This is a complicated question which is needing to be asked more and more frequently, yet continues to divide public opinion. I was recently involved in a Facebook discussion about the issue which got a little heated (as these things often do) and I want to further flesh out my current perspective on the issue with this article. The main argument for allowing transgender women to compete is inclusion and the main argument against is fairness for the other competitors. I suggest that the fairness argument isn’t really relevant and this is really about values.
Why Have Segregated Competition?
There’s many reasons to have sporting competitions including fun, health and exercise and entertainment. At the elite levels of sport there’s money to be made so for some people it’s also about personal enrichment.
I don’t know the history of how and why women’s sport came about in the first place, but the advantages of segregated competitions (including those segregated by age, weight class, pro v amateur etc.) seem to be rooted in a sense of fairness. From that flow other advantages such as more opportunities for 1st, 2nd and 3rd, instead of 101st, 102nd, 103rd as it might have been in an open competition, which creates more excitement for both competitors and spectators. Smaller competitions are also easier to organise. It’s also possible that having more competitions draws more spectators and hence more sponsors which would be another powerful driver, albeit a somewhat less noble one.
While it makes sense to have segregations for the reasons mentioned above, there also seems to be value in maintaining an ‘open’ competition which is about achieving the highest possible level.
How to Segregate Fairly
Let’s start by considering what we mean by ‘fair.’ It seems to be about removing the effects of luck so that people are competing based on their own efforts rather than something outside their control such as their biology, upbringing, wealth etc. It would be next to impossible to neutralise all luck based factors so we have to settle for something more approximate.
There are many types of segregation such as age, gender, pro vs amateur and location, but at the elite level the main one appears to be gender. The questions is, is ‘biological gender’ really the optimal dividing line for fair segregation or is it used more for convenience and historical reasons. I’m not a scientist but I suspect we could determine this by looking at a large set of data and looking for correlations (although we’d need to establish causation) between various factors and independent performance. For example, perhaps it turns out to be testosterone levels as the IOC currently suggests as the standard or perhaps a collection of factors such as wealth of home country and bone structure.
Applying Data to the Real World
Whatever the data shows, we’d still need to make an arbitrary decision about where the cutoff line should be. Issues of convenience and practicality also need to be taken into account when deciding to run and organise an actual competition. I doubt that biological gender would be found to be the fairest dividing line but I can imagine it being kept for convenience. However, if the differences in performance between transgender women and biological women, accounting for other factors, are less than those within the category of biological women then I think that’s a powerful argument for allowing transgender women to compete.
To illustrate this last point, let’s consider a hypothetical race between a transgender woman who’s done 10,000 hours of training with an elite coach, a biological woman who’s done 10,000 hours of training with an elite coach and a biological woman who’s done 10,000 hours of training with an inferior coach because she couldn’t afford an elite coach. If the difference in performance between the two biological women is greater than that between the top biological women and the transgender women then that’s clearly an indication that the bigger factor might have been the quality of the coach rather than the biological gender. If you choose to ignore that difference and allow the two biological women to compete together than you can also choose to ignore differences between the biological women and the transgender woman and allow her to compete as well.
I don’t know how many of the opponents to transgender women in sport have actually looked into the data but I suspect a good portion of them haven’t. I suspect the bigger factor that’s driving them is the desire to maintain the status quo. If I was an elite sportsperson and was faced with the prospect of being bumped off the podium and possibly losing money that I might otherwise have won, then I can imagine I’d be looking for excuses too. Depending on what the statistics show, they may have a point with fairness. That is if the statistics show that transgender women have a significant advantage over biological women which is greater than the advantages and disadvantages between biological women.
If this were the case, then I have another question to put forward; have you considered the value of the sense of self worth and inclusion that transgender women might gain if allowed to compete? We need to consider this and compare it to any possible negative effects on biological women and the state of the competition. Would it really be all that bad if a few biological women are bumped off the podium? I mean this happens all the time anyway when a better biological woman comes along so is this really going to negatively affect the competition overall? There’s no right or wrong answer here, it’s a value judgement but it needs to be part of the conversation.
The opponents in this debate claim that transgender women have an unfair advantage over biological women and that’s the reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to compete. I’d like to see the data on this but I think it’s more likely that the divide is more about practicality and maintaining the status quo than fairness. We also need to consider the value of inclusion.