Trans People, Sports, and Harrison Bergeron
I’ve been listening to a very annoying argument between different groups of people involving trans people and sports. I’ve been thinking on it, and I think that there are some pieces of information and ways of thinking about the issue that are often neglected by those who discuss it. I decided to put some of this stuff together, and hopefully anyone who reads this will have new stuff to add to their discussions.
I’d like to state for the record that I am a bodily autonomy enthusiast and that I strongly support the rights of human beings to do whatever they like to their own bodies. I strongly feel that it is almost never any of my business when they do so.
I’d also like to state that I think trans people are who they say they are and that they should be treated with dignity and respect. I hope that’s not too controversial of a statement to keep certain people from reading further. Even if you disagree with my statement, consider suspending your possible belief that you won’t agree with or even be interested in what I have to say next. Take a leap of faith.
Sex and gender are very interrelated but still are not quite the same thing. I’m going to start with talking about sex, and then move on to talking about gender.
“Biological sex! Biological sex!” Shriek the enemies of transness.
Like these people, I am also very interested in biological sex. I also think that the people who are screaming this phrase the loudest are often the least educated about sexual and reproductive biology.
Let’s set trans people aside for a second, and talk about intersex people.
Biological sex is a lot more complicated than just male or female. Some people try to boil it down to something as simple as XY vs XX chromosomes. But not everyone falls into those two categories.
Did you know that some human beings do not fit into the binary of XY vs XX chromosomes? Some people are XXY. Some people are XXYY. Some people are XXX. Even at the chromosomal level, biological sex isn’t binary. That is a scientific fact.
Some people try to say that biological sex is binary because of what our genitals look like. Those people, I’m afraid, are shit out of luck. Many people are born with ambiguous genitalia, which is just what it sounds like– genitals that don’t look entirely like a penis or a vagina.
Some people try to boil it down to other secondary sex characteristics, like hormone levels, skeletal structure, muscle mass, tone of voice, body hair, etc, but the scientific fact of the matter is that these traits do not always fall into a consistent binary either. Some women are really tall. Some men have high, squeaky voices. Some women are hairy. Some men have no muscle mass. Some women have no boobs. Some men have boobs. It goes on and on. And intersex people are even more likely to have unusual combinations of these kinds of characteristics.
Many people are born intersex, but intersex people are still outliers. They make up around 1.7% of the population. Still, a greater number of people are intersex than the number of people who will ever go on to become elite athletes. The same can be said of trans people– they are, themselves, outliers, but there are far more of them than there are elite athletes. Those people who do become elite athletes are outliers themselves, regardless of sex or gender.
Every single one of these biological characteristics can vary widely for people of any sex or any gender identity. These are things like hormones, muscle density, bone density, body fat percentage, frame, height, reach, etc. They all contribute to whether or not one has an advantage or a disadvantage in sports.
And this is why I think the backlash against trans people (especially trans women) in sports is a little bit ridiculous.
Michael Phelps's lung capacity is twice that of the average human. It seems like Phelps, a cis man, has a huge physical advantage over other cis men. We allowed Phelps to compete with other men, even though his giant lungs might amount to a larger physical advantage than some trans women might have over cis women, for example.
There are a lot of different variables at play here. For trans people specifically, these variables can also change dramatically and rapidly during a transition. Things like strength and stamina often change. A physical advantage or disadvantage may become smaller or larger over time.
Do you know what else is interesting?
Two cis women, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi were banned from the Olympics because their testosterone levels were too high. This doesn’t happen very often, but these women are outliers.
Germaine de Randamie (the cis woman in the video below) brutally KO’d this cis man in a fight in Belgium. Not many women can knock out a man, but this woman, a professional MMA fighter, is an outlier.
I believe we’ve established a few things here so far:
Intersex people are rare and different.
Trans people are rare and different.
Elite athletes are far rarer than intersex people or trans people.
All of these groups of people are outliers when compared with the general population.
I think it’s awfully silly, especially in the case of high-level sports, within which basically everyone is a freak of nature (I use this phrase with respect and reverence, not meant to be derogatory to trans people, intersex people, or athletes) in some respect, to segregate based on the characteristics of an average cis man or woman.
These people are not average!
No professional athlete has ever been average. They are freaks, or they are Gods among men, depending upon how you look at it.
So now, the question is, how do we make sure that sports are fair? If we aren’t drawing arbitrary gender lines based on vague data trends that aren’t wholly representative of this particular group, how do we decide who competes against who?
Maybe we could measure all of the different characteristics that would lead to an advantage or disadvantage in a sport, and come up with some kind of equation for each sport that would qualify or disqualify people within each class or division? Maybe people who want to compete but don’t fit the mold could agree to compete with some sort of “handicap,” like taking estrogen if your testosterone is too high, to even things out?
These are the best ideas I’ve come up with so far, but I also think that there are several problems with these kinds of ideas.
This brings me to Harrison Bergeron. Harrison Bergeron is a short story by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I was first exposed to this story when a friend had a birthday party and asked us to come dressed as fictional characters. Her father was there, and he was wearing a big pair of goggles, ear muffs, and a jumpsuit covered in heavy chains with locks and other metal objects hanging off of them. I had no idea who he was dressed as. He told me “Harrison Bergeron.” Later, I read the story.
Conservatives often use Harrison to argue against things like affirmative action. I promise that this is not (maybe the opposite of, actually) what I am about to do.
(I’m about to summarize Harrison Bergeron)
The story of Harrison Bergeron goes like this: Harrison lives in a world where everything has to be equal. Why? Because the government says so. But since people are different from each other, and some people are good at certain things and other people are bad at certain things, the government has to find a way to make sure that everyone stays equal.
Harrison was a super awesome guy, in many ways. For starters, he was really smart and really strong. So in order to cancel out all of that awesomeness and make Harrison equal, he had to carry a bunch of weights around, wear glasses that messed up his vision and earphones that interfered with his hearing, and other things of that nature. They even made him wear a rubber ball on his nose and shave off his eyebrows because otherwise, he would be too good-looking.
So one day Harrison is sitting and watching this ballet. It’s really shitty because all the ballerinas have to wear weights and stuff too, to cancel out the fact that they are super good at dancing. Harrison has a moment of clarity and he’s like “you know what? Fuck this shit.”
So Harrison takes off all his weights and other garbage and runs up on stage and grabs a ballerina. Then he un-equalizes her too, and they start dancing together. And the two of them together, they are really good. Two exceptional humans doing an exceptional dance. Also his parents are watching this on TV, but that’s kind of beside the point that I’m trying to make by summarizing this story.
Anyway, the super rad ballet that Harrison is doing with this chick is super illegal. So, of course, the cops come and shoot them both dead.
And the moral of the story I guess is that there can be too much equality? Or too much conformity? It’s speculative fiction. It’s open to interpretation. There’s a sort of Nietzschean feel to this story, like his story of the tightrope walker. It definitely seems like an “individualism is important and collectivism has certain dangers” kind of story.
So, of course, your run-of-the-mill anti-woke crusader will bring this story up every time someone talks about “equity,” “inclusion,” or trying to make things fairer. They use it as a sort of a dystopian worst-case scenario. “This is what we are headed towards if you stupid wokes won’t stop woking around everywhere. Is this the world you guys want, you crazy radical leftists?” And so on.
But I think there is another angle from which this story can be applied to life and to our current culture war problems. If we exclude people from our elite competitions, which exceptional humans might never get the chance to show us how exceptional they are? What if some of the best athletes in the world happen to be trans or intersex? Why would we deny ourselves the chance to create the conditions from which true greatness could arise?
What if we are shooting our Harrison Bergerons down?
Okay, enough about sex, let’s talk about gender for a moment.
Before transness and non-binary-ness and such emerged on the world stage as contenders for socially acceptable gender identities (though not before the countless people who have led gender non-conforming lives throughout history), male and female were considered to be the only two genders (again, not by everyone always). There has been a clear difference throughout history in the lives led by women and lives led by men, and a lot of that actually does have to do with biology.
Gender roles probably emerged because of what was biologically convenient during the times of early humans. Women were the ones birthing and nursing babies, so they were more often in charge of childcare. Men are generally bigger and stronger, so they were more often in charge of hunting, etc.
As time went on, we changed our world. Most of us are not hunters and gatherers anymore. But gender roles persisted. There are many theories about why this is, the two most popular probably being patriarchy and gender essentialism. Regardless of the reason why this is, the situation we are in now is that we still have some things that are separated by sex. Things like bathrooms, gyms, prisons, and sports. Also things like labor.
Sports are often segregated by gender, either by choice, by social norm, or by official rule. But what about the other stuff that is segregated by gender? When I think about other things that are or were segregated by gender, the list gets pretty long.
For a long time, there were many things that men were allowed (and often expected) to do that women were not allowed or expected to do. This is still true today in many cases and to varying degrees in different places in the world.
Some of these segregations were/are more extreme. Women have been denied the right to vote, drive, attend school, own property, control their sexual and reproductive lives, and many other rights. Luckily (for me), in many places in the world women do have these rights. Why did we choose to give women these rights? Well, first of all, women had started demanding them. Second, a sufficiently large group of men started to realize that women were, in fact, human, and capable of rational thought at the same level as men.
For a long time, men (and, actually, many women) did not believe that women were capable of the kind of rational thought needed to make an important decision like who to vote for. Why did they think this? Well, largely because of biology. Many people believed that women were biologically destined to be inferior to men, because of the measurable differences in the biology of people who are classified as male or female.
In my culture, women have struggled to be seen as equal while working the same jobs as men. There are fewer women in STEM. Fewer in philosophy. Fewer in politics. Fewer Female CEOS. Some people argue that this is due to systemic sexism, and I think that is probably a piece of the puzzle, but…
…you biological determinists out there might be saying “but what about the fact that men and women like different things? Brain differences blah blah blah…” And then you cite some study about the women in the country that is more egalitarian choosing more traditional female jobs or something like that. I’m sure you’ve all heard some version of this spiel before, possibly from Jordan Peterson.
For the purposes of this essay, I’m not really interested in why more men become engineers or why more women become nurses. That’s a super interesting conversation to have, and I have a lot of thoughts about that too, but there’s just one point that I’d like to make here.
Even in situations where things are gender-segregated (for whatever reason), there are always people who break the mold. There are female engineers, CEOs, politicians, and philosophers. There are male stay-at-home-dads, dancers, humanities majors, etc.
There have always been people who violate gender norms, sometimes just for the sake of doing so, but other times because they are genuinely the best person for the role that they are trying to fill. Either way, like Michael Phelps with his giant lungs, the Namibian women with too much testosterone, and Germaine de Randamie handing Tom Waes his ass, these people are outliers.
So why have we been making it easier and easier for people to shatter glass ceilings? Why do we (at least in most places) now let women vote and drive and own property and go to school? Why are we making it safer– legally, socially, physically, fiscally, and emotionally speaking, to violate any gender norm in any aspect of one’s life?
Now the radical feminists in the crowd are probably like, “Hey, now you’re almost speaking our language. What about women’s rights? What about protecting women?”
In case you don’t know me very well, I will tell you this one important thing about me: I am VERY concerned with protecting women, and also with protecting children. VERY. There are some deeply personal reasons for the great strength and power behind both of those convictions. Anyone who knows me will confirm this. They have seen it in action.
So let’s do it! Let’s talk about violence against women, and keeping women safe.
Here’s a popular argument: “we can’t allow people with ‘male’ body parts into women’s spaces because it makes women uncomfortable/puts them in danger/isn’t fair (like in sports).”
Let’s get these hard pills swallowed first. While trans women (and trans people in general, and queer people in general) are far more likely to be the victim of violence than cis people and don’t actually really have a huge track record of attacking people in bathrooms or generally forcing their ‘maleness’ on women, there are some fucking weirdos out there.
Some trans people are weirdos, because they are people, and some people are weirdos. Anyone trying to say that a trans person is incapable of being an abuser or a rapist or any other gross thing that cisgender people can be is clearly in denial, and, in my opinion, transphobic. People are people and some people suck, regardless of sex or gender identity. There have been cases of trans women raping cis women after being transferred to women’s prisons, for example. While it does happen, that kind of thing is really not the norm. It’s a once-in-a-blue-moon kinda thing.
Another hard pill to swallow: men are known for going way out of their way to be shitty to women. I really wouldn’t put it past a cis man to dress like a woman and pretend to be a trans woman in order to make cis women uncomfortable. Some people get their kicks doing stuff like this. Again, let’s not kid ourselves, things like this do happen. Pretending this doesn’t exist doesn’t help anyone. But like our pro athletes, our chromosome nonconformists, and our trans prison rapists - these people are extremely rare. Outliers.
No one wants sexual violence to happen to anyone right? Can we agree on that? It fucking sucks. Men do it the most, and they do it to women (and trans people) far more often than they do to other men. I’m looking at you, men! Do better.
Anyway, now I want to talk about something else: genital inspections.
There’s this new bill that just passed in Ohio which requires that kids who want to play team sports in K-12 have to prove that they are of the “correct” sex first. So how do they prove this?
With genital inspections!
Yes, you heard that right.
Many children in Ohio are now going to be treated to the delight of a strange adult touching their genitals, even sticking their fingers inside their vagina to feel for a uterus and ovaries (the bill specifies both “external” and “internal” examination).
Do you know what this sounds like to me? Molestation. Sexual assault. Child abuse. There’s no medical reason for these strange adults to be touching the genitals of these children. It’s simply being done to ensure that sports are “fair.” Is it really worth molesting a bunch of children to make sports fairer? These kids aren’t even elite athletes. Sure, some might be competing for scholarships at the high school level, but most of them are just having fun.
What’s strange to me is that the faction of the American right who have taken to calling the left “groomers” for “forcing queer ideology on their children" or whatever, seem to be totally okay with this law that forces kids who want to play sports to put up with adults touching their junk. Does the irony elude you? Also, are you really concerned about protecting children?
But guess what, these genital inspections aren’t going to stay limited to kids! Or sports. Apparently, people want genital inspections when adult people are on their way into other places too, like bathrooms, locker rooms, and even domestic violence shelters.
“But Meredith, I’ve never heard of these adult genital inspection advocates!”
Actually, you have. Because every adult who says trans women should be banned from the spaces that are designated for cis women, is, in a sense, advocating for this. Because how the fuck else would we actually enforce these rules? You might say “I can always tell,” but if you said that, you would be wrong. You’re just wrong. Sorry.
What’s more, how do we determine to what degree people are “female” enough to be in women’s spaces? Are trans women who have had bottom surgery in the clear? What about only top surgery? What about intersex people who have ambiguous genitals? Are we going to order karyotyping to figure out the chromosomes of every person who wants to take a goddamn shower at 24-hour Fitness?
Of course not.
But that is where y’all are going with this ridiculous line of thinking, whether you like it or not. So make sure you follow your own line of thinking all the way down to those potentially absurd consequences. Ask yourself about the real, tangible, practical application of your beliefs.
So do I think that trans people should be allowed to participate in sports?
My answer to that question is still “I don’t know.”
I don’t know because I don’t know if I can really clearly define such broad concepts as “woman” or “man.” I don’t know if you can define someone’s biological sex or gender identity by some arbitrary amalgamation of chromosomes and hormones and genitals and hair and tits and hobbies and muscles. It’s just too complicated. Which trans people are we talking about? Have they medically transitioned? How far along in their transition are they? What sport are they competing in? What other potential advantages or disadvantages do they have? What potential advantages and disadvantages do their opponents have?
I’m not a huge sports person. I like a few sports, like gymnastics, MMA, and figure skating for example. I don’t follow sports or think about sports enough to have developed really nuanced ethics around them. But if there’s one thing I know about sports, and games in general, and many other aspects of life, it’s this: cheating is bad.
Why is cheating bad? Because it is not fair.
So, you sports people better figure out a way to make it fair. For everyone. But not so fair that Chads have to shave off their eyebrows and wear rubber noses so that the incels won’t be jealous. Feel me?
People have different definitions of “fair,” but I think “fair” means that there needs to be a way for everyone to get a shot at being incredible. Because we all want to watch Harrison Bergeron dance ballet. Because it’s astounding. Because it’s beautiful. Because it’s inspiring. Because it’s human.
Call me crazy, but I also think that “fair” means that little kids shouldn’t have to have their vaginas fingered by strangers before they get to play soccer and that domestic violence victims shouldn’t have to drop their pants before they are offered shelter. I can’t believe that either of these things is a controversial thing to say, but these are the times we live in.
Can we all just grow up? Can we all stop frothing at the mouth and just sit down and come up with practical solutions to this problem? I really think it’s doable.
What do you think?