I Think I Get It

We seem to be in a cycle. Every time PZ Myers posts something about transgender people, the comment thread floods with transphobes. Given the names involved, I suspect this is due to Ophelia Benson’s effect on the atheio/skeptic sphere.

Regardless, there may be another pattern in play. The go-to argument of these transphobes was transgender athletes, with the old bathroom line showing up late in the thread. I had a boo at GenderCritical on Reddit, to assess if this was just a local thing, and noticed there were more stories about athletics than bathrooms over there. Even one of the bigots thought this was new. Has there been a shift of rhetoric among transphobes?

If so, I think I understand why.

The biggest problem with the bathroom argument is the glaring lack of evidence. Assaults in bathrooms are extremely rare, so you can’t even scrape up a good anecdote to obsess over. When this argument was novel, you could barrel past by just shouting louder; now that we’ve all been exposed to the argument, though, nearly everyone has the background knowledge to call bullshit on it. The best you can do is point to cis men behaving badly outside the washroom and wave your hands furiously.

What we do in the washroom may be private, but what we do on the sports field is public, sometimes very much so. Even though there are a lot of athletes, anyone who stands out will get noticed, and transgender people have only recently been allowed to stand on the field. Even non-transphobes are interested in hearing their stories.

As more transgender people join sports, the odds of one of them doing well in competition increases. In fact, we’re in a transition point where transgender people are under-represented in sport, yet the overall atmosphere is gradually becoming less bigoted. The sudden uptick in athletes leads to a perfect storm where transgender athletes appear to be popping out of nowhere and winning competitions. The ground is fertile for harvesting anecdotes.

Sporting is also heavily segregated. This wasn’t always a given; at the first Olympics where women were allowed to compete, only two of the five sports they competed in enforced segregation. Athletes competing in sailing, croquet, and equestrian events don’t benefit much from raw strength. You can make a case that golf and tennis do, thus you have some justification for using sex as a crude proxy of strength. Over time, we’ve started assuming sport depends on strength and segregated the majority of them, much to the delight of everyone who wants to treat women as different and inferior.

You can see where I’m headed. Transphobes don’t just think of transgender women as men, they think of them as the worst of men: hairy, violent, and muscular. If you also think that greater muscles will always buy you better performance in sports, then you think transgender women have an inherent advantage. If you further think that transgender women are violent, then you think they’ll be violent on the pitch. This gives us the vaguely-plausible emotional hook that bigotry loves to hang on, as it suppresses rational thought.

Add in the odd fanaticism we have about sports, and the regressive attitudes that can be bundled with them (#notallsports), and this looks like the best argument transphobes have going for them.

“Best” is not “valid,” of course. In case you missed it, I’ve already poked some holes in this argument, and thanks to Brynn Tannehill (via lumipuna) I’ve got more strong counter-arguments.

2. Quick test: name a transgender Olympian off the top of your head. You can’t, because since the IOC started allowing transgender people to compete in 2004 there hasn’t been one.

3. The NCAA has allowed transgender people to compete without surgery since 2011, and there has not been a single dominant transgender athlete anywhere in college sports.

4. These constitute large scale, longitudinal tests of the system with millions of athletes as a sample, and the IOC and NCAA rules for transgender athletes are clearly sufficient to preserve the integrity of sports at this time.

5. 15+ years and millions of test subjects is bigger, and longer, than any clinical trial of a drug that I can think of. The development and deployment of the F-22A, the world’s most advanced stealth fighter, lasted roughly as long.

6. The clinical evidence and subject matter opinion aligns with the observed results: removal of testosterone for a year is sufficient to remove competitive advantage. In terms of testing this hypothesis, there is literally no disagreement between various results.

I recommend reading that in full as Tannehill goes a lot farther, dealing with objections like “why don’t they get their own league?” for instance, but you get the gist: we can’t honestly claim transgender people would dominate the sports they compete in, if said domination hasn’t materialised after years of participation. The logic behind this argument may be better than the bathroom one, but the evidence condemns both of them.

Still, study up. I expect you’ll be seeing a lot more discussion of transgender athletes.