By Jacob Derin
President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order, which reignited the debate over transgender athletes participating in school sports. It has broad language that denounces the possibility that students could “be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports” based on sex and gender identity.
The move has been interpreted as a signal that the federal government intends to enforce rules that would force schools to allow transgender athletes to compete on sports teams that match their gender identity.
The danger of executive actions, and all efforts to make broad, top-down policies, is that they can’t take the complexities of real-world scenarios into account. The issue of transgender students participating in school sports must be considered on a case by case basis, acknowledging that “transgender” is a broad, catch-all term that refers to a very diverse group of people.
The term “transgender” has become part of the common parlance, but it might still seem obscure to some. It refers to people who have a subjective sense of their gender identity, which is different from their biological sex. This covers biological males who have a subjective sense of being female, the reverse and a broad range of people who feel as if their identity is best expressed as some mixture of the two. Many of these people undergo “sex reassignment surgery” or take sex hormones to “transition” and bring their bodies more into alignment with their subjective gender identity.
There are various body types and gender identities that could be covered by the term “transgender.” This move by the Biden Administration would ignore these complexities. Nominally, it seeks to make transgender students covered by federal anti-discrimination statutes and hold schools accountable for denying them “equal access” to resources like sports facilities, student organizations and so on.
The problem is that the question of “equal access” is a very complex issue in the world of sports. Is the fact that sports are sex-segregated an issue affecting such “equal access?” It is a reality of human biology that, on average, men perform better in sports than women. (This statement, whenever it appears, warrants the clarification that “on average” means that there will be many exceptions, and no individual case says anything about what’s true overall.)
Therefore, it’s generally considered unfair to allow men to, for example, join an all-female basketball team and compete against people who are going to be at a significant height and strength disadvantage. We, as a society, have decided that this is reasonable for some sports. Should the athlete’s subjective gender identity override this consideration, and would it be fair to the other athletes to do so?
I think that the devil, as always, is in the details.
There have already been legislative efforts to ban transgender athletes from participating in sports teams reserved for the opposite biological sex. In my view, this is just as potentially misguided a move as Biden’s executive order.
Consider, as a case study, the high school wrestling career of Mack Beggs. Beggs is biologically female but has a male gender identity — he feels male. Beggs wrestled against girls, in accordance with Texas’ rules prohibiting athletes from joining teams reserved for the opposite sex, and won the championship title. The fact that Beggs, as part of his hormone therapy, had been taking testosterone caused significant controversy. Normally, this would be considered cheating, but in this case, it was a medically sanctioned treatment. Beggs, himself, had always wanted to wrestle against boys and not girls. Yet, Texas’ rules on this subject wouldn’t allow him to do so.
Of course, not all transgender people choose to transition in this way, and not all who want to do so can afford to. Under President Biden’s executive order, a transgender wrestler who is biologically male but has a female gender identity could request to wrestle against girls, even if she still had all the biological advantages that come with biological masculinity. If we think that it’s unfair to allow this in the case of a cisgendered athlete (one who is not transgender), then I think we should consider it unjust in this case as well.
In other words, the biological facts matter, and there are many ways, biologically speaking, to “be trans.” Like any group of people, transgender student-athletes are made up of diverse and varied individuals, many of whom might even disagree with each other about what’s fair on this issue. It would do them a disservice, especially in the pursuit of dignity and equal treatment, for the government to treat them all the same, irrespective of their complex individualities.
Whether a transgender athlete chooses to undergo specific medical treatments isn’t the State’s business or their school’s. Still, if those treatments give them advantages or disadvantages relative to their potential opponents, these facts must be considered.
Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.
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