So, this issue just will not go away… This week New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first trans woman to qualify to compete at the Olympic Games in Tokyo later this year (the 2020 Olympics have been delayed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic). This has resulted in much hand wringing, outrage and mud slinging by all sorts of people on all sides of the spectrum and with widely varying knowledge of the subject matter. Major news outlets and the Twitterati have all weighed in on the subject.
There have been the usual slanders in which the athlete has been accused of acting unfairly. This is a simply unsubstantiated claim. The bottom line is that no matter what you think about trans women in sport and no matter how well or badly informed you on the subject, the fact is that the rules that currently apply allow her to compete and as such she is acting fairly. You can’t be cheating if you abide by the rules. And besides every elite athlete pushes the rules of the sport as far as they possibly can and they often break the rules in the process. Elite sport is as much about ‘not getting caught’ as it is about the years of training.
Having said that every person and their dog seems to have an opinion on the matter at hand. Almost everyone (and especially those unilaterally opposed to trans women being allowed to compete) claim to have a ‘common sense’ opinion. Sadly, almost nobody bothers to do the necessary research into the issue. Their opinions are thus almost certainly just an expression of their prejudice (as in literally pre-judged). Sober reflection is usually best, yet people are quick to vent.
In South Africa, especially, the issues of intersex and transgender athletes gets conflated due to the prominence of the Caster Semenya ‘situation. Semenya is an intersex athlete who has been identified as having excessive amounts of testosterone and thus had been told to either take medication to lower her testosterone or not compete. Most South Africans assert that as she was ‘born this way’ and her elevated testosterone (as far as I can understand the result of undescended testes) is ‘natural’ she should be allowed to compete (and win medals for South Africa) without having t lower her testosterone. Many of these self same people say that trans women should not be allowed to compete (even with lowered testosterone levels) because having gone through a testosterone fueled puberty imbues them with certain physical advantages not available to most cisgender women. Exactly how Semenya’s testosterone fueled puberty is different to another person’s testosterone fueled puberty is unclear. A fact seemingly glossed over in the pursuit of ‘nature’. Surely testes whether descended or undescended are still natural? And how natural is it for a golfer to have his or her eyesight surgically corrected to an optimum level for their sport? We have come a long way from ‘nature’ and with the advent of more advanced surgeries and biotechnology this will be an increasingly fraught and ever more difficult position to defend. And while we are at it trans and intersex athletes take hormones and have surgical interventions to reduce testosterone levels. The hormones are very similar to those taken by cisgender women on birth control. Should we declare birth control ‘unnatural’ and ban its use?
Sport needs to be substantively fair and just. There are therefore rules in place to achieve this. These rules are subject to change as our knowledge deepens and as the sport is made ‘better’. Rules need to apply equally to all contestants in each event code, discipline etc. You cannot have one set of rules for one class of athlete and another set for a different class of athlete without splitting the event into two distinct categories. If you wish to retain the category there has to be one set of rules.
Given that sport is predicated on fairness and justice it is necessary to apply certain rules that will ensure fairness in relation to trans gender athletes. These rules need to be based on scientific evidence and as such these rules may change from time to time and especially as our knowledge deepens. But they must be applied fairly to all athletes in the category. They cannot apply only to trans or intersex athletes. If there are a set of rules that define the parameters that are allowed for a person to compete in a women only event, then these rules must apply to all people seeking to compete in that event. Any variation on this would constitute an unfair and discriminatory practice.
Furthermore it is my belief that different sports codes will need to have different criteria depending on the specific attributes that determine success in each code. The physical attributes of a successful weightlifter are significantly different to those of an 800 meters athlete. Gymnasts and hammer throwers are also physically different. Being trans may confer more or less advantages in different sports codes. So having different criteria per code/discipline is acceptable provided the rules are applied to all athletes in the code fairly and justly.
Having said that, we must ensure just and fair rules are developed, that these rules are based on our best scientific knowledge and that these rules are applied justly and fairly. We cannot allow cisgender bigots to use the rules as gatekeeping mechanisms to exclude transgender athletes unfairly. We also cannot allow transgender bigots to destroy women’s sport. And yes there are bigots in both camps. Those transgender people that insist trans people have a universal and unlimited right to compete in women’s sports regardless of any advantages they may (or may not) have are bigots. Similarly, those cisgender people who insist that trans athletes can never fairly compete against women are also bigots. Neither position is valid nor acceptable.
It also needs to be noted that elite sport is not everyday life. There are rules that apply to elite sports people that do not apply in ordinary life and to ordinary people. Elite sports people are denied access to certain medications that ordinary people take as a matter of course. Elite sports people have to keep anti-doping authorities appraised of their whereabouts at all times and consent to an invasion of their privacy. Elite sports people agree to subject themselves to various forms of testing and a loss of privacy and medical confidentiality. Ordinary people do not compete at elite sport and it follows that the rights and responsibilities of an elite athlete are not the same as those of an ordinary person and vice versa. We therefore can not let what happens in elite sports inform or influence how transgender people are treated in day to day life. Or let this inform popular thinking about the rights of transgender people in ordinary society. It follows that provided a transgender person can compete safely in amateur/recreational level sport this should be allowed. It is only at the elite level that these factors come into play. Likewise we should not let the fact that transgender people have (or at least should have) all the same civil and human rights as all other citizens to affect how elite sport is run. The ongoing fight for these human and civil rights is fundamentally different to the elite transgender athletes’ ‘problem’. Not everyone has the right to compete at the Olympics. That is not in dispute. What is important that all athletes are able to compete fairly and that rules are applied justly, fairly and in a non discriminatory manner.
Lets focus on this need for fair and just rules in sport and apply these rules fairly and justly to all contestants in ways that preserve the value of women’s sport without unfairly discriminating against people of any class or category. Let’s focus on developing the right rules that will achieve this end and then let’s put aside the anger, the prejudice, the politics, ideology and indeed the ignorance. We still have much to learn about transgender sport. We have much to learn from each other. We should start by listening. To do that we need to be prepared to learn and to do that we need to set aside our preconceived ideas, our ‘common sense’ and then perhaps we can move forward.
As an aside the use of sexist and transphobic language is a very good way of ensuring people won’t listen to you. All that it does is erect barriers and create conflict. Similarly refusing to hear legitimate concerns about safety and fairness will similarly do harm to your cause. If we all engage honestly and with empathy in an honest attempt to meet each other and acknowledge that we all have some prejudices and set these aside then we may find solutions and possibly even some common ground. As long as we embrace ignorance and prejudice and shout each other down we will never make any progress.