify with” is a harmful act, then you have to show it, defining what “harm” really means.
Now that’s a tough call in many cases, as it involves people’s feelings, philosophy, “fairness”, and morality. But there’s one area where claims can be adjudicated with data, and that’s sports. The issue is, and has always been, whether transsexual females, born as biological males, should compete in athletics against biological women. My own feeling, which is based on data as well as on attendant feelings of fairness, is that such competitions are unfair to biological women who want to do sport. That’s because the data show that trans women, even after hormone treatment, retain athletic advantages that accrue during male puberty, making them more likely to defeat “cis” (non-transgender) women. And of course I reject entirely the view—promulgated by, among others, the Biden Administration, the state of Connecticut, and the ACLU—that men who simply identify as women, and have had no medical intervention, should be allowed to compete on women’s teams.
But here’s the bit of Currah’s article that seems to involve a bit of dissimulation (my emphasis)
The gap between research-informed, reasoned debate and gut-feeling absolutism is just as obvious in sport. In June, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, declared that “biology trumps gender” when hinting at moves to exclude transgender women from track and field sports.
Invoking biology is a rhetorical move, not a data-driven conclusion. It’s also wrong. From a medical perspective, sex is not the uncomplicated either–or proposition that many laypeople imagine it to be.
Those arguing for total bans on trans girls and women competing as girls and women rely on studies comparing the athletic performance of cisgender men with that of cisgender women. But that’s not an apt comparison. A better one would be between transgender and cisgender women. Sports researcher Joanna Harper at Loughborough University, UK, is one of a number of scientists who have found that hormone therapy significantly reduces athletic advantages (J. Harper et al. Br. J. Sports Med.55, 865–872; 2021). More research like this could clarify how hormones and other factors affect athletic performance. That understanding should guide policy.
And indeed, it’s true, as you might expect, that hormone treatment of biological men transitioning to women reduces measures of strength and muscle mass related to athletic performance. It would be surprising if it didn’t! But the question is not whether there’s a significant reduction, but whether hormone treatment roughly equalizes the athletic abilities of cisgender and transgender women? (By the way, it is fair to compare the performance of cisgender men with that of cisgender women if you’re arguing that medically untreated men who identify as women should be allowed to compete in women’s sports.)
And no, hormone treatment never asymptotes at athletic equality. For the article above, you can see this merely from its abstract (my emphasis)L
Twenty-four studies were identified and reviewed. Transwomen experienced significant decreases in all parameters measured, with different time courses noted. After 4 months of hormone therapy, transwomen have Hgb/HCT levels equivalent to those of cisgender women. After 12 months of hormone therapy, significant decreases in measures of strength, LBM [lean body mass] and muscle area are observed. The effects of longer duration therapy (36 months) in eliciting further decrements in these measures are unclear due to paucity of data. Notwithstanding, values for strength, LBM and muscle area in transwomen remain above those of cisgender women, even after 36 months of hormone therapy.
At the end of the paper one of Harper et al’s conclusion is this:
It is possible that transwomen competing in sports may retain strength advantages over cisgender women, even after 3 years of hormone therapy.
So yes, strength, muscle mass, and and muscle area are decreased by hormone therapy. But look at the last sentence in bold: equality is not achieved, even after 3 years of hormone treatment (far longer than the Olympics used to recommend). Why did Currah say that physiological and morphological traits related to athletic ability decline with hormone treatment, but leave out the critical result they never get to the levels seen in cisgender women?
In February I posted about twp related articles not cited by Currah (one study here and the other here), both reaching the same conclusion as the Harper et al. study: changes that occur during male puberty that give biological men athletic advantages over biological women can be reduced by hormone therapy in transitioning biological men, but never decrease (at least not over 2-3 years of observation) to levels seen in biological women.
Of course, more research needs to be done, for sample sizes are small. But the data so far show that changes in male puberty cannot be effaced with hormones, eliminating any athletic advantage of transgender women.
Now what to do about these data is something I won’t discuss at length; my view is that the data already show enough to bar hormonally treated transgender women (and untreated men who identify as women) from competing in women’s sports. And you can’t gloss over that data by saying, “well, yes, hormone treatment does reduce the athletic ability of transgender women.” That, after all, is not the right question.
If you haven’t read my earlier post, I recommend doing so, as well as looking at the three papers linked above.
Matthew called my attention to a tweet that highlighted this article. I was disturbed to read it, because it’s full of half-truths, distortions, and false claims that I didn’t expect in a magazine of the The Atlantic’s quality. The author, Maggie Mertens, is a writer and journalist living in Seattle.
First, what is Mertens calling for? Apparently for an end to the segregation of “school sports” and “youth sports” by sex.
So what are “youth sports”—do they extend past puberty? Because if they do, then you’ll have to deal with the issue of the differences in bone, muscles, grip strength, and other athletic-related traits that arise men and women after puberty. Since Mertens doesn’t give an age range, and doesn’t mention the word “puberty” in her piece, I’ll take “school sports” to mean sports from elementary until the end of high school: that is, from first through 12th grades, or roughly between the ages of six and eighteen. (Mertens implies below that high-school sports are included). In women puberty occurs between ages eight and thirteen, and in men between nine and fourteen, so nearly all high-school sports (8th or 9th through 12th grades) will involve youths who have already gone through puberty.
That means that the biological differences between men and women (Mertens attributes some of them to socialization—training—which may play a minor role) will already be manifesting themselves in the most widely-followed brand of youth sports: high-school athletics. Now I have no opinion on whether sports should be segregated by sex before the participants reach puberty, as I don’t know a good study of strength, muscle, and other relevant differences at that time. But we know a great deal about biological differences that, mediated by hormones, occur after puberty, giving males a performance advantage in virtually every sport except for very long-distance running. (I’m not sure about sports like shooting or archery, but am referring to ones that are heavily dependent on musculature, mass, speed, and strength.) I have discussed these in detail in previous posts.
Here are a few bit of Mertens’s piece I object to. Her quotes are indented, and since I’ve given evidence for biological differences before, I won’t repeat them here. But you can easily Google those differences or click on the link just above.
A.) Mertens constantly conflates “sex” and “gender.” The issue is one of biological sex: men versus women. There are just two of these, while gender can come in many varieties because they are social roles. Nevertheless, Mertens keeps using “gender” when she should use “sex”. After all, sex is the issue, not whether people who identify as binary should compete against one sex or another. The exception, of course, is if you consider “transsexual” a gender role, and in that case the issue has always been whether transsexual women who have had medical interventions during their transition should compete against biological women. (There should be no issue about biological males who claim that they are really of female gender should compete against biological females. They shouldn’t.) Few girls should have any medical treatment until they’ve gone through puberty, or so I think. My emphasis in the quote below:
School sports are typically sex-segregated, and in America some of them have even come to be seen as either traditionally for boys or traditionally for girls: Think football, wrestling, field hockey, volleyball. However, it’s becoming more common for these lines to blur, especially as Gen Zers are more likely than members of previous generations to reject a strict gender binary altogether. Maintaining this binary in youth sports reinforces the idea that boys are inherently bigger, faster, and stronger than girls in a competitive setting—a notion that’s been challenged by scientists for years.
No, it’s the sex binary we’re talking about. If we’re talking about gender, there may be a gender bimodality, with one mode at “male gender” and the other at “female gender”, but it’s more bimodal rather than binary because a fair number of youths assume other genders. Her statement in bold is about sex, not gender. And, for post-puberty youths, it’s just wrong.
B.) Men don’t have average biological advantages over women in athletic performance. Scientific research says that for virtually every trait you can measure after puberty that affects athletic performance, males have more of what you need to succeed than do women. That’s why we segregate sports by sex in the first place, for to do so would be unfair to women, who would almost never win in mixed competitions. Granted, some women are athletically superior to some males, but we’re talking averages, and the distributions are in general so widely separated that were the Olympics always a mixed-sex competition among school-aged athletes, you’d almost never see a woman on the podium, for that’s where people stand who are in the upper tails of the distributions.
Mertens says this:
Decades of research have shown that sex is far more complex than we may think. And though sex differences in sports show advantages for men, researchers today still don’t know how much of this to attribute to biological difference versus the lack of support provided to women athletes to reach their highest potential. “Science is increasingly showing how sex is dynamic; it has multiple aspects and also shifts; for example, social experiences can actually change levels of sex-related hormones like testosterone in our bodies in a second-to-second and month-to-month way!”
First she admits what she denies above: that men have no inherent advantages over women in athletics. But she achieves this dissonance by saying that the differences in strength, speed, musculature, and so on might be largely attributable to differential training, a form of socialization. I would argue, however, that, given the uniformity of results despite big differences in training of a given sex among schools, nearly all the athletic advantages map to biology and not training. The variation and “dynamic” nature of sex baffles me. Yes, testosterone levels may fluctuate, but not in a way that would average out the huge difference between males and females after puberty.
C.) Mertens’s dependence on anecdotes. Here’s Mertens’s argument for NOT separating school sports by sex:
The insistence on separating sports teams strictly by sex is backwards, argues Michela Musto, an assistant sociology professor at the University of British Columbia who has studied the effect of the gender binary on students and young athletes. “Part of the reason why we have this belief that boys are inherently stronger than girls, and even the fact that we believe that gender is a binary, is because of sport itself, not the other way around,” she told me by phone. The strict sex segregation we’ve instilled in sports at all levels gives the impression that men and women have completely different capabilities, but in reality, she said, the relationship between sex and athletic capability is never so cut-and-dried. “There are some boys who also could get really hurt if they were competing against other boys in contact sports.” Researchers have noted for years that there may even be more diversity in athletic performance within a sex than between the sexes. One recent small study in Norway found no innate sex difference when it came to youth-soccer players’ technical skills. The researchers hypothesized that the gap they did find between girls and boys was likely due to socialization, not biology.
Check out the Norway study, based on 16 men and 17 women, all past puberty (high school age). The skills analyzed were passing and receiving the ball (not diverse “technical skills,” as Mertens implies). But you don’t have to be a genius to know that success in soccer is dependent on speed and strength as well, and shooting as well as passing and receiving. Her reliance on this study as a reason to implement mixed-sex teams in school athletics is duplicitous.
D.) If we have mixed sex teams, how will we decide who gets to participate? Currently, at least in high school, your participation on an athletic team is based on your ability and achievements. If you did that for, say high school football or basketball, the teams would wind up nearly all male. Women would be disappointed non-participants—unless there was a quota system, a kind of athletic equity. When I tried out for Little League baseball, I was immediately cut from the the tryouts because I couldn’t handle grounders; I lacked the ability to play at even that level of sport. (I still remember the hurt I felt, and how I had to hide my tears from my dad, who was himself a great baseball player.)
E.) Mixed-sex teams are unfair to (biological women). Title IX assures women equal access to sports, as it should. Mixed-sex teams, if put together on ability, at least after puberty, would deny women that access. Further, Mertens seems to miss an important reason for separating male from female sports in schools. Emphasis below is mine:
While the need to separate athletes by sex is still held firmly by many as a way to protect girls and women from harm, many people advocate for moving to a more integrated and inclusive approach. The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by the tennis legend Billie Jean King, offered guidance on how girls and boys can equitably compete with and against each other: “If the skill, size and strength of any participant, female or male, compared to others playing on the team creates the potential of a hazardous environment, participation may be limited on the basis of these factors, rather than the sex of the participant.” In other words, if a girl on the football team needs to be assessed for her size and strength for safety reasons, so should all of the boys.
I still maintain this creates unfairness for female athletes given the biological differences between the sexes. It would still exclude women disproportionately from participation. But what I object to most strongly is the first sentence. The separation of the sexes is, I think, not mainly to protect women from harm (really? in tennis, high-jumping, running, snowboarding, ski jumping, and a gazillion other sports?). Rather, it’s to allow women to participate and excel, which wouldn’t be nearly as possible on mixed-sex teams.
I should add that Mertens does cite some women participating on men’s teams in high-school sports:
But some young people seem intent on challenging the binary sports system. In 2018, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, 2,404 girls played high-school tackle football, up from fewer than 1,000 in 2008. Around the country, the number of girls on wrestling teams increased to 28,447 in the 2019–20 season from just 4,975 in 2005. In 2019, Trista Blasz, a then-12-year-old wrestling phenom, was denied her request to join Lancaster High School’s junior-varsity boys’ team through the New York guidelines.
But note that this is for women playing on traditional men’s teams, while the issue is biological men playing on traditional women’s teams. I have no objections to having teams labeled “women” and “other” to deal with high-functioning women athletes, or some have suggested a third, intermediate category. But that has never been a solution for gender activists.
F.) Mertens’s “solution” is unworkable. Here’s what she envisions:
A different youth-sports world is possible. Musto has observed a swim team in California, for instance, whose athletes are separated by ability rather than sex; it has changed how the kids view one another. “It wasn’t a big deal if they had to share lanes with one another or they were competing against one another during practice. Gender wasn’t the primary thing that was shaping the perceptions of who was a good athlete or not,” she said. But as long as laws and general practice of youth sports remain rooted in the idea that one sex is inherently inferior, young athletes will continue to learn and internalize that harmful lesson.
For one thing, I don’t see youth sports as “rooted in the idea that females are inferior”. They are rooted in the fact that, at least after puberty, men and women are different, and different in big ways with little overlap. That difference mandates separation of the sexes on grounds of fairness, a fairness that allows women who want to do athletics to have a chance to compete and excel.
But seriously, how could you have basketball or football or soccer divided up by ability? That would create many different (and much smaller) teams within a school. How many football teams can you have? And, for most but not all sports (wrestling, archery, and individual rather than team tennis could be exceptions), this just isn’t practical.
Finally, I’d like to know what Mertens thinks about athletics beyond high school: college and professional sports. Why, given her assertions about biological equality of sexes and the effects of socialization, shouldn’t those be subject to her suggestions as well?
Read the article (it’s not long) and feel free to disagree below.
Here’s a bit of fallout from yesterday’s decision on the participation of transgender people in swimming.
As I discussed yesterday, FINA, the governing body of international swimming, diving, and other water sports, has issued its new (but possibly provisional) rules on competition of transgender athletes. They call for the exclusion of transgender women from competition with biological women if the transgender women have gone through the most critical part of male puberty; the allowing of all transgender athletes to compete in the “men’s” category; and the creation of a new “open” category for transgender women who have gone through most of puberty.
This seemed to me a sensible solution, since it’s male puberty itself that gives transgender women an athletic advantage, while basing the rules on testosterone level and period of lowered testosterone (or on nothing at all in some places) is confusing and less supportable by research.
Now, according to this article in the Times of London (click on screenshot), the FINA rules may soon be applied more widely. The article actually has appeared twice with the same link but two different headlines (the newer one includes rugby news), so I’ll put the second headline below. Click either to read, though you may get paywalled:
Let’s leave rugby for the end, as the first story reflects what may be a wider decision.
World Athletics is the world governing body for amateur sports, except apparently water sports. It also governs who can compete in the Olympics. Wikipedia describes its mission like this:
World Athletics is the international governing body for the sport of athletics, covering track and field, cross country running, road running, race walking, mountain running, and ultra running. Included in its charge are the standardization of rules and regulations for the sports, certification of athletic facilities, recognition and management of world records, and the organisation and sanctioning of athletics competitions, including the World Athletics Championships. The organisation’s president is Sebastian Coe of the United Kingdom, who was elected in 2015 and re-elected unopposed in 2019 for a further four years.
President Coe just issued a statement implying that his organization is likely to follow FINA in other sports, and these sports may be many. As the Times reported in the earlier story:
World Athletics is likely to follow swimming in imposing a ban on transgender athletes from elite women’s races, with its president, Lord Coe, stressing that “biology trumps gender” when it comes to fairness in competition.
Football’s world governing body, Fifa, is also considering following the international swimming federation Fina’s new policy, which states that anyone who has gone through male puberty cannot take part in female competitions regardless of whether they have transitioned to become a woman.
Fina plans to create an open category and a protected female category. Coe said athletics’ rules are being reviewed but he made it clear which side of the argument he falls on and applauded swimming for its stance.
“We see an international federation asserting its primacy in setting rules, regulations and policies that are in the best interest of its sport,” Coe said. “This is as it should be. We have always believed, and repeated constantly, that biology trumps gender and we will continue to review our regulations in line with this.
“My responsibility is to protect the integrity of women’s sport and we take that very seriously. If it means that we have to make adjustments to protocols going forward, we will. And I’ve always made it clear.
“If we ever get pushed into a corner to that point where we’re making a judgment about fairness or inclusion, I will always fall down on the side of fairness. You have to, you have to, and that’s my responsibility.”
. . . On the debate around the participation of transgender athletes specifically, Coe added: “Transgender is a societal issue, it’s not a new issue. But, in sport, it certainly is. And, as you know, in 2019, we brought into alignment our DSD and our transgender regulations. And, again, in transgender, that is something that we are also looking at.
“Biology trumps gender” is the operant phrase here, but I’m not sure how much influence Coe has on the rules concocted by his association.
Below Coe takes up the issue of whether these new sports rules reflect “transphobia” or other animus against transgender people, and he denies it, as do all of us who think the issue of sports deserves a carve-out among transgender issues.
“If one of my colleagues here in my team suddenly becomes transgender, it doesn’t make a difference to me. They will continue to do the same job, they will continue to do the same job with skill and aplomb in exactly the way they were before they made that transition. This is not possible in sport. It is fundamental to performance and integrity and that, for me, is the big, big difference.”
Further, the FINA rules dictate that athletes with the “46 XY DSD” syndrome, who have a male X/Y chromosome constitution but with abnormal or ambiguous genitalia, must also compete in the men’s category. I believe Caster Semenya has this syndrome, but she was allowed to compete in the Olympics against biological women, winning several medals. If the FINA rules are adopted by World Athletics, she must compete against men.
As for football (soccer), the governing body is also contemplating adopting FINA’s rules, though I haven’t heard of any issues around transgender females competing in women’s soccer. (As always, the issue is about women’s sports: few people have any qualms about allowing transgender men to compete in men’s sports.)
Football’s world governing body, Fifa, is also considering following the international swimming federation Fina’s new policy, which states that anyone who has gone through male puberty cannot take part in female competitions regardless of whether they have transitioned to become a woman.
The FA’s [Football Association, the governing body of UK soccer] chairwoman Debbie Hewitt also said that any policy had to ensure fairness as well as inclusion. The FA is working on guidelines for grassroots football which may be different to those in elite competition.
Finally, the rugby news was added since I first read this piece two days ago.
Transgender athletes have been blocked from competing in women’s international rugby league matches, including this year’s World Cup, with football and athletics set to impose similar bans.
The International Rugby League (IRL) said it would use the end-of-year event to help develop a “transwomen inclusion policy” for the future which “takes into consideration the unique characteristics of rugby league”.
Note that there are two types of rugby: Rugby League football is a full-contact sport with 13 players on each team. Ruby union has less contact and 15 players on each team. Right now they have different rules about how transgender women can compete with biological women: Rugby union will adhere to the FINA standards, but right now rugby league uses a testosterone titer (see below). The International Rugby League, which governs the rugby league version of the sport, may well also revert to the FINA standards.
As noted below, the rules about who can compete in women’s leagues is a confusing farrago depending on the sport. Rules often rely on testosterone titer and duration of treatment, and there is no uniform standard. As the athletic advantages of male puberty apply across nearly every sport, I see no reason not to apply a uniform standard across all sports in which males gain an athletic advantage through puberty. Based on current research, the FINA standard seems to me the best present alternative. It can and should, of course, be re-examined as future research comes in.
Here are the current standards for transgender women’s participation in various sports as given in the Times:
Olympics The IOC encourages international federations to have their own individual policies and has dropped its previous guidelines for testosterone levels to be below 10 nanomoles (nmol) per litre for 12 months.
Swimming: Players who have gone through male puberty are not allowed to swim in elite female competition.
Athletics: World Athletics’ policy is under review but its existing rules state that transgender women can compete in female competition if their testosterone levels have been below 5 nmol per litre for 12 months.
Football: Fifa is conducting a consultation process but senior figures say it is likely that players who have gone through male puberty would not be able to play in elite female competition, or only with greatly reduced testosterone levels. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis at present.
Cycling: The UCI last week cut the maximum testosterone level allowed in transgender women riders to 2.5 nmol per litre instead of five, with a two-year transition period instead of 12 months.
Cricket: The ECB is reviewing its policy for domestic cricket which allows transgender women to take part in elite female competitions subject to approval by the governing body. The ICC’s policy allows trans women to play women’s cricket at international level if their testosterone level has been under 5 nmol per litre for 12 months.
Rugby union: Transgender women who transitioned post-puberty and have experienced the biological effects of testosterone during puberty and adolescence cannot currently play women’s rugby.
Rugby league: The international federation is expected to announce a new policy by the end of the year. At the moment it also has the rule of testosterone levels being below 5 nmol per litre for 12 months.
Tennis: The ITF also follows the rule of testosterone levels being below 5 nmol per litre for 12 months.
As far as I know, the American Civil Liberties Union hasn’t yet weighed in on the FINA swimming guidelines, but if you look at their page of assertions about transgender athletes, it’s likely they’ll raise a ruckus.
Here are the four FACTS asserted by the ACLU in large, bold type:
FACT: Including trans athletes will benefit everyone.
FACT: Trans athletes do not have an unfair advantage in sports
FACT: Trans girls are girls.
FACT: Trans people belong on the same teams as other students.
None of these are facts; they are all opinions, and the first and second opinions can in principle be tested. But I’ll leave the ACLU alone for now. By dying on this hill, they’re only making themselves look bad.
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?
Is his latest Substack column, skeptic and science writer Michael Shermer takes up the hot-button issue of transwomen competing in athletics against biological women—a topic engendered by the latest NCAA victory (there could be two more) of transwoman Lia Thomas. Thomas turned in respectable but not outstanding performances as a biological man competing on men’s teams, but since transitioning to the female gender (after puberty) and joining the Penn women’s swimming team, Thomas has racked up victory after victory.
I’ve discussed this at length, emphasizing the unfairness to biological women of competing against biological men who changed gender after puberty. We now know that the changes in physiology, musculature, and strength of transwomen, even after several years of hormone-restriction therapy, don’t make them equivalent to biological women. They remain superior.
Lia Thomas may be only the first big example, and people say “why beef?—this is just a one-off”, but that’s hard to believe given the number of men transitioning to women (far more than the other way around). This problem will recur, with transwomen having an undeniable athletic advantage over cis-women, and it’s best to address the issue now. Shermer does in the article below, and pulls no punches, as you can see by his title.
Shermer was, by the way, a competitive “ultra-biker” for many years, and knows something about athletics and doping. As the relevant bit of his Wikipedia bio reports:
Shermer has written on the subject of pervasive doping in competitive cycling and a game theoretic view of the dynamics driving the problem in several sports. He covered r-EPO doping and described it as widespread and well known within the sport, which was later shown to be instrumental in the doping scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong in 2010
Click the screenshot below to read; it’s free (but subscribe if you read often). The title alone is guaranteed to bring down the wrath of the internet on Shermer, but the analogy isn’t that far fetched:
First, a photo below, which is captioned:
ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 17: Transgender woman Lia Thomas (L) of the University of Pennsylvania stands on the podium after winning the 500-yard freestyle as other medalists (L-R) Emma Weyant, Erica Sullivan and Brooke Forde pose for a photo at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming & Diving Championship on March 17, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
This is one picture that says a thousand words. Why should I write more?
What do you suppose those three runners-up are saying with this pose? Clearly that Thomas’s victory was fundamentally unfair: all biological women are relegated to positions well below Thomas’s #1 slot. Note that they are not on the Penn team, and thus have no reason to support Thomas as a teammate.
Some quotes from Shermer’s piece.
According to Swimming World Magazine, since she transitioned from male to female, and subsequently transitioned from the men’s division to the women’s division in swim meets, Thomas has been “crushing the school records” and “is even rising in the all-time rankings: her 200 free performance makes her the 17th-fastest performer in history, and she is less than three seconds off Missy Franklin’s American record. In the 500 free, she ranks 21st all time.” She’s #1 now among current collegiate swimmers.
This isn’t fair and it has to stop. Athletes who are busted for doping are punished, banned, and in some cases disgraced for life. Trans dopers deserve the same treatment. Not because they’re trans but because they’re dopers.
This is not a trans rights issue. Trans rights are human rights and as such trans people should also be protected from discrimination, and for the most part already are. But blocking a biological male from entering a biological female division in a sports competition isn’t discrimination. It is enforcing Title IX legal protections of discrimination against women, and if not enforced it becomes an assault on the hard-won rights of women in the name of progressive woke ideology masquerading as social justice, equity, and inclusion, which in practice is actually injustice, inequity, and exclusionary. As I concluded my prior analysis of this issue:
Given the centuries-long history of women fighting to be treated equally and to enjoy the same rights and privileges as men, including and especially the hard-won Title IX laws that protect women’s sports, it seems clear to me that we should and must continue to support the rights of biological women unless and until scientific research and athletic performance evaluations make it crystal clear that the two bell curves perfectly overlap, and/or until there are enough transgender athletes to comprise their own athletic divisions.
No, it isn’t really a trans “rights” issue, for whence comes the “right” to compete against biological women over which, as a man who’s gone through puberty, you already have a demonstrated athletic advantage? Saying “trans women are women” does not settle this issue, because they are not equivalent to biological women in this area. And we have no idea how to “level the playing field.”
This is one of those issues where “progressives” are forced to embrace a position that is palpable nonsense, because they must adhere to the “trans women are women” mantra in every sense. If they don’t, they they violate the dictates of trans activism. In this kind of ideology, there is no room for heterodoxy.
But how do you balance the empathy we have for someone who feels they were born as the wrong sex against the unfairness that that such a person can perpetrate on many other people (at least three in the picture above)? The only sensible solution is to either create a third category or have an “open” category in which all trans athletes compete against biological men.
As I’ve said before, this clash of “progressive values” (respect for trans people versus women’s equality à la Title IX) resemble a similar clash: respect for women’s moral and legal equality versus “respect” for the misogyny of Muslim societies, which regularly treat women as second-class or even third-class citizens (much less denigrating LBGTQ people). Women are declared minorities, but so are Muslims, who are seen as “people of color.” And as MacPherson’s Dictum says, “whenever women’s rights clash with other dicta from the Progressive Left, the women will lose.”
And so Shermer concludes that transwomen under no circumstances should a post-pubescent transfemale compete against biological women:
There is a certain game theoretic logic behind the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in sports (for a full explanation see my Scientific American analysis on “The Doping Dilemma”). What I am arguing here is that being a post-pubescent male—even with the NCAA required one-year of hormone treatment—in a female sports division is a form of doping. Puberty is a Performance Enhancing Drug. The difference here is that when a post-pubescent MTF trans enters the women’s division in a sport, none of the other competitors has that same advantage of puberty as a PED. And short of allowing women to start doping in order to compete with biological men, the playing field is not—and never will be—level.
I understand that the costs of speaking out against this blatant unfairness are high in a culture itching to cancel anyone who isn’t properly woke, and that’s it’s easy for me—a former professional athlete who knows exactly how it must feel to confront such injustice at an un-level playing field—to propose a unified front among athletes, coaches, and especially sports’ governing body administrators to boycott any competition that allows trans doping, but this is precisely what must be done to put an end to this charade. Just refuse to compete and, if it comes to it, watch Lia Thomas swim in the pool alone and collect her unearned trophy at the end and stand alone on the podium as the only competitor in a rigged game.
In the end, he’s right, for the fundamental unfairness is overwhelming. Of course we should treat trans people of any gender with respect, use,the pronouns they prefer, and avoid discriminate against them morally or legally. But there are a few caveats, and sports is one of them. It’s time for us to stop being cowed by fear of being deemed a “transphobe”, and stand up for the three women on the right in the picture above—and all the women athletes they represent.
It is not transphobic to call for this kind of fairness. Although Shermer (and I) will get opprobrium for this, that comes with the territory. The unfairness won’t stop until people stop being cowards about the word “transphobe” and stop praising Lia Thomas’s victories as a sign of her courage. While her transition was courageous, her victories are the sign not of courage but of male puberty.
(Shermer has an earlier column on the same issue, concentrating on the ethical issues.)
We all know now about Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer born a biological male but who transitioned after puberty. After swimming for the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team for a time, she decided to take hormone blockers, and now swims on the women’s team.
While her performance on the men’s team was so-so, Thomas has become famous by cleaning up after joining the women’s team, breaking record after record and beating her opponents by substantial times. She may well break the records of famous women swimmers like Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin.
It is clear why Thomas was so-so on the men’s team but a champion on the women’s. Biological males differ from biological females in many ways that make them faster swimmers and better athletes in nearly every sport. As I quoted here from another source:
The secondary sex characteristics acquired during puberty in preparation for reproduction lead to measurably different body morphs between males and females (“sexual dimorphism”) across many physical parameters. Broadly, when compared with females, males are taller and have longer bones with narrower hips and wider shoulders; have lower body fat and higher muscle mass differentially distributed across sites, with more resistant connective tissue; have larger hearts and lungs, and higher levels of haemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen within the blood.
These translate into performance advantages in nearly every sport, including swimming.
It’s also clear from recent research (see here, for instance), that many of these advantages are acquired at puberty, and even hormone-blocking after puberty (testosterone suppression) won’t eliminate either physical or performance advantages of males, even after three years of treatment. (The International Olympic Committee used to require only one year of hormone suppression.) While Thomas has had several years of hormone suppression, she still shows the physical advantages acquired as a male who experienced puberty, and there’s little doubt that these advantages are making her a champion.
To deny the above is to deny reality. Thomas’s new record of victory largely reflects the physical and phsiological advantages over women she gained at puberty. While she identifies as a woman (and should be treated as such in nearly every area save sport), she is winning with the advantages gained as a male. This should be uncontroversial to anybody who knows the facts.
Yet it is controversial, but for one reason only: transsexuals are regarded as oppressed people and oppression means valorization. “If Thomas identifies as a woman,” the argument goes, “then she should be treated as a woman in every way, including sport.” Those who argue against transwomen competing in women’s sports use ideological rather than scientific arguments, and the result is that people get upset over the palpable unfairness to cis-women athletes. Recognizing transwomen as equivalent to biological women in every respect will, in the end, destroy women’s sports.
This of course is a sore spot for Thomas herself, who identifies as a woman and wants to swim, and on the woman’s team. Her repeated victories have upset a lot of people, some for good reason. Yet Thomas is also a sympathetic figure in many ways, as outlined in her new profile in Sports Illustrated. (Click on screenshot to read.)
Overall this is generally a good article, and properly sympathetic to the opprobrium that Thomas has received as a person. It’s odious to direct hatred at someone who feels she is a woman in every way and wants to swim as one. The proper thing to do is hash out the biological facts (now fairly well known) and then cooly and rationally discuss what to do about them vis-à-vis men’s versus women’s sport. That is not what is happening because of mantra “trans women are women” pretty much shuts down all discussion.
But reading this article, one cannot help but feel for Thomas after seeing things like this:
Thomas has been threatened and called so many names online that she turned off some direct messaging on her Instagram. She avoids mentions of her name online, especially comment sections. She told her parents not to engage in the fight. She asked her friends to stand down. She won’t criticize teammates she knows are rooting against her. “I don’t look into the negativity and the hate,” she says. “I am here to swim.”
Every day this season felt like a challenge to her humanity. Part of her wanted people to know her journey to this moment, to know what it felt like to be in a body but not be of that body. She wanted people to know what it was like to finally live an authentic life and what it meant for her to finish a race, to look up at a timing board and see the name lia thomas next to the names of other women. What it meant to her to stand on a podium with other women and be counted as an equal.
There’s no doubting her sincerity and frustration at the arguments swirling around her. She says she’s a woman and wants to swim as one, which sounds simple. But of course it’s not. It is those physical advantages of being born a male and gone through puberty that have largely made her a champion—advantages that will accrue not just to her, but to nearly all transwomen who want to play on women’s teams. And it’s hard to discuss this issue in the abstract without mentioning her name. But she is an exemplar of a new phenomenon, not a freak.
Many people feel like this person:
“We support Lia as a trans woman and hope she leads a happy and productive life, because that’s what she deserves,” one parent of a Penn swimmer says. “What we can’t do is stand by while she rewrites records and eliminates biological women from this sport. If we don’t speak up here, it’s going to happen in college after college. And then women’s sports, as we know it, will no longer exist in this country.”
I share these sentiments, not not quite as apocalyptically. But Thomasrejected these sentiments, in her one statement to which I object (emphasis is mine):
“It’s mean,” one Penn parent who identifies as a progressive but opposes Thomas’s eligibility says of the online and media bigotry directed at her. “Lia is a human being who deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. But it’s not transphobic to say I disagree with where she’s swimming.”
That argument is disingenuous to Thomas. There is no such thing as half-support: Either you back her fully as a woman or you don’t. “The very simple answer is that I’m not a man,” she says. “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”
No, the argument is not disingenuous, and yes, there is such a thing as “partial support”. You can fully support Thomas’s desire to transition, to be regarded as a woman, to be treated with respect and accorded moral and legal equality, and yet not support the “right” for her to swim on women’s team.” The question is not one of “respect,” but of fairness to others. Thomas, of course, won’t address her physical advantages, as that would be playing into the hands of her opponents.
Those who oppose her swimming for Penn include a substantial number of her teammates, who of course will not go public on the issue:
The Quakers’ women’s roster has 37 swimmers. Those close to the team estimate that Thomas has six to eight adamant supporters, maybe half the team opposes her competing against other women and the rest have steered clear of the debate. An unsigned letter, which the university said represented “several” Penn swimmers and was released through the school in early February, said Thomas was “value[d] as a person, teammate and friend” and took aim at the stories circulating about her. “The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values and opinions of the entire Penn team.”
Two days later, 16 Penn teammates sent an unsigned letter to Ivy League officials, requesting that Thomas be held out of the conference championship meet. The letter was organized by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist who heads Champion Women, a women’s sports advocacy group that focuses on Title IX issues. “If [Thomas] were to be eligible to compete,” the letter read, “she could now break Penn, Ivy and NCAA women’s swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete.” The Ivy League later issued an unequivocal statement that Thomas would be allowed to swim.
What is to be done in this case? The NCAA, which regulates college sports, has proposed a solution that, in view of the difficulties of implementing it, seems unworkable:
Four days before the video call, the NCAA essentially punted on the issue of transgender athlete eligibility. Previously, the organization had a uniform access policy based on a minimum one-year hormone therapy requirement. But in January the NCAA pushed eligibility guidelines to each sport’s national governing body. That meant USA Swimming would decide on Thomas’s ability to swim in the NCAA championships.
USA Swimming released new guidelines Feb. 1, laying out a series of requirements and establishing a three-person medical panel to determine whether transgender women have “a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.” The new guidelines set a ceiling testosterone level of five nanomoles per liter—half the threshold used by previous Olympic rules—that transgender athletes would need to register, continuously, for 36 months before applying to swim as a woman.
It seems as if there are two parts here: the hormone requirement and “whether the athlete has a competitive advantage over cisgender female competitors”. The hormone requirement will not answer the question of competitive advantage, and it’s hard to see how, at this point, any research will. Even the Olympics has, for the moment, rescinded its rule on transgender athletes and has no rule in place at all. How on earth can you assess a transsexual athlete like Thomas and decide whether she has a “competitive advantage over cisgender females”?
Well, the question can be answered partly by one’s performance swimming as a man against men and swimming as a transgender woman against women. And the answer is, “Yes, she has a competitive advantage.” So whatever her hormone levels, the two-part rule applied in toto suggests she should not be swimming on a women’s team. But many trans athletes lack such a cisgender performance record to serve as a “control”, and there the “performance advantage” criterion is useless.
In view of our inability to judge whether a transgender woman without this control has a competitive athletic advantage over cisgender women, I and others have proposed solutions: having two leagues, “cis-women” and “other”; or three leagues “biological men,” “biological women”, and “other”. Alternatively just use the same two categories of “men” and “women,” but stipulate that all transgender people must compete on men’s teams. There are problems of stigmatization here, of course, and no solution is perfect, but the least perfect solution is to ignore what we know about science and impose dubious tests on “hormone titer” (known, in fact, not to work) or “competitive advantage” (impossible to judge in a transgender athlete.) Short of having the kind of “control” that Thomas’s performance as a man competing against men versus as a transwoman competing against women, I see no way forward.
The Sports Illustrated article, as I said, is good. I was expecting a “woke”piece denigrating those who object to Thomas’s swimming on the women’s team, but that is not the piece that Sanchez wrote. His is much better than I expected. Yet there remain two statements by the author that make me think that his piece is indeed taking the view that athletes like Thomas should compete on women’s teams.
The first is this (my bolding).
This had been a season unlike any in her 22 years, and unlike any in the history of her sport. The shy senior economics major from Austin became one of the most dominant college athletes in the country and, as a result, the center of a national debate—a living, breathing, real-time Rorschach test for how society views those who challenge conventions.
No, that is not what the debate, at least for people like me, is about, for it implies that denying Thomas’s right to swim goes along with being “transphobic.” It is a “Rorschach test” on only one issue: what criteria should we use to determine who plays on men’s versus women’s teams? Science or gender identity? It is not a Rorschach test about whether or not one accepts the identity and value of transsexual people—who do challenge conventions and should be accepted just as gay people have been accepted.
This statement, though, angers me more:
On Dec. 5, two days after the Ohio meet, some Penn swim parents sent a letter to the NCAA asking that Thomas be ruled ineligible for women’s competitions. The arguments would soon become familiar to Thomas. Her puberty gave her an advantage over other female competitors. Science allegedly showed trans women had larger hands and feet, bigger hearts and greater bone density and lung capacity.
“Allegedly“? There is no “allegedly” here. The science is of course far from complete, but it does show without a doubt that trans women who transition after puberty retain some of the physical and physiological features that give men an athletic edge. Does author Robert Sanchez know those data? If so, why does he cast doubt on them? That is disingenuous. If he doesn’t know them, shame on him for ignorance. “Allegedly” is a word Sanchez uses to denigrate the science used to support the case that Thomas has an unfair athletic advantage.
It is a sign of the times that debating the participation of trans athletes in sports has become a largely taboo topic, for if you bring up the fairness issue or the science itself you are deemed a “transphobe”: a term designed to shut down honest debate about the serious issue of men’s versus women’s sports (serious enough, at least, to help engender the Title IX Act).
Thomas is simply wrong in asserting that “there is no such thing as half-support: Either you back [me] fully as a woman or you don’t.” She accepts no half measures. And if that’s her view, then I reject it, because “fully” means “as a woman athlete as well”. There are many people who offer nearly full support to Thomas (not half but 95% support, I’d say), and those folks include both me and the Penn parents quoted above. Can’t people see that being empathic towards transwomen and supporting their gender identity need not include also regarding them as biological women on every single issue?
Suzi Weiss now and then takes a turn on her sister Bari’s Substack column “Common Sense”, and this week recounts her trip to watch transgender swimmer Lia Thomas compete in the Ivy League swimming championships at Harvard. You can read the column for free (I think) by clicking on the screenshot, but be sure to subscribe if you read regularly:
I’ve been critical of the authorities allowing Thomas, a transgender woman, compete against other women swimmers, for she clearly has a big physical and physiological advantage over biological women swimmers, having nabbed several important victories. Although Thomas has been taking testosterone-blocking hormones, she began transitioning after puberty, and apparently retains her male bits (see article). In fact, her hormone levels violate the NCAA guidelines for this year. But because the regulations were passed after Thomas began competing on the Penn’s women’s team, she’s been grandfathered in (is that the right phrase?).
But although I think that Thomas, with her inherent biological advantages—advantages that appear to be maintained for at least three years after hormone suppression—should not be able to compete on the women’s team, that doesn’t mean I lack sympathy for her. It’s a hard road she’s chosen, and for sure she’s not doing it just to win championships. She swam for the Penn’s men team before transitioning, and clearly loves to swim. Granted, she didn’t stand out as a male swimmer, but surely nobody does these things to their bodies just to win medals—medals that will surely always be questioned. The best I can do is, while maintaining the moral and political equality of all transgender people, and also ask that their preferences (gender, pronouns and the like) be respected, also argue that it’s still unfair for trans women to compete against biological women in sport. It’s unfair and, if this continues, is likely, it will turn women’s sports into a mess, or destroy them completely. Apparently most parents of Penn women swimmers, as well as most of those swimmers themselves, feel the situation is unfair, but the swimmers have been somewhat silenced (see below).
The solution that most readers and I have hit on is to either have three categories (“men”, “women”, and “other”), which seems cruel, or keep the same two categories, with only biological women able to compete in women’s sports but anybody allowed to compete in men’s sports (a “men+ league?”). But that isn’t perfect, either, as both transgender women and men will have athletic disadvantages against biological men.
But I adamantly reject the label “transphobe” for people who think about this situation and decide that Thomas’s competing against biological women is unfair. But, as you’ll see, it’s that label, used in the same way the label “racist” is in discussions of equity, that strikes fear into people’s hearts and makes them shut up. Is it also “transphobic” to criticize the participation of medically untreated biological men in women’s sports, if those men identify as women? That’s allowed in several places and appears to be the Biden Administration’s position, as well as that of the ACLU. But surely it’s not “fear of transsexual people” that motivates most of the people pushing back against the participation of people like Thomas.
A few quotes from Weiss (indented), which I’ve summarized into four categories:
Thomas, 22-years-old and a fifth-year senior, is the star swimmer on the Penn women’s team—and a transgender athlete who swam for her first three years on the men’s. The tallest swimmer on her team by at least a head, she has to crouch a little to get in the Quakers’ huddle.
Thomas started making headlines in early December, when, at the Zippy Invitational in Akron, she set two national records in the 500- and 200-yard freestyle events. She beat her closest competitor, another Penn swimmer, in the 1,650-yard freestyle by 38 seconds. Since then, she has continued to smash records.
Lia Thomas isn’t just a swimmer. She’s become a totem in the culture wars, making abstract debates—about the tradeoffs between inclusion and fairness, about the tension between identity versus biology, and about the complications of treating sex as a mental fact and not a chromosomal one—real and radioactive. Her presence—and dominance—in the water has been confounding observers and many of the parents gathered at the Harvard pool to watch the Ivies. They wonder whether they are witnessing the beginning of the end of women’s sports.
. . . Thomas, an economics major with a minor in classics, is from Austin and started swimming at the age of five. When she swam on the men’s team, Thomas never made it to the NCAA Championship. Now, Thomas is seeded number one in the league and is poised to give Katie Ledecky a run for her money next month at the NCAA championships.
Believe me, if Thomas beats Katie Ledecky in any event at the NCAA championships, this is going to blow up big time, for Ledecky, just 24, is regarded by many as the best woman swimmer in American history/ From her Wikipedia entry:
Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky (born March 17, 1997) is an American competitive swimmer. Having won 7 Olympic gold medals and 15 world championship gold medals, the most in history for a female swimmer, she is considered one of the greatest swimmers of all time. Ledecky is the world record holder in the women’s 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyle (long course). She also holds the fastest-ever times in the women’s 500-, 1000-, 1500-, and 1650-yard freestyle events.
The NCAA’s ruling:
Most parents in the stands lay [the controversy] at the feet of the NCAA. They had expected that the NCAA would impose some clarity. Instead, in January, the NCAA announced that when it came to transgender athletes, it would defer to the governing bodies of each and every sport. Three weeks ago, U.S.A. Swimming announced its new guidelines, which are pretty extensive. For example, a transwoman now has to have her testosterone tested, and clear the 5-nanomoles-per-liter threshold for 36 months. This apparently caught the NCAA by surprise, prompting the organization to double back and announce that it would be unfair to transgender swimmers to implement the new U.S.A. Swimming guidelines this late in the game.
All this means that Thomas will get to compete at the NCAA championships next month. And that the parents of the female swimmers she’s trouncing are very annoyed.
Pushback and debate about biological differences between men and women.
Carole Hooven, the co-director at Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and the author of the book “T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us,” is an expert on the biological differences between men and women. Hooven notes a few of the differences, on average, between those who have gone through male puberty and those who have not: taller heights and longer wingspans, larger bones, and hearts, greater lung capacity, the structure of male-adapted muscles that are easier to build and harder to lose, and lean body mass. Some of these traits can be tamped down with drugs. Others can’t.
“Men don’t have an advantage over women because of one of these factors, but all of them put together,” Hooven says.
“It is not fair for women to race against transgender Lia Thomas,” tweeted female tennis champion Martina Navratilova recently. Diana Nyad, the legendary female swimmer who is the only person to swim between Florida and Cuba unaided, wrote in The Washington Post that “no amount of analysis can erase male puberty’s advantages. Perhaps a fairer plan is to give competitions a new ‘open’ classification: Cisgender, transgender, intersex—all are welcome.”
. . . and from the women swimmers:
I’m told that the Princeton girls are “freaking out.” Sixteen Penn swimmers sent a letter to Penn and the Ivy League urging them to uphold USA Swimming’s decision, which set forth much stricter guidelines for trans athletes than the NCAA’s. Three hundred other swimmers sent another letter to the NCAA in support of Thomas. There have been a ton of statements, too, from Penn (“Penn Athletics is committed to being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all our student athletes”); Michael Phelps (“sports should be played on an even playing field”); and Caitlyn Jenner (“We cannot have biological boys competing against women. It’s bad for the trans community”).
The Penn parents tell me there’s yet another letter coming down the pike, this one organized by them with the help of former Olympian Nancy Hogshead-Makar, which argues that Thomas’s participation is unfair. That one has 3,000 signatures, including from more than 100 olympians and Hall of Fame swimming coaches.
Silencing of dissenters. This to me is the most disturbing part of the issue. Certainly the participation of transgender athletes in various leagues is an issue not only worth debating, but one that must be debated, for it speaks to important principles of fairness, much less to Title IX regulations meant to give men and women parity in education, including sports. At that time the issue of transgender athletes wasn’t envisioned. Now I can understand why the other Penn women swimmers wouldn’t want to publicly
But the Penn couple thinks that Thomas’s comfort has come at the expense of their own daughters’ who they say have received “veiled threats” from the university when it comes to speaking out. At the meet, the announcer opens with a warning against “racist, homophobic, or transphobic discrimination.”
So it is no surprise that not one of the swimmers would speak to me; nor have they spoken on the record to any other reporter. It’s not that they haven’t considered it. “One of the swimmers on their team called my daughter and asked if they were to put out a statement, if the Harvard swimmers would too,” a Harvard dad told me on Friday night.
. . . One of the Penn moms says her own daughter warned her against speaking out. “She’s worried about getting into grad school, and she doesnt want my name or hers to come up on Google attached to this.” (Her daughter is hoping to get a graduate degree in biology.)
The parents say their daughters know it’s wrong that Thomas is swimming against them but that they will not risk getting smeared with the label transphobe.
What about Mike Schnur, the Penn’s coach, who is wearing a mask with a trans flag on Saturday night, where Thomas swims in the 100 yard freestyle? “Politically, he’s as conservative as they come,” says a Penn dad. “He just loves winning and loves his job.”
It’s this kind of censorship that stifles discussion around an important issue, and it’s fear of the label “transphobe” that keeps people from giving their opinions. What Woke people have discovered is that they can silence their opponents with simply a single word denoting bigotry. Or, in the case of Coach Schnur, a single design on a mask.
The rest of us have no such power—only reasoned arguments, which opponents are determined to ignore.