By: Tom Blunt; Originally published by Penguin Random House in November 2018
If you’ve clicked on an article recently about a trans person winning a major sporting event, there’s a strong chance that it raised social and scientific questions about the viability of trans women competing in women’s sports – and that it originated on a conservative news website.
Women’s sports suffer from a notorious lack of mainstream media exposure in general, as do the accomplishments of LGBTQ people, but if there’s a larger story to tell about the danger of trans women invading other people’s territory, and exploiting clear biological advantages to take something out of “real” women’s hands, you can count on these subjects being explored in depth – typically with no real scientific insight, or any input from transgender individuals at all.
More than anything else, these stories – with their emotional arguments based on bogus “biology” – resemble the political commercials aimed at white Americans that tend to resurface every election cycle, warning about the scary immigrants who are coming to steal their jobs and menace their women. Considering that suburban women are the voting bloc conservatives are most worried about losing – especially in the wake of the calamitous Brett Kavanaugh hearing, you couldn’t ask for a more attractive wedge issue.
Rachel McKinnon, the first trans woman to win a major women’s cycling tournament last week, is their latest wedge. Though she fits squarely within the contest’s guidelines, the fairness of her victory was called into question by the woman who placed third; on Twitter, McKinnon has pointed out that this rival, Jennifer Wagner, has won 11 out of the 13 races they’ve competed in together. “This is what the double-bind for trans women athletes looks like,” she commented. “When we win, it’s because we’re transgender and it’s unfair; when we lose, no one notices (and it’s because we’re just not that good anyway). Even when it’s the SAME racer. That’s what transphobia looks like.”
Clapping back at a cisgender competitor who challenged her victory was all the incentive conservatives needed to spin this minor controversy into a perfect storm of outrage. Articles have poured forth from sites with a clear right-wing slant, such as The Daily Caller, InfoWars, and The Washington Times, far outpacing any nuanced reportage. And in their haste to keep up with the story, even some of the more established news sites are still presenting the facts in a way that normalizes and reinforces these transphobic attitudes, obscuring important facts about trans people and the sporting world in favor of a “both sides” approach.
Intentionally or otherwise, these articles are contributing to a tsunami of online hatred and discouragement directed toward all trans athletes, issuing them a clear warning: compete if you must, but win at your own risk. That’s if they’re willing acknowledge the existence of trans people in the first place – The Daily Signal refused to refer to McKinnon as anything except a “Biological Man” who happens to “identify” as transgender. These are dog-whistle terms meant to drive readers toward a specific conclusion: that women are being swindled by men who crave an easy path to victory, who are exploiting a culture of “political correctness” to cut to the front of the line.
These articles usually cite chromosomal testing as the ultimate standard for who belongs in which category – but science has established that many variations beyond “xx” and “xy” occur quite naturally, and scientists who work in these fields are spreading these facts everywhere they possibly can. That’s one reason the Trump administration’s plan to base the legal definition of gender on an individual’s genitals and chromosomes will be impossible to enforce; it’s also why transphobic women and men in sports should be cautious about demanding that gender category should be based on the result of chromosomal testing. Many of them are likely to end up being surprised by the results of their own test.
In addition to ignoring or misreading the growing body of scientific research on sex as factor in competition, this narrative also contributes to the outing and public humiliation of trans people, overshadowing the tremendous sacrifices they make in order to train, compete, or simply exist as themselves in public. This is a struggle they share with many cisgender women, although their situation is still unique in certain ways: trans murder rates are continuing to climb, and in all but two states it’s still possible to admit that you killed someone specifically because they were trans… and more likely than not, be exonerated, or serve a reduced sentence.
People still risk losing their families, their jobs, and their homes by coming out. They face greater risk of sexual harassment and assault. This sounds like an awful lot to risk in exchange for a slim competitive advantage in a bicycle race, don’t you think?
McKinnon is meeting all the unwanted attention resulting from her win head-on, sharing a wealth of educational materials and even voluntarily posting medical test results proving her (undetectable) testosterone levels, proving she’s still well within guidelines set by Union Cycliste Internationale for women’s events. She’s also confronting her critics directly. In response to one of the aforementioned articles, McKinnon posted on Instagram: “Sarah Fader beat me in the 500m TT on Wednesday (by a lot – I came 4th) AND she beat me in the 200m sprint qualifying. …but she pulled out in protest over my racing because she…thought it was unfair…even though she was beating me.”
This controversy is not only politically convenient for those looking to erode solidarity between LGBTQ people and cisgendered women (just like last year’s hand-wringing over sharing public restrooms), it’s also troublingly ahistoric. The precedent set for including trans athletes in gendered leagues goes back nearly fifty years, though most athletes today are too young to remember Renée Richards, the tennis star who quietly continued playing the club circuit after her transition in the early ’70s. Gradually moving up in the pro-tennis ranks, Richards found herself invited to compete in the US Open – only to be barred, for refusing to submit to the chromosome test used to verify competitors’ sex.
Weathering the tabloid spectacle that ensued – Richards was the first trans woman many people had ever seen, or heard of – she sued for the right to compete. In 1977, a Supreme Court judge decided in her favor, finding the sex test policy was “grossly unfair, discriminatory and inequitable, and a violation of her rights,” affirming that Richards was indeed legally a woman and clearing her to compete. Vindicated, Richards did indeed play the US Open, losing a round to Virginia Wade in singles tournament, but going all the way to the finals in doubles.
Decades later, Richards would grow ambivalent about her place in women’s sports, wondering herself whether she did enjoy an advantage over cisgender women. In 2012, she told Slate: “There is one thing that a transsexual woman unfortunately cannot expect to be allowed to do, and that is to play professional sports in her chosen field. She can get married, live as woman, do all of those other things, and no one should ever be allowed to take them away from her. But this limitation—that’s just life. I know because I lived it.”
Those who followed in her footsteps are living a different truth, and drawing different conclusions. Richards also admits that her own outlook has been colored by the fact that she transitioned later in life, after many years of training and competing with men. In becoming Renée, she was reborn “as a middle-aged woman.” In that Slate interview, she wonders aloud whether transitioning at the peak of her youthful athletic glory would have allowed her become that truly unstoppable opponent the public is now being conditioned to fear. Thinks could just have easily gone the opposite way; since the clock only spins forward, there’s truly no way to be sure.
However, this underscores an important point to remember when you’re weeding through the manufactured controversy about LGBTQ people in sports: just like any category of people, no two trans women or trans men are physically the same. Not everyone who was assigned male at birth grows up to be 6’2?, not everyone starts form-altering hormone replacement therapy (HRT) at the same age, or at all, or responds to it the same way. Not everyone draws from a pre-transition background in athletics. Pitted against their cisgender rivals, and against each other, many trans people will lose. The popular emphasis on physical bodies also ignores the components of sport which are psychological: focus, strategy, endurance.
So don’t believe everything you read: No trans person is guaranteed a win just by showing up.
Relatively recent research shows that all other considerations being equal, women’s world speed records regularly fall about 10% short of men’s – but how much of that gap is closed by the loss in muscle mass, and other factors associated with HRT? That article points out that men’s higher hemoglobin rates may be giving them an edge in terms of oxygen consumption during performance – but hemoglobin levels are among the factors that may be affected by hormones as well. This 10% figure does not belong anywhere near a conversation about trans athletes.
A friend confided in me during the writing of this story: “I used to compete in Olympic style weightlifting. I broke records in a couple states for my age and weight class, and competed on a national level. Looking at me now, you probably wouldn’t guess it. After starting HRT I dropped 35 pounds and most of that has been the muscle mass I am not using like I used to. Before HRT, I couldn’t get rid of it for the life of me even if I wanted to.”
“Of course, every body responds differently,” she went on to say, “And not every trans person will begin HRT, but it’s still a pointless argument because there are cis women who are naturally built more muscular than I am now. There are cis men who are naturally built thinner than I am now.”
If anything, we need to be more outspoken in our support of LGBTQ people in sports, specifically to drown out the hate. As long as trans people only make the headlines when they’ve won – when they’ve “taken” something from their cisgender competitors – the subject will continue giving leverage to transphobic groups and individuals who fail to realize the ubiquity of LGBTQ athletes, and their incredible contributions. And as long as sports coverage continues to favor men and ignore or disparage women (as we observed in the aftermath of Serena Williams’ experience at the US Open just last month) a scarcity mentality will persist in overshadowing the way these few accolades are handed out, poisoning dialogues about who really “deserves” them.
This is one of the ways in which trans women actually help women in sports, contributing to their numbers, taking up their causes, and supporting them as team members. For example, during times when she wasn’t competing, Renée Richards served as a coach for Martina Navratilova, one of the all-time greatest tennis stars; she later devoted an entire chapter in her book No Way Renée (the latter of two memoirs she’s published) to the thrill of this experience. Not just a lone gun, Richards played doubles with numerous other women, traveling to competitions and functioning as part of a team.
Living and competing as a woman wasn’t part of some master plan, it was simply an expression of who Richards was; her love of tennis was one of the sole threads of continuity connecting her past and present lives. Winning was always optional. “After thirty years of life as a woman,” she writes in No Way Renée, “I realize that I had to do what I did… It’s like tennis. Sometimes you play somebody who is just too damn strong for you, so you lose. If you can’t shrug it off, you get ulcers. If you can, you don’t. I don’t have ulcers.”
This month, a report co-written by three women (including The Political Is Political author Lorna Finlayson) directly addressed the pervasive fear that “that (cis) men might cynically exploit trans-inclusive legislation in order to inflict violence within women-only spaces, or simply to annoy and disrupt.”
Their well-researched conclusion, that “trans women are women,” echoes the leading message of contemporary feminism, and is not presented here as just a matter of opinion, but the result of examining all factors and determining what affords the most safety and dignity to the most people. While they acknowledge the challenges of including trans women into certain gendered spaces, such as sports teams, they find it’s the best solution we have so far, and that we can’t necessarily fix this problem by giving them their own league.
“‘Third spaces’ for trans people are not the convenient panacea they are often made out to be, for a number of reasons – most notably, the fact that nobody is seriously proposing to provide them,” they report. “As we have seen, the proposal to instigate ‘third spaces’ is less of a proposal than a way of washing one’s hands of the issue. Even if such spaces could be created, their use would ‘out’ people as trans, which is still a highly stigmatised identity.”
For now, trans athletes have no choice but to compete in the category that best fits who they are. It may not be a comfortable fit for everybody, but it should be obvious that sitting back and wait for new categories to be invented, or campaigning for them from the sidelines, would be a complete waste of time. In her work related to LGBTQ inclusion in sports, McKinnon often cites the International Olympic Committee’s charter, which lists a series of Fundamental Principles of Olympism. One of these begins: “The practice of sport is a human right.”
For a while yet to come, showing up to compete (and competing to win) is still going to create discord and debate and a lot of offensive speculation about specific athletes’ bodies, as well as aspersions cast on their character for wanting to compete in the first place. But on the bright side, if trans (and other LGBTQ+) people continue showing up to compete in ever-greater numbers, new categories or standards will eventually be set to make sure contests are truly open, safe, and fair.
Cis women know this is the way forward, because that’s also the story of how they fought for inclusion in traditionally male-dominated sports: relentless involvement, at whatever level will accept you, until there’s enough established interest and public support to justify the space you’re trying to take up. (And in case there’s still any doubt that every possible ally is needed in this fight, consider that Wikipedia’s section on women’s tennis still includes media subcategories such as “Upskirt in Tennis” and “Female buttocks in Tennis.”)
This is why it’s important that trans people themselves are not blamed for showing up to compete, or seen as taking advantage of the system in order to score easy victories. No matter how good it feels to win, that alone is not worth the threats, abuse, and public exposure that may result from simply enjoying a sport while trans.
This is also why it’s unreasonable to expect someone who’s already changed their entire life to become a woman to compete “as a man,” or with other men. As the Verso article concludes, male spaces are proven to be a less safe environment for trans women overall – not to mention that occupying that sphere would require them to “undo” or stall certain components of their transition in a very public way, which itself can be traumatic. Trans men face an inverse of the same problem: their safety in a male-dominated space can’t be taken for granted, but assigning them to a women’s locker room based on bogus “biology” will only contribute to even greater confusion and distress for everyone involved.
It kind of makes one wonder why a trans person would ever compete in the first place — if they win, they’re taking unfair advantage. If they lose (as they often do, but losers rarely make headlines) it reinforces perceptions that they’re unfit to compete. And either way they’ll be accused of “seeking attention” just by existing and enjoying a popular leisure activity – a human right.
And yet they do compete, and will continue doing so, and we are all better off because of it.
Tom Blunt is a writer, producer, host and manager. This piece originally appeared in his weekly column for the Penguin Random House site Signature.