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“Here’s what I think”: Should transgender women play women’s sports?

Tom Cleaver

This week’s subject is for me one of the most obvious grey areas in my conscience. For almost everything else I’ve written so far here, and for most of the world’s issues, I’ve had my opinion on it as soon as I’ve seen the facts of the matter. This issue, however, is in my opinion much more nuanced than anything I have talked about up to now. The issue at hand, if you haven’t read the title, is whether transgender women should be able to compete in women’s sports, and it’s not as simple as shouting “trans rights” or “feminism” depending on your flavour. I understand that as a cisgender man my opinion may seem to be coming from a place of privilege and ignorance, but at the same time if I only ever wrote about things that impacted me personally the scope of my weekly column would be incredibly narrow, so here we go.

The controversy began when Martina Navratilova, 18-time grand slam winning former tennis player, was removed as an ambassador for Athlete Ally (a group for LGBT athletes) for an op-ed she wrote in The Times, in which she claimed that transgender women should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports. Her argument was, in effect, that having been born male and often times gone through male puberty, transgender women athletes have an unfair competitive advantage in most sports given their usual greater height, muscle mass, bone density, and testosterone levels. She wrote that transgender athletes competing with women would create unfair competition, with cisgender women unable to compete with their transgender counterparts on account of their biology.

On the face of it, she has a point. Transgender women athletes do have a competitive advantage over their cisgender counterparts, as can be seen easily in many photographs. Rachel McKinnon, a track cyclist who Navratilova mentions in her op-ed, is almost 190cm tall and weighs 90kg, and dwarfs her opponents. Track cycling is a power-based sport, so most cisgender women would never stand a chance against her. What, therefore, would be the point in a cisgender woman taking up competitive cycling if no matter how hard she trains, she will find herself miles behind her transgender opponents on track?

However, isn’t that in a way what sport is? Natural talents and anomalies doing amazing things for our entertainment is pretty much the definition of sport, isn’t it? We didn’t use to tune in to watch Usain Bolt because he was quite a good runner, or Michael Phelps because he swam just like everyone else. We tuned in to watch the pair of them run and swim faster than everyone else who had ever ran or swam before. Of course, training was a factor in their success, but their natural talent surely had a bearing. My record of oversleeping but still making it to university on time suggests that I am quite a fast runner, but is there any amount of training that could make me run 100 metres in 9,58 seconds or quicker? Probably not. Is that unfair? I guess so, but should Usain Bolt’s records be expunged to give an ordinary person like me the opportunity to be an Olympian? Of course not.

That brings us to transgender athletes. I’m not willing to compromise on the notion that transgender women are women; if they say they are I have no reason not to believe them. It being “unfair that they win” is not enough of an argument to win me over, to be honest. Sports are unfair and some demographics already have monopolies over some sports, that we wouldn’t dream of changing to make it fair. When was the last time you saw someone who wasn’t black in an Olympic 100 metres final, for example? It would be unthinkable to stop them competing on account of it being unfair to other races, however, and rightly so.

“Second-rate male athletes earn far more than world champion females”

In addition, transgender people make up a miniscule proportion of the world’s population, according to estimates around 0,5%. I find it doubtful that every single one of them wishes to become a professional athlete, and therefore doubtful that they could “take over women’s sports” and leave no room for cisgender women. Further, I don’t think it is likely that second-rate cisgender male athletes will decide to change their gender in order to become all-conquering females, for two reasons. Firstly, the decision to change such a fundamental aspect of yourself is not one that is lightly taken, nor an easy process to go through with. Secondly, in most sports second-rate male athletes earn far more money than world champion females.

Normally about now I would write a conclusion, choose a few topical images that Cyprium News has the right to use, and schedule my column for publishing, but this issue is more nuanced than that. The issue of transgender female athletes having a greater bone density, more muscle mass, and generally just being bigger than their cisgender opponents does more than just give them a competitive advantage. Their physique could provide a safety risk to other athletes, who (forgive my poor knowledge of biology) have less impact-resistant bodies, or are just smaller. There’s a reason some sports have age and weight categories, and it is safety.

“A two metre tall woman knocking seven bells out of someone half her size isn’t safe”

In contact sports, the danger of cisgender women being seriously harmed by transgender women seems real. People arguing against the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports have cited Hannah Mouncey, a 188cm tall handball and aussie rules player who has apparently already broken another woman’s leg. Aussie rules is a dangerous sport as it is, so the extra jeopardy of having one player on the pitch who is twice the size of everyone else really isn’t needed. The same goes for any other contact sport. A two metre tall woman knocking seven bells out of someone half her size isn’t fun and isn’t safe, and I know that many sports are not safe anyway and that it is the player’s choice to play, but I am not sure it would be right to add another level of danger to it.

Now, I know that there are cisgender women who are two metres tall, but the increased bone density and muscle mass is a transgender woman’s thing. That is the most discernible difference between cisgender and transgender women, and one that can make some sports more dangerous for cisgender women. Significantly more dangerous enough to warrant not allowing transgender women to take part? I do not know the answer to that.

“Calling them ‘men who decide to be female’ particularly rubbed me up the wrong way”

Back to Navratilova. I have a free trial subscription to The Times so I have managed to read her op-ed a few times. I believe that what she wrote didn’t come from a place of hate, and I had never heard of Athlete Ally until this week but I do not believe that it was the right decision of them to remove her as an ambassador. Her role as a gay elite athlete in the 1980s and her activism thereafter should not be forgotten, and I do think it is in some cases true that people on the left of politics can be too quick to banish someone for saying something which is perceived as disagreeable or offensive. Yes, some of the things she said in her op-ed were transphobic; calling transgender women “men who decide to be female” particularly rubbed me up the wrong way. I am willing to believe that she personally is not transphobic, however. Of course I could be proven wrong on that count, but I’m not willing to brand someone a bigot this quickly.

To sum up, then, I do not think unfairness should be a barrier to transgender women competing in women’s sports. Safety, on the other hand, should definitely be considered. I am not sure whether it would be right to allow transgender athletes to potentially, albeit inadvertently, seriously harm opponents in contact sports. That isn’t to say that I think transgender women shouldn’t be allowed to compete in women’s sports, just that before saying that they definitely should be allowed, the safety aspect of it should be looked into. Would I see this differently if I were transgender, a woman, or a professional athlete? Quite possibly, and on this subject I’m more open than most to have my mind changed, especially given that I haven’t exactly made it up in the first place. All I do know is that this isn’t an issue that will go away quickly any time soon.

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