Biological Essentialism Hurts All Athletes

Isaac Sederbaum responds to a recent Inside Higher Ed opinion piece on women and college sports, citing four major issues with it, including flawed research and bigotry.

February 1, 2022
 
 
DezignerAkhmeed/digital vision vectors/getty images

I am deeply saddened that Inside Higher Ed chose to publish an opinion piece last week that not only quotes a designated hate group but also peddles shoddy research as a reason to bar trans women from sports. Angie Kirk’s piece, “Biological Gender in Fair Competitive Sports Policy,” which relies on biologically essentialist understandings of sex that are couched in racism and quotes now-disproven research, is dangerous. Inside Higher Ed's publishing of the piece not only amplifies a bigoted opinion, but it also gives a platform for ideas that are used to harm the trans community within and beyond sports.

‘Biology’ as a Scare Tactic

Kirk opens her piece by asserting that there is plenty of scientific evidence that “biological males and females” differ not only physically but also mentally, and that those differences mean that women are unable to compete with men. She continues to say that because of such advantages, the various anti-trans bills passed across the United States are serving to protect women from unfairness in sport. However, I take four major issues with Kirk’s piece.

The first is that these bills are predicated on the scare tactic that trans women are “taking over” sports. This assertion has been cited in bills in Florida, Idaho and Indiana, just to name a few. However, lawmakers in most of the states where those bills are being debated and passed cannot name an instance of a single trans girl participating in sports, let alone “taking away” the spot of a cisgender girl. While Kirk cites the now-famous case of trans runners Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, she fails to mention that two out of the three plaintiffs who sued the state of Connecticut, Selina Soule and Chelsea Mitchell, now run track in college. The third, Alanna Smith, who is still in high school, broke its girls’ 300-meter record in December 2021.

The second issue that I take with this argument, is that Kirk acts as if participation is a zero-sum game where everyone is vying for a spot to play at a D1 college or to go pro. The reality is that there are eight million high school athletes and, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, 94 percent won’t play on a competitive team in college. Of those who do play in college, only about 1 percent will ever go pro. For many children, sports are a way to be with friends, stay away from bad home situations or just have fun. These bills would bar trans girls from competing on any scholastic team and could also prohibit them from participating in gym class with their friends.

Little to no scientific evidence demonstrates that trans women have any sort of athletic advantage. In fact, a peer-reviewed 2015 article from the Journal of Sporting Culture and Identities found that the effects of hormone replacement therapy on distance runners reduced running speeds of trans women by 10 percent on average and that trans women were no more competitive in the women’s division than they were in the men’s. Additionally, studies that are often cited about the differences in trans and cisgender women’s performance by anti-trans activists have enormous limitations. For example, one often-cited paper used by anti-trans proponents not only utilized nonathlete participants, it made no causal statements about athletic advantages. Instead, its main conclusion was “sex steroid hormones are important determinants of the sex-specific localization of body fat.” To make assertions that trans women have huge athletic advantages with so little scientific evidence serves as a scare tactic to drum up support. Funnily enough, Kirk cites David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene as “proof” that trans women should be banned from sport, yet in September 2020, Epstein wrote an article in Slate saying that after seeing more scientific evidence, he had changed his mind.

The third issue I take with this piece is that the biological essentialism that Kirk uses to argue that women and men must be separated in sports functions more to put women and girls down than it does to lift them up. The idea that “men’s and women’s brains are structured, wired and work” inherently differently and “may contribute to differences in behavior and cognition,” which the author quotes as reasoning to segregate sports by sex also offers great rationale to keep girls from subjects like math and science and from sports altogether. This idea kept me from pursuing an undergraduate degree in math when, after failing a calculus test, a classmate told me I had probably previously reached my math potential, since girls don’t have the same aptitude for math that boys do. It also kept me from trying out to be a kicker on my high school football team, a desire derived from watching Heather Sue Mercer kick for Yorktown High School in 1993, when I was 6. Heather and her team destroyed my brother’s team 26 to 0, with Heather kicking a 22-yard field goal and the extra point after each of the three touchdowns her team scored.

But the fourth, and biggest, issue that I take with Kirk’s opinion piece is that she fails to acknowledge the racist implications and outcomes of the state bills. Boiling womanhood down to biomarkers such as levels of testosterone creates racist policies such as testosterone ceilings for women’s participation. Rather than keeping trans women out of elite sports, particularly the Olympics, these ceiling have punished at least three cisgender women—Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui—all of whom represent African nations. The women were told that if they wanted to compete in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, they would need to take medication to lower their naturally occurring testosterone levels. The irony is that if they had chosen to do so, they would be cheating, according to Kirk. It also ignores the long history of Black women having to prove their femininity. The icing on this racist cake is that Kirk quotes a lawyer from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as an anti-LGBT hate group and whose CEO has cited Steve Sailer, who is widely viewed as a white supremacist.

Your (Racist) Language Matters

In general, trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) employ language that, at its core, is the same as the language used to promote scientific racism and eugenics and justify slavery, such as Kirk’s use of the phrase “biological reality.” One TERF group, the Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF, told Vox that, “sex is grounded in materiality, whereas ‘gender identity’ is simply an ideology that has no grounding in science.” But this idea that sex is immutable and chromosomal ignores the history of racism in science and also negates the thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge and experience of gender. Like many TERFs, Kirk’s use of the phrase “biological woman” instead of “transgender woman” seeks to both normalize that language and also delegitimize the lived experiences of trans women. To her, the only “real” women, “normal” women, are cisgender. Kirk asserts that language matters but hopes her reader does not pay attention to the fact that under her quest for “fairness,” she is simply peddling the tired trope of the lying trans woman.

And this matters. Language has the power to impact how entire groups of people are viewed by society. As Schneider and Ingram write, the social construction of groups:

has a powerful influence on public officials and shapes both the policy agenda and the actual design of policy. There are strong pressures for public officials to provide beneficial policy to powerful, positively constructed target populations and to devise punitive, punishment-oriented policy for negatively constructed groups. Social constructions become embedded in policy as messages that are absorbed by citizens and affect their orientations and participation patterns. Policy sends messages about what government is supposed to do, which citizens are deserving (and which not), and what kinds of attitudes and participatory patterns are appropriate in a democratic society.

The language in the policies that Kirk is championing signal who is worthy and who is not. Here, cisgender women and girls have a positive social construction and are deemed as needing protection. The result is not only that trans women and girls are continually demonized in sport; this negative social construction is also then utilized to justify punishment against them in other realms of life, as well.

It’s About Sports, but It’s Not About Sports

The continual and increasing proliferation of anti-trans policy, along with the negative portrayal of trans people, has dire outcomes beyond sports. For one, policies not only impact how groups of people are viewed, but they also have the power to redistribute resources and set political agendas. In creating a problem that isn’t there, these policies redirect resources that could be used to actually promote fairness (e.g., to fight for equal scholarship dollars for collegiate sports) to groups that are instead fighting to legislate away the existence of trans people.

But policies don’t simply redistribute resources that could be spent better elsewhere. Public policies are “crucial inputs that feed back into the political system by affecting the attitudes and behavior of citizens,” Cornell University professor Jamila Michener writes. These policies help perpetuate the attitude that trans people deserve punishment, with violence being the resulting behavior. Last year, amid the worst year on record for the murders of trans people (the majority being Black trans women and femmes), Dominique Lucious was murdered after a date found out she was trans. A statement from the GLO center, a community organization in Missouri, where Dominique was from, stated, “[Dominique’s] murder and the other senseless slaying of trans folks must be contextualized within the anti-trans rhetoric and actions taken by too many.”

For those people who think I am being overly dramatic in connecting sport-related policy to the deaths of trans women, I give you this: sports are powerful. Participation in sports offers mental, emotional and social health benefits. It has been shown to increase self-esteem, lead to less substance abuse and increase creativity in teens. At a time when an alarming 42 percent of trans youth have contemplated or attempted suicide, sports have been shown to reduce suicidality. And many of the benefits of sports extend into adulthood. If nothing else, denying trans kids the ability to play sports has tangible health outcomes.

Inside Higher Ed Needs to Do Better

Kirk’s opinion piece reads like almost every other piece that I’ve read by TERFs. Using flawed studies and hiding behind the rhetoric of fairness, at the end of the day, they offer nothing but an argument for discrimination and bigotry. Because of that, I take a larger issue with Inside Higher Ed publishing this piece. If nothing else, it is poorly researched; I would hope that a publication that prides itself as being “the world’s most authoritative source of data, analysis and information on higher education,” offering “thoughtful, substantive analysis,” would still require fact-checking for opinion pieces and refrain from publishing authors who quote hate groups. But even more important, you cannot stand behind a mission to “serve all of higher education” and publish bigotry.

Bio

Isaac Sederbaum is a Ph.D. student in public policy at the University of Washington. He is also the co-director of Wild Composite Racing, a gender-expansive cycling team whose mission is to increase representation of marginalized people in cycling. He can be reached at [email protected].

Read more by

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

 
Back to Top