Last June, trans-identifying cycling champion Kate Weatherly bemoaned the new ban of trans-identified athletes from certain women’s sports. The rules now in effect for women’s swimming would ban Weatherly from women’s cycling if applied there as well. These comments carried the hashtag #savewomenssports Trending on Twitter, showing many people welcoming new rules that keep women’s sports open only to biological women.
This idea is controversial, but it shouldn’t be. I’m glad the women’s leagues are beginning to make the necessary corrections to serve their purpose: to provide a space for female athletes to compete against each other and not against men.
Why is it now considered controversial to insist that women’s sport is, well, female? There are three reasons.
First, a strand of once-academic gender theory that has spilled over into the mainstream holds that sex—not just the gendered representation of sex, but actual sex itself—is a purely social construct.
From this perspective, having female genitalia is no more relevant to being a woman than having red hair. Both men and women can have any genitalia, just like men and women can have any hair color. While these debates may have emerged as important conversations about how to understand medical abnormalities like birth with ambiguous genitals, sex even now has been reduced to mere stereotypes of gender performance.
So, in a truly fascinating turn of events, left-wing gender theorists have joined reactionary conservatives in the misconception that women are defined by dresses, heels and lipstick.
Second, there is an increasingly dominant notion that replacing objective facts with individual feelings affects only the individual concerned. In fact, any denial of fact that sustains one individual’s self-understanding is at the expense of another.
Here is an example. In high school, I was a low-key triple athlete. I was a third-rate field hockey player, an average softball player, and an average swimmer. Twenty years and three children later, I’m nowhere near the height of my modest abilities.
However, imagine if I had assumed an age-specific identity. ‘Age-queerness’, which rejects ‘linear time’ and ‘age-binary’, is like transgenderism in that it stems from queer theory. For example, while there are rare conditions that can cause a person’s bones to be much older than the biological age of the rest of the body, the concept of ‘age queerness’ is about personal identification, not medical abnormalities.
If I claimed a decrepit identity and identified as a 70-year-old woman, for example (rather than half my biological age), I might have a chance to set some division records in the pool. I could knock someone’s teeth out with a softball considering how fast I can still swing a bat and the aged reflexes of my fellow athletes.
Would anyone think my participation in the senior softball league was appropriate or fair even if, like many trans athletes, I insisted that “I am who I identify”?
I bet not. Most people would be happy if I could traditionally wear older clothes and eat with early bird specials. These are things anyone can do and no one should discriminate against me if I choose to do so, nor should they discriminate against a biological male who displays traditional femininity in his dress or self-expression.
But when my self-identification is against clear rules, as in the case of my participation in a sports league designed specifically for a group of people to which I do not belong, my biology must take precedence over my identity.
Neither the fact that some seniors could beat me across the pool nor the fact that my decrepit self would fit socially among seniors changes that reality. Even if I don’t win, I still don’t belong in the race. And social camaraderie may be a positive externality of senior (or women’s) sport, but it’s not its raison d’être. There are plenty of pure recreational spaces to socialize, however one identifies.
Third and last, as a society in general we are not as invested in girls’ and women’s sports as we are in boys’ and men’s. Therefore we allow them to be a victim of our unwillingness to speak new controversial truths. Yes, sport is an important part of many girls’ childhoods today, just like they were in mine. And yes, successful women’s teams get more attention today than they used to. But it remains the boys’ and men’s sport that boasts a fanbase worth billions.
We would not allow anyone to gain an unfair advantage over our male superstar athletes, no matter what they believe about themselves.
For example, we don’t allow steroids in baseball because players who use them often throw harder, hit harder, and recover faster than those who don’t. Sure, a player who uses steroids isn’t going to do better every day than a player who doesn’t. But on average and over time, he will accumulate an unfair advantage. If he identifies as someone who hasn’t consumed what he actually has (we all know that, although for me it’s usually chocolate) we don’t think that’s relevant.
Or take the American military. President Biden recently confirmed that people who were born male but identify as female must register for the draft. People who were born female but identify as male do not have to do so.
So if the matter in question is important to us – if it’s something of great importance, like the military – we acknowledge the reality. If we don’t do this, as in the case of women’s sport, we deny reality at the expense of girls and women.
In fact, no one can change gender by denying their biological existence, any more than one can change age or consumption by doing the same. Age isn’t just a number, and sex isn’t just about genitals, hormones, or self-expression; it marks every aspect of the body.
So if by “woman” we mean “adult human woman,” trans women are not women. If everything we mean by “woman” is “feminine,” then we should probably just say so.
Regardless of how we identify trans women, they are not athletes. We must save women’s sport so that women of birth can have fair and competitive sporting spaces.
Elizabeth Grace Matthew writes about culture, politics and religion for various publications including America Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethGMat.