Trans women in women's sport - 'stunning and brave' or a problem that needs addressing?
It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I say straw, but I actually mean a 6ft former male rugby player now turning out for a women’s team in Wales.
It wasn’t just that someone with all the obvious physical advantages of being born a man was playing against biological women that made me angry, it was that people involved seemed to know it was dangerously unfair and think it was hilarious.
‘I do feel guilty, but what can I do?’ said the player in question, Porth Harlequins’ Kelly Morgan, nicknamed ‘The Beast’. Her skipper found it funny that Morgan ‘folded a girl like a deckchair’. Her coach found it funny that Morgan posed a heightened injury threat to her team-mates in training. They say laughter is the best medicine – but try telling that to Morgan’s opponents next season.
I’d spent the previous few months following the issue of trans women competing in women’s sport with increasing irritation, astonishment and frustration. Irritation at the anti-scientific, aggressively anti-female dogma of proponents of trans women competing against women; astonishment that the authorities were actively encouraging it; and frustration at the mainstream media’s virtual silence on the issue (although, I should add, they have upped their game in recent weeks).
So when I read about Kelly Morgan, I felt compelled to write about it, despite knowing that I would probably be called a transphobe, a bigot, a gammon and a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist, apparently, which will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me). Someone might even hit me with the classic, ‘They’re not gonna shag you, mate.’ Luckily, I don't work for anyone, so am quite difficult to 'cancel'.
Not that this is easy to write, because it requires discussing individual trans women who are playing by rules written up by politicians and governing bodies. But accusing critics of trans female participation in women’s sport of attacking and hurting the feelings of trans women – or of having no sympathy or empathy for an oppressed group – is a common tactic used by transgender activists to shut down the debate and divert attention from common sense and scientific facts. Only by discussing individual cases can you reveal the wider implications. And guess what? Women have feelings, too.
Some believed that the minute full contact sports became part of the equation, those politicians and governing bodies would come to their senses. Alas, no. In Australia in 2016, a 6ft 2in international handball player called Callum Mouncey announced he was now called Hannah. A couple of years later, after hormone therapy to reduce her testosterone levels, she was playing with and against women, in handball and Australian football. In the United States in 2014, an MMA fighter called Fallon Fox, who had in fact undergone sex reassignment surgery, fractured an orbital bone and the skull of opponent Tamikka Brents. When Brents said that she had never felt so overpowered, trans rights activist Paris Lees accused her of being a ‘sore loser’ and a ‘whiner’.
The ‘sore loser’ card is often used by proponents of biological males competing against women, and by playing it they betray their misogyny. I’ve even heard it said by trans activists – including psychologist Dr Beth Jones on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour – that women who complain about having to compete against biological males need to buck up their ideas and try harder (in Jones’ ‘ideal world’, men and women would compete together, even if that meant no women competing in elite sport at all. I’m not making this up).
Another problem those opposed to trans female participation in women’s sport face is the ignorance among the general public about what it means to be a trans female athlete. Judging by conversations I’ve had, a lot of people seem to think that to compete against women, a biological male must undergo surgery or at least hormone therapy. But in some parts of the world, at least below the elite level, a trans woman only has to identify as a woman to compete against them.
Kent’s Maxine Blythin, a mediocre player in men’s cricket, has become a run machine in the women’s game, having had to do nothing more than call herself a woman. Curiously, she played as a woman and a man last season. In certain American states, trans female students are also allowed to compete against women ‘without restrictions’.
In Connecticut, two trans females called Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller are sweeping high school rivals on the track, with Miller shattering state records and both winning a sportswriters' award for ‘courage’. Miller has argued that her rivals should work harder rather than complaining about unfairness (the lazy, whining cows). Instead, three of her rivals have filed a federal complaint with the US Department of Education, claiming that the policy violates Title IX, a law that aims to ensure students have equal opportunities, regardless of sex. Two of the complainants withheld their names for fear of retaliation, which tells you how rough things are getting.
There is something slightly absurd about scientists beavering away for years trying to prove or disprove something that anyone with functioning eyes and the capacity for rational thought has known since humans became humans. In addition, hundreds of years of sporting competition have provided us with records that already prove it.
It took me less than a minute to discover that the 100m record at my old school is 10.75 seconds, which would have won the kid who ran it (never heard of him, by the way) a silver medal in the women’s 100m final at the 2016 Olympics. It also took me less than 10 seconds to discover that Serena Williams’ fastest ever serve is 128mph, while it is not uncommon for men to deliver a tennis ball at 140mph. It is for reasons such as this that male and female sports have traditionally been separated.
But scientific evidence will be needed when the legal challenges start coming and this shit storm hits the courts - and here's some of it. According to developmental biologist Dr Emma Hilton, girls and boys start diverging physically after only seven weeks’ gestation. But it is when they hit puberty, and male testosterone levels ‘surge and stabilise’ at about 20 times higher than in females, that the gap becomes a chasm. ‘This surge,’ says Hilton, ‘shapes a boy into a man, and into a superior athlete.’
According to Hilton, males are, on average, taller than females; they have longer arms; wider hand spans; longer legs and narrower pelvises, leading to more efficient running gaits. Males have about 40% more muscle mass and 40% less body fat than females; denser muscle, with more and larger fibres; higher proportions of fast twitch fibres, responsible for explosive movement; stiffer connective tissue, which means greater storage of potential energy and more explosive power; and larger hearts, lungs and haemoglobin pools, which means they get fed more oxygen.
Dr Emma Hilton explains the physiological differences between men and women
There are, Hilton explains, 6500 differences in gene expression between males and females, and ‘the majority of physiological differences are likely driven by testosterone-fuelled puberty’.
The International Olympic Committee decision to allow trans female athletes to compete against biological females after reducing testosterone for 12 months was based on data provided by American transgender scientist Joanna Harper, data which Hilton calls ‘almost laughable’ and ‘a pile of anecdotal numbers’. And according to research coming out of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, as reported in The Times, biological males who lower their testosterone into the female range continue to have an advantage over biological women, because testosterone suppression for trans women does little to reduce muscle strength even after a year of treatment.
We already knew that advantages such as stature, height and limb length would never disappear, because lowering testosterone does not change a skeleton. According to Hilton, there is also no evidence to show that hormone therapy shrinks hearts and lungs. All of this, say scientists and anyone else with half a brain, creates health and safety issues in collision and contact sports such as rugby and boxing. For their sake, let’s hope Porth Harlequins have done a risk assessment and informed their insurers.
Dr Nicola Williams of Fair Play For Women, which campaigns to protect the rights of women and girls in the UK, says trans activists rarely agree to debate the issue, on the breathtakingly arrogant grounds that there is no debate to be had. What easier way to spot if someone is not a serious thinker than if they refuse to engage in an argument?
In February, Williams was ‘no-platformed’ by BBC 5 Live after trans female cyclist Rachel McKinnon refused to appear on the same programme with her. McKinnon said that debating Williams on the issue of trans women in sport would be like a black person debating civil rights with the KKK.
Says Hilton: ‘I work in a scientific discipline in which I’d be laughed at if I didn’t debate with facts. But in this case, scientists are saying, "Look at my pile of evidence!" and [proponents of trans female participation in women’s sport] are choosing to completely ignore it.
'Female sport is a protected category, and usually with a protected category you have a responsibility to justify inclusion. But in this case, they are saying that the burden, which we are meeting by the way, is on us to prove that the inclusion of trans females is going to compromise the aims of the category. That’s the opposite of how science is supposed to work.’
You might call it a collapse of critical thinking, or the seemingly old-fashioned academic notion that unless you can back up your argument with facts, you stop arguing and concede that you were wrong. Their ignorance must be wilful, because the truth, which they characterise as ‘violent words’ a vulnerable group needs to be protected from, is inconvenient to their ideology, the crux of which is that feelings and identity trump biological sex.
Politicians and governing bodies are effectively using women’s sport as a live experiment. David Hughes, chief medical officer for the Australian Institute of Sport, admitted as much in an interview with the BBC. Asked if a biological male reducing testosterone for 12 months was long enough for them to compete fairly against women, he replied that ‘time will tell’. He went on to say that if there were a ‘rash of trans females showing advantages’, governing bodies might adjust their policies. Until that time, women would just have to suck it up, just like they’ve always had to.
Another live experiment is being carried out by the University of Montana. This autumn, June Eastwood, a women's gender and sexuality studies major, will compete as a woman in cross country, having chalked up personal bests of 1 minute 55 seconds in the 800m and 3 minutes 50 seconds in the 1500m – when she was competing as Jonathan. Both times are faster than the personal bests of former double Olympic champion Kelly Holmes. In the case of the 1500m, by five seconds. Harper, who often pops up in these conversations, believes the hormone therapy Eastwood has been obliged to undergo will even the playing field, but we'll just have to wait and see.
Trans female June Eastwood will compete against women from this autumn
There are those in the mainstream media who are apparently, like, totally cool with the idea that trans women one day might dominate women’s sport, including The Independent’s chief sportswriter Jonathan Liew, who asked whether it would really be that bad if trans female athletes ‘swept up Grand Slam tennis titles, cycling world championships, monopolised the Olympics and filled out football and cricket teams’. In fact, Liew concluded, it would be ‘inspiring’.
This line of thinking often stems from the reasoning that because Michael Phelps has particularly big hands and basketball players are particularly tall, sport is essentially unfair. But it is a desperately lazy argument, which would be quickly exploded if you put a 6ft 2in, 14 stone elite male boxer and a 6ft 2in, 14 stone elite female boxer in a ring together. A tall woman is not a man. And unless you draw a line somewhere – and the most logical place is between XX and XY chromosomes – women wouldn’t win much. Which is an outcome most sensible people would have a problem with.
Elsewhere, QC Jo Maugham praised the BBC’s ‘wonderful reporting’ of the Kelly Morgan story, and accused the naysayers (there were a lot of them) of being ‘unable to adapt to a world that is not binary’. Maugham asked for evidence that trans women competing against women in collision sports is dangerous. As the comedy writer Graham Linehan, himself smeared as a bigot, pointed out: ‘I’ve never seen anything as mad as this. Men suddenly pretending they don’t know the difference between men and women.’
(Having taken some fearsome flak on Twitter, Maugham, who must own one of the biggest shovels in Britain, re-joined the debate a couple of days later with the quote: ‘Let their [women’s] playing fields be for the enjoyment of sport rather than the site of mutually destructive culture wars.’ There you have it: according to Maugham, women’s sport is nothing more than a bit of hit and giggle).
Sharron Davies is opposed to trans female participation in women's sport
This madness extends to more respected scientists than Harper. When I asked one such sports scientist if he had any concerns with the idea of trans women competing against women in boxing, he said he didn’t, on the grounds that there was no existing evidence to suggest that biological males beating up women was any different to Mike Tyson beating up men. Back in the real world, no coach of a female fighter with an ounce of integrity and care for his or her charge would allow it to happen.
Meanwhile, governing bodies are drawing up diversity and inclusion policy without consultation with women. The Rugby Football Union recently published its policy on the ‘participation of transgender and non-binary gender players’, having consulted four transgender rights groups, including the LGBT rights organisation Stonewall. Asked by the BBC why it is fair that trans women compete with women, Stonewall’s director of sport replied that because female members of his cycling club were stronger than him, it must be. No, really. It is on such scientific rigour that the RFU is basing its policies.
Unsurprisingly, this sort of stuff doesn’t go down too well with a lot of women. You know, those people who would be beaten up or sat in the stands while athletes with insurmountable physical advantages ‘inspired’ the world by sweeping up Grand Slam tennis titles, cycling world championships, monopolising the Olympics and filling out football and cricket teams.
They point out that sport is played with bodies, not identities; that women’s safety, dignity and opportunity should trump the feelings of trans women; that if males who identify as women are allowed to compete against women, then why not males who don’t identify as women, on the grounds that their biology is the same?; and that if trans women don’t have an advantage, why don’t you see trans men thriving in men’s sport?
How many women injured or merely embarrassed by trans women will change the minds of politicians and governing bodies ? How many women sitting on the sidelines, robbed of scholarships, medals, money and the sheer joy of competing is too many?
‘Transgender lobby groups, which are often supplied with millions of pounds of funding, are very good at convincing policy makers that inclusion is everything,’ says Dr Williams, whose Fair Play For Women is unfunded and made up entirely of unpaid volunteers.
‘Trying to persuade them that it comes at a cost to women is proving difficult. You’d think that common sense and science would make it obvious that gender identity is not the same as sex and that trans women competing against women is unfair, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.
'Governing bodies know that you can’t make a man into a woman, but they’re more worried about being accused of transphobia than they are about how fair their policies are for women. Women need to at least be included in the conversation.’
Academics who have dared to voice their concerns have been verbally abused, threatened with violence, investigated by their institutions and ‘disappeared’ from Twitter. Former sportswomen who have dared to speak up have been similarly intimidated, although not all of them into silence. Some of the abuse is sickening. McKinnon recently tweeted that it was fine to ‘celebrate’ the imminent death of a terminally ill woman whose opinion she disagreed with. What a lovely lady.
‘Some trans activists say that [by opposing trans female participation in women’s sport] we’re in bed with the Christian right in America, as well as Donald Trump,’ says Hilton. ‘That’s like saying that because I’m a vegetarian, I’m in bed with Hitler. Our movement, such as it is, is full of stereotypical feminists, as in 50-year-old crocheting trade unionists and class analysts. The idea that we are somehow alt-right is ludicrous.’
Trans woman CeCe Telfer, formerly Craig, won a 400m hurdles American college title this year
Former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies has shown particular bravery under fire, as has tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who was recently labelled transphobic and dropped as an ambassador by LGBT organisation Athlete Ally. Athlete Ally also claimed Navratilova’s view that allowing trans women to compete with women was ‘cheating and unfair’ amounted to ‘a false understanding of science and data’. This is the dystopian world we live in, in which one of the great champions of LGBT rights is now a bigot and a fool.
Speaking up in such a toxic environment, in which people take great pleasure from identifying ‘suspect’ views and making life as uncomfortable as possible for the ‘offenders’, is even more problematic for current athletes. Indeed, Hilton says female athletes have told her they have been threatened with sanctions by teams and sports federations if they as much as 'let the smile slip’.
A society that accepts the silencing of views some people don’t agree with is a dangerous one, as is a refusal to acknowledge the fears, needs and safety of women in order to include trans women in women’s sport. And if that sounds discriminatory, then so is refusing to allow adults to compete against children or able-bodied people to compete against disabled people. Then again, I can hear it now, coming from somewhere in the future: ‘Trans-abled people are disabled people! Get over it!’
It cannot be right to trample on the rights of one oppressed group to further the rights of another oppressed group. And what started out as one oppressed group calling for human rights has morphed into a hostile land grab for territory women spent centuries carving out for themselves.
And while some of the language on the fringes of the debate tends towards the hysterical, anyone who thinks that countries and individuals won’t seek to exploit the situation must have missed that bit of history when East German scientists pumped female athletes full of testosterone to make them more like men and break lots of records and win lots of medals, or when cyclists filled their bodies with chemicals they knew might cause them terrible harm, in the hope they would make them faster.
If something is not done to stem the trickle, there is a danger that women’s sport in the not so distant future will be reduced to a laughingstock. Literally, people sitting in stadiums and on sofas, guffawing at the sight of female athletes being trounced on the track, blasted off the tennis court and smashed to smithereens in the boxing ring by biological men. Progress of a sort. But how many people will be saying how stunning and brave trans female athletes are then?