For transgender activists making the case that male-to-female athletes ought to be able to compete against biological women, the currently vogue argument is that there’s no evidence of any residual advantage for those making the transition.
The general line of thinking goes that, because hormone therapy suppresses the natural, or endogenous, testosterone the body makes, any potential biological advantage is negated and male-to-female transgenders perform on the same level as females.
Not that this is necessarily established science — and plenty of studies contradict this conclusion, mind you — but question the party line and you’re labeled a transphobe. This obloquy isn’t necessarily limited to pundits, either — female athletes like tennis great Martina Navratilova, Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies and long-distance running champion Paula Radcliffe have all won a place on the podium of deplorables for questioning the idea that being born with a Y chromosome might, in fact, be advantageous in women’s sports.
They may be painted as bigots, but the inconvenient truth is that they’re not wrong. As an object lesson, I present to you Mary Gregory, a transgender weightlifter who shattered records at a Raw Powerlifting Federation event in the United States.
“What a day, 9 for 9! Masters world squat record, open world bench record, masters world dl record, and masters world total record!” Gregory posted on Instagram. “Still processing, full meet recap to come a bit later but I do want to thank a few people!”
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What a day, 9 for 9! Masters world squat record, open world bench record, masters world dl record, and masters world total record! Still processing, full meet recap to come a bit later but I do want to thank a few people!💜 – From our initial consultation I told @savvysavit that I wanted to cut to the 82.5kg class, go 9 for 9, and set some records- we did it!!! I don’t think she was happy with me cutting but she was there offering her support. When I needed a pick me up or advice she was there! Thank you coach!💜 – A huge thank you to @raw_powerlifting_federation_ , from the bottom of my heart! As a transgender lifter I was unsure what to expect going into this meet and everyone- all the spotters, loaders, referees, staff, meet director, all made me welcome and treated me as just another female lifter- thank you! And thanks to all the fans in the audience who cheered me on and congratulated me!💜 – Thank @rrrrachele for making the trip out to support me today, video my lifts, and cheer me on!💜 – And thank you to all the peeps on Instagram who reached out to offer your support!💜 – Now for 🍷 and 🍕!!! – #transgenderwoman#sharetheplatform#transrightsarehumanrights#lgbtq#bemoreawesome#upliftandliftheavy#morefemalestrength#richmondbalance#liftlunchlearnrva#squat#bench#deadlift
Now, to be fair, this isn’t Olympic-style stuff. The accompanying photo was taken at the event site, the Best Western Plus Crossroads Inn & Suites in Zion Crossroads, Virginia. In other words, we’re not quite talking Madison Square Garden here. On the other hand, a nine-out-of-nine performance indicates we’re also not talking an equal playing field here — something that drew the attention of two British Olympians.
“This is a trans woman a male body with male physiology setting a world record & winning a woman’s event in America in powerlifting,” Davies, the swimmer who won a silver medal for the United Kingdom at the 1980 Olympic games, wrote on Twitter. “A woman with female biology cannot compete … it’s a pointless unfair playing field.”
This is a trans woman a male body with male physiology setting a world record & winning a woman’s event in America in powerlifting. A woman with female biology cannot compete.. it’s a pointless unfair playing field. https://t.co/sI9i3AFANB
— Sharron Davies MBE (@sharrond62) April 28, 2019
“The reason we have men & women’s races are because we are biologically different,” she tweeted later. “Performance 100% confirms that. The reason steroids (including testosterone) are on the banned list is because using them gives you an advantage. FairPlay is racing by biology by sex not by gender.”
The reason we have men & women’s races are because we are biologically different. Performance 100% confirms that. The reason steroids (including testosterone) are on the banned list is because using them gives you an advantage. FairPlay is racing by biology by sex not by gender
— Sharron Davies MBE (@sharrond62) April 29, 2019
As previously noted, Davies has been critical of the idea of allowing trans athletes to participate in women’s sports in the past.
I have nothing against anyone who wishes 2be transgender. However I believe there is a fundamental difference between the binary sex u r born with & the gender u may identify as. To protect women’s sport those with a male sex advantage should not be able 2compete in women’s sport
— Sharron Davies MBE (@sharrond62) March 1, 2019
This March tweet from Davies spurred intense criticism, in particular from transgender cycling champion Rachel McKinnon, also an academic who has been a major proponent of the endogenous testosterone theory.
This remains true even after the Nov 2015 IOC policy making it easier for trans women to compete. No trans woman has won an elite world championship medal. The fear that trans women will suddenly ‘take over’ sport is irrational, which is the very definition of transphobia. (2/3)
— Dr. Rachel McKinnon (@rachelvmckinnon) March 2, 2019
I hope for a day soon when an ex-Olympian’s sharing hate speech from a hate group–Fair Play for Women–is no longer newsworthy.” (3/3)
— Dr. Rachel McKinnon (@rachelvmckinnon) March 2, 2019
However, Davies’ remark was also echoed by middle-distance runner Dame Kelly Homes, a double gold-medalist for the U.K. in the 2004 Olympic games.
Its a bloody joke and all getting ready for biological women to boycott certain events.Have a trans category if need be but even better a trans games.Otherwise i’m starting to worry about the backlash and abuse that the trans community will get from spectators. It will happen!
— Kelly Holmes (@damekellyholmes) April 28, 2019
“Its a bloody joke and all getting ready for biological women to boycott certain events,” Holmes tweeted. “Have a trans category if need be but even better a trans games. Otherwise i’m starting to worry about the backlash and abuse that the trans community will get from spectators. It will happen!”
Now, was this the Olympics? No. Has said backlash begun to occur? Not really, not yet. Is this eventually going to become a problem in women’s sports? Yes in italics.
The argument McKinnon and others make is that no trans individual has qualified for the Olympics under the current rules. Given that the transgender population of the United States — one of the most trans-friendly countries on earth — makes up 0.6 percent of the total population, this isn’t a surprise. It’s even less surprising since, as McKinnon notes in her tweets, the two International Olympic Committee policies on transgender athletes happened in 2003 and 2015.
Given the amount of training, dedication and resources it requires to even get into the Olympics (unless, of course, you’re Eddie the Eagle), it’s understandable that male-to-female transgender athletes haven’t made it into the games yet, since the door hasn’t been open to them for very long.
However, consider what’s happening at the lower levels of sports. Gregory’s victory at the Raw Powerlifting Federation Masters is one example. Transgender athletes dominating girls’ high school events is another.
Beyond the anecdotal evidence that suggests there is a problem, there’s the science that confirms it.
The IOC’s regulations for male-to-female transgender athletes require the individual’s endogenous testosterone to be under 10 nanomoles per liter. Biological females, meanwhile, average 2.8 nanomoles per liter. This means a male-to-female athlete can have almost four times the testosterone in their bloodstream as the average female.
While this is the upper limit and biologically female athletes might plausibly have more endogenous testosterone than the average biological female, this still could put them at a marked disadvantage to a male-to-female athlete — particularly in sports like weightlifting, where testosterone plays a critical role in muscle growth.
And it’s not just testosterone. There are biological advantages that carry over from the male body, no matter what hormonal treatment the athlete might receive.
Alison Heather, a physiology professor from Otago University in New Zealand, has studied transgender athletes and whether or not they have an advantage over the competition. In addition to the testosterone element, she told New Zealand’s Stuff, male-to-female athletes retain many of the physical advantages that biological males have even after a gender “transition.”
“The physiological attributes of males that makes them naturally stronger including anatomical and biological features such as size, muscle mass, lung capacity, and heart size would be an advantage,” Heather said, noting that “[t]here has been very little research into elite male to female transgender athletes
“Given the lack of research, there is a real need to study what physical advantages transgender females carry after hormone therapy with consideration required for different sports, trainability and for performance,” she said.
“Until then, it is very difficult to conclude that it is a level playing field for cis women versus trans women.”
What happened at the Raw Powerlifting Federation Masters is potentially an augury of what’s to come, not just at the amateur or semi-pro level but at the highest levels.
Shattering records at a minor weightlifting event may not be anything major, but when Olympians like Davies and Holmes can see the writing on the wall, it’s time to pay attention.
It’s not long before we’re having this debate about an Olympian — and that’s a profoundly unfair situation for biologically female athletes, particularly when the science on the issue is still very much out.
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