As with the ethics of (non)disclosure concerning one’s gender history, athletics is one area of trans rights where otherwise sympathetic voices routinely fly off the rails. I have noticed two areas in which this manifests: Ignorance on how hormones actually work; and conflation of statistical averages with the specific outcome of a given individual.
Fallon Fox is a mixed-martial arts fighter who was invited to speak at Skepticon back in 2015. She is also a transgender woman. Fox has been subject to a great deal of scientifically illiterate criticism following Fox’s victory during a match between her and another fighter who was assigned female at birth. The substance of the criticism was that Fox had fundamentally violated the conditions on which they agreed to fight by “being male,” despite having lower testosterone than her opponent and despite having a similar body frame. Out came the weird pseudoscience.
Caster Semenya likewise hit the airwaves during the 2016 Summer Olympics following accusations of unfairness–once again, her victory was marred by the notion that she, too, had violated the conditions on which the other competitors agreed, that of being exclusively female as arbitrarily determined by--well, it was never really specified. But, the tearful British competitors wanted you to believe that Semenya “wasn’t female” and that they were.
Now we once again have a person who does not neatly fit into the boxes demanded of them by society, a Texan trans boy who won a youth wrestling title. The catch? He had asked to compete with boys, but Texas–being determined to maintain its enviable “0 days since being a national embarrassment” rankings, forced him to compete with girls. Despite following the State’s ill-advised instructions, a conservative moron on the teevee accused the teen of “cheating.”
Well now we have a pickle. Fallon Fox competed against another woman because of comparable hormone levels and physical frame (in fact, Fox–as well as most trans feminine folks–have lower testosterone than cis women) and she was accused of cheating. Then transphobes in Texas got their way and forced a trans boy to compete with cis girls, and he was still accused of cheating. And so we get to the root of the issue with conservative moron’s Freudian slip:
Ben Ferguson claimed that a Texas transgender student should not be able to wrestle as a girl or a boy.
There we have it. Yet another confession of the true motivation here, which is that the notion of binary sex is so precious that we have to bar from competition anyone who breaks it. Fairness is simply a facade, and I do love it when bigots dispense with the smoke and mirrors. It makes my job easier.
To remedy ourselves of this standard in which trans athletes just conveniently don’t exist, we need to look at some of the common assumptions that fuel this attitude–the two errors I referred to earlier regarding hormones and averages vs. specific outcomes.
I’ve mentioned it a few times now and I’ll repeat it again in the hopes that this will really stick with people’s brains here: Fallon Fox, a transgender woman, has less testosterone–and has had less testosterone for several years–than her opponent. This will generally be true of trans feminine individuals. We usually, as in 98-99% of the time, have lower testosterone than cis women.
Conservative moron says the Texan trans boy “cheated,” characterizing testosterone as a “performance enhancing drug.” Conservative moron asserted this after his host Cuomo correctly pointed out that the young man’s testosterone was comparable to that of his cis peers, that is, he has no more testosterone than most teenage boys, and that it was the State who refused to take this observation into account.
The consistent thread throughout this bigotry is the somewhat true, but still overblown, effects of testosterone in terms of muscle mass. But even if we were to accept the overstated capacities of testosterone, then the discrimination of neither Fallon Fox nor the Texan trans boy make any sense. Fox’s victory cannot be attributed to higher testosterone because, as a trans person, she can literally produce the blood work to prove her T levels, and likely did before being cleared to compete. Similarly, if we accept the premise of T being this all powerful drug, then it makes zero sense to tell a trans boy on T that he ought to compete with cis girls.
While it is true that testosterone does help with the development of muscles, especially in the upper body, we have to combine that with…
The distinction between averages and specific outcomes
If we were to take a characteristic–let’s say, dead lift weight–and map it across all of humanity, we’d get a normal distribution, where small portions of the population perform at the polar extremes and most people perform in a mid-range between those extremes. On one end, you have people who wouldn’t be able to lift very much, and on the other, people who lift at Olympic competitions, both groups making up a very tiny portion of the sample.
If you then cleft in twain this distribution by assigned sex at birth, you would find that those assigned male at birth would, on average, be able to lift more. But you would also find a significant degree of overlap between the AMAB and AFAB categories. Though the volume of the sexes would get increasingly unequal at the fringe, it’s still conceivable that at least some AFABs can perform comparably to the most extreme AMABs.
To illustrate the example, compare me, someone assigned male at birth, to a hypothetical firefighter who was assigned female at birth.
Even with the displeasure of having ~10 years of uninterrupted testosterone coursing through my veins, I clock in at five feet tall and 100 pounds soaking wet.
Then we have my counter part:
This is one area where I think fighting sports get absolutely correct. It’s not simply “men’s boxing.” It’s divided into categories based off of the possible ranges relative to your physical frame. They don’t match featherweights and heavyweights in the same ring except as a gimmick.
Really the core issue that should be discussed here is not related to trans people at all, or at the very least there’s no reason to single us out for this weird discrimination. Perhaps more sports would benefit from a similar segregation-by-physical frame. But trans people are routinely caught up in these weird assumptions that because the averages of our assigned sex (which itself makes assumptions about your hormones, the actual mediator of your fitness) we must automatically be an advantage.
I mean the weird part is that transphobes can’t even be remotely consistent. The trans teen still competed with people of comparable weight, so it’s difficult to really finger T as the culprit. But he also asked to compete with the other boys anyways. It’s not his fault Texas made the decision they did. Yet here we have conservative moron #28,329 to rant to the media about how unfair it is for us to compete at all regardless of who we’re asking to be sorted with!
Of course, it’s about removing us from public existence, as the pundit let slip. The least he could do is just be frank about it next time.