So, yesterday, I had a post talking about the Indiana General Assembly’s requirement that schools expressly designate their teams as male, female, or co-ed; prohibiting people born biologically male from participating on teams designated as female regardless of that person’s gender; and requiring a grievance procedure. I later updated the post to reflect that IPS is under an injunction preventing it from complying with the statutory requirement because the Southern District of Indiana has ruled that doing so would likely violate a student’s Title IX rights. (My present — not thoroughly researched — view is that, until the Seventh Circuit finishes its review of the District Court opinion, schools are in a bit of a pick-your-poison situation.)
Not that anyone asked, but what’s my personal view on transgender athlete participation in sports consistent with the athlete’s gender? Don’t the physical effects of testosterone give an advantage to a person born biologically male who is gendered female? (And, my apologies if I’m getting the language wrong here. The discussions around this subject have been fluid, and I’m sure I haven’t kept up.) Isn’t that unfair to the girls born biologically female who didn’t have as much testosterone dumping into their body?
But: a) I think the concern is more theoretical than real; b) In this context, I care a lot more about the rank and file athletes than the tippy-top elite athletes; and c) This would be just one more accident of birth that contributes to athletic ability. Ultimately, I think the costs of excluding transgender athletes outweigh the benefits.
My perspective is that of an average athlete with step-brothers and, for that matter, a step-family who are insanely good athletes. Growing up, I wasn’t exactly bad at sports. I was too skinny, but I had good reflexes and, as I got older, decent coordination. However, my step-dad and his sons were really, really good at sports. I also went to a big high school where only the really good athletes made varsity. So, by comparison, I thought I wasn’t very good. But I liked playing. I still remember first grade, Charles Elementary School, always last picked at kickball. Then one day I caught a kicked ball and got the player out. Brant, one of the very athletic kids, gave me a high five, and I don’t recall being picked last after that. It was glorious. Also, being skinny and having good reflexes made me a pretty fair dodge ball player. I still remember a pretty inspired set of dodges during gym in Mrs. Busick’s fifth grade class … but I digress.
When I became a father, my kids were in a similar position athletically, and we played a lot of rec soccer over the years. We didn’t travel, and they didn’t play varsity. All of this is to say that, when I think sports, I’m thinking more of the mid-level athletes. The junior varsity. The support players. The teams who never win sectionals. The people who find value in sports even if they aren’t grand-champions of the world. Sports are about team, camaraderie, competition, working toward a goal, discipline, joyful movement, anticipation of an outcome, the thrill of success, coping with defeat, and a lot more.
So, in that context, how much good are we doing by excluding a person from competing with members of their own gender due an accident of them being born with a biology inconsistent with that gender? And I know this just sounds like so much mealy-mouthed bullshit to people who think that if you’re born with a penis you’re a male and if you’re born without one, you’re a female, and that’s that. I know because there was a time when I thought like that. Turns out life is more complicated.
I think we’re doing more harm than good. First of all, I think the number of people born biologically male and compete for championships in female sports is going to be a very, very small number. Certainly not a big enough number to justify the moral panic on the issue. The idea that cisgender boys are going to pretend to be girls in order to win championships in girls’ sports strikes me as far fetched. And if we’re not talking about championships; if we’re talking about routine day-to-day competition, I think any biological advantages from testosterone or whatnot is going to be just one of a lot of biological accidents that contribute to athletic success. Even among people born biologically female, there is going to be a difference in testosterone, height, speed, strength and so forth that aren’t governed by “merit” like hard work, training, and studying the sport. Short girls who want to play volleyball still have to deal with the fact that some girls have tall parents, become tall themselves, and end up with an athletic advantage.
My personal experience with transgender kids isn’t extensive or necessarily drawn from a representative sample, but — not to put too fine a point on it, most of the kids I know who fit in this category don’t strike me as gifted athletes. They’re going to get waxed by most of the other kids who play against them regardless of gender. So, if they want to play sports, what are we gaining by excluding them from athletic teams consistent with their gender? Nothing. We’re doing very real harm. Maybe we’re doing it in service of excluding those transgender kids who are gifted athletes, but like I said, that’s going to be a small number (because overall, transgender or not, the number of gifted athletes is limited.) And I don’t know that, in most cases, the advantages conveyed by having more testosterone at birth are different in principle from other accidents of birth, not related to one’s sex, that contribute athletic advantages.
So, there you have my two cents.