Transgender Athletes: Society Swimming in Deep Water

A stylized photo of Quinn, one of the more famous transgender athletes

Lia Thomas is a record-breaker. The University of Pennsylvania swimmer dominated the 500m prelims, and then finals, at the Zippy Invitational at the University of Akron in December. She broke the Ivy League record and set two school records in a pair of freestyle events. In one of the events she won, she was thirty-eight seconds faster than the woman who came in second. As swim times are measured, that is equivalent to a geologic age. Some, however, are not pleased by this chain of events, since just two years ago, Lia Thomas was Will Thomas, who was swimming for the men’s team.

If there is one thing everyone should have learned by now, it is that the issue of transgender athletes competing on women’s teams, in women’s divisions, is confusing, exasperating, unsettled, and produces multiple Everests of commentary, pro and con. And the rules of all this are not very clear—or if they are, they seem to address the core issue of fairness, but not resolve any of the issues tangential to it. Lia Thomas is following the rules set out by the NCAA, but are those rules fair? And what IS fairness for this issue? So far, the majority of the discussions center around the material aspects of this issue: testosterone and its effects on the body, and who has enough or not enough. So the various controlling agencies have been forced to find some way to decide an issue—and they’re trying to do it with rules.

In Lia Thomas’ case, the NCAA has ruled that a trans woman cannot compete with women (calm down! that means biological women) until a year of testosterone suppression treatments have been accomplished. Thomas has done that; she has complied with the rules and then was accepted into the women’s swimming program, switching from Will Thomas’s place on the men’s swim team. So the fairness issue in this particular instance is clear: Thomas obeyed the rules of the governing body and was allowed by Penn to compete as a woman. And it’s not as if no one is doing anything about this issue of transgender women in sports. School districts are making their own rules. In Indiana, for example, schools rely on anatomical sex, and they require trans athletes to undergo gender reassignment surgery before participating in the sport of their identified gender, whereas Maine allows students to choose which teams they want to play on, with considerations of safety and fairness (that word again!). They make their own rules, based  on current science—even though some of that science is still murky, as in the case of Caster Semenya.

The South African middle-distance runner has won two Olympic gold medals and three world championships in the women’s 800 meters. She has, however a condition known as “differences of sexual development” (DSD), an intersex condition most common among female athletes. She has a Y chromosome, which allows for testes. They don’t descend, but they do produce testosterone. Semenya was denied the ability to compete in the Tokyo games because she produces more than the standard level of testosterone, which she was born with, AND she was very reluctant to medicate herself. She appealed and the case was remanded to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled against her, writing that the DSD rules were discriminatory “but a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving what is described as the integrity of women’s athletics.” This wording seems to contain the echoes of the Brown Supreme Court case: “separate but equal” becomes “discriminatory but necessary.”

Semenya’s case is but one of many instances of transgender athletes butting up against tradition, culture, politics, bigotry, and social constraints. Renee Richards was in all the headlines when she emerged to play tennis. There are a ton of transgendered athletes, from Richards to Fallon Fox (Mixed Martial Arts) to Laurel Hubbard (Weightlifting) to Andrea Yearwood (High school track). And that list will grow longer and the angst over it will grow denser and louder without an acceptable resolution—acceptable to the many enclaves within this fragmented society. And that will take some doing.

So, if the science can be worked out, if chemical levels acceptable to all relevant scientists worldwide can be fixed, will that end the debate? If not, what will? Shall there be separate divisions for transgendered athletes? If so, just Male to Female ones or also Female to Male (much rarer)? Discriminatory? Well, sport has long had divisions such as age, sex, level of experience—such as T-Ball games versus high school or college ball; some different rules for college football versus the pros. Even tennis realizes certain physical differences and tries to balance things in mixed doubles by having BOTH sides of the net equal with male and female pairs, and allowing women’s matches to be best-of-three, while men labor under a best-of-five burden. But there is some doubt in my mind that trans athletes would go for that, as it mocks the idea of “inclusion”, a vague and unsettled concept still bubbling on the stove—not soup yet.

Piers Morgan, that blast furnace of snark and pompous self-congratulatory pronouncements, has waded into the Lia Thomas story up to his knickers, claiming that if Michael Phelps suddenly claimed female gender and swam on a woman’s team, all hell would break loose. That thoughtless remarks obliterates an important issue: the length of time a transgendered woman athlete was a biological male before transition, how long a person lived with all that pesky testosterone sloshing around inside his body. If the effects of testosterone were as powerful and could cause such long-lasting and one-sided effects, the longer the erstwhile woman swimmer lived in a man’s body, the more “unfair” any competition he entered as a woman would be. But that would be speculation, and if one even dips a finger into the Web info pool, one finds (surprise!) a tsunami of conflicting opinion on the matter crashing down on the searcher, drowning Reason, flooding our sparse rational discussions with a wave of nonsense. This is an issue which is not fading. Transgendered and nonbinary people are part of us.  They are big-money winners on “Jeopardy!”, governors of states, prime ministers of countries, officially recognized as a third gender by India, coaches, trainers, dishwashers, bus drivers—ordinary people trying to make their way in life. Our society needs to come to grips with them and also deal with its own hang-ups. Or we’ll all drown together.

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If you enjoyed Len Holman’s take on transgender athletes, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a breakdown of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a dissection of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Galapagos, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.

More from Len Holman: Phryne and the Mysteries of the Female BreastLabiaplasty: The Body as Enemy, Gadfly: Any Takers?

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