A ghost pursues the girls’ sport. It’s the specter of transgender athletes. About fifty different bills pending in more than twenty state legislatures seek to exclude transgender athletes from team sports. One such bill was signed into law in Mississippi last week. A bunch complaint Connecticut claims that trans girls’ participation in college sports is Title IX discrimination. And on March 17, when the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the Equality Act that would outlaw discrimination LGBTQ People, witnesses, who testified against the measure spent more time on the perceived existential threat to girls’ athletics than on any other argument. (Parliament passed the Equal Opportunities Act last month, as in previous years, in an almost partisan vote, but the legislation never cleared the Senate.)
The argument – as set out in the Connecticut complaint, summed up during Senate hearings by writer Abigail Shrier, who testified against federal law and appears to be intuitively understood by the public – is that trans girls are unfair advantage in sports because they have more testosterone. But the assumption that they have more testosterone is problematic, if not downright wrong, as is the assumption that the testosterone provides an absolute advantage. Many young transsexuals receive hormonal treatment, often starting with hormones that prevent puberty and moving on to what are known as cross-sex hormones. Many trans girls take testosterone blockers and estrogen. Studies show that even adult athletes lose the biological competitive advantage they had shortly after the transition began. For this reason, transgender athletes are allowed to participate in the Olympics, provided they have been taking hormones for at least two years.
During the Senate hearing, Shrier argued that it doesn’t matter whether the athletes take cross-sex hormones: if their bodies were shaped by testosterone during male puberty, they would have an athletic advantage over women forever. The scientific evidence to support this claim is more complicated, but there is a rich cultural history that has associated testosterone with all things strength and exercise. In a book from 2019 entitled “Testosterone: An Unauthorized BiographyScientists Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist at Barnard, and Katrina Karkazis, an anthropologist and bioethicist currently at Yale, reviewed the available data on the properties commonly associated with testosterone, including aggression, risk-taking, and athleticism . They found that the data was consistently mixed. There are different methods of measuring testosterone, different measures of athleticism, and different strengths required for different sports. Testosterone is known to help build muscle, but volume isn’t the only factor that determines strength. While lean body mass is a better predictor of strength, testosterone levels do not clearly correlate with lean body mass. Testosterone can be used as a performance enhancer, especially during periods of intense exercise. However, some studies show that higher testosterone levels are sometimes linked to poorer athletic performance. Comparisons of testosterone levels are important in small groups of similar athletes, but even then, it is difficult to determine cause and effect because exercise itself can boost hormone production. While it is undeniable that women, on average, have lower testosterone levels than men, a study of two thousand Olympic athletes found that 4.7 percent of women had testosterone levels in the typical male range, but 16.5 percent of men – all elite athletes – had testosterone levels below the typical male range. This does not mean that elite male athletes are generally not taller, stronger, or faster than elite female athletes, just that testosterone levels do not exactly or exclusively reflect their comparative strengths.
Testosterone as a measure of athletic benefit has a strange and tragic history. Elite sports competitions where athletes were given a genital check. Chromosome testing replaced that humiliating process in the 1960s, but the problem with chromosomes – or rather, the problem with the idea that sex is binary and can always be determined from biological markers – is that chromosomes don’t always tell a clear story. Some people have three sex chromosomes instead of two. Some people have chromosomes that do not match their genitals or secondary sex characteristics. And some people have the “right” chromosomes and genitals to match, but they still arouse suspicion among those who monitor the sex of athletes. For the past decade, sports regulators, including the World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federation) and the International Olympics Committee, have placed limits on the allowable natural testosterone levels in female athletes. South African athlete Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion, was instructed to take testosterone suppressants in order to compete. last month them Appealed the judgment before the European Court of Human Rights. In fact, World Athletics has classified Semenya, a cisgender woman, as being outside of her rules for female athletes.
Opponents of trans girls’ participation in sports frame their struggle over the rights and opportunities of cis girls, claiming that using their unfair advantage, trans girls will get the medals and college scholarships that rightfully belong to athletes that women do were assigned at birth. However, as I listened to the judicial committee hearing, I noticed that the opposition established in the arguments was between cis-girl athletes on the one hand and a large liberal conspiracy on the other. (The term “gender ideology,” a popular Bugaboo of the global far-right movement, also popped up – the gender ideology is apparently also supposed to destroy girls’ sports.) Trans girls weren’t part of that imaginary equation, and this was perhaps the most insightful part of the hearing. Trans-boys are never mentioned in this conversation either, perhaps because they force trans-boys to compete against girls, e.g. happened in Texaswhere a trans-boy wrestler who had started testosterone therapy handily beat female competitors would expose the inconsistency of the argument by defenders of sexual purity in sport.
The aim of this campaign is not to protect cis-girl athletes so much, but to make trans athletes disappear. This is a movement to shut trans girls out of the community and opportunities. It is a movement driven by panic over the safety of women and children, reproducing previous panic such as that over the presence of lesbians on women’s sports teams. And just like previous panics, this one is based on what is considered common sense but is actually ignorance and hatred.