Fine, let's talk about trans athletes
But let's dispense with the pretense that this is actually about sports at all
Fine, let’s talk about trans athletes. [groan]
Mainstream media doesn’t tend to pay too much attention to women’s sports. Right-wing media, even less —with a major exception for when there’s a trans person involved, at which point they will then become the world’s biggest proponents of women’s athletics.
For the past several months, there’s been absolutely obsessive coverage of transgender woman and University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas.
At last week’s national championships, Thomas placed 1st in the 500-yard freestyle, tied for 5th in the 200-yard freestyle, and took 8th place in the 100-yard freestyle event. And now her college swimming career is over.
Obviously, she’s a pretty good swimmer if she won an NCAA Division I national championship — but how good is she? By the way her story has been covered in media, you’d be forgiven to think that she was the aquatic equivalent of Billy Madison playing dodgeball. Okay, so, in her 500-yard win, did she set the world record? No. Did she set the NCAA record for that race? Also no (that would be Katie Ledecky, whose 2017 time of 4:24.06 is more than 9 seconds faster than Thomas’ 4:33.24 finish). Did she even set the pool record for that event? Yet again, no (Leah Smith’s 2016 time of 4:30.81 remains safe).
But none of this really matters. She’s going to be talked about for years to come like some sort of world-beater. Whether she was actually dominant or not is beside the point — at least in the context of the current panic over whether or not trans girls and trans women should be allowed to participate in girls and women’s sports.
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Do trans girls and trans women have unfair advantages over other girls and women? It depends.
Anyone who claims to know the one true answer to that question without asking a series of follow-ups is simply lying. Allow me to explain…
Which sport(s) are we talking about?
Did the trans athlete undergo a testosterone-driven puberty?
How long has this hypothetical athlete been on hormone replacement therapy?
Because if you’re talking about a 6’10” trans woman who went through a regular testosterone-driven puberty and has been on hormones for 6 months, we can probably all agree that this hypothetical person would have what many would consider an unfair advantage in sports like basketball or volleyball.
But does that same hypothetical athlete have an unfair advantage in gymnastics? Maybe not. That’s why the question of “which sport” matters. Similarly, trans girls who never went through a testosterone-driven puberty (something many states are trying to force them to go through, causing the type of unfair advantage in athletics those same activists and lawmakers claim to care so much about) don’t have any inherent advantage at all in any sport.
Let’s be clear about something: there is absolutely no reason at all to ban trans girls from playing on girls’ teams (and trans boys playing on boys’ teams) in grade school.
No possible reason other than to signal that these kids are “other” and should be treated as such by their classmates, that is. God forbid that other students and teachers just accept trans kids for who they are! *gasp* The people pushing for bans on trans kids in sports aren’t people who otherwise support trans kids (or trans adults, for that matter). No, no. Hardly. The people pushing for bans on trans kids in sports would very much like for everyone to delegitimize trans identities, entirely.
An 8-year-old trans girl1 does not have any advantage2 over any other 8-year-old girl in any sport. A 15-year-old trans girl who has been on puberty blockers does not have any advantage over any other 15-year-old girl. A 25-year-old trans woman who took puberty blockers and later began hormone replacement therapy later in her teens does not have any advantage over any other 25-year-old woman in any sport. None of this should be in any way controversial.
The second you call for a blanket ban on trans girls and trans women participating in school activities with other girls and women, you’re making it extraordinarily obvious that this is not, in any sense, about “fairness.”
It’s not about sports. It’s not about “fairness.” I wish the people pushing this line — and the press who echo it — would just be honest about it.
So why are states introducing bills that would force the girls and women in the above examples to either compete against boys or not compete at all? Because it’s not about sports and it’s not about fairness.
I say this with absolute certainty: if someone offered a compromise that would outright ban trans women who’ve gone through a testosterone-driven puberty from competing in college, professional, and Olympic sports in exchange for social acceptance and legal protections in education, employment, housing, public accommodations, health care, etc., the people currently yelling for trans people to be banned from sports would reject it outright. No such compromise exists, nor is it likely that it ever would, but if this was truly about saving women’s sports and ensuring fairness, it’d be something the anti-trans activists would jump at.
But they wouldn’t. Just look to the states.
Freedom For All Americans has a tracker on its website listing every active anti-trans bill making its way through dozens of state legislatures right now. There’ll usually be something with a name like “the Save Women’s Sports Act,” introduced as though necessary to, well, “save women’s sports” by banning trans girls from participating in school sports (Here’s Oklahoma’s version of it, but near identical bills are in various stages of passage across the country)… while also making it illegal for trans people to update their birth certificates (the author of the Oklahoma bill is the same guy who authored the sports bill), making it illegal for trans people under the age of 21 to access medically-necessary transition-related health care (again, Oklahoma), banning trans students from using school restrooms (Oklahoma’s bill), and banning trans people of all ages from using public restrooms anywhere in the state (again, Oklahoma’s bill).
What part of this combination makes you think that this is about “saving women’s sports” and not just making it impossible for trans people to exist in the state?
I could go through highlighting some of the egregious bills around the country and how they’ve been paired with other bills aimed at “saving women’s sports,” but it’d get a bit repetitive since all the states are pulling from the same playbook. But here’s something from an AP article about Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) signing the state’s ban on trans athletes:
“No amount of talent, training or effort can make up for the natural physical advantages males have over females. It’s simply a reality of human biology,” Reynolds said. “Forcing females to compete against males is the opposite of inclusivity and it’s absolutely unfair.”
Carlisle High School Senior Ainsley Erzen, who set the state 800-meter track record and has appeared at committee meetings to support the bill, said the law will protect female athletes.
“Iowa girls today and every generation to come will be able to pursue the things they love to the best of their abilities,” Erzen said. “Whether that’s chasing titles, records, scholarships or earning a starting position on a team. No girl will be sidelined in their own sport.”
When a reporter asked Reynolds to give an example of a girl outperformed by a transgender athlete, the governor didn’t offer a specific case but maintained the restrictions were needed.
That bill, like others, was given an “emergency” designation, meaning it was to be immediately implemented even though Reynolds couldn’t cite a single example of trans athletes winning anything in the state. This is common among anti-trans lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Iowa is currently/recently considering bills that would also ban trans students from using restrooms (even single-occupancy restrooms), remove “gender identity” as a protected class under state law, and a bill to make it illegal for trans people to use restrooms anywhere in the state. Sure seems like this is about way more than “fairness in women’s sports.”
It’s not hyperbole to say that these bills are part of a larger attempt to drive trans people out of public life.
Also, while you’re checking out that post, be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page where I quote a 2018 ACLU article about the kind of nightmare trans people face if they can’t update their identity documents. That example — in which a trans woman was repeatedly outed as trans to coworkers and harassed at work until she quit that job, only to end up losing another job because being trans resulted in the TSA (she was a truck driver) refusing to run a legally necessary background check she needed for work — shows how something as small as not being able to update legal identity documents can make life a living hell for trans people.
What laws around things like restrooms and restrictions on updating identifying documents do is to create a world in which trans people are obligated to out themselves as trans to people all day, every day. Should a trans woman have to announce to bouncers and bartenders that she’s trans before getting a drink? Should a trans man have to decide whether to break the law by using a men’s restroom or loudly signal to everyone in a restaurant that his birth certificate says “female” by walking into a women’s restroom? Because that’s what these bills are advocating for: a world where trans people have to essentially wear a big neon sign disclosing their medical history to everyone around them.3 That sort of extremely private information is not the type of thing strangers 2 tables over have any inherent right to know. If someone isn’t your doctor or romantic partner, there’s no legitimate argument for why that person has any right to know what kind of genitals you were born with. That’s just the truth.
When you create a legal system in which trans people are forced to repeatedly out themselves, you’re creating a system designed to never fully accept them as people. In 2016, a Wisconsin school reportedly forced a trans boy to wear a bright green wristband to ensure that school security guards (who had been instructed to be on the lookout for “students who appear to be going into the ‘wrong’ restroom”) could catch him if he used the boys’ restroom. This is about surveillance and social exclusion.
If the NCAA, the International Olympic Committee, or professional sports leagues want to reevaluate their standards to prevent trans athletes who may have unfair advantages in various sports from competing, that’s one thing. However…
Be warned that it’s actually hard to argue that the NCAA, IOC, or pro leagues have their current standards of gatekeeping wrong. As many articles have pointed out, Lia Thomas is the first trans woman (that we know of) to win an NCAA Division I national championship in any sport. And Laurel Hubbard’s last place finish (technically, she got a “did not finish” after failing to lift the starting weight) in weightlifting during the Tokyo Olympics marked the first time a trans woman had even qualified for the Olympics (that we know of).
But by all means, if trans athletes start making up disproportionately large percentages4 of competitors and winners at the Olympics, I’ll be among the first to say, “Yeah, something’s not right here. Time to reevaluate.”
Trans athletes have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2004. During that span, there have been 24,158 female competitors in the Summer Olympics, with just 1 of them being trans (0.004%). Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that 0.5% of the population is trans. That means that you would expect more than 120 of those competitors to be trans, rather than just 1. I point this out not to argue that there should have been 120 trans competitors (or any set number) in the Olympics during that span, but to highlight the point that there is no standard by which trans athletes are “dominating.”
This isn’t a new argument, anyway. In 1976, tennis player Renée Richards successfully fought for the right to compete in the Women’s U.S. Open. People freaked out5, and The New York Times printed a letter to the editor that warned that if Richards was allowed to compete, “Women’s sports will be taken over by a giant race of surgically created women.”
That was more than 45 years ago! How much longer until this supposed “race of surgically created women” destroys women’s sports? As I pointed out, we’re still a very, very, very long way before trans athletes even have proportional representation (which probably won’t ever even happen) in competitive sports, let alone are dominating in such a way that the existence of those athletes threatens its integrity.
And let’s all remember the time anti-trans rules caused an instance of an actual “unfair advantage.”
Mack Beggs is trans. Here is a photo of him after winning the 110-pound division wrestling state championship… in the girls division. He didn’t want this.
Beggs is a trans man in his early 20s now, but back in 2017 and 2018, he was a boy in his teens who loved wrestling and wanted nothing more than to compete on his high school’s wrestling team against other boys. Unfortunately, the state’s rules banned him from competing against boys since his birth certificate said “female.” That left him with a few options, none of them good:
He could simply not participate in school sports.
He could choose to wrestle in the girls’ division.
Neither option was fair to Beggs, nor was the second option fair to actual girls in Texas. But thanks to the state’s laser focus on important issues like making sure trans girls weren’t able to participate in school sports against other girls because they’d have an “unfair advantage,” the state actually created an instance of a trans athlete having unfair advantages in competition. Great job, guys!
Being on testosterone, Beggs had an advantage over girls. Anti-trans politicians in Texas were to blame. From a 2017 ESPN article:
Beggs, who says he has been taunted with slurs such as "f----t" and "it," cited the testosterone as a reason for the boos, as well as ignorance and a lack of understanding on the part of his critics.
"I mean, I've been winning before when I didn't have testosterone, but now that, you know, I'm actually winning winning, people want to go crazy," Beggs said. He added that some people "just automatically want to call me a cheater."
"Like that kind of makes me feel like they don't care about my training or the work that I put in," he continued. "Because I've been to [state] twice. And it's not like I'm just doing this because I want to like call myself a boy and just dominate all these girls. What do I get out of that? I don't get anything out of that."
Given the choice, Beggs said he would "definitely" want to wrestle boys, "because I'm a guy. It just makes more sense."
The University Interscholastic League, which oversees athletics in Texas public schools, enacted a rule on Aug. 1 that required students to wrestle against the gender listed on their birth certificates.
This is likely the most severe example of a trans athlete having an “unfair advantage” in a school sport and it was entirely the result of anti-trans rulemakers. It’s truly a shame that the anger over this was directed at Beggs and not the people responsible for putting him in such an impossible position. (He went on to college where he wrestled on a men’s team, as he wanted all along.)
Since none of this is actually about sports and much more about just trying to drive trans people out of society, the arguments shift to fit the narrative. For instance…
The Federalist, a far-right anti-LGBTQ website run by Meghan McCain’s husband Ben Domenech, published an article in September 2017 titled, “Why It’s Ironic That LGBT Groups Are Complaining About Religious Schools’ Use Of Title IX.” The author, anti-trans writer Nicole Russell, decided to use Beggs as an example.
As it originally appeared (emphasis mine):
There’s also a distinct athletic advantage for men who transition to women and play on high school and collegiate teams. It’s so clear one would have to be blind not to see how fraudulent this is, given men’s innately greater physical strength compared to women. Transgender male-to-female boy Mack Beggs made waves earlier this year because he won two girls’ wrestling championships in Texas. It’s easy to see why, as a person born male, complete with the testosterone and build of a biological boy, he might have an advantage over female competitors in wrestling.
Okay, so, it’s clear that Russell wrongly thought that Beggs was a trans girl. Her referring to him as a “boy” and “he” multiple times was her trying to misgender him (but accidentally gendering him correctly). But here she was, writing, “It’s easy to see why, as a person born male, complete with the testosterone and build of a biological boy…”
At some point, Russell (or someone else at The Federalist) realized that she had it backwards, and tweaked the text to fit her argument.
As it was updated to read (emphasis mine):
There’s also a distinct athletic advantage for men who transition to women and play on high school and collegiate teams. It’s so clear one would have to be blind not to see how fraudulent this is, given men’s innately greater physical strength compared to women. Female-to-male transgender Mack Beggs made waves earlier this year because she won two girls’ wrestling championships in Texas while taking testosterone. It’s easy to see why testosterone injections might give someone an advantage over female competitors in wrestling.
She went back in, changed the accidentally correct references to Beggs as “he” to the incorrect “she” (see, it’s not about fairness… it’s about tormenting trans people), changing the argument along the way to read, “It’s easy to see why testosterone injections might give someone an advantage over female competitors…”
Yes, hormones matter, which is exactly what trans people have been trying to say. But when you’re having a dishonest argument and making dishonest points to fit your bigoted point of view, you twist yourself in knots to justify it. Go figure. There are real discussions to be had on this topic, but so long as one side is passing bills that have absolutely nothing to do with “unfair advantages” (if your bill includes K-12 students, that’s you!) while forcing trans students to undergo their bodies’ natural puberties (this is not a value-neutral move; puberty does come with a number of irreversible changes) and making it illegal for trans students to use school restrooms and all that, that side isn’t actually trying to find an “answer” to the “problem” they claim to be trying to solve.
If it was about “fairness,” Beggs would have been allowed to wrestle against boys. It wasn’t about “fairness,” it was about taking whatever steps were necessary to avoid seeing trans people for who they are. If the people pushing to ban trans people from sports actually want to have an honest discussion on this topic, it’d be a first for them.
Once again, I want to emphasize that 8-year-olds are not having transition-related surgeries or taking any sort of transition-related medications. The point of this is to highlight that it is puberty that is responsible for introducing any such advantages (or disadvantages) in the first place.
I’m referring to advantages on account of being trans/being assigned male at birth
“We can always tell. Always,” is a big anti-trans argument here. First off, no, you can’t. Some people are more visibly trans than others. This also goes into why so many of the same people who support other anti-trans bills also support the bills that make it impossible for trans teens to receive medical care (reversible medical care, even) until as late as 21: they want to ensure that people are as visibly trans as possible. It scares them that some trans people might not be as obvious as others. They want to ensure that reality matches the stereotypes they have stored away in their heads. This is deliberate. I go into more detail on this in one of my recent posts.
Since trans athletes were first allowed to participate in the Olympics in 2004, a total of 24,158 women have competed. Of those 24,158 women, 1 was trans. That means that trans women made up just 0.00414% of the total. And while it’s hard to say for certain what percentage of the population is transgender, the Williams Institute estimated that 0.7% of people in the US between the ages of 18-24 identify as such. If that number is anywhere even close to accurate, you’d expect around 170 trans women competing over that span. Trans women make up a disproportionately small fraction of female athletes, not disproportionately large. There is no possible calculation to suggest that women’s sports are in any way of being at risk of being overrun by trans people.
Richards’ case is actually an interesting one. She was 42-years-old when she competed in the U.S. Open. To put that in perspective, the oldest women’s tennis player ever to win a major WTA championship was Billie Jean King at age 39. Whatever advantages Richards had (she’s 6’2”) were probably offset by her age. The broader point here, however, fear that her entry into the world of pro sports as a trans woman would lead to a flood of trans athletes swooping in and dominating, turned out to be unfounded. There’s yet to be a true superstar trans athlete (LeBron James/Katie Ledecky/Serena Williams/Michael Phelps-level star) in any sport. Even if a trans person wins the occasional championship here and there, that doesn’t mean it’s cause for alarm. Any participant in any sport can theoretically win.