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In the past year, legislators in several states have introduced or passed bills that would ban persons who are biologically male from competing on women’s sports teams. In the first five months of 2021 alone, five governors signed bills banning biologically male individuals from women’s sports in some capacity. The goal of such policies is clear: to make competitive sports fair for females, specifically by acknowledging the biological differences between the two sexes and placing students on teams accordingly.
The legislation is about protecting fairness in sports; it specifies that an athletic team or sport that is designated for women or girls may not be open to students of the male sex, based on the person’s biological (chromosomal) gender. Florida was one of the most recent to pass such a bill. “Today, Florida sends a clear signal that we will protect girls [sic] athletics and the female students who seek to showcase their skills and talents on a level playing field,” declared Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Chris Sprowls.
These bills are in contradiction to President Biden’s executive order regarding athletics, which overturned Trump-era policies prohibiting genetically male individuals from competing on women’s teams, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s recent policy change allowing each sport to make its own rules.
Physical differences between biological males and females are the topic of much research and are scientifically documented. David Epstein, Sports illustrated senior writer and author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, notes, “Thanks in large part to testosterone, men are generally heavier and taller than women. They have longer limbs relative to their height, bigger hearts and lungs, less fat, denser bones, more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, heavier skeletons that support more muscle—80 percent more in the upper body, on average … and narrower hips that make for more efficient running and decrease the chance of injury.”
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All that obviously creates differences at the physical level of competition. But men and women also are not the same when it comes to cognitive aspects. Growing evidence shows that how men’s and women’s brains are structured, wired and work are inherently different and that those differences may contribute to differences in behavior and cognition.
Such cognitive differences appear early in life. “You see sex differences in spatial-visualization ability in 2- and 3-month-old infants,” notes Diane Halpern, past president of the American Psychological Association, author of Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities and professor emerita of psychology at Claremont McKenna College. And Larry Cahill, University of California, Irvine, professor of neurobiology and behavior, has said that these brain differences translate to behavioral differences and things like visuospatial skills and tracking objects. He sums it up: “The neuroscience literature shows that the human brain is a sex-typed organ with distinct anatomical differences in neural structures and accompanying physiological differences in function.”
The full picture of the sex-typed differences has yet to be unveiled, although more is discovered every day. We already know that males and females differ at the structural, cognitive, processing and physical level, starting possibly near or even before birth. What that tells us is that a biological male, regardless of subjective perspective, and even regardless of taking steroid suppressors or other hormones or drugs in the hopes to better imitate femaleness, does not, in fact, become biologically female.
To put a face to the damage caused by biological males infiltrating women’s competitive sports, consider the experience of Connecticut high school runner Selina Soule, along with her female peers. Soule lost the opportunity in 2019 to compete for a spot in the New England Regional Championships in the 55-meter dash because two biological males with gender dysphoria (a biological male feeling or desiring to be female) competed in her event and came in ahead of her. (Editor's note: a formal definition of gender dysphoria can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, written and published by the American Psychiatric Association, which defines gender dysphoria as "a marked incongruence between one's experienced/ expressed gender and assigned gender.")
Rationale and Consequences
Some observers who advocate basing gender classification in sports on personal preference suggest that keeping biological males off female sports teams may be a Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 issue. They cite as support the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., which affirmed a prohibition on discriminating on the basis of sex that the court interpreted to include gender identification and sexual orientation. President Biden also leaned on this case for support of his executive order.
Title VII applies to employment issues—specifically, that a person cannot be fired solely for sexual orientation or expression if it is not an integral part of the job. Rather, our concern here is probably a Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 issue, and the two should not be conflated. Title IX was designed to ensure that women were free of sex discrimination in education and athletics so that they could have the opportunity to participate competitively, to move to the next level, to compete for scholarships and potentially even launch their own athletic careers. “Title IX was designed to eliminate discrimination against women in education and athletics, and women fought long and hard to earn the equal athletic opportunities that Title IX provides,” says Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Christiana Holcomb. Further, she asserts, “allowing boys to compete in girls’ sports reverses nearly 50 years of advances for women under this law. We shouldn’t force these young women to be spectators in their own sports.”
The Education Amendments of 1972 were enacted to address issues like Soules’s plight, to remedy persistent discrimination against women and girls, and to open the doors of educational opportunity. Before Title IX, women and girls were routinely excluded from educational opportunities on the basis of sex. Allowing biological males to compete with women will continue this discrimination, this shutting of doors. Those who advocate for biological males to compete as females rely on the premise that gender is a choice and that that mental act of choice creates biological gender, with or without the use of drugs. They argue that a biological male is female simply because he thinks or wishes it to be true. But that is based on the fictional belief, not fact, as psychiatrist and author Theodore Dalrympl states, “that a man who claims to have changed sex actually has changed sex and is now what used to be called the opposite sex.” That simply does not fall in line with reality, and, as Dalrympl notes, “When a man who claims to have become a woman competes in women’s athletic competitions, he often retains an advantage derived from the sex of his birth.” The drugs used to suppress certain hormones or create others do not alter the biological sex of that individual, and thus, do not eradicate the difference and advantage of being biologically male in competition against biological females.
Allowing that fiction to perpetuate in competitive sports possibly exacerbates another ethical issue: namely, the use of drugs by competitive athletes to create outward or inward physical or cognitive changes or enhancements. Competitive athletics is about the physical body, about pitting like against like. The use of drugs to alter or destroy like against like competition has always been considered unethical and unsportsmanlike.
The World Anti-Doping Agency list of banned substances, for example, includes enhancing drugs like androgenic steroids as well as drugs that may also be used to compensate for or treat illness or physical limitations, such as beta-blockers, which are found in medications to treat heart failure or hypertension. Regardless of desire, an individual could not have that substance is his body and compete fairly. There simply are real limitations to what a person can do and still be considered for fair, like against like athletic competition. Yet drugs needed to counterfeit female biology should get a pass?
The Importance of Language
As an English professor, I find it important to urge those directing policy to remain mindful about their and others’ use of language, especially to coerce or create reality. We should remain focused on fact, not emotion or rhetoric, and use language to highlight what is essential and real.
For example, the title of the most recent legislation in Florida, the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, puts in the forefront the reality it hopes to highlight and uses terms factually. We need to use concrete, factual language whenever possible and note when others are and are not. Factually, we are discussing individuals who are biologically male but who believe or wish themselves to be female, with or without the use of drugs. Labeling them as such, as biological males who believe or wish themselves to be sexed female, or as biological males with gender dysphoria, is vastly different than calling these individuals transgender women. The first type of labeling is more accurate, reflecting reality; the second is rhetorical, attempting to appropriate a word and change its meaning to obscure or distort reality. This is not a small matter.
Another example of how wordplay can affirm or manipulate reality is seen by comparing two article titles. The title “How Some States Are Moving to Restrict Transgender Women in Sports” attempts to induce a certain view of reality, one that again conflates words and obscures reality. The title “How Some States Are Moving to Protect Biological Girls and Women in Sports” presents a view more grounded in fact. We need to be vigilant should anyone attempt to manipulate or silence data or coerce a certain rhetorical slant in contradiction to reality or fact. To that end, I suggest that colleges and universities stay as close to fact as possible, and as such, title policies accurately, like the title of this article: “Biological Gender in Fair Competitive Sports Policy.”
Another word that comes up regarding this issue is “access.” Some people have attempted to argue that differentiating by biological gender is a matter of targeting one group and restricting access for them. But those who assert that are again conflating issues and language in an attempt to rhetorically manipulate or obfuscate reality.
For example, Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David declared this in a statement: “Transgender girls are girls. Like all children, they deserve the opportunity to play sports with their friends and be a part of a team.” The notion that all children deserve the opportunity to play sports with their friends is obvious, inarguable, but it does not logically follow the assertion before it—even with the wording “like all children” attempting to create such a logical relationship. By connecting that statement with the one before it via placement, David fabricates a straw-man logical fallacy, a type of rhetorical sleight of hand that attempts to distort the issue. Creative labeling and language manipulation does not change the fact that a biological male is not a biological female.
To sum up, students do have access to spots on competitive college or university teams. But let us be frank and factual. Athletic programs select students for teams or not based on their athletic skill or lack of skill. Not all make it onto a team. That is in line with the very reality of differences in athletic skill and ability and the nature of competitive sports. But all students have a chance to try, and all have a team to try for. Students have the opportunity to try out for the team they are biologically assigned to and the spot or position they are athletically qualified for. Biological males who wish to be females and biological males who wish to be something else alike have a hope to earn a spot on the men’s team.
In like fashion, biological women, regardless of wish or self-image, have a chance for the women’s team. That is rational, and it is fair for our biologically female athletes. That is what is intended by Title IX. The Education Amendments all together were intended to echo the important concept in the U.S. Constitution of liberty, equal freedom from arbitrary or unreasonable restraint, not equal outcome.
A policy respecting reality will protect all students’ rights to be placed in fair competition. Allowing biologically male athletes to take the places, titles, scholarships and opportunities of females will instead continue a practice of unfair sex-based disadvantage for the women at our colleges and universities. As such, higher education sports programs must demarcate competition based on biological sex.