Transgender Athletes in Women's sports
Last week, news came down that Strongman Corporation was going to adhere to the International Olympic Committee's rules regarding transgender athletes. Essentially, athlete's can compete in whichever gender division they identify with, but trans females (male to female) specifically have to undergo testing to verify that their testosterone levels are within a certain range.
This news created a knee jerk reaction on the extremes of both sides. You didn't have to wait too long to hear the confused grumbles of social conservatives whose knowledge of the transgender community doesn't extend past the stage actors from their favorite Jerry Springer episode. And no social policy debate can exist without the social justice mob insisting that any dissenting view is really just an extension of some phobia or unconscious hate, which is the same as being a bigot, which is what Hitler was, .....so you're Hitler.
This issue starts with the discrimination that we take for granted. We are taught early in school that 'Separate but Equal', as we saw before the Civil Rights Movement, is not just unequal, but that it was a policy that mars our nation's history. It has always interested me how men and women can have a similar social institution, with different bathrooms and sporting leagues, without any hint of controversy. The only thing that makes sense is that the arrangement is so beneficial for both parties that no other version of that social arrangement could exist. For women's leagues to have been created separate from men's with no buzz from women's advocacy groups or feminists at large, it must have been obvious, I mean just painfully self evident, that there was a substantial and inherent physical disparity between the two groups.
This means that the origin of women's sports was not social or psychological, but physical and biological. No, women's sports were not made so that everyone who was feeling feminine at the moment could participate in a team building activity and preach tolerance and inclusiveness. They were made because the alternative, not having a separate women's division, would mean no female champions, which would mean no female sports, which would mean no female role models. And little girls deserve to have their super heroes.
So now we are at a crossroads. The division of classes between men and women, which the totality of society has long agreed needs to persist, is being challenged on something other than the physical and biological basis on which it was founded. Those with Y chromosomes who identify as female (and other shades of the trans/non-binary universe) seek acceptance for who they are in all aspects of society, even ones that were made specifically to accommodate a lack of Y chromosome.
The old explanation of being a trans-female, 'a woman trapped in a mans body', makes me think of a race car driver being stuck in the wrong kind of car. As unfortunate a situation as that is, the rules of the race don't concern themselves for the type of driver you are, but the type of car you are driving.
An interesting question is how level can these regulations actually make the playing field? The rule mandates a year spent at 10 nmol/L or less. Test levels are more typically measured around these parts in ng/dL; most meatheads know the numbers 250 to 900 or so as being the normal male range, and ng/dL are the units that range is measured in. Well, 10nmol/L converts to 289 ng/dL, which is at the 'low end of normal' for a male, while average test levels for women range from 15-70 ng/dL. Doesn't quite seem to breech the threshold of actual 'transition'.
Testosterone by itself, while a key player in male biology, doesn't even tell the whole story. We had one male member with test levels in the low 100's (well below the upper limit set by the Olympic Committee and Strongman Corp) who refused to go on replacement therapy. While having high body fat and a passive disposition, he still managed a 450 bench press and 600lb squat. Sure, it's anecdotal and not representative of the norm. But it highlights the myriad of other factors that contributes to male performance and how ill equipped these testing measures are to curbing them.
Of course, this all assumes anyone will actually follow these rules. Strongman Corporation is really just posturing here, since there is zero chance that they will follow up with these athletes and put the political spotlight on themselves by calling out the ones who aren't in compliance. And transgender or not, athletes (especially the good ones), play to win. As Russ puts it, "No one trains to get weak". If we're talking about serious competitors here, you can expect the same bending of the rules that you see from all other high level athletes with something to prove.
A few other things stand out to me about this, like, the fact that Male to Female transgender athletes are required to shoulder the burden of testing, but Female to Male do not. This very policy proves the point of an inherent advantage by competitors with y chromosomes, but it is made more interesting by the fact that Strongman Corp does not drug test to begin with. With the sport as somewhat of a 'Wild West' with regards to hormones and PEDs, there's an interesting discrimination angle that seems like a dream case for the ACLU. What was a reasonable attempt by Strongman Corporation to find a compromise that benefits everyone has inadvertently given ammo to both sides.
Some of the more impassioned defenders of a MtF transgendered's right to compete right alongside women have begun pushing the bar farther towards complete non-discrimination, arguing that the mere act of revealing yourself as transgender is too much to expect. My first impulse was an eye roll, prompted by the thought that a 'right to gender privacy' is nothing more than another in a long line of non-issues turned into monumental causes by this generation of social toy soldiers looking for a hill to die on.
But, actually having to flesh out an argument in print forced me to choose my dots more carefully before connecting them. I've always said that you make plans based on the way things are, not how you would like them to be and we are not yet in a social landscape free of confused looks, judgmental snickers, and misinformation. Expecting that those who have already lived that reality to further put a spotlight on themselves.... well, that sucks.
But is sympathy for those struggling to find a spot in society enough of a reason to not regulate the field at all? Even the International Olympic Committee and like sporting groups acknowledge that some effort needs to be made to keep the field of play fair. No accounting or testing of trans competitors means a free-for-all for testosterone and PEDs which would all but guarantee the re-writing of all women's records by trans females over a long enough period of time. Female strength sports, which have done so much to change society's perception of strong women in the last 15 years, would simply no longer represent women.
Aside from the inherent unfairness such a policy would cause to top level female athletes, the push back down the road will insure more division and negative sentiment, ultimately doing more harm than good to the trans movement.
When someone is close to a person who has struggled, especially for something as trivial as sport, it's easy to see how a case can be made for complete, unconditional inclusiveness, even at the expense of the bigger group. But, a future with no regulation whatsoever is the most untenable and unfair, which is why it is mainly being proposed by a small, emotionally driven group who seem to be characterized by a minimal interest in sport or competition, especially at a high level.
I also observed an interesting trend on some of the social media platforms: advocates for trans participation in women's sports were primarily female, while those against were largely male. While I didn't see anyone say anything to the effect of, "of course you would support trans women in women's sports, you're a woman!', I did see multiple people, (including Rob Kearny, oddly enough) point out how all of those in the 'against' column were men. I wasn't sure what to make of that. Are men more likely to be biased against trans women? It seemed like the tired application of identity politics; by loosely connecting your opponent to the 'patriarchy', you can render anything they say as being inherently bigoted and not worthy of a response, freeing you from the obligation of rebutting any of their points.
For the record, I saw several women voice their concerns about trans females competing in the women's division, but they received no engagement from the mob. Interestingly enough, the mob continued to insist that women as a whole were fine with it.
These interactions take me out of the conversation rather than pull me in. I begin to wonder about other things, like how long you have to spend in an echo chamber before you see any opposing view as coming from an inherently evil place. How many like-minded people do you have to cushion yourself with before you feel comfortable speaking on behalf of everyone else? How limiting are media headlines and twitter posts to your worldview that you stop seeing people, varied and complex, as anything else than the few labels you lazily ascribed to them?
Despite how some may interpret this piece, I am actually pulling for the trans community. I can only imagine what it is like to spend your life with your identity in such stark violation to a societal mandate. It must, at times, be a lonely and hopeless way to live. But pulling diverse groups together in a functional, sustainable way doesn't come about by imposing black and white rulings that cater to whichever group has the most hardship tokens. The real inclusiveness that so many demand won't come with half-assed measures that trade reason and measure for immediacy. It has to work for everybody.
Russ and I go more into this topic on this week's "Bromley & Russ". Leave your questions and comments!