Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Was It Science or Fear of Trans Activists That Prompted Sports Governing Boards to Allow Transgender Athletes to Compete, Loosen Standards?

NOTE: This post is long and the topic isn't pressing for many of you, so while I have you just know this: Trans activists aren't just saying it's fair for transgender women to compete against cisgender women. They're saying trans women are at a biological disadvantage having been born male. And secondly, the only trans woman to ever compete at the highest level of sports is Dr. Renee Richards -- and she is one of the main people saying she should not have been allowed. She was a 42-year-old (smoker!) when she joined the women's tennis circuit so wasn't much of a threat -- but she believes had she been 24, she would have killed everyone in sight. (Before you say she's self-aggrandizing, keep in mind she actually did reach the final of her very first Grand Slam doubles tournament, where she only had half as much court to cover.) If either of these things raises your eyebrows at all, keep reading.  

Martina Navratilova has spoken out against inclusion of transgender athletes again, and it's gone about as well as you might expect. Progressives universally condemned her, figuring the tennis legend was getting older and somehow just had a blind spot about this topic. And even those who agreed with her overall assertion that she outlined in the Sunday Times -- that trans women shouldn't be allowed to compete against cisgender woman because of the inherent physical advantage she believes being born biologically male provides -- were put off by some tone-deaf phrasing, an inflammatory headline and the use of a silly trope as a hyperbolic example. Naturally, the piece was met by the LGBTQ community's most humorless letter with the DEFCON 1 reaction we've come to expect from them.

And none of this was a surprise. Nobody wants to seem unfair or not inclusive, so the easiest thing to do was to quickly condemn her and move on without doing much research. But I know Navratilova's long history as a smart, liberal and fair women, so I figured there had to be more to this story. So I decided to look beyond the headlines and focus on the facts -- and here’s what I found: 

In my experience, trans people are the first to point out that there are transgender and cisgender folks in the world. (That’s how I learned the term.) But then the minute Navratilova recognizes the differences between the two she is blasted as being transphobic. Dr. Rachel McKinnon -- for whom Navratilova has no love lost after McKinnon repeatedly insisted Navratilova was anti-trans for raising the question of fairness -- immediately took to Twitter and twisted Navratilova's acknowledgment of these differences into Martina's saying trans women aren't "real women," as if Martina were challenging someone's gender identity. (McKinnon's apparent insecurities about her womanhood struck me as something she ought to be discussing with her shrink rather than in a Twitter fight with a superstar jock.) I have never met McKinnon nor do I have anything against her. And I think it's horrendous that she says she is constantly bombarded with hateful messages online. But if this is how she warps the words of a lifelong LGBTQ ally -- talk about a leap! -- I'm not sure how much of what she says needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

I also don’t have enough information to be sure whether Navratilova's assertions about trans women are correct or not. But I am sure that the prevailing idea among trans activists that Martina Navratilova -- arguably the best all-around player to ever play tennis -- and Dr. Renee Richards -- a medical doctor and the only trans woman to ever successfully compete on the tour -- are in no position to knowledgeably weigh in on the topic seems more than a bit galling. And it is undoubtedly why Navratilova feels the need to continue speaking out about something that has no measurable effect on her. "They're old" seems to be the prevailing reason why Martina's and Renee’s opinions are not worthy in their eyes, and that the tennis veterans' information has been supplanted by new scientific data that shows they're wrong. But has it?

Above: Martina Navratilova lays out her case against trans women competing against cis women 

McKinnon, who is not a medical doctor but refers to herself as “Dr.” because she has a Ph.D., and other trans activists point to the fact that the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA have ruled that female trans athletes have the right to compete -- now with no surgery and only reduced testosterone levels for one year. (Surgery and a two-year hormone reduction was the former guideline.) Yet the more I read and the less I see that scientifically backs up trans activists' assertions of fairness -- McKinnon goes so far as to say women who were born biologically male are actually at a disadvantage against cisgender women -- the stronger my hunch grows that the governing bodies may have just acquiesced out of pure exhaustion. (That the University Interscholastic League is allowing a trans boy taking testosterone to compete against cisgender girls should give you a hint at how funny this all smells.) Knowing that premier-level athletes are incredibly rare, let alone ones who happen to be transgender, it was probably just easier to give in than be harassed the way Navratilova and anyone else who doesn't immediately jump on board has been. To date there have been zero trans athletes who have competed in the Olympics and nothing notable in tennis in four decades -- the WTA has a similar policy to the IOC -- so it might behoove Navratilova to just be quiet since it’s a bit of a moot point.

Mind you, I don't say any of this glibly. I am not a doctor, either. Besides being an avid tennis fan, my only real stake in this is that I believe in LGBTQ equality and fairness. But from my own experience as a blogger and news editor I know that whenever I've tried to interact with trans activists on even fairly benign topics it has led to instant vitriol. Just yesterday when I tried to ask a trans journalist about her objection to Navratilova using Renee Richards's male name (the forbidden "deadnaming") while writing about her former coach's journey -- it was getting confusing when comparing Renee's results before and after transition -- instead of getting actual guidelines or input as to how to handle the situation in print, I was ganged up on and repeatedly insulted. (I was also told that all major news outlets now have a no-deadnaming policy in their stylebooks, but when I provided recent articles that mentioned Chelsea Manning's former identity from the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Associated Press, the person who chastised me went silent.) Then I was being “offensive” for pointing out McKinnon’s seeming self-doubt in the way she put words in others’ mouths. I finally (kindly) suggested to the group blasting me that as someone who has been involved in various forms of LGBTQ activism for more than three decades, I've found building allies -- rather than alienating them -- will get you a lot farther. Apparently these particular folks beg to differ. (Later that night I came to realize some other trans activists I had been engaging with had somehow gotten my Twitter account temporarily suspended, undoubtedly by disingenuously reporting one of my tweets.)

Still, I remain committed to fairness -- so I accept the IOC, NCAA and WTA's guidelines, however they got there. But I’m not going to judge Martina Navratilova for standing by her convictions and refusing to cave. And just out of curiosity, could someone please point me to the actual medical research -- not just McKinnon's berating and blocking people online -- that says trans women are at no distinct physical advantage over cis women? I'm curious if my hunch is right. 

This article seems to be saying  "it depends who you ask." How’s that for science? Learn more HERE.


Somewhat lost in the shuffle of all this is that Navratilova has come to the defense of Olympic 800 meters champion Caster Semenya ahead of next week's landmark hearing on proposed rules that aim to restrict testosterone levels in female athletes. Semenya is not transgender but suffers from hyperandrogenism, which causes her body to naturally produce higher-than-normal levels of testosterone. Read HERE.

Billie Jean King is also on board with Semenya. I suspect BJK would be in favor of trans women's inclusion, but probably more based on not wanting to stick her neck out during her later-in-life roll as an LGBTQ activist than anything else.


Leave it to Pam Shriver to have the perfect rejoinder for Billie Jean King’ (understandably) predictable response.


Rix said...

Did you get down to the analogy, (the the third and second to the last paragraphs) in the linked article?

But a calm debate would be interesting.

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

Yeah, I don't think it tracks. I think some people are objecting to trans women competing against cis women period -- not just in sports where there is a perceived advantage. The naysayers think there is a perceived advantage period -- which is why sports are divided by gender to begin with.

JProf said...

McKinnon is a nasty individual who bullied Martina in the Twitter exchanges between the two. McKinnon doesn't really want allies; instead, she wants to play the victim and call everyone a transphobe, from Trump supporters to liberal lesbians like Martina. She is a total narcissist.

demc7 said...

it's odd (?) that you NEVER hear about trans men trying to compete in men's sports....I guess they feel they'd never stand a chance. Martina supported Renee Richards right to play on the women's tennis tour back in the 70s and later hired Renee as her coach. The Dr. Rachel woman is a total bitch!

Rix said...

In cycling sustained wattage output is a reliable number that correlates to performance.

Mc Kinnon's output is similar to others in the Elite class when adjusted for weight (heavier means more friction) and size (bigger means more air resistance). So on paper she is just a really good cyclist, but how does the governing body figure out if it is her birth sex or or just talent and training?

Is walling off competitive athletics really the way to go?

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

@Rix: It's definitely not an easy to decision, which is why I said I support the governing bodies' final word.

It kind of seems like the sport involved could make a big difference on fairness -- and shouldn't cisgender people expect fairness, too?


Piggybacking on what Dr. Renee Richards said, there are some things that unfortunately she cannot do or have as a trans woman -- such as giving birth to a child. She suggests competitive sports is another.