Chelsea Mitchell, a young athlete from Connecticut who runs track at the College of William and Mary, has published an op-ed in USA Today arguing that transgender athletes are making sports competitions unfair. Debates over trans athletes are becoming a major part of the new gender culture war, and Mississippi has already passed a law “requiring the state’s schools to designate teams by sex assigned at birth and prohibiting transgender student athletes from participating in school sports in accordance with their gender identity.” Other states are soon expected to follow suit. At the federal level, House Republicans have introduced the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act of 2021.
As the legislation’s title suggests, the argument made by proponents of these measures is that transgender athletes are threatening women’s sports. Roger Brooks of the Alliance Defending Freedom (an organization which is waging a legal battle against rules that allow transgender people to compete in the league that matches their gender), says that “women’s sports will no longer exist” if trans women are allowed to compete as women. Mitchell, the USA Today op-ed author, says that “males have massive physical advantages… their bodies are simply bigger and stronger on average than female bodies” and thus having to compete against trans athletes “tells me that I’m not good enough… that no matter how hard I work, I am unlikely to succeed, because I’m a woman.” Selina Soule, another Connecticut track runner who has publicly spoken out against treating trans women as women, frames it as a matter of egalitarian fairness to those assigned female at birth:
Boys will always have a physical advantage over girls. That’s why we have women’s sports in the first place. Science and common sense show us that boys are, on average, stronger and faster than girls. So it’s fundamentally unfair to let male athletes come in and dominate girls’ sports. Female athletes deserve the same opportunity as boys to excel and chase our dreams. But allowing male athletes to compete in girls’ sports shatters those dreams and takes away opportunities that so many of us have spent years working to obtain.
The stakes of this debate go beyond the question of who gets to compete in which sports league. I am not surprised that cultural conservatives have started turning it into a cause, even though there are statistically very few trans female athletes (a 2017 Human Rights Campaign report found that “while 68 percent of young people participate in organized sports, only 12 percent of transgender girls do.”) If people become convinced that trans women do not belong in women’s sports, it reinforces the idea that trans women are not “really” women. This is often framed as a debate over whether certain “muscle mass” or “bone density” confers a physical advantage, but it is also a debate over whether trans people are who they say they are and should be recognized as such.
Note that if you believe in full trans acceptance, the debate doesn’t even arise. If trans women are women, then of course they should get to compete in women’s sports. Mitchell and Soule misgender trans people repeatedly, calling those they are competing against “boys” who want to dominate “girls.” Mitchell and Soule are not just arguing that trans women are on average better physically equipped than cisgender women. They are arguing that trans women should properly be seen as Boys who are invading a space in which they do not belong. (This makes Mitchell and Soule budding TERFs.) Those who argue against letting trans women play women’s sports, then, see themselves as making (in Soule’s phrase) a simple “common sense” point about the correlation between physical ability and chromosomal sex, but they are also rejecting trans people’s self-identifications.
These sorts of arguments tend to claim to be driven not by anti-trans bigotry, but by faith in Scientific Fact. Like Ben Shapiro, the people who make these arguments insist that Science tells us that There Are Men And There Are Women, and they are physically different, and in sports we see the absurd results of denying Biological Fact, which is that you allow Men (by which they mean transgender women) to enter the women’s leagues and crush their competitors. Those arguing against trans inclusion in women’s sports insist that they are not transphobic, in that they do not hate or fear trans people, but they do believe that Reality and Science mean we must exclude trans people for egalitarian and feminist reasons.
Let’s examine these claims. We should always be suspicious when “common sense” is invoked as a justification, because it suggests that the person making the argument hasn’t thought very hard about it and is simply relying on their unthinking intuitions and prejudices, which they conflate with Reason. I want to first note that there are some highly transphobic unspoken assumptions in these arguments. As I’ve noted before (and as many trans writers take pains to explain), “transphobia” does not necessarily refer to hate or fear of trans people. It can also mean not giving equal value to trans people’s lives, just like racism doesn’t necessarily have to mean “hating” people of different races but can also mean “not considering their lives as important as yours.”
One reason Chelsea Mitchell’s argument is transphobic is that she thinks an awful lot about the implications of her position for herself, but not about the implications for trans athletes. Many arguments like hers invoke the specter of Men entering women’s sports and Kicking Women’s Asses, because Biological Men are assumed to be of such vast physical superiority to women that women could never possibly compete against them. I think a lot of women might find that patronizing, but let’s for the moment accept the factual premise that trans female athletes will tend to be above average when it comes to certain physical traits relevant for competition, relative to cisgender peers. There is still a question being avoided here, namely: are trans women at a disadvantage if they are forced to compete in men’s leagues?
In other words, what of the experiences of trans women? One of the examples constantly invoked to argue against trans athletic inclusion is that of Fallon Fox, a retired MMA fighter. “She’s not really a she,” Joe Rogan said of Fox. “Just the mechanical function of punching, a man can do it much harder than a woman can, period.” (MMA fighter Matt Mitrione went further in attacking Fox, and was suspended and fined after calling her a “lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak.”) There have been (often exaggerated) claims about the damage Fox inflicted on cisgender opponents, the implication being that Fox had an unfair advantage that was leading this “man” to beat up “women.”
But what hardly ever appears in the debate is the flip side: what about the unfair disadvantage Fox would be at if forced to compete against men? Fox may have muscle strength and bone density that puts her in the upper part of the spectrum among her fellow women, but where would she rate among men? She would probably be at a disadvantage. If the concern here is with having “men beating up women,” why is nobody interested in what would happen if trans women were forced to compete against men? One reason nobody is interested, of course, is that the people raising this issue think trans women are men, so while they profess concern with “male violence against women,” male violence against trans women is not considered to be part of that.
In fact, when you actually think beyond Shapiroesque “there are men, there are women, men big, women little, that’s all I need to know about anything” reasoning, you can see that the position of the anti-trans crowd is not actually well-reasoned. They like to bring up Fallon Fox, but they don’t bring up Mack Beggs, a trans man (i.e. transitioned after being assigned female at birth) who dominated Texas state wrestling after being forced (against his will) to compete in the girls’ division. Beggs had a perfect 56-0 record as a high school junior, and a parent even sued to prohibit him from competing because he had been taking testosterone injections as part of the transition process.
Beggs is a man. That is how he sees himself, and how others see him. But the “chromosomes are everything” crowd forces him to compete as a woman. Both Beggs and his female competitors may want to see Beggs allowed to compete in the league of his choice, but the “protect women” crowd, who believe in segregating sports based solely on genders assigned at birth, won’t let him. As a result, Beggs (a man) dominated female wrestling. If, as they say they are, the anti-trans activists are concerned with protecting women from having to fight men, why do they not mention this case? It’s obvious why not: because it complicates their narrative. They would like to make the question of trans inclusion in sports simply a matter of men “pretending” to be women in order to achieve athletic advantages.
In addition, it is also not at all obvious that the scientific premises of the anti-trans activists are correct. They maintain that not only Common Sense but also Science says that Men Have A Physical Advantage. In reality, as Elizabeth Sharrow writes in the Washington Post, “Peer-reviewed science does not support these claims. Rather, it finds that athletic performance results from a complex interaction of many factors, not just hormones or chromosomes.” In fact, the assumption that cisgender women will always be hopelessly outmatched by their cisgender male counterparts is one that might prove faulty in practice. There have been occasional experiments in more co-ed sports (e.g. high school wrestling)—this can mean gendered pairings maintained in competition as standard but all genders practicing together, but when evenly-matched opposite-gender opponents have been allowed to compete there can be surprising departures from the assumption that The Boy will just defeat The Girl—one former female co-ed wrestler writes that because sports are not just about raw strength, but about flexibility, endurance, and strategy, when she went up against boys physical differences were not dispositive in deciding he outcome. Here a cis male former high school wrestler discusses why cisgender girls were competitive wrestling cisgender men in their weight class. (Here’s an interesting argument that U.S. soccer should go co-ed, because women’s soccer players in this country are better at it than men. And here’s a WWE documentary about cisgender girl Heaven Fitch, who won a statewide high school wrestling championship against male opponents. She is not the only one.) And when trans men are allowed to compete as men, we discover that in fact, it is not true that your chromosomes are an absolute determinant of ability, as shown by Chris Mosier, a trans man who has been internationally successful in the duathlon.
One thing that would improve discussion of the science here is a recognition that when we talk about the physical attributes related to chromosomal sex, we are talking about correlations and averages. Have a look at the following overlapping distributions (which are based on comparisons between presumed cisgender individuals):
This graph only maps height distributions by chromosomal sex. But we can imagine similar distributions for many of the physical traits that are at issue in these debates, such as muscle and bone density. As you can see, while cisgender males have a higher average, there is a great deal of overlap. The overlap means that there are plenty of women who can exceed the overwhelming majority of men. (There are women who can deadlift over 600lbs, for instance.) It may well be that trans women have a distribution curve that is closer to that of cisgender women (the pink) than cisgender men (the blue—look, I didn’t choose the colors). Or they may have a curve that is halfway between the two, meaning that they are at a disadvantage relative to cisgender men but an advantage relative to cisgender women. In that case, even if we accept the factual premises of the Very Concerned About Girls’ Sports types, their solution to the “unfair advantage” they believe trans women have is to inflict an unfair disadvantage on them.
Because we are dealing with averages, it is wrong to predict that trans women will dominate female athletics. Ashlee Evans-Smith, a cis woman, defeated Fallon Fox. Renee Richards, a trans tennis player who attracted controversy in the 1970s (who—fun fact—was first outed by Tucker Carlson’s father) now believes it was unfair for her to compete against cisgender women, but she lost repeatedly to them at the US Open. Chelsea Mitchell herself begins her USA Today op-ed with a description of a race she ran against a trans woman, explaining how unfair it was—even though Mitchell won the race! (In fact, Mitchell has many wins to her name.) The trouble is that even if trans women do not tend to sweep all the awards, whenever a trans woman does win, the case will be seized on as evidence of unfair advantage. In a contact sport where people of all sexes are injured constantly, an injury done by a trans woman to a cis woman will be seized upon as proof that Men are reaping unfair advantages, with anecdotes supplanting data.
Of course, there’s something a little weird about trying to make sports fair to begin with, because sports are inherently unfair. I am not able to compete in the NBA or NFL for reasons unrelated to my personal willpower or moral worth. Trying to make competitive sports perfectly fair is impossible, because we’re talking about a field in which genetics and other uncontrollable environmental factors give some people a leg up over others. (Michael Phelps, for instance, worked hard but also won the genetic lottery in a bunch of different ways that make him closer to a sea creature than the rest of us, but I don’t see the Definitely Just Extremely Concerned About Fairness crowd arguing that these kinds of genetic advantages are an injustice.) What we can do is try to create categories for competition that do not make people so obviously outmatched that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
The argument from the anti-trans activists is that including trans women in women’s sports does make the outcome a foregone conclusion. But that’s not necessarily so (proof would be needed, rather than anecdotes), and to the extent that chromosomes are correlated with attributes that confer advantages, we should pay attention to the attributes rather than the chromosomes. In fact, it might make sense to simply do away with gendered divisions in sports altogether and to the extent that we divide people based on ability, focus on ability itself rather than chromosomes-correlated-on-average-with-ability. My colleague Sparky Abraham suggested on Twitter that we should use weight classes rather than gender to divide people up (i.e. if the problem is that those assigned male at birth are heavier on average, then just put the heavier people together regardless of chromosomes.) In response, Helen Joyce, author of Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, said that “Within each weight class, men would win and women would lose. Women aren’t just small men!” Many others agreed with Joyce, insisting that Sparky was ignorant of the physical differences correlated with chromosomes that go beyond weight.
But they were missing his underlying point. If there are additional qualities, like muscle mass, they are still qualities correlated with chromosomes. If being “chromosomally male” makes me more likely to have certain physical features that would make me strong in fights, what matters is still whether I do have those physical traits rather than whether I am “chromosomally male.” If the relevant traits go beyond weight, then we should create a category that incorporates the other traits as well. But the fundamental principle should not be: have the Women fight the Women and the Men fight the Men. It should probably be something more like: have people who are relatively evenly matched compete against each other, whenever that is possible. Let people try out for the teams they want to join, and if they’re not strong or fast or talented enough for the position they want to play, then they just won’t make the team. Arrange individual competitions based on fairness rather than using gender as a proxy for the traits that actually determine fairness. If weight is not the thing gender is being used as a proxy for, and it’s actually a proxy for something else, fine, but we could stop using gender as a proxy altogether. As of right now, we do it because it’s simple and convenient.*
The alternative might be harder to figure out. It might take effort. But I am not convinced that those opposing trans women’s presence in women’s sports are actually interested in thinking hard about ways to create the fairest competitions. I think they just don’t think trans women are women, and assume they’re just sneaky Men trying to take advantage, the same way they assume trans women are just Men who want to sneak into bathrooms to commit sex crimes. As with many public debates about trans issues, those who profess themselves to have Sincere Concern frequently seem to have an underlying assumption that trans people are malicious liars trying to obtain unfair advantages, rather than human beings trying to live normal lives in a world of horrible bigotry. Trans female athletes are seen as “boys” wanting to win as many awards as possible, rather than girls whose reason for wanting to be on the girls’ team is that they want to live the life of an ordinary girl. The social costs to trans people of the proposed policies are never discussed. Chelsea Mitchell cares a lot about getting to win all the prizes rather than just a lot of them, but she doesn’t seem to care about what life is like for a trans woman athlete forced to be treated as a man (which she is not). Republicans are deeply concerned about protecting cis women, but couldn’t care less if their efforts to do so end up having horrible effects for trans women. (See also: the bans on gender reparative therapy for youths.) Until we begin these discussions by caring about the experiences of everyone involved, rather than just a subset, it will be impossible to have a discourse on gender and sports that is rational and free from bigotry.
* There is, however, an argument against getting rid of gender categories in sports, which is that sports are important intra-gender bonding experiences that—if they actually include everyone identifying with the gender rather than gatekeeping using arbitrary physical tests—are socially valuable and affirming. Some trans athletes might be opposed to degendering sports altogether, believing that gender is meaningful and important but gender is, and should be recognized as, a matter of identity rather than assigned based on chromosomes. Preserving any kind of binary intact does leave nonbinary people stuck without a category to compete in, which should probably create a strong presumption against any kind of strict male-female divide, but it’s fair to argue that responding to an influx of trans athletes by abolishing gender categories in sports altogether is itself unfair—just as proposing to “solve” the “problem” of disputes over gendered bathrooms by switching to fully unisex bathrooms would imply that it was better to abolish the ladies’ room altogether than to let trans women use it. Even if the gender binary is inherently unjust and irrational, abolishing gender just as trans people start to find more acceptance would be its own kind of problem.
UPDATE: Some people didn’t believe me that co-ed high school wrestling happens, so I have updated the story with an example and photo, as well as noting that while sometimes “co-ed” means all genders share a team and practice together but there is gender separation in competition, in other instances female high school wrestlers have competed directly against male wrestlers.