Editor’s note: This is a companion piece to last week’s personal opinion, which can be read here.
The debate around transgender athletes competing with others of their gender has picked up once again with Michael Phelps saying “sports should all be played on an even playing field.” This statement was made in regards to transgender swimmer Lia Thomas from the University of Pennsylvania.
While it would be nice if the harm caused to trans people were enough to nip this debate in the bud, many of those advocating for gender identity-based separation in sports don’t care enough about trans people for that to matter to them. Trans people have their bodies examined, measured, tested, regulated and scrutinized in ways no others do and it has only become worse in recent years due to policy changes.
For example, Thomas was required to be on testosterone suppressant treatment for one year before being allowed to compete in NCAA competition as a woman and the NCAA’s policy is considered progressive. Meanwhile in the professional world, people like Caster Semenya, who is intersex and was raised as and legally is a woman, have been barred from competing in certain categories in the Olympics on the grounds of “biological advantages.” Semenya has had to advocate for herself in several legal battles.
The argument of biological advantages means absolutely nothing when advantages that aren’t correlated with sex are accepted. Phelps himself has multiple biological advantages that make him better suited for swimming than his peers, but he is allowed to flourish. His advantages are celebrated while Thomas and Semenya’s alleged advantages are regulated and required to be suppressed.
Whether trans people actually have biological advantages is debatable since there haven’t been many studies comparing performance before and after transition. Joanna Harper, who researches the athletic performance of trans athletes and is a distance runner, transitioned in 2004 and noticed she became 12 percent slower after starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Women who transition after puberty may also have larger bodies powered by less muscle mass after starting HRT.
Determining if people are able to compete based on arbitrary hormone levels and other biological criteria also creates further restrictions on what it means to be a man or a woman and increases the stranglehold of the gender binary. Biology is not even a binary, because intersex people exist and there are so many configurations of chromosomes and hormones that can make up a human. Trying to create black and white categories doesn’t work when even nature operates in shades of gray.
These categories seem to come under challenge only when trans athletes appear and experience success. The NCAA has had the same policy about transgender athletes for 10 years and only now have they decided to defer to governing bodies for individual sports. This decision came after Thompson broke two records at the Zippy Invitational and received backlash for competing as a trans woman. The decision made by World Athletics to prohibit women with high testosterone from competing in races greater than 400m was only made after Semenya won a gold medal in the Olympics.
It’s clear that the policy changes coupled with how the biological advantages of cisgender athletes are treated show biology doesn’t really matter when it comes to trans people competing in sports. The goal is to prevent trans people from experiencing success in sports and subjugate them further by using biology to rally the public behind their exclusion.