Peter McKnight: Critique of transgender athlete implies the controversy is a matter of biology


Opinion: Swimmer Lia Thomas is now all the rage — and the subject of considerable rage, too, as her feat was met with jeers instead of cheers, protests instead of plaudits

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In little more than one year, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas skyrocketed from a ranking of 462 to No. 1. And what’s more, no androgenic steroids were involved.

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In fact, it was rather the opposite. Instead of male hormones, Thomas took female ones — estrogens — because she’s a transgender woman. Last week, she won the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA Division I women’s championships, becoming the only known transgender athlete to win a Division I title.

But in the swimming pool, all you need is one transwoman to make a splash. Thomas is now all the rage — and the subject of considerable rage, too, as her feat de ella was met with jeers instead of cheers, protests instead of plaudits.

Her critics, including 16 of her own teammates, claimed it was unfair for Thomas to compete. Uniting under a banner proclaiming “Save Women’s Sports,” the critics insisted that she’s not a “real” — ie biological — woman since, they say, a man doesn’t change sexes simply by downing a cocktail of female hormones.

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The critique, therefore, implies that the controversy is a matter of biology, that all we have to do is visit our friendly neighborhood scientist and he — or she — will separate the girls from the boys.

Yet science will never solve the problem because it isn’t a scientific problem — it’s a philosophical one that concerns the ontology of sex, the logic of categorization and the ethics of fairness.

Biology (genetics), for example, informs us that girls have two X chromosomes while boys have an X and a Y. Yet girls with Swyer syndrome are XY, but most look like girls, are raised as girls, identify as girls and, it’s fair to say, are girls.

Similarly, boys with Klinefelter’s syndrome have two Xs — XXY — but are still boys in every sense that matters. And male, female and intersex people with genetic mosaicism have both XX and XY chromosomes.

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Clearly, genes don’t make the man—or woman. So, with the failure of genetics to sort things out, many sports organizations have turned to endocrinology, to hormones. The NCAA, for instance, permits transwomen to compete after completing at least one year of testosterone suppression.

Aside from reducing sex, and hence both men and women, to hormones — a dehumanizing insult our culture has been fighting against for decades now — testosterone (T) levels aren’t even a good predictor of athletic success. In fact, one study found that 25.4 per cent of elite male athletes possessed T levels below the normal range for men, while only 4.8 per cent of elite female athletes had high T values.

The reduction of sex to hormones isn’t, therefore, merely dehumanizing; it’s ineffective, since male athletes enjoy many benefits over female athletes aside from testosterone levels. Male puberty confers certain significant, largely irreversible advantages, including greater height and lung capacity, which sports organizations are only too happy to ignore.

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Indeed, the evidence suggests that male athletes on average enjoy a 10 to 12 per cent advantage over female athletes in most sports. And some of that advantage might carry over to transwomen even if they have low T levels.

This has led some commentators to argue that our categories are wrong: Instead of male and female categories, we ought to have an open category, in which anyone — male, female, intersex or trans — can compete, and a women’s category, which would be reserved for “real” women. But that just takes us back to where we started, to the problem of determining what a “real” woman is.

Considering the physical advantages men bring with them from puberty, it is not unfair to allow transwomen to swim alongside — or in Thomas’s case, way ahead of — cisgender women (women assigned female at birth). That’s not as easy to answer as it might at first seem.

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After all, fairness in competitive sports doesn’t require that all athletes have identical abilities and skills, or no one would ever win any competition. Instead, we recognize that some athletes possess special gifts, whether they’re the result of nature, nurture or a combination thereof.

“He is just a normal person,” Russian Alexander Sukhorukov said back in 2008, trying to put Michael Phelps into historical perspective.  “But he is maybe from a different planet.  A planet from a different galaxy.”
American swimmer Michael Phelps, who won 23 Olympic gold medals during his career, was never penalized for his significant physiological advantage over his competitors. Photo by Dave Abel /Post Media Network

Consider 23-time Olympic gold medal-winning American swimmer Michael Phelps, whose unusual physiology — including muscles that produce half as much lactic acid as most men — conferred on him significant advantages over his competitors. And before Phelps there was Australian gold medalist Ian Thorpe, whose size-17 feet effectively acted as fins in the water, rendering him part-man, part-Aquaman.

We don’t prevent these athletes from competing against mere mortals, nor do we begrudge them their natural gifts. On the contrary, we marvel at their genetic good fortune as much as we celebrate their hard work.

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Transwomen might also enjoy certain physiological advantages as a result of experiencing male puberty. Is this different from the gifts Phelps and Thorpe possess? And even if it is different, consider this: Much like Phelps, Thorpe and many cisgender female athletes, some transwomen no doubt enjoy genetic gifts that have nothing at all to do with being trans.

So how do we tease out the advantages conferred on them by their having gone through male puberty from those that are unrelated? If they must jettison all the qualities that give them an advantage over other women, but we don’t require cisgender women to do the same, doesn’t this effectively eliminate their chances of ever winning anything? And wouldn’t that be unfair?

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That also leads us back to where we started, to what fairness in sports really means. And while we consider that, it’s worth concluding this chapter of the Lia Thomas story.

After winning the 500 freestyle, she placed fifth in the women’s 200 freestyle and eighth and dead last in the final of the 100 freestyle. And while she won the 500 by 1.75 seconds, her time for her was a massive 9.18 seconds off the NCAA record held by the enormously gifted Katie Ledecky.

Even if transwomen remain part of female athletics, then, critics should probably delay sounding the death knell for women’s sports.

Peter McKnight’s column appears weekly in the Sun. He can be reached at [email protected]


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