This essay, on the debate about transgender athletes in sport, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 3 April 2022, under the headline “From pool to track: disputes over trans athletes mustn’t make everyone a loser”.
If you want a case study of how not to handle the question of transgender athletes in sport, look to the treatment of British cyclist Emily Bridges. As a talented male junior, Bridges won three silver medals at national championships and seemed destined for the Olympics.
Bridges came out as trans in 2020 but had continued to participate in men’s events while transitioning. Having sufficiently reduced her testosterone levels, she became eligible to compete in women’s races. Her first such race would have been yesterday at the National Omnium Championships alongside the likes of five-time Olympic champion Laura Kenny.
Bridges’s inclusion raised considerable controversy. Then, on Thursday, cycling’s global governing body, the UCI, ruled that she was ineligible as she is still registered as a male cyclist and cannot compete as a woman until that registration expires.
It’s a situation unfair both to Bridges and other women riders. Having raised Bridges’s expectations and led many women riders to fear unfair competition, she was barred at the last minute – but only on a technicality. Currently, once Bridges is no longer registered as a male, she will be eligible to race in women’s events. And the whole debate will begin again.
Bridges’s case closely follows another controversy, when last month Lia Thomas became the first transgender woman to win the US college swimming championship. At the heart of these debates – and not just in sports – is the distinction between sex and gender. Sex refers to an individual’s biological traits, such as their chromosomes, hormones and reproductive organs; gender to social ideas about “masculinity” and “femininity” and of male and female roles. Transgender people have a sense of their gender identity being at odds with their biological sex and resolve it by changing gender.
How should society respond to the distinction between sex and gender and to differences of identity rooted in each? There is no single, simple answer.
When it comes to political and civil rights, we should defend those rights for all individuals whether they define themselves by sex or gender. For trans people, we should, just as we would for women, oppose discrimination in employment, demand equal treatment in services, support equality in marriage and adoption procedures and stand up against bigotry.
There are, though, areas in which the distinction between sex and gender is significant. Sport is one. In many sports, there are separate men’s and women’s competitions because having a male physique provides physical advantages. Men have, on average, larger hearts, bigger lungs, longer limbs and greater muscle mass. To give a sense of the advantage this provides, Bridges’s junior male 25-mile record (as Zach Bridges) is two minutes faster than that of Hayley Simmonds, the fastest-ever British woman at the distance.
All sporting champions have physical advantages – that’s why they are champions. But the advantages Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps had over male competitors is of a different kind to their advantage over female competitors.
This does not mean that men are “better” at sports than women, any more than the fact that world heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk would probably knock out flyweight champion Julio Cesar Martinez means that he is a better boxer. Nevertheless, without sex-based categories we would see few women in the Olympics or at Wimbledon.
To mitigate such advantages, many sports, including cycling, require trans women to reduce their testosterone levels. This is both unfair on athletes who may not wish to be subject to such treatment for non-medical reasons and a misplaced obsession with testosterone. Trans women who have transitioned after puberty retain many advantages of a male physique despite testosterone reduction. A study led by Joanna Harper, herself a transgender athlete and a strong advocate of trans inclusion in sport, concluded that hormone therapy reduces haemoglobin levels to normal female levels but strength and muscle mass, while reduced, nevertheless “remain above that observed in cisgender women, even after 36 months”. Another study showed that after a year of testosterone reduction, “the muscular advantage enjoyed by transgender women is only minimally reduced”.
One suggested solution is to have an “open category” for all athletes, irrespective of sex or gender, together with a protected sex-based women’s category. It’s not a perfect answer. It would disadvantage trans women who lose some of their male advantage in transition. And women’s sport may end up seeming like a kind of ghetto. Nevertheless, it’s an attempt to think through the conundrum of sex and gender in sport rather than ignore it or pretend it does not matter.
Some dismiss the worries as overblown hysteria, pointing out that there are only a few trans athletes and that, far from taking over sport, they are underrepresented. That’s true, though the numbers may not be so low in 20 years’ time. In any case, it’s a question not of numbers but of formulating principles and practices that welcome trans athletes without undermining sex-based categories in sport.
Some argue, too, that any restrictions on trans athletes taking part in women’s sports are “transphobic” because they suggest that trans women are not women. It’s an objection that fails to distinguish between sex and gender.
Cyd Zeigler is co-founder of Outsports, a website about LGBTQ athletes. He supports “inclusion for [trans] athletes in their gender category”. Disagreeing with that, though, he points out, is not necessarily transphobic. Many “who think that trans women should be treated as women in employment, in housing, in education, on their driver’s license” nevertheless also question their place “in women’s sports”.
To discriminate against trans people in the workplace, to refuse to serve them in a shop, to object to trans adoptions, to deliberately misgender as a means of humiliating someone – that is bigotry. To argue for sex-based categories in sport – that is not. To deem both “transphobic” is to diminish the meaning of the word.
We can only work our way through these conundrums with open discussion rather than dismissing disagreement as “hatred”. Such rhetoric only stokes fear and resentment and makes it more difficult to come to an equitable solution.
Trans people face considerable prejudice and discrimination. We cannot challenge that, though, by undermining women’s rights. The problem does not lie with Lia Thomas or Emily Bridges. It lies with sports authorities who have ducked the issue and those who would shut down the debate rather than work through the difficulties. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to debate this as grownups.
Good article. Can you point us toward evidence of discrimination faced by trans people?
A few reports, of varying reliability
Click to access NTDS_Report.pdf
Click to access USTS%20Full%20Report%20-%20FINAL%201.6.17.pdf
Click to access FAQ-10-2012-rates-of-violence.pdf
Out of interest, I’ve had a look at those links. Most of them derive from self-reporting questionnaires, without even an attempt at a control sample (and often done by advocacy groups). These should not be regarded as evidence.
The only one that looks like a properly-done study with a control sample is the Granberg et al 2020 paper, based on comparing the success of job applications from cis and trans applicants.
Their main conclusion is: (end of section 3.1): “The robust marginal change in the probability of receiving a positive employer response was 3.75 percentage points lower for a transgender applicant than a cisgender applicant. This effect was not statistically significant.”
So, overall, a possible but small and not-significant effect. They do report a larger and significant disadvantage for trans applicants when narrowing down to job roles that are predominantly male- or female-dominated (e.g. vehicle mechanic and child care).
I agree that we should try to ensure that trans people are not discriminated against in employment or public services (this is already illegal in the UK), though the above study suggests that perhaps it is already at low levels.
That’s why I wrote “of varying reliability”. But until we get more reliable studies, we have to make sense of what is available.
Agreed. I looked into those links because the modern fashion is to claim victim-hood status as a means of asserting “you’re not allowed to disagree with us”, along with the claim that any expression of disagreement makes people “unsafe”.
Self-reporting can also be hugely biased and culturally affected. An example (with regard to race, not trans status) is interesting work by Wilfred Reilly (not formally published yet).
He first asks his students (this is Kentucky State University) how often they experience unpleasant interactions with other people. Answering that, black and white students report pretty much the same rate.
Then he asks them what fraction of these encounters they judge to have had an element of racial motivation. The white students say (as expected) nearly none. The black students say about half. But if that were true then their overall rate would be twice that of whites, and it isn’t. Which means that — owing to cultural mood music — people are interpreting incidents as having a racial aspect when they likely didn’t. (Obviously this pertains to young adults in the US today; things would have been very different in the past.)
For such reasons I place pretty much zero weight on studies based on self-reporting with no control sample.
Nice to see some grownup thinking and commenting on this
issue. We definitely need some push back on the idea that
disagreement = hate.
Sex refers to an individual’s biological traits, such as
their chromosomes, hormones and reproductive organs; gender
to social ideas about “masculinity” and “femininity” and of
male and female roles.
Can’t gender be about other social or role ideas; about other
-inities, not just “masculinity” and “feminity”?
Do people only transition from “masculine” to “feminine” or
from “feminine” to “masculine”? What about from “masculine”
to some other -ine?
Though the numbers are also very small in typical populations,
there are other sexes, so called inter-sex conditions.
Wouldn’t it be more inclusive to include these people in this