John Humphrys - Transgender Athletes: Fair or Unfair Competition?

March 06, 2019, 3:58 PM GMT+0

With the 2020 Olympic Games just over a year away a row has blown up about what conditions, if any, should apply to transgender athletes wishing to compete. It mirrors a much wider debate about how society should deal with the issue of transgenderism. Are we too restrictive? Or should the law reflect the views of those who regard changing gender as a purely personal decision that should be free of restriction in any walk of life?

There has always been a small minority of people who come to believe that they were born into the wrong gender. Gender dysphoria, as it is called, describes the distress they feel as a result of the clash between the biological sex recorded on their birth certificate and the gender with which they identify themselves.

During the last century medical treatment became available to allow transgender people to change physically, via hormone treatment and surgery, from one sex to the other, making their sex and their gender congruent. Perhaps the most celebrated British example of someone who followed this path was the brilliant journalist and travel writer, James Morris. In his forties, having married and fathered four children, he became Jan Morris, the journalist and travel writer. Now in her nineties she lives with her wife of seventy years in North Wales. James had been forced to go abroad for the medical treatment to become Jan, but now it is available in Britain.

More recently, however, it’s been argued that society should recognise people who identify themselves as transgender even if they do not opt for any medical interventions to change their biological sex. In other words a person should be able to identify themselves as the opposite gender to their biological sex simply by virtue of personal decision, and society should be obliged to treat them in exactly the same way as those who share their ‘new’ gender but were born with the biological sex of that gender. It is the implications of this claim that are generating a heated and often highly acrimonious debate, most recently in sport.

Back in 2003 the International Olympic Committee changed its rules to allow transgender athletes to compete in the Olympic Games. But it is only recently that the IOC has dropped its demand that only those transgender athletes who had undergone surgery to alter their physical makeup to match their gender could compete. Now it allows transgender competitors who have undergone twelve months of hormone therapy but not surgery. In practice this bears mostly upon athletes born as male who have transitioned to become female, the hormone treatment required to reduce their testosterone levels more nearly to the levels found in women athletes who were born girls.

The point about testosterone is an obvious one (or at least you might think it is). During puberty, boys develop testosterone which contributes to their building stronger physiques than, on average, girls do during puberty. So, it is argued, for athletes who were born as boys and then transition to become women, to compete on fair terms with women athletes who were born as girls, testosterone levels need to be broadly equalised. Hence the IOC requirement. But this approach has drawn fierce criticism from both sides: from women athletes who think it still creates unfair competition and from transgender women athletes who feel they are being discriminated against and who accuse anyone who doesn’t agree with them as being ‘transphobic’.

The most outspoken critic of allowing transgender women to compete with what she regards as such minimal regulation is the former tennis champion, Martina Navratilova. She said recently: ‘To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating’.

She later apologised for using the word ‘cheating’, acknowledging that some transgender women could indeed compete without it being regarded as cheating. But she added: ‘All I am trying to do is make sure girls and women who were born female are competing on as level a playing field as possible within their sport’.

Her view was echoed by the British swimmer Sharron Davies, who won silver medal at the 1980 Olympics, and who tweeted: ‘I believe there is a fundamental difference between the binary sex you are born with and the gender you may identify as. To protect women’s sport, those with a male sex advantage should not be able to compete in women’s sport.’

This drew a sharp response from Rachel McKinnon, a transgender cyclist who won a Masters Track world championship title last October. Ms McKinnon, who is 35 and has retained a male anatomy, has identified as a woman since she was 29. She accused Sharron Davies of being a ‘transphobe’ and of ‘sharing hate speech’. She also denied that transgender women could have any physical advantage. She said: ‘There is no debate to be had over whether trans women athletes have an unfair advantage: it’s clear that they don’t’. Her evidence was that despite trans women having been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2003, none had even qualified let alone won. Critics of this argument, however, are likely to point out that there are other reasons why this should have been the case, not least the earlier requirement than transgender athletes should have undergone surgery.

In response to Ms McKinnon, Nicola Williams of the lobby group, Fair Play for Women, said: ‘Claims of transphobia are wild and unfounded. It is a tool used to shame women into silence’.

As for Ms McKinnon’s claim that no transgender women enjoyed an unfair advantage, Paula Radcliffe, the holder of the world record for the women’s marathon, said that it was clearly ‘self-serving’ and that there was plenty of evidence of the advantage. Nicola Williams questioned whether even requiring transgender women athletes to undergo hormone treatment to reduce testosterone was adequate to remove this advantage, claiming that there is a ‘legacy effect of testosterone’ in the physiques of transgender women even after they have undergone such treatment.

The issue of how to deal with transgender athletes is not restricted to the rarefied heights of Olympic sport. It’s also becoming an issue at the grassroots and especially among the young. In America, seventeen states allow amateur transgender women athletes to compete without any restrictions: that’s to say, boys can just decide to identify as girls and be allowed to compete against girls who were born girls. Defenders of this policy argue that to do otherwise would be discriminatory; critics retort that such transgender athletes simply end up winning everything. If that argument hasn’t got off the ground here yet, it can only be a matter of time.

The issue of transgenderism goes way beyond sport. And the debate there is no less heated.

Many women and feminist groups are up in arms at the idea that men should be allowed simply to re-identify themselves as women, without any further obligation to change their physical makeup. For those women who see men as inherently predatory and potentially even violent, such a laissez-faire attitude to gender identity poses a direct threat to their own wellbeing and even safety. And many women who take a less absolute view protest against the idea that a man, simply by declaring that he is now a women, should immediately have access to places such as women’s lavatories that have hitherto been restricted to women whose biological sex is female. Militant supporters of transgender rights denounce such women as ‘transphobes’ and spreaders of hate.

But it is perhaps with regard to children that the transgender issue is most acute and most controversial. Children are developing human beings. Much more than adults, their lives, identities and senses of who they are, are in flux. This manifests itself in the changing relationships they have with parents and peers; in working out their sexuality, whether they are straight or gay or whether neither category fits how they feel; and also, in many cases, in reconciling aspects of their personality that seem congruent with their biological sex and those that don’t. It’s this latter uncertainty that can develop into gender dysphoria in children.

Such dysphoria can be extremely isolating in a society that still broadly expects boys to be boys and girls to be girls. Society has made strides in seeking to help such young people, providing the sort of guidance and therapy during which they can come to determine whether or not they want to go further and embark on a transgender route that might ultimately lead not only to a change in identity but also to medical intervention to change their bodies; or whether to remain as they are and deal with their feelings in a different way. But to some observers, this wholly compassionate approach has become vulnerable to ideology and to pressure from those who think that anything that is cautious in its treatment of transgenderism is evidence of discrimination against it and of transphobia.

One piece of evidence of unwanted pressure, they say, is the huge increase in the numbers of children being referred for treatment. In Britain the Tavistock Clinic in London is the leading medical centre for dealing with gender identity. In the last five years the number of annual referrals to it has increased from 468 to 2,519, an increase of almost 400%. In itself this may not be evidence of undue pressure on children to identify as transgender. It may instead simply reflect that there was previously a suppressed demand for such treatment in a society that had not yet accommodated itself to the idea that some boys want to become girls and vice versa.

But there is evidence of pressure beyond the numbers. Last month Dr Marcus Evans, a psychoanalyst, resigned as a governor of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust that oversees the clinic, claiming that children were being pressured into undergoing gender transition too quickly. He said: ‘There is pressure from the child who is in a distressed state; there is pressure from the family and the peer groups and from the pro-trans lobby – and all this puts pressure on the clinician who may want to help the individual to resolve their distressed state by going along with a quick solution’.

The danger in such a ‘quick solution’ is obvious: teenagers who embark on hormone treatment to change their identity may change their minds when it is too late to turn back. There have been documented cases of where this has happened and Dr Evans’s worry is that the quicker the treatment, the more likely such cases will increase.

The clinic denies it is rushing decisions. But its director, Dr Polly Carmichael, acknowledges the pressure it is under from the trans lobby. She said: ‘We’ve been under pressure for years from people who think we should go faster.’

So what should our approach to transgenderism be? In sport, are women athletes who were born biologically female right to protest that transgender women are being allowed to create an unlevelled playing field or are transgender women right to claim that they gain no unfair advantage right and that they are being discriminated against by the imposition of restrictions such as hormone treatment before they can compete?

More widely, should society acknowledge that it is sufficient for a transgender person simply to decide they are the opposite gender and be treated exactly the same as those of that gender who were born into it? Or should society require that it has a say in whether someone can legitimately claim to be of a gender different from the one registered at their birth? In relation to children, are we being too restrictive or too accommodating to those who express uncertainty about their gender? And what should be our attitude to those who campaign on transgender issues? Are they pioneers of necessary change or a danger to society and to individuals?

Let us know your views.