The Movement to Exclude Trans Girls from Sports

A spectre is haunting girls’ sports. It is the spectre of transgender athletes. About fifty different bills pending in more than twenty state legislatures seek to ban transgender athletes from team sports; one such bill was signed into law in Mississippi last week. A federal complaint filed in Connecticut alleges […]

A spectre is haunting girls’ sports. It is the spectre of transgender athletes. About fifty different bills pending in more than twenty state legislatures seek to ban transgender athletes from team sports; one such bill was signed into law in Mississippi last week. A federal complaint filed in Connecticut alleges that trans girls’ participation in high-school sports constitutes discrimination under Title IX. And, on March 17th, when the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people, witnesses testifying against the measure spent more time on the perceived existential threat to girls’ athletics than they did on any other argument. (The House passed the Equality Act last month in a nearly party-line vote, as it has in past years, but the legislation has never cleared the Senate.)

The argument—as set out by the Connecticut complaint, summed up during the Senate hearings by the writer Abigail Shrier, who was testifying against the federal bill, and, it seems, as intuitively understood by the public—is that trans girls have an unfair advantage in sports because they have more testosterone. But the assumption that they have more testosterone is problematic, if not downright false, as is the assumption that the testosterone confers an absolute advantage. Many young trans people receive hormonal treatment, often beginning with hormones that prevent puberty and proceeding to so-called cross-sex hormones. Many trans girls are taking testosterone blockers and estrogen. Studies show that even adult athletes lose whatever biological competitive advantage they had soon after they begin transitioning. For this reason, transgender athletes are allowed to compete in the Olympics, provided that they have been on hormones for at least two years.

During the Senate hearing, Shrier argued that it didn’t matter if the athletes were taking cross-sex hormones: if their bodies were shaped by testosterone during male puberty, they would forever have an athletic edge over women. The scientific evidence for this assertion is more complicated, but there is a rich cultural history of associating testosterone with everything that is strength and sport. In a 2019 book called “Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography,” the scholars Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist at Barnard, and Katrina Karkazis, an anthropologist and bioethicist who is currently a fellow at Yale, reviewed the available data on the qualities commonly associated with testosterone, including aggression, risk-taking, and athleticism. They found that the data were consistently mixed. There are different ways of measuring testosterone, different metrics of athleticism, and different strengths required in different sports. Testosterone is known to help build muscle volume, but volume isn’t the only factor that determines strength. Lean body mass may be a better predictor of strength, but testosterone levels aren’t clearly correlated with lean body mass. Testosterone can be used as a performance enhancer, especially over periods of intense training, but some studies show that higher baseline testosterone is sometimes associated with worse athletic performance. Testosterone-level comparisons are meaningful within small groups of similar athletes, but, even then, it’s difficult to sort out cause and effect, because athletic activity may itself spur hormone production. While it is undeniably true that women, on average, have lower levels of testosterone than do men, a study of two thousand Olympic athletes showed that 4.7 per cent of the women had testosterone levels in the typical male range, but 16.5 per cent of the men—élite athletes all—had testosterone levels below the typical male range. This doesn’t mean that élite male athletes aren’t generally bigger, stronger, and faster than élite female athletes, only that testosterone levels don’t accurately or exclusively reflect their comparative strengths.

Testosterone as a measure of athletic advantage has a strange and tragic history. Élite sports competitions used to subject athletes to a genital check. Chromosomal tests replaced this humiliating procedure in the nineteen-sixties, but the problem with chromosomes—or, rather, the problem with the idea that sex is binary and can always be determined from biological markers—is that chromosomes don’t always tell a clear story. Some people have three sex chromosomes rather than two. Some people have chromosomes that don’t appear to align with their genitalia or secondary sex characteristics. And some people have the “right” chromosomes and matching genitalia but still inspire suspicion in those who police the sex of athletes. In the past decade, sports regulators including World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations) and the International Olympics Committee have been setting limits on allowable natural levels of testosterone in female athletes. The South African athlete Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion, has been ordered to take testosterone suppressants to be allowed to compete; last month, she appealed the ruling to the European Court of Human Rights. In effect, World Athletics has deemed Semenya, a cisgender woman, to be outside of its regulations for what constitutes a female athlete.

Opponents of trans girls’ participation in sports frame their fight in terms of the rights and opportunities of cis girls: they claim that trans girls, with their unfair advantage, will snag the medals and the college scholarships that rightfully belong to athletes who were assigned female at birth. But, as I listened to the Judiciary Committee hearing, it struck me that the opposition set up in the arguments was between cis-girl athletes on the one hand and a vast liberal conspiracy on the other. (The term “gender ideology,” a favorite bugaboo of the global far-right movement, made an appearance, too—gender ideology is also apparently out to destroy girls’ sports.) Trans girls were not a part of this imaginary equation, and this was perhaps the most telling part of the hearing. Nor are trans boys ever mentioned in this conversation, perhaps because forcing trans boys to compete against girls, as has happened in Texas, where a trans-boy wrestler who had begun testosterone therapy handily beat female competitors, would expose the inconsistency of the argument from defenders of sex purity in sports.

The goal of this campaign is not to protect cis-girl athletes as much as it is to make trans athletes disappear. This is a movement to exclude trans girls from community and opportunity. It is a movement driven by panic over the safety of women and children that reproduces earlier panics, like those over the presence of lesbians on women’s sports teams. And, just like earlier panics, this one is based on what passes for common sense but is in fact ignorance and hate.

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