Overview:

I care what the science says about whether trans women have competitive advantages. But all of the experts seem to be either trans themselves or transphobes who do a poor job of hiding their hostility.

I wish we could have the sports conversation, because it's interesting. But we can't right now.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

As news broke of the British Triathlon decision to force trans women to compete against cis men in a cynically rebranded “Open” category, and British Rugby Union clubs gear up for a vote of their own, I find myself exhausted by a public conversation that is hopelessly broken yet will not go away.

Because I’m trans, my friends ask me about trans women in sports, and let me say up front: I really hate this conversation. Whatever sporting advantages trans women may have as a group, I do not possess them. I would have my ass kicked at virtually all sports by virtually all humans, regardless of assigned gender at birth, gender identity, age, and, most likely, physical disabilities. Sports at school was just years of being bullied by PE teachers and classmates. I thought I could finally leave that behind, but now sports as an adult is apparently going to mean being bullied indirectly by transphobes, governments and sporting bodies. 

I’d actually just like it all to fuck off forever.

But for some reason I care what the science says about whether trans women have competitive advantages. I really want to know the truth of it. That’s really hard, because all of the publicly-available experts seem to be either trans themselves or transphobes who do an extremely poor job of hiding their hostility. I get to spend my time reading articles and Twitter threads by people who hate me, and whoever I’m reading I suspect that they are making the evidence fit a preconceived conclusion. And when I read arguments in favor of trans women’s inclusion in elite sports, I find myself worrying they aren’t rigorous enough. It all makes my stomach feel queasy.

Whatever point is being argued, I know we are not actually talking about sports. It’s like when my brother and I spoke for the first time in years two Christmases ago, and instead of talking about our actual feelings towards each other we spent the entire time arguing about tax policy. The transphobes are actually saying “It’s good for trans people to be othered and excluded from public life,” and the trans women are actually saying “There are quite a lot of people who would be happier if people like me were dead and please could you not assist them in painting us as predatory males?” Except for some reason this conversation uses blood testosterone levels and puberty stages as a proxy.

The transphobes are actually saying, “It’s good for trans people to be othered and excluded from public life,” and the trans women are actually saying, “There are quite a lot of people who would be happier if people like me were dead, and please could you not assist them in thinking of us as predatory males?”

Ultimately it doesn’t even matter, because “should trans women compete in the women’s category?” is not a scientific question. Even if you could demonstrate a clear physical advantage, the question of whether to include trans women would still be one for philosophy and ethics, not science. As Nathan J. Robinson has argued, “If trans women are women, then of course they should get to compete in women’s sports.” End of conversation. 

Except I’m not sure I believe this.

All the committed trans allies I know will affirm that trans women are women. When transphobes say “Taking a few hormones or having surgery won’t make you a woman!” they say “Correct! Trans women were always women.” They aver that trans women who cannot or do not transition medically for any reason are still valid. If we’re really serious about that, then Lia Thomas should have competed in the women’s event before she began any medical transition. Caitlyn Jenner’s Olympic records were women’s records. A sprinter could go through a full testosterone puberty, train on the men’s team to Olympic level, and then come out as trans and race immediately in the women’s division and there would be no problem with that. 

I think that would challenge most people’s intuitions about fairness. It challenges mine. But if you’re serious that trans women are women, you’d need to explain what’s wrong with that logic. 

The discussion as it’s currently conducted also just denies the validity of non-binary people, because they just make things too complicated. If we care about inclusion, though, we should start thinking of that now. If it’s about biology, a single non-binary category doesn’t make sense because some are assigned male at birth and some assigned female at birth; some transition hormonally and some don’t. Separate categories for AFAB and AMAB non-binary people would also be preposterous and offensive. Ultimately, I hope we’ll go to some other system of classification entirely. 

Why do gendered categories even exist in sport? Some people say they are there to protect women. That if men and women competed in the same events, (a) women would never get a chance to win, and (b) women would be at increased risk of injury. Coincidentally, the people who advance this explanation all want to exclude trans women from women’s sport. The position assumes women are physically inferior to men. This is a major reason why critics of the trans-exclusionary position say it is anti-feminist. Regardless, now I’ve asked this question and—fuck—that’s a question for a sports historian, which is a whole other area of research. I hate this. Why do I have to know about this stuff? 

Anyway, I think the trans-exclusionary people’s preferred explanation is ahistorical.  Women were historically excluded from competitive sports altogether. Men did not benevolently segregate women into their own category in order to ensure they had a reasonable shot at winning. They excluded women from all sports entirely, on the grounds that it was unladylike, distracted from their duties in the kitchen, and that too much running would make their uteruses fall out. 

As the Digital Encyclopaedia of European History puts it:

1894: the French baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) refounded the Olympic Games during a congress at the Sorbonne as a hymn to virility, a union of “brawn and brains” of which only men were supposed to be capable. There was therefore no need to formally exclude feminine athletes, because their absence went without saying: they were not thought of, because they were unthinkable.

There are great feminist stories of women like Katherine Switzer, who disguised herself as a man to enter the 1967 Boston marathon, or Rena Kanokogi, who won a judo tournament in New York in 1959 but was forced to give back her medal when the officials found out she was a woman. In 1893, 16-year-old Tessie Reynolds set the record time for cycling from London to Brighton, but was not given the record because she was female. Women fought not for the right to compete in their own categories, but for the right to compete at all. 

There’s an excellent Twitter thread by Sheree Baker of examples of men excluding women from men’s sports only after women had beaten them. Some people have, from this, taken to arguing that women’s sports as a category only exists because men were afraid women would beat them in open competition. I think that might be overstating it, but it’s certainly been a recurring thread in the history of gendered sport.

But so what? Who knows what sports might look like in a world where girls and boys everywhere are equally encouraged to play sports and equally rewarded for success, where there’s no social penalty for girls being muscular or ‘masculine’, where equal effort, attention, and funding are given to girls, boys, men, and women in sport. We don’t live in that world. 

In the world we do have, are trans women at an advantage? Honestly, I don’t give a fuck. Except that some people are motivated to argue that we are at an advantage, to further the narrative that trans women are a threat. And yes, I know I’ve contradicted myself by saying I’m deeply interested and also that I don’t give a fuck. That’s because IDGAF here means “I am tired, and it should not be incumbent upon me to settle complex debates in sports science in order to guarantee my continued access to healthcare.”

By IDGAF, I mean “I am tired, and it should not be incumbent upon me to settle complex debates in sports science in order to guarantee my continued access to healthcare.”

Megan Rapinoe told Time, “Show me the evidence that trans women are taking everyone’s scholarships, are dominating in every sport, are winning every title. I’m sorry, it’s just not happening. So we need to start from inclusion, period. And as things arise, I have confidence that we can figure it out.” That’s the attitude I wish everyone took.

Natalie Washington also put it really clearly. If the people having this debate took care to avoid it impacting normal trans people’s lives, to distinguish between elite sports and school sports, and to prevent this debate from becoming culture war ammunition, that would be fine. But they don’t, because it is a culture war issue. That’s why ‘just following the science’ Ross Tucker can tweet defending trans-exclusionary bathroom policies and why Olympic swimmer turned scourge of trans athletes Sharron Davies tweets non-stop about toilets and puberty blockers. It’s not about sport.

I wish we could have the sports conversation, because it’s interesting. But we can’t right now, because almost everyone who would exclude trans women from sports would also gladly block our human rights tomorrow.

Jenna has written for the Guardian, New Statesman, Times Education Supplement, Salon, and AlterNet. Her PhD from the UCL Institute of Education studied the experiences of students in fundamentalist Christian...