Update on recent Transgender Debate

When I got into a Twitter feud with some activists about who should and should not be allowed to compete on a professional level, I said I would educate myself more. That did not mean I would be getting a degree or a doctorate in all things transgender. But I did learn a few things and wrote an opinion piece for The Sunday Times (published February 17).

What I really wanted to do was try to open up the debate about equality and fairness in relation to transgender participation in women’s sport. There were too many voices that were silenced and shamed into submission and that is not right. My aim was to encourage a more scientific, rather than emotional, conversation and to search for a solution that would work better than current arrangements.

I was motivated by concern about the future of women’s sport and my worry that by trying to be fair and inclusive for one group, others can be adversely affected, that eliminating one kind of discrimination can inadvertently give rise to another.

Well, I certainly stumbled into a hornets’ nest. The support I normally get from ‘my people’, the LGBT community, was replaced by a barrage of quite nasty personal attacks and I was dropped (jettisoned is a better word) as an ambassador for Athlete Ally.

Conversely, some publications and people that I am at odds with on most issues, such as the Washington Examiner (gasp) and James Woods (double gasp), were strongly supportive of my opinions. Those are unwelcome bedfellows. So where did I go wrong? Or did I go wrong?

I know that my use of the word ‘cheat’ caused particular offence among the transgender community. I’m sorry for that because I certainly was not suggesting that transgender athletes in general are cheats. I attached the label to a notional case in which someone cynically changes gender, perhaps temporarily, to gain a competitive advantage. We should not be blind to the possibility and some of these rules are making that possible and legal. The context may be different, but the case of Lance Armstrong, and the harm he did to his sport, is surely instructive.

So how do we go forward? First, we all need to realize that there is no perfect solution in which nobody will ever be wronged or disadvantaged. There is no blanket rule that will solve all issues. The objective must be to find policies that make women’s sport as inclusive and fair as practically possible. After all, if everyone were included, women’s sports as we know them would cease to exist. Therefore, any sensible policy must have some exclusions. But which ones? Where do you start and where do you end? Should different sports have different rules governing participation? Should recreational sport be subject to the same rules and standards as professional or Olympic competition? Should there be different rules for high-school sports, different rules for colleges etc?

When Dr Renee Richards won the legal judgment that allowed her to compete on the women’s tennis tour in 1977, it was a one-off case. There were more individual cases after that, but not that many. What we have now are different rules that apply but apparently many of those rules are neither based on science nor reason. I am told the Olympic rule of allowing 10nmol/L of testosterone for trans people (from November 2015) was decided with no input from scientists and took all of 30 minutes of consideration to create and put into statute. That level has been changed to 5nmol/L (as of April 2018) and, one must ask, on what basis?

It is obvious that men have certain inherent physiological advantages over women. These include height, weight, bone-density and muscularity. These advantages play a different role depending on the sport, with power-lifting being the biggest and most obvious advantage. Can we make sure those advantages are nullified so that women who have transitioned from men have the same level of physical capability they would have had if they been born female? Clearly, we can’t, because you cannot lose those extra inches of height (five inches on average) no matter what you do; some advantages of weight and muscle built up over time are also likely to remain, so to what acceptable degree should they disappear?

To put it into context scientifically, normal testosterone levels for men aged 19 and above range from 240 to 950 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL). For women aged 19 and above, normal testosterone levels range from eight to 60 ng/dL. So even the highest level for women is lower by a factor of four than the lowest level for men. 

The argument that some women are taller or bigger anyway and therefore have an advantage is false. We naturally gravitate towards the sport for which our bodies are best suited. Someone who is 5ft tall probably should not try to excel in basketball and someone 6ft 8in tall should not try to be a jockey or a gymnast.

In boxing, weight-lifting and other strength sports, competitors are separated by weight divisions as well as gender. (It has also been argued that basketball might introduce height categories to widen the game’s appeal and pool of talent.) In Paralympic sport, there is an even wider array of categories to accommodate different degrees and types of physical impairment.

But we should be wary of solving the transgender problem (if I may call it that) by creating further categories. For while they are intended to be fair and inclusive, multiple categories can also fragment a sport and cause confusion.

It would be a big mistake for women’s tennis, which of course I know best, to be broken up into too many categories. Male and female, juniors, seniors and veterans, able-bodied and wheelchair, seems enough to me, certainly at the top level.

I know I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think there is a definitive answer here. That is why I want a debate, a conversation that includes everyone and is based, as I have said, not on feeling or emotion but science, objectivity and the best interests of women’s sport as a whole.

Needless to say, I have always and will always be a champion of democracy, equal rights, human rights and full protection under the law for everyone. When I talk about sports and rules that must be fair, I am not trying to exclude trans people from living a full, healthy life. And I am certainly not advocating violence against trans people, as has been suggested. All I am trying to do is to make sure girls and women who were born female are competing on as level a playing field as possible within their sport.

While there were some unfair articles and responses and name calling (a TERF? Seriously people?!?), the support I have gotten has been quite overwhelming. Some in the open, some from the ‘closet’. Fairness has been my mantra all my life. And that will not change, no matter the name calling. The communists tried to shut me up 45 years ago and look how that worked out...

If fair and open discussions can be held without preconceptions or prejudice, and without people being vilified as ‘transphobic’, as I have been along with thousands of others for having a different point of view, by all means count me in!

The following links to recent scientific papers on the subject should be useful for anyone who wishes to pursue the matter at greater depth. For me, they show just how difficult it is to establish anything close to a level playing-field.