Lately people have been talking about the downturn of the Austin Community of Atheists (see video explaining timeline, or transcript). But the point of me leaving the atheist movement was so I didn’t have to concern myself with all the bullshit that goes on in atheist groups, so I’m not going to talk about it. Instead I’ll address an issue that came up in relation to the drama: the right of trans athletes to compete in athletic events. HJ Hornbeck has been talking about it for literally months, and this is my independent take.
I’ll admit upfront that I don’t care about athletics. The only sports I personally care about are video game speed running and competitive Dominion. I only care about athletics to the extent that I have empathy for things that other people care about.
So a good place to start is with someone else who cares more, and has more expertise. I present Dr. Rachel McKinnon, who is not only a trans athlete, but also a philosophy professor who teaches courses about sports ethics!
Short version: Evidence shows that the competitive advantage of trans women over cis women is so small as to be dwarfed by other “acceptable” variance like body shape, and thus there is insufficient justification to exclude trans women.
Or, if you want a longer version, Essence of Thought has a 48 min video going through a bunch of arguments made by some other YouTuber.
By the way, if you’ve read about trans athletes, you may have already heard the name Rachel McKinnon before. That’s because in 2018 Rachel won some major cycling competition, and TERFs have been crowing about her for the past year. It’s part of a strategy to exploit people’s availability heuristics. By making information available about trans athletes who have won competitions, and repeating that same information over and over, they make it seem like a larger pattern than it really is.
The truth is, trans women just don’t dominate women’s athletics. There are a lot of women’s sport competitions, and maybe you can name three or four examples of trans women athletes winning, but statistically speaking that’s pathetic. And it’s not because trans women have lacked opportunities. Rachel McKinnon had previously participated in cycling events for years and lost all the time. The Olympics has allowed trans athletes since 2004. By only paying attention to trans athletes who have won, and only when they won, people are just blocking out all opposing evidence.
With those basic facts established, I present my philosophical meanderings about sports.
1. Why are performance-enhancing drugs unethical, but performance-enhancing exercise routines ethical? If performance-enhancing drugs were allowed then it would be practically mandatory for athletes to take them, to the detriment of their own health. Furthermore, many people look up to athletes. Those people would either also be encouraged to take the drugs, or else discouraged from participating in sports. On the other hand, if people are encouraged to exercise more, this does not cause harm.
2. Is hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) anything like performance-enhancing drugs? No, because it doesn’t enhance performance. But also, HRT isn’t detrimental to people’s health. Quite the opposite, it can be a lifesaving treatment for gender dysphoria. The thing I’d worry about is if trans women forego HRT to get a competitive edge, to the detriment of their own health and the health of their trans fans. But that doesn’t appear to be happening, so let’s not worry about it prematurely.
3. What guiding principles justify the creation of athletic events just for women? I think what it is, is that people like to see athletes that share certain identity characteristics that seem salient to them. One of the salient identity characteristics is nationality, and thus people like to watch athletes from their own nations in both national and international athletics events. Another salient identity characteristic is gender, and if it takes women’s categories for people to see their gender reflected in athletic events then so be it. On the other hand, body shape is not considered a salient identity characteristic–people don’t mind when certain body types dominate each event.
4. Is trans/cis identity one of the things that people are justified in wanting to see reflected in their athletes? I think so. I think trans people might reasonably want to see trans athletes, which is why it’s important that trans athletes are allowed to compete. By the same standard, I think cis women might be justified in complaining if, hypothetically, trans women dominated the upper tiers of athletics to the point that being trans was practically mandatory. But that’s not even close to happening. So far, this is a case where some cis people seem to think that the presence of any trans women is somehow too much.
I think you have a typo in there “hormonal replacement theory” should probably be “hormonal replacement therapy”.
I too do not care about athletics much. In fact, I dislike all zero-sum games and competitions and I think humanity would be better off without them because they foster tribalism. But they do have positive aspects too, for individuals as well as communities, so I do not feel like that personal opinion of mine is anything more than that.
I think that banning trans women from participating in women sports because of some hypothetical future where cis men could dominate women sports under the pretense of being trans is nonsensical at best, and dog-whistle for transphobia at worst. If, and only if, such a scenario happens, then it is the right time to enact measures. Until that happens, these “concerns” about “what-ifs” are nothing but wankery.
@Charly, Thanks for pointing out the typo.
Andreas Avester says
Like you, I also only care about athletics to the extent that I have empathy for things that other people care about. But I still like seeing trans athletes in competitions. I like seeing openly LGBTQIA+ people participating and succeeding in all kinds of pursuits. I like seeing them out of the closets, successful, and happy. Whether they are athletes, artists, movie stars, scientists or anything else, I enjoy the occasional reminder to all the homophobes and transphobes out there that we exist, we are successful, and we can be happy.
That’s the ‘Atheist Community of Austin’, but it could be the People’s Front of Judea….
On #2: Just on purely biochemical grounds, I’d expect trans men competing in men’s leagues to present more of an ethical conundrum because if you’re already taking T it might be tempting (for an elite athlete) to try juuust a little more and see if it gives you an edge. Not that there’s any evidence that this is actually happening, of course!
Also, I dunno about that “not causing harm” thing. I hear athletic training can do a number on your joints in old age.
I watched the entire thing, and I think your “short version” is too much of a simplification. She seemed to be focusing primarily on testosterone, and claimed that, as a measure of whether an individual should be considered male or female, testosterone levels varied substantially among cis women and did not correlate well with athletic success. But there are plenty of other differences between cis men and cis women besides just testosterone levels.
The definition of trans women that she seemed to favor was “recognized as female by one’s country of origin,” which, at least in the case of Canada, might involve neither surgical nor hormonal alterations. In such an instance, if it were true that “the competitive advantage of trans women over cis women is so small as to be dwarfed by other “acceptable” variance like body shape,” then we should expect that the differences between record-holders in areas like swimming or track between cis male and cis female athletes would be similar. But that isn’t the case.
@6, you are erroneously comparing the physical capacities of cis men to cis women, not trans women to cis women. Essence of Thought has an excellent video discussing why the cis men-to-cis women comparison doesn’t hold for trans women-to-cis women.
There are also some requirements in place, in some sporting bodies, that trans women must meet in order to compete (and I’m sorry that I’m repeating this from memory, so can’t give the exact details), involving the minimum length of time that trans women must have been on HRT (which profoundly changes their physiology) and the maximum amount of blood testosterone that they may have in order to compete.
I must say that there are sports, such as gymnastics and figure skating, in which trans women would have no advantage. It’s a quite small percentage of even cis women who can meet the exacting body shape, height, and weight requirements that elite competition in those sports require, and any trans woman who has gone through male puberty is even less likely to meet them (actually, it’s difficult for any woman who has gone through either male or female puberty to meet them.)
And, I recall another incident, cited by Essence of Thought (again, sorry for my lack of exact detail here) in which a trans woman had won a competition, and the second-place cis woman was complaining about it. However, the second-place woman did not mention, nor seem to count as valid, that in their past 12 events, the cis woman had won 10 of them over the trans woman. Hardly an unfair domination by the trans athlete, nor an acceptable reason to complain if that athlete beats a cis woman in their latest event.
I don’t recall exactly what Dr. McKinnon said about it, but my impression was that she was simply describing the stances of several sports organizations, and one of them had decided to base decisions on people’s legally recognized gender. I’m not sure that she advocates this as the best policy.
You seem to be saying that there’s a conflict between these three claims:
1. Cis women and cis men perform differently in sport.
2. Trans women and cis women do not perform differently in sport.
3. In some countries trans women may be allowed to compete even without any HRT even though this implies a level of ability comparable to cis men.
There is no conflict, because #1 and #2 are statistical claims based on analyzing collections of real athletes, and #3 is a claim about what is allowed according to one organization. Obviously the fact that trans women without HRT are hypothetically allowed in some countries does not imply that they’re actually there.
So, am I to understand that you would require some sort of HRT to allow transwomen to participate in women’s athletics? 18 American states disagree with you. https://www.transathlete.com/k-12
And it does appear to be happening https://www.cbsnews.com/news/connecticut-transgender-athletes-face-federal-discrimination-complaint-from-females-over-title-ix-violations/
No I didn’t take an explicit stance.
I will reiterate the importance of separating “what is allowed within the rules” and “what is actually happening”. In some places, it is technically possible for trans women to compete with HRT, and technically possible that this might give them an edge that dwarfs that of other commonly accepted variance. But whether that has actually happened is a different question. I expressed concern that trans athletes might harm themselves to get an edge, but as far as I know this has not happened either. Sport organizations don’t need to make policies in response to hypothetical futures.
One of your links takes me to a single alleged example in Connecticut, and I guess you didn’t really understand what I said about exploiting availability heuristics. People are primed to see patterns of trans athletes winning, and they make noise whenever they find one. But people’s pattern recognition does not suffice, the proof must come from a more systematic analysis.
Fair enough. I agree that there is not enough data. We can revisit as more comes in.
“In some places, it is technically possible for trans women to compete with HRT, and technically possible that this might give them an edge that dwarfs that of other commonly accepted variance. But whether that has actually happened is a different question. I expressed concern that trans athletes might harm themselves to get an edge, but as far as I know this has not happened either. Sport organizations don’t need to make policies in response to hypothetical futures.”
Isn’t there difficulty in detecting this? We cannot really separate the relative causal contributions to performance of various factors, give them ‘acceptable’ range limits approximating cis-women population, and say “Aha, this particular performance was caused by your testosterone being high over the last season”.
Most people do expect a rule for hypothetical futures, because that hypothetical future is seen as cheating, and detection of such cheating is not otherwise possible – no?
In the case of ‘gender policing’ intersex athletes who have always been girls and women, I think it is clearly right to allow people to participate and compete as their legal gender. This is a nice paper on the issue: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5152729/
I guess the ethical spirit of that argument extends to trans people if you consider gender dysphoria as an extreme form but essentially the same as other intersex conditions.
Some differences spring to mind though: Many people commenting on trans sports are concerned with the advantage that comes from sex-specific development during puberty, and are also concerned with the informed consent issue of any sex transition therapy pre-puberty.
I agree, but I think the causal factors don’t really matter. The goal is not to eliminate trans/cis as a causal factor, the goal is merely to avoid a situation where trans/cis people dominate so thoroughly that it stops inspiring people of the group left out. I don’t particularly care if, say, being trans influences a woman’s height, allowing her to be in the same abnormal height range of all the cis athletes.
One thing I find interesting about the comparison of trans and intersex athletes, is that most people don’t consider being intersex/dyadic to be one of those “salient identity characteristics” that I discussed in the OP. That is, if Caster Semenya is intersex and she’s one of the best runners, people celebrate that fact (or at least most people). I feel like this might be an attitude we should strive for with trans athletes too.