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Writers' Fortnight 2020: When identity trumps biology – the problem with how we define gender

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Writers' Fortnight 2020: When identity trumps biology – the problem with how we define gender

Transgender Female Athletes: To condone or to condemn?

“I will never stop being me! I will never stop running! I hope that the next generation of trans youth doesn’t have to fight the fights that I have. I hope they can be celebrated when they succeed, not demonised. For the next generation, I run for you!”

Andraya Yearwood of Cromwell High performs warm-up drills at her home track in Cromwell, CT. Arm swings, dynamic drills, high knees. She laughs, chats with her friends, pulls back her long black hair with the scrunchie on her wrist. As she stretches on the grass, we catch a glimpse of her long, perfectly done nails that are glittery with polish. Andraya looks like your quintessential track athlete getting ready for another practice.

But she is anything but average. Born Amadi Yearwood, Andraya never identified with the masculine conventions that define what it means to be a boy. She found herself in constant deviation from the male stereotype. From an early age, Andraya saw herself as a girl.

By the time she reached high school, her decision was made: she was going to transition from male to female, come what may. According to the U.S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly two per cent of American High School students identify as transgender. For most, life is not without hardship and discrimination. Nonetheless, few members of the trans community have been subjected to the kind of critical media attention that Andraya has. But for Andraya, prejudice was always on the cards. Why? Just because she loves to run – and she’s really good at it.

There has been an ongoing debate concerning transgender female athletes, and their role in women’s sport. Though it would be more accurate to term it as a ‘discussion.’ The general consensus is that allowing biological males to compete in female sport is a fundamentally dangerous idea, one that may very well lead to the complete collapse of girls’ sport.

Nonetheless, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, otherwise known as the CIAC, maintain their contentious policy on transgender athletes. The ruling, which has faced much backlash, upholds that transgender athletes may compete in the gender category consistent with their gender identity.

And so it follows that all is not well in Connecticut athletics. High school track athletes, Selina Soule, Alanna Smith and Chelsea Mitchell have filed a lawsuit against the CIAC for their transgender policy, citing a violation of Title IX. The Title, established in 1972, states that "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

The key problem with this lawsuit, and indeed the Title itself; is that it could go both ways. It evokes the question of equality - what do true fairness and equal opportunity look like? Is a completely level playing field even possible?

In the words of Soule, one of Yearwood’s biological female competitors, the allowance of transgender females in women’s sport will eventually result in “girls watching their own sports from the sidelines.”

However, not all take this tack. People of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly transgender females, are speaking out for their right to compete.

Track Cyclist Veronica Ivy, the first transgender female to win a World Title, maintains, “The idea that we need to protect women’s or female sport from other women or females, is itself inherently discriminatory.”

Andraya, of course, shares the same views. She believes that she, as a woman, deserves to race. She voices her strong opinions by asserting, “We’re female... so we wouldn’t run on any other team but the female team.”

It is also crucial to note, as stated by an article for Loughborough University, that, “Transgender people often report high levels of anxiety and depression in comparison to the general population and therefore could benefit significantly from engaging in sport and physical activity.” It is thus proposed that the wellbeing of transgender athletes must be protected through sport. But should this be our top priority?

Standing behind a podium alongside her good friend Terry Miller, another transgender female sprinter based in Connecticut, Andraya delivers a speech at the 6th Annual Athlete Ally Action Awards. She stresses her firm belief in her right to compete by declaring, “I have known two things for most of my life. I am a girl, and I love to run.”

The argument for the allowance of transgender females in women’s sport is dismissed by many as impassioned but misguided rhetoric. Biology clearly has its answers. As stated by a report for Duke Law, men are proven to be at least 1012 per cent more athletically capable than their female counterparts. The report goes on to affirm that, “the lowest end of the male (athletic) range is three times higher than the highest end of the female (athletic) range.”

Physical benefits are not limited to high amounts of the male hormone testosterone. Bigger lung and heart capacity, larger muscle mass and higher bone density are some other primary advantages, to name a few.

And no, science suggests that suppressing levels of testosterone in male athletes will not smooth out the playing field. The host of aforementioned advantages that males assume during puberty still remain.

Image on right: A runner in the starting blocks. Source: Flickr

However, the current IAAF ruling states that those who are transgender, intersex or have the condition hyperandrogenism only have to maintain their testosterone levels at below five nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months to be eligible to compete. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the US upholds a similar policy.

Sport, by its fundamental nature, is about sacrifice. Athletes sacrifice many things to be successful; to be the best that they can be. It is undoubtedly a sacrifice when one decides to transition. It is a life-altering leap of faith that must, of course, take a considerable amount of courage. Still, it is ultimately the decision of the individual to transition in their best interest; for their personal benefit. They do it for themselves.

And so one must question: is it right that transgender females have to neither sacrifice their identity nor their beloved sport, instead, their choices serve to undermine the sacrifices made by their biological female competitors as they strive to be the best that they can be?

Schuyler Bailar is a swimmer at Harvard University. As a female, Schuyler was one of the top-ranked breaststrokers in the country. In the end, he sacrificed his immense athletic potential as a girl for his true identity. He now swims on the Harvard men’s team.

Schuyler frequently stresses the point that he transitioned for himself. For his own happiness. Transitioning was his choice, and it affected the athletic prospects of himself, and him alone. All is fine concerning biological females in male sport.

But when we lend identity the upper hand over biology in girls’ sports, we leave biological females without a choice or a chance.

So much is on the line – for a decision that was never theirs.

 Left: Harvard swimmer Schuyler Bailar during a talk

16 Jun 2020
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