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At the Core of Anti-Trans Legislation

photograph of person walking through crowd draped in transgender flag

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson has introduced two new anti-LGBT bills immediately after his reelection in the midterms. Senate Bill 1 targets gender-affirming care for minors; Senate Bill 3 regulates drag shows with children present. Johnson campaigned on the promise to preserve Tennessee’s conservative values, including the idea that marriage “must remain the sacred union of one man and one woman.”

Senate Bill 1 would ban hormone therapy and procedures that remove organs (practically this targets top surgery, or a double mastectomy) for minors who wish to have those procedures done to alleviate gender dysphoria, or, as the bill words it, “purported discomfort or distress from a discordance between the minor’s sex and asserted identity.” The bill provides an exception for congenital defects and chromosomal abnormalities. When writing SB1, Jack Johnson sought out input from notorious anti-trans, right-wing political commentator and leader of the recent “Rally to End Child Mutilation” protest against the Vanderbilt University Medical Center gender clinic, Matt Walsh.

Senate Bill 3, meanwhile, expands the definition of “adult cabaret performance” to include a performance that features “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest,” along with other legally recognized categories of performers including topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, and strippers. Since the current law governing adult cabaret performances states that they cannot take place where minors could be present, the amendment would ban certain drag shows from taking place in public spaces.

While the first bill may be obviously questionable to anyone familiar with trans activism, the negative impact of the second is less immediately apparent. If drag shows are of an 18+ nature, it seems fine to confine them to 18+ spaces. If drag shows are of a family friendly nature, then they should still be allowed in public spaces by the amended law, right? Wrong.

There is a throughline that connects these bills: a traditional, patriarchal worldview that paints drag queens and trans women as essentially sexualized and trans men as easily swayed victims whose reproductive capacities should be protected.

In other words, all drag is seen as entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, and all trans minors seeking gender-affirming care are misled victims. Trans and gender non-conforming adults are thus seen as grooming children by influencing them to identify as trans and to have medical interventions performed that mutilate their bodies and interfere with their reproductive ability (which is why the idea of sexual abuse is brought in).

These background transphobic attitudes can be clearly seen in two recent incidents, both in Tennessee. In September of this year, Chattanooga Pride held a family-friendly drag show event from which video footage emerged of a small child rubbing her hand up and down the front of a mermaid performer’s tail, near the performer’s groin. That video prompted a huge backlash against the event. Although the performer in question was a cisgender woman who regularly performs as a princess, many took the event as another example demonstrating that no drag shows are appropriate for children.

In October of this year, the Jackson Pride festival was moved indoors after lawmakers and community members complained about the scheduled, family-friendly drag show. The festival was planned to be held in the city’s public park, as it had been in past years, but organizers were pressured into changing the event to 18+ and moving to a venue where IDs could be checked. In part, this was done to appease community worries but to protect the event-goers given a number of violent threats levied by the Proud Boys and the Westboro Baptist Church.

As we can see in both of these examples, concerns about protecting children from inappropriate sexual content are being used to make even family-friendly drag performances private and inaccessible to children.

If almost all drag is sexualized by anti-trans legislators and residents, then the law may, in practice, treat a drag queen reading Goodnight Moon at a local library as no different from a drag queen suggestively performing WAP to an adult only audience.

In other parts of the country, there have been an increased number of hate crimes targeting drag reading hours.

These reactions and misunderstandings aren’t new — there’s a long history of harmful and inaccurate stereotypes that paint LGBTQ people as pedophiles and groomers. Transfeminine people, in particular, face excessive sexualization, from false autogynephilia narratives that claim trans women transition because they get off on seeing themselves as women, to the fetishization of trans women, to ideas that trans women will assault cis women in bathrooms, and on and on.

On the other hand, transmasculine people are often painted as innocent, misled victims who have been caught up in a kind of public social contagion that targets young girls who don’t want to have to face misogyny or who see transition as a way to solve unrelated mental health problems. And, for those who choose to undergo medical transition, they are seen as having done irreversible damage to their bodies from the effects of testosterone or the results of top surgery, with a focus on damage done to reproductive capacity.

These negative stereotypes and narratives rather neatly line up with patriarchal ideas that attach certain traits to cleanly divided ideas of biological sex (note that SB1 allows surgeries on intersex people to make them conform to binary ideas about sex). On this picture, men are seen as active, sexually powerful beings who can prey on the weaker sex. Women are seen as weaker, mentally and physically, and their purpose is to reproduce (in white supremacist patriarchal ideology, the point is to reproduce to repopulate the white race).

Gender non-conformity is a threat to the patriarchal system, because it implies that biology is not gender destiny and that gender categories, and thus power structures, are fluid.

While cisgender people may be allowed or encouraged to access gender-affirming care like breast implants and supplemental testosterone, intersex people and trans people either receive forced medical intervention or are denied access to care. These negative attitudes also affect trans and gender non-conforming people who choose not to undergo a medical transition, as they too disrupt the narrative of biological destiny.

Anti-trans activists thus aim to shield children from any knowledge that trans and gender non-conforming people exist so that there will be fewer trans people. The problem is that trans identity is not a contagion but a facet of human experience present across cultures and centuries. Children will continue to grow up and discover their own gender non-conformity, but when they do they seem doomed to find fewer and fewer supports. Ultimately, this rampant anti-trans hate will only increase the number of trans deaths, whether through hate crimes or suicides.

Trans Panic and the Philosophy of Fear

image of storm clouds gathering

As a trans person living in the U.S. right now, how can you both stay apprised of dangers to your health and political rights and not become paralyzed by the overwhelming quantity of anti-trans legislation and sentiment? When is the fear that you feel appropriate? When does it become something that is more hurtful than helpful?

These are difficult questions, because the dangers to trans people are very real, whether that be a lack of affordable access to gender-affirming medical care, an inability to get contraceptives or access to abortion, or an overturning of other rights using the reasoning given in Dobbs that they are not “deeply rooted in our history or traditions.”

There are two traps that it is easy to fall into, either ignoring these threats and failing to do anything to prevent them or becoming obsessed with anti-trans news at the expense of your health.

These responses are understandable given the near constant onslaught of anti-trans legislation and rhetoric, but they may not be the most helpful.

In what follows, I do not intend to identify one perfect way to react in the face of oppression. Instead, I’d like to make several distinctions between different kinds of fear so that we can collectively be more reflective about the emotions we are feeling in this time and have more options in choosing how to respond to them.

First, who are you feeling fear for? Is it just for yourself? Do you only care about things that threaten you? Is it just for you and members of your community? Do you only care about the dangers that face your friends or people who are a part of the same group? Or do you feel fear for yourself and others when they are threatened, whether they are in your group or not?

It makes sense that we would be more fearful for ourselves and for those close to us, but there is a danger in failing to recognize the dangers that are present to other marginalized communities.

Just as Myisha Cherry argues that rage is more productive when it is felt in response to an injustice, it seems that fear is more appropriate when it is felt in solidarity with others.

If, as a white, abled, trans person, you only feel fear in response to threats to trans people and not to people of color or people with disabilities, something has gone wrong.

The purpose of fear seems to be to remind us to attend to certain dangers or risks, so that we can prevent those things from happening. Unlike anger, which is backward-looking and responds to past injustice, fear is forward-looking and responds to potential injustice. If we just attend to what could happen to us, we will miss the perils that threaten others and fail to counteract them before it is too late.

Second, is the fear that you feel constant and unchanging? Or is it responsive to features of the situation? For example, do your fears start to resolve if anti-trans legislation slows down and trans rights are being secured? Or do you remain stuck in high alert even after the danger has passed?

One of the difficulties of the experience of sustained danger to one’s safety is that it often leads to complex trauma that makes it easy to be hyper-aware of any potential danger but hard to gauge which threats can be ignored.

We can see this now in the responses that many people are having in these later stages of the pandemic, where they might find themselves having a panic attack after being in a small, crowded room, even though the collective dangers to health have shifted dramatically as more people have gained access to the vaccine.

These kinds of trauma reactions are certainly understandable, but a fear that does not respond to the situation can lead to actions that do not actually address the problem at hand. Unresponsive fear can also interfere with being able to feel safe, to enjoy relaxing, or to go out and participate in meaningful social activities. As much as it is important to attend to dangers to trans rights, it is equally, if not more, important to preserve trans joy.

Third, is the fear helping us to act in ways that address the danger? Though fear can prompt action that is targeted and useful, it can also make us paralyzed, more suspicious and paranoid, and less calm and deliberate in our thinking. When we are collectively afraid, we can easily begin to fight among ourselves because emotions are high. This can lead to a cycle in which effective action seems less and less possible, which can further reinforce a collective paralysis.

To avoid this outcome, it seems important to recognize the ways that fear operates and give space to individuals to express those fears, work through them collectively, and ensure that the most pressing danger is being targeted. Likewise, we must remember to be in solidarity with others and the particular threats that are pertinent to them. If we can band together to protect each other from the threats that we face, we will have a better chance of mounting an effective response.

Fear has a bad reputation as a negative emotion that must be overcome or avoided.

See, for instance, Master Yoda’s words that “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Or the famous Dune quote: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.” I am unconvinced, however, that fear is always something to be avoided. Since fear draws our attention to dangers that often need to be attended to, it seems helpful and even good in certain circumstances.

But why not just say that the feeling of fear itself is something bad that needs to be overcome? Perhaps it points us in the right direction at first, but surely the feeling of fear is something to be overcome. There are two things to say in response. First, courage is often taken to involve acting despite fear; without fear, an action doesn’t seem nearly as courageous. So, at the very least, fear can give meaning to certain kinds of actions.

Second, fear can often prompt us to act and take measures to ensure our safety in the future. For example, if I am afraid of leaving the stove on when I go on a trip, I might check it again before I leave to ensure that it is off. Or, if I am afraid that a law will pass, I might organize my friends and family to contact their legislators to prevent it from passing. What needs to be overcome is not necessarily fear, but paralysis.

So long as our fear moves us to act in ways that are appropriate and doesn’t get in the way of being able to flourish, it seems straightforwardly helpful. Of course, living under oppression isn’t so easy, and the constant terrorism can interfere with feeling safe and happy. The answer, however, isn’t to get rid of fear; it’s to contextualize it.

Kamila Valieva, Lia Thomas, and Fairness in Sports

So far, the biggest moment of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics has not been record-breaking stunts or underdog wins, but an issue that has been pervasive in the Olympics throughout the past decade: doping. The issue has become a major topic of conversation every Olympics, especially after the 2014 Winter games in Sochi, Russia, where a state-run doping scandal was taking place and only discovered a year later. While Russia is still technically banned from the Olympics, individual athletes from Russia have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2014. Now, Russia’s history with doping has once again become a focus, as have the lenient reactions of governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), after it was revealed that a top figure skater, Kamila Valieva, tested positive.

What made this news so controversial were two things: the timing and the consequences. Valieva’s sample was taken on December 25th, after she won the free skate in the Russian National Championships. However, the lab responsible for testing her sample had not reported the results until February 8th, after Valieva helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) win gold in the team skate and was the first female skater to land two quadruple jumps in the Olympics. The drug she tested positive for, Trimetazidine, is a heart medication that has helps athletes with their endurance, which would give her a significant advantage in figure skating competition. She was suspended and then quickly cleared by a Russian anti-doping organization. But the most shocking decision was the Court of Arbitration in Sports allowing her to compete in the individual free skate, an event that she was favored to win.

The decision to let Valieva compete has created just as much controversy as the original positive test. Former Olympic figure skater and now coach, Adam Rippon, has suggested that Russia’s original ban by the IOC was clearly not strict enough as their best athletes are continuing to test positive. Further, Rippon has also pointed out that Valieva is only fifteen, and her status as a minor means that it is her coach and guardians that bear the greatest responsibility. Given this, Valieva has generally been met with sympathetic responses as no one knows the extent to which she might be complicit. Would-be Olympian Shi’Carri Richardson, however, has pointed out the double standard at play – as she was banned from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for testing positive for marijuana after she found out her mother died. Like Valieva, Richardson was expected to be a heavy favorite (in the 100-meter dash), but marijuana – while listed as a banned substance – is not a performance-enhancing drug. (Another difference, of course, is that Valieva is white, whereas Richardson is Black.)

While Valieva may deserve sympathy as a child, athletes expect that competitors will be held to the same standard when it comes to positive tests for banned substances – perhaps especially when competing at something as grand as the Olympics. The decision to allow Valieva to compete – even if disqualified from the medal ceremony – illustrates a certain acceptance among the top sports governing bodies of doping at the world’s largest stage for athletic performances. Skaters in the individual event must perform knowing that their biggest competition has a leg-up. And if Valieva is met with understanding and shown leniency, what would stop other athletes (or coaches) from expecting that their rule-breaking behavior might be similarly excused? The basis for athletic competition is the expectation of a level playing field, but complacency about doping threatens to undermine the integrity of athletic contests.

Valieva’s case is related to another controversy brewing in the sports world: transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. While public response to Valieva’s situation has been largely sympathetic and respectful, the same cannot quite be said of the treatment of Lia Thomas. In a somewhat similar case, a governing sports body – this time the NCAA – needed to determine quickly whether a University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) swimmer, Lia Thomas, would be able to compete at the conference championships in March. Recently, the NCAA had decided to no longer have a uniform policy for transgender athletes across all sports, but instead to allow individual sports governing bodies to have their own requirements. For Lia Thomas, this meant she would be disqualified from competing because the USA Swimming policy required trans athletes to undergo 36 months of hormone therapy and prove they do not have an unfair advantage from their sex assigned at birth. By the time of the conference championships Thomas would’ve been at 33 months of hormone therapy. Thomas’ absence would completely change the championships as she holds two of the top times in the nation.

What added to the controversy and sparked debate amongst women’s athletic communities was the reaction from sixteen of her teammates. The teammates, referring to themselves as biological women, released an anonymous letter pleading that UPenn or the Ivy League accept Thomas’s ban and not sue the NCAA. They justified their position by explaining how Thomas had taken away their chance to compete at the conference meet, in which only about half of the team makes the roster. In response, over 300 current and former competitive swimmers voiced their support for Thomas, as well as other trans and non-binary athletes in their sport. Crucially, they also highlighted the true issue of this situation, which is that while real problems that have been ongoing for decades in women’s sports, such as sexual abuse, unequal treatment between men’s and women’s athletics, and unfair pay, opponents have mistakenly decided to blame a transwoman for the downfall of fairness in women’s sports.

There has been a marked difference in the ways the sports world, particularly the women’s sports world, has reacted to these situations. Valieva clearly cheated; she tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug – whether she knowingly took the drug or was coerced by adults. Her continued competition in the Olympics has now taken away from every skater who worked their entire life in the hopes of one day making it there. It calls into question the integrity of not only the team and free skate competitions, but also the Games as a whole. Fellow competitors, commentators, and the general public seem upset, but also believe sympathy and respect are called for. Lia Thomas, meanwhile, was castigated by her own teammates and has faced a wave of backlash (often transphobic) over her supposed “biological” advantage.

The woman who helped to publish the letter by Thomas’s sixteen teammates is former Olympian, civil rights lawyer, and women’s rights advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar who published an editorial defending their position. In the editorial, Hogshead-Makar compares Thomas not only to her old rivals, the doping East German athletes from the 1980s, but also to Michael Phelps, a male swimmer, who ironically has his own biological advantages, yet is celebrated as a sports phenom. While Hogshead-Makar insists that her ultimate aim is to break down the inequalities between men’s and women’s sports, she can’t see that her own argument is inherently sexist – accepting a biologically advantaged male as exceptional, but a transwoman with over a year of hormone therapy as threatening.

Additionally, Hogshead-Makar demonstrates remarkable indifference in suggesting Thomas either compete in men’s swimming, something that would most likely cause some level of trauma from having to be defined under the wrong gender, or forfeit participation in official competition and simply swim in exhibition races. Indeed, Hogshead-Maker is adamant that women should not give up the gains they have fought for against men “no matter how real the harms suffered by transgender athletes.” While purporting to be a supporter of women’s sports and of Lia Thomas’s gender identity, Hogshead-Makar simply refuses to recognize Thomas as a woman. If she did, she would be embracing Thomas with open arms and recognizing a great athlete for what they are – someone who overcame unique and difficult barriers to fully realize themselves.

Welcoming transgender athletes into women’s sports – obviously with certain guidelines to ensure fairness – should be the goal of all women in women’s sports, as it is true they have fought hard (and continue to fight) for equal recognition with men’s sports. Welcoming more women and greater competition can only help further women’s sports in its mission of equality. In the end, the true threat to the integrity of sports lies not in the inclusion or exclusion of gender identities, but in complacency about doping.

Lia Thomas, Fairness in Sport, and Honest Ethical Debate in a World of Bad Faith

photograph of swimming lanes from underwater

In the past few months, women’s collegiate swimming has become the unlikely focus of a political firestorm around transgender rights and fairness in sports. At the very center of the storm is Lia Thomas, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who competed successfully on the men’s team before transitioning to female and joining UPenn’s women’s team this year.

Thomas’s participation in women’s swimming began to stir controversy at the end of 2021 when she posted top times in distance free-style events, including a 200 free performance that was quicker than the NCAA gold-medal time the year before. Her times in these and other events are significantly slower than before her transition — apparently the result of compliance with the NCAA’s requirement that transwomen take testosterone-suppressing drugs for twelve months before competing — but they are still championship quality. In early December, some parents of Thomas’s teammates penned a letter to the NCAA arguing that Thomas should not be allowed to compete. Right-wing media outlets like the Daily Mail, the New York Post, and Fox News smelled blood in the water and went after Thomas without mercy, smearing her character and decrying the unfairness of allowing her to swim. This comes as GOP-dominated legislatures in many states are pushing to pass bills banning transgender children from using the bathrooms of their choice or participating in the sports with others of their own gender. Last month, the NCAA responded to the controversy by dropping its rules on transgender participation and passing the buck to the national governing bodies in all sports. (On February 10, the NCAA announced that it would not adopt new, more stringent USA Swimming requirements for the 2022 season).

The Thomas case has divided the swimming world and even, to some extent, the LGBTQ community. Iconic Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps and Nancy Hogshead-Makar questioned whether Thomas should compete on a women’s team, but Brooke Forde, a top NCAA female swimmer, stated that because “treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be,” she has “no problem” competing against Thomas. GLAAD, an organization that monitors coverage of LGBTQ people in the media, lambasted the negative coverage of Thomas and said that “everyone involved in sports should be speaking up for Lia.” Meanwhile, Martina Navratolina, a legendary tennis player and champion of LGBTQ rights, has cast doubt on the fairness of letting Thomas compete.

Even the act of publicly staking out a position on this issue is fraught with ethical peril. Do right-wing media outlets and GOP politicians really care about the fairness of NCAA women’s sports competitions? It seems doubtful. The Thomas story is catnip for them because they see in it another potential wedge issue in the interminable culture wars. That the fear-mongering and bigotry on the right dominate the discourse on this subject means that even the public expression of uncertainty about the fairness of allowing Thomas to compete can seem like a gift to these malign actors. It was surely useful for the right that Hogshead-Makar published her column about Thomas in the Daily Mail: it gave its bigotry a veneer of respectability based upon her expertise on the subject of women’s swimming.

Of course, the ethical dangers of publicly speaking about this issue are less severe in my case, since my contributions to the public debate have vanishingly little influence. Still, I want to begin my discussion by stating what I take to be an obvious ethical proposition: there are no reasonable moral objections to the desires or self-conceptions of transgender people as such, or to the realization of those desires and self-conceptions. I have encountered no reasonable case for the claim that wanting to present as another gender or have the secondary sexual characteristics of another sex is bad in any sense. Given this, the moral presumption in all areas of life should be in favor of inclusivity — of allowing transgender people to participate in whatever practices or activities they wish, and on their own terms.

Nevertheless, it does not follow from this that there cannot be ethical problems associated with inclusivity in particular areas of life. Sports, or perhaps just some sports, may be one of those areas. That is because it appears that men have (on average) certain physical “advantages” over women, and sport — or at least some sports — is one of the few areas in life where that matters. For example, the average differential in the men’s and women’s ‘A’ standard times for NCAA championship qualifications is 11.41%, meaning that on average, women’s times are 11.41% slower than men’s times. While in the 2004 Olympics Michael Phelps held a mere .08% time advantage against his teammate Ryan Crocker, he held a 12.62% advantage over the women’s gold medalist.

To say that biological males have physical advantages over biological females is, of course, a gross simplification. For one thing, it is by now widely recognized that determining biological sex is itself a philosophically and scientifically complex issue. It appears that the physical advantages referenced above are more directly tied to the lasting effects of typical “male” puberty, not the chromosomal makeup of an athlete, their genitalia, or the type of gamete they produce. For example, people with Klinefelter syndrome — a genetic condition that results when boys are born with an extra X chromosome — have male genitalia, and some produce sperm. But some of these individuals produce lower amounts of testosterone and have reduced muscle mass. Similarly, South African runner Caster Semenya, who was assigned female at birth and identifies as female, has XY chromosomes and naturally elevated testosterone levels. In 2019, new rules were instituted to keep women like Semenya from participating in certain events unless they take medication to lower their testosterone levels. Yet it’s far from clear how significant testosterone levels are to elite athletic performance.

Despite these complications, it seems fairly clear that it makes moral sense for women and men to compete separately in at least some sports, and that secondary sexual characteristics are a decent rule of thumb — but only that — for determining who “women” and “men” are for the purposes of such competitions. One important purpose of sports competitions is to celebrate and reward human effort and skill — the incredible discipline, determination, and grit that is required to achieve in athletics at a high level, along with the physical prowess that channels that effort into astounding physical feats. Therefore, it would be unfair if women were never rewarded or celebrated for their effort and skill because they were overshadowed by male performances that are due to innate advantages — advantages that in no way reflect superior effort or skill. By separating men and women into competitive classes, we make possible public appreciation of the fact that the best male and female athletic performances are equally amazing efforts and reflect equally amazing skills. The same is true, for example, for weight classes in boxing: the bantamweight’s skill and effort may be equal to the heavyweight’s, but if they competed against each other the bantamweight would lose every time, and would not be properly celebrated or rewarded for his or her effort and skill.

If this is correct, however, then it is clear that allowing people who possess the innate advantages that flow from male puberty to compete against cisgender women may raise real issues of fairness by depriving those who do not have these advantages of public appreciation of their efforts and skills, even though they are no less substantial.  

But in order to get to the conclusion that transwomen should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports from these premises, we must make three further moves — moves that I am not confident we can or ought to make. First, we must define the meaning and parameters of “innate advantage.” This is at best an extremely difficult task for both conceptual and empirical reasons. For example, we must determine when the difference in an athlete’s performance relative to other athletes’ performances is the result of acceptable physical variation, and when it is the result of unacceptable innate advantage. Second, we have to posit that no amount of hormone therapy can eliminate transwomen athletes’ innate advantages. This is an empirical issue that can only be determined with solid scientific investigation, something that is woefully lacking in this area. Finally, we have to argue that transwomen athletes’ claims to inclusion are morally outweighed by the fairness issues discussed above. This is not self-evidently true, as Brooke Forde’s statement suggests.

For these reasons, I think it is far too early in the day to claim with much confidence either that transwomen should be banned from women’s sport, or that their inclusion in women’s sport obviously raises no fairness issues. There are potential fairness issues that deserve serious consideration, not least because those fairness claims are being made by cisgender women, who have had to fight hard to participate in sports on an equal footing with men. Indeed, that fight is not yet over. But this much is clear: In addition to causing immense harm to individual athletes and perpetuating bigotry against transgender people, demonizing transwomen athletes is not the way to arrive at a just resolution of these issues. The only way forward is honest, good faith deliberation in which all stakeholders are treated with respect. Unfortunately, there are powerful people who would like nothing more than to make it impossible for such deliberation to occur. But this has always been the case; and yet, somehow, progress does happen.

Cancel Culture and the Possibility of Nuance

image of multicolored speech bubbles

In June of 2021, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posted a short essay titled “It is Obscene: An Essay in Three Parts” on her website. Adichie, author of award-winning books like Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists, was famously featured in the Beyoncé song “Flawless,” reciting a basic outline of feminist thought between the pop singer’s verses. Adichie’s essay explores her relationship with two former students, who she frames as poisoned by online cancel culture. She laments that her students (and many young people like them) possess

“an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care . . . language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others . . . a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.”

Though the two students are unnamed, the second student was quickly identified as writer Akwaeke Emezi, a young novelist who accused Adichie of transphobia on Twitter. Emezi, a non-binary writer whose debut novel Freshwater was critically acclaimed, has written extensively on black trans identity through fiction and memoir alike.

It’s a bit reductive to label this a “feud,” though many news sources (like NPR, to name one) have succumbed to the temptation. There is clearly animosity between the two parties, but “feud” implies something entirely personal, even petty. While their personal history does come up in Adichie’s essay, it’s more accurate to say that Emezi and Adichie embody diametrically-opposed moral stances towards cancel culture, an opposition partly rooted in a generational divide.

While many have applauded Adichie’s essay, accusations of transphobia have taken over the conversation about her piece. Some wonder if her essay is a smokescreen, an attempt to deflect attention from Emezi’s original condemnation of Adichie’s brand of feminism. Has “Condemning cancel culture has become a reliable way to obscure transphobia,” as writer Aja Romano suggests in their article on Adichie for Vox?

Adichie summarizes her controversial stance on trans women in a 2017 interview. She said in a response to a question about trans identity,

“When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women. But I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords a man, and then sort of change—switch gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology. Gender is sociology.”

While some of these points are generally accepted (trans women indeed have different experiences from cis women), her response has been described as alarmingly close to TERF ideology. Not all trans women possessed much in the way of privilege before their transition, especially if they are people of color. Adichie has also faced criticism for an article she wrote defending J.K. Rowling, who peddles blatantly transphobic rhetoric in the guise of promoting gender equality. At the same time, many critics of Adichie have ascribed bad-faith motivations to Adichie’s actions where there seem to be none. For example, Adichie has come under fire for releasing her essay during Pride Month, even though Pride celebrations are still largely non-existent in Nigeria, and it’s unlikely that timing was a factor here. It’s also worth noting that TERFs tend to be more prominent in first-world countries, where the “feminism” part of the acronym is more palatable. In Nigeria, even garden variety feminism is considered suspect, let alone radical feminism. “Feminist” is less of a neutral descriptor than an insult in most parts of the country, as explained in an article for The New York Times, and many women still struggle to access their most fundamental rights. While she claims in the essay that she actively supports trans rights, the issue may seem alien or extraneous to Adichie. Her cultural background hardly excuses transphobia, but it’s important to consider that not everyone will be fluent in the occasionally dense and ever-changing vocabulary of trans issues in online spaces.

Adichie writes,

“[Emezi] knows me enough to know that I fully support the rights of trans people and all marginalized people. That I have always been fiercely supportive of difference, in general . . . Of course she could very well have had concerns with the interview. That is fair enough. But I had a personal relationship with her. She could have emailed or called or texted me. Instead she went on social media to put on a public performance.”

Claiming to support trans people and actually doing so are two different things, and she continuously misgenders Emezi, who has identified as non-binary for years. But there is still value in her larger point; what purpose did Emezi’s tweet serve? If the goal is to start a productive dialogue with someone and hopefully influence their views, is calling someone out on Twitter the most effective way to go about it? It’s unreasonable to ask trans people to educate every single transphobe they encounter, but in this case, the two had a pre-existing relationship, and as Adichie points out, Emezi could have used that as an opening.

At one point in the essay, she describes Emezi’s tweet as a “a public insult,” which succinctly gets at the problem with public shaming. We interpret such accusations as an attack, an insult; we experience a sense of powerlessness, especially if we aren’t media savvy, which may corner the accused into doubling down on their problematic views, shutting down a conversation before it can even begin. The performative brand of online wokeness Adichie dislikes requires a certain kind of knowledge, a list of phrases to be trotted out without any meaningful discussion of what those phrases mean. While most of this is well-intentioned, it can create echo chambers and ideological rigidity. Twitter, which is generally very American-centric, relies on a knowledge of this vocabulary that often excludes well-meaning older people, ESL folk, and those who aren’t from the West. At its worst, it encourages a culture of hostility to questions made in good faith.

Adichie notes,

“There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness . . . People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.”

Some of this may seem extreme, and it’s worth critiquing the conflict with Emezi at the root of this essay, but we should answer her call for nuance, and grapple with both the good and the bad in her piece. Deplatforming her, as Emezi has called for, only aggravates an already massive generational divide and saps humanity from online spaces.

Is Radical Feminism Inherently Transphobic?

photograph of JK Rowling at book signing for Harry Potter

Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, usually just called TERFS for short, are the bogeymen (or more accurately, the bogeywomen) haunting leftist spaces. A succinct “so-and-so is a TERF” is more than enough to permanently mar an activist’s reputation on Twitter. The word has been so thoroughly incorporated into online slang that it’s more commonly written as “terf,” without any indication that it stands for something specific. Overuse and misuse of the word has resulted in some confusion over what a TERF is, and how to spot one. As the acronym makes clear, TERFS are those who identify with the more radical strains of second-wave feminism, and also believe that trans women are not “real women” and therefore should not have a voice in feminist discourse. The second component of TERF ideology is unquestionably reprehensible, but it’s easy to get snagged on the “radical” part of TERF-ism. How can a movement as ostensibly counter-cultural as radical feminism be the springboard for conservative bigotry, and is it possible to separate radical feminism from TERF ideology?

TERFs are so troubling in part because they cloak their transphobic rhetoric with progressive language. This confusion prompted Cambridge University’s women’s campaign, an organization that protects women on campus and provides resources on feminist topics, to circulate an article titled “How to Spot Terf Ideology.” The article implies that TERF rhetoric isn’t always blatantly transphobic, and can be difficult to understand the implications of for the uninitiated. On a surface level, some tenets of TERF-ism even seem reasonable; one especially prevalent idea is “self-based oppression,” which means that cis women are discriminated against based on biological sex. This is a difficult point to argue with, but it has a few weaknesses. On the one hand, it assumes that all cis women experience share a universal experience of womanhood regardless of race, class, or sexuality. Furthermore, TERFs make it clear that that trans women are exempt from this discrimination.

This obsession with biological essentialism ultimately excludes trans women from feminist spaces, and elevates the cis (and usually white) experience of womanhood as the gold standard. In a recent seminar on TERF-ism, scholar Marquis Bey explained that “TERFs seem to have the power to renaturalize and reinstall or to further solidify the stranglehold of the gender binary, which is in and of itself a mode of violence and violation.” Bey is touching on the contradiction at the heart of TERF ideology; feminism is supposed to break down socially constructed gender roles, including the idea that women are biologically different from men, but TERFs just reinforce the binary. Biological essentialism also forms an ideological bridge between TERFs and the far right, who also bolster their arguments with “biology.” Both movements are also deeply reactionary; as Bey says, TERFs long for “the purported ‘golden years’ of feminist activism, which contrast with this supposed ‘too far’-ness of contemporary radical trans insurrectionary thinking [and] activism.”

So can radical feminism be untangled from TERF ideology, or are the two inextricably linked? Many would argue that they aren’t. Second-wave radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, who is often venerated by TERFs, was a trans ally herself. In 1975, Dworkin explicitly denounced biological essentialism when she said that “while the system of gender polarity is real, it is not true. It is not true that there are two sexes which are discrete and opposite, which are polar, which unite naturally and self-evidently into a harmonious whole. It is not true that the male embodies both positive and neutral human qualities and potentialities in contrast to the female.” This indicates that radical feminism isn’t a monolith. People who use the label can be TERFs, or they can reject transphobia entirely. Anyone can label themselves a radical feminist, so long as they take issue with mainstream liberal feminism and center their politics on gender discrimination. There are many “feminisms,” not just one.

But TERFs claim to speak for all feminists whenever they make headlines. Just this year, J.K. Rowling was outed as a TERF when she refused to renounce her transphobic brand of feminism. Transphobia is splintering the community, as prominent gender theorist Judith Butler pointed out in a recent interview she gave on the J.K. Rowling scandal. “My wager is that most feminists support trans rights and oppose all forms of transphobia. So I find it worrisome that suddenly the trans-exclusionary radical feminist position is understood as commonly accepted or even mainstream. I think it is actually a fringe movement that is seeking to speak in the name of the mainstream, and that our responsibility is to refuse to let that happen.” Even if transphobes make up a small fraction of the feminist community, they threaten to derail decades of consciousness-raising and coalition-building. All feminists, regardless of how they identify, will have to reckon with this growing sense of division.

Is Prenatal Sex Discernment Unethical?

On Saturday September 5, a gender-reveal party gone-wrong set fire to a California forest, burning down thousands of acres over the following week. This is not the first time a gender-reveal party has led to a major wildfire, nor is it the first time one has been responsible for threatening human life. Gender-reveal parties are largely a product of 20th century natal care medical advancement. The El Dorado fire has renewed debates around gender-reveal parties and the ethical questions that surround them.

Does prenatal sex discernment do more harm than good? Should gender-reveal parties be banned? And what value is there, if any, in determining sex before birth?

While there is evidence that humans have attempted to predict the gender of an unborn fetus for thousands of years, the integration of ultrasound technology into prenatal care in the 1960’s radically improved the accuracy of predicting fetal gender. Typically, gender is determined using an obstetric ultrasonography which can be up to 98%-100% accurate.

The practice of determining a child’s sex before birth is relatively uncontroversial in the United States, but it has been banned in parts of the world where this information has been used to initiate abortion. Because of women’s economic marginalization and lack of socioeconomic mobility, in some places girls are considered an economic burden compared to boys. The preference for boy babies has led to sex-selective abortion and an imbalance in the sex ratio in countries such as India and China. Studies have found that an imbalance in sex ratio favoring males, has been correlated with many other social problems such as human trafficking and an increase in violence against women. In order to combat these rising sex ratios both India and China have previously banned, or severely limited, the practice prenatal sex discernment. Despite these attempts to discourage sex-selective abortions, there still exist many concerns that regulations have not gone far enough.

Prenatal discernment in the United States has not led to sex selective abortion in the way it has in the rest of the world, but it has become a cornerstone of the pregnancy process. In a 2001 study of expectant parents, more than half of both men and women expressed a desire to know the sex of the fetus. Interestingly, researchers also found that there were sharp differences in desire to know the sex of a fetus across ethnicity, age, race, and marital status indicating that at least some of our desire to know the sex of our child comes from cultural or social influences.

While knowing the sex of a fetus does not mean a parent will necessarily have a gender reveal party, gender reveal parties certainly necessitate prenatal discernment. In the 2010’s gender reveal parties in the United States have become strikingly common. Pregnant women and their partners perform some type of ceremony in which gendered objects or colors are revealed to indicate whether the child will be male or female. This practice might seem strange to many, considering the fact that the medical process in determining the sex of the child is medical and very private in many cases.

But the point of gender-reveal parties is not simply to find out the gender of a future child, but in many cases, as Lindsey King-Miller of Vox describes, “to make a spectacle…like all kinds of social media challenges, gender reveals are made to be recorded.” By their very nature, these spectacles often involve pyrotechnics, complicated machinery, and other forms of entertainment more commonly found at an amusement park rather than one’s backyard. Perhaps this is why gender reveal parties have led to so much destruction in modern history, with critics such as Arwa Mahdawi arguing that “gender reveal parties are a form of domestic terrorism.”

The practice of gender-reveal parties has clearly led to many negative and unethical consequences. However, this is not the only reason that many find them to be morally abhorrent. Critics argue that at their core, gender-reveal parties perpetuate sexism and transphobia, exclude intersex people, and contribute to our relentless obsession with defining people within a gender binary. These parties are often rife with gender stereotypes, with themes like “Touchdowns or Tutus.” Gender-reveals also fail to acknowledge the crucial distinction between gender and sex. As psychologist Daniel L. Carson explains, “Gender is the social, behavioral, and psychological characteristics that we use to distinguish the sexes…By definition, parents have no idea what the gender of their child will be since they have yet to interact with the child.” The distinction between gender and sex has been recognized by Western sociologists, medical professionals and psychologists since at least 1987, with the establishment of “Gender and Society” and the publication of the groundbreaking article, “Doing Gender.” Today, the World Health Organization defines gender as “characteristics of women and men that are largely socially created” while sex on the other hand is “encompasses [differences] that are biologically determined.” This difference is important in understanding both the ways in which our experience of the world is impacted by our biology as well as by social stereotypes associated with our gender. It is also crucial to recognize this difference to acknowledge that not all who are biologically male or female identify with the “corresponding”, or cis, gender. Recognizing and honoring this difference is imperative for ensuring the rights of transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary people. Choosing to undergo prenatal sex discernment or host a gender-reveal party does not necessarily mean one does not understand or support the difference between sex and gender. However, it could be indicative of one’s overall attitudes toward those different from them, and toward stereotypes associated with sex and gender in general. A 2014 study, for example, found that those women who chose not to undergo prenatal discernment, tended to be “open to new experiences, and combine egalitarian views about the roles of men and women in society with conscientiousness.”

Gender-reveal parties are not the only form of American ritual that has been enabled by prenatal discernment. Companies, such as the Gender Reveal Game, have built an entire profit scheme around providing a platform for parents-to-be to encourage their loved ones to place bets on the sex of their child. Baby showers, a common custom where friends and family “shower” expectant parents and unborn children with gifts before birth, arguably center on goods like clothing and toys which are heavily marketed and designed to be appropriate for a baby depending on their sex. Anyone who has attended a baby shower can attest to the fact that it is much more challenging to find gender-neutral toys and clothes for expectant parents. In fact, experts have reported that children’s toys are more divided by gender now than they were 50 years ago. While some progress is being made on the front of gender-neutral children’s clothing, industry experts affirm that the vast majority remains gendered, beginning in infancy.

But is wanting to know the gender of an unborn child necessarily immoral? Some might argue not. As mentioned earlier, there were sharp divisions in parents wanting to know the sex of their child based on ethnic, racial, age, and marital status. For some, knowing the gender of one’s child before birth might be religious and traditional. Knowing a child’s gender might also help parents decide which name to give their child, depending on their cultural or religious background. Additionally, knowing the gender of a child might be a way to ease anxiety during pregnancy. It is especially important to note that in the 2001 study mentioned above, the two groups with the highest desire to know the sex of their unborn child were pregnant women below the age of 22, at 98% and single-mothers at 90%. Being pregnant at a young age, or without a partner to help raise the child undoubtedly creates a lot of uncertainty. Knowing the sex of the child might be one way for these expectant mothers to ease anxiety during pregnancy.

In an article in Today’s Parent, Dave Coodin, father-to-be, explains his decision to partake in prenatal discernment. He explains both that prior to knowing the sex of his child, he and his partner referred to the baby as “it” which was rather dehumanizing. He also explained that by knowing the sex, he was able to conceptualize a part of his baby’s identity in a manner that allowed him to “construct fantasies that satisfy us in the present, no matter how crazy and deluded.” Pregnancy is certainly a long and difficult process, and some might agree with and sympathize with Dave’s desire to know at least one potential aspect of his future child’s identity. In a 2015 research paper, Florence Pasche Guignard argued that gender reveal parties have filled a role “where neither medical nor religious institutions offer ritual options deemed appropriate enough for celebrating joyfully and emotionally during pregnancy.” While there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently wrong with celebrating during a pregnancy, critics might still push back that it isn’t the celebratory nor ritualistic aspect of prenatal discernment and gender-reveals that is the problem, but rather the desire to define a human being, and a baby, based on its sex.

Regardless of what one believes about gender-reveal parties, the tide is certainly turning on emphasizing gender in children in general, with about 1 in 5 American parents supporting gender-neutral clothing. In fact, even the woman credited with starting the gender-reveal party trend back in 2008 has become a vocal critic of the phenomenon. In a viral Facebook post from 2019, Jenna Karvunidis asserted “Assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of their potential and talents that have nothing to do with what’s between their legs.” In a rather ironic quip, she concluded by revealing, “PLOT TWIST, the world’s first gender-reveal party baby is a girl who wears suits!”

The (un)Fairness of Cis-Only Sports

photograph of staggered starting blocks for track competition

On February 12th, three families sued to make women’s sport in Connecticut exclude trans athletes from participating. But this is just one event in a trend of anti-LGBTQ legislation and litigation in 2020, including bills in South Dakota, Florida, and Colorado that would make it a felony for medical professionals to provide healthcare to trans minors, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ statement in 2018 advocating for a “gender-affirming approach” to care for minors.

These teens in Connecticut are not alone in pursuing action for trans exclusion in sport: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Washington all have Republican-sponsored bills under consideration “prohibiting transgender student athletes from participating in gender-segregated sports in a way that’s consistent with their gender identity.”

Attorney Christiana Holcomb (using transphobic language that erases the fact that trans girls *are* girls) made the claim: “Forcing girls to be spectators in their own sports is completely at odds with Title IX, a federal law designed to create equal opportunities for women in education and athletics.” Note that if the plaintiffs have their way, girls who aren’t cis aren’t simply being forced “to be spectators in their own sports,” but rather are being excluded completely from competition.

Identifying gender with an underlying biological feature is actually pretty difficult from a biological perspective. In 2018, the Trump administration attempted to define gender biologically and received a great deal of criticism from medical and gender specialists alike. “The idea that a person’s sex is determined by their anatomy at birth is not true, and we’ve known that it’s not true for decades,” said executive director of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, Dr. Joshua D. Safer. Chromosomes, hormones, or external anatomical features like genitals are insufficient indicators to categorize the population into two rigid gender binaries. Further, two percent of the population have differences of sexual development (sometimes self-identifying as “intersex”) – this is roughly the same portion of the population that has red hair.

So why are athletes clinging to identities given to them based on apparent anatomy at birth?

One of the teen athlete plaintiffs, articulated their position: “That biological unfairness doesn’t go away because of what someone believes about gender identity. All girls deserve the chance to compete on a level playing field.” The “biological unfairness” alluded to here is the supposed competitive advantage that trans women have over cis women. The statements made by the teens make many appeals to fairness in sport and making sure everyone gets “their chance.”

“Fairness” may be a common value that we appeal to pretty frequently, but it doesn’t describe a stable state of affairs: it means different things in different contexts. Being fair to employees may mean giving the same salary to those who do the same amount of work, or it could mean giving more money to those who have been employed for longer at the company. Being fair to individuals in a classroom may mean not making discriminations (say, in awarding grades) on the basis of health and likely lifespans, whereas in the context of determining organ transplant recipients, health and likely lifespans may be a morally permissible standard for discrimination.

In competitive sport, “fairness” is a complicated standard. Competitors are understood to be looking for and developing advantages over their opponents. If an athlete perceives a weakness in an opponent, taking advantage of it is often the appropriate response. Outside of competitive sport, taking advantage of a weakness can be a textbook case of exploitation.

Basically, in sport, having a competitive advantage is not the same thing as having an unfair advantage. From there, the fairness issue gets complicated further because there is empirical evidence that trans women do not achieve a “significant” competitive advantage after transitioning. The advantage that is found can be estimated “from 2-3%.”

Competitive sport is competitive in the sense that training and in-sport strategy is largely concerned with garnering advantages for one’s own side and diminishing advantages for one’s opponent. Living and presenting as one’s gender is not the same thing as seeking these advantages any more than having a disposition for a particular height may give an advantage for some sports. However, the claim made by some who are attempting to exclude trans women is that any advantage they may have over cis women in virtue of being trans is an unfair one – is different than the advantage gained by happening to be a particular height. It is important to acknowledge that different sports privilege different physical presentations. In basketball, for instance, being tall represents a considerable advantage – more than 2-3% – while in gymnastics it represents a disadvantage.

The range of differences in gender performance in competitive sport is also significant: in the Iditarod, women frequently win overall, and in many endurance sports the gender gap is quite small, but in competitive weightlifting the gap reaches nearly 37%. These gaps receive a great deal of interpretation; during the 20th century, women’s sport achievement improved at a remarkably fast rate and the previously wider gap decreased. The increased access to resources, training, and competitions fostered women in sport. It is difficult to predict, given advances in sports science, training, and hopefully further progress in gender inclusion, how the performance gap will behave in the future.

A systematic review of the literature pertaining to sport policies in transgender people in 2017 concluded: “there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition (e.g. cross-sex hormones, gender-confirming surgery) and, therefore, competitive sport policies that place restrictions on transgender people need to be considered and potentially revised.”

If we grant the 3% advantage, and determine this to be an “unfair” advantage, this does not necessarily lead to one clear call to action. For instance, in 2018, ethicists considering the advantage that trans women may hold in competitions concluded not that this should lead to exclusion from sport, but rather a more critical attitude towards male/female categories in sport in the first place. In 2019, ethicists suggested traits that are relevant to particular sports’ skill be the determining factor to segregate classes. For instance, we could consider dividing basketball into height classes, which would allow for shorter, skilled players to compete. This could mirror weight classes in boxing and martial arts competitions, for instance.

While the underlying value that the plaintiffs are appealing to is “fairness,” their aim is to exclude their fellow athletes from competing. A more critical analysis of why the aim of a fair competition and success in sport is required for these athletes to move forward. Perhaps they should consider why the the American Civil Liberties Union is on the other side of their case: though the plaintiffs are appealing to Title IX’s gender protections, the ACLU has said it will represent the transgender teens: “Attorney Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice with the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, said transgender girls also are protected by Title IX.” Women get to play sports.

The Ban on Trans Service Members and Injustice of Healthcare Cost Disparities

close-up photograph of the boots of four servicepeople

President Trump has banned trans members of the military from openly serving and from joining up. The reasoning behind the ban is that inclusion would result in higher medical costs and lower troop cohesion. On January 22nd, SCOTUS lifted an injunction on enacting the ban, and lower courts will proceed with evaluating the ban while the military will be more free to follow it.

As a Vox report articulates, there are multiple dimensions along which this ban is offensive: “Trump’s ban could lead to some very ugly consequences: trans service members staying in the closet, even when it’s dangerous for their service and their personal health and safety; trans troops being discharged or abused; and trans Americans more broadly receiving yet another signal that society still doesn’t accept or tolerate them.”

Besides issues of discriminatory injustice, this ban has significant practical effects: over 134,000 American veterans are transgender, and over 15,000 trans people are serving in military today. The US has been at war for decades, so it is unclear why barring willing people from serving would be a wise strategy, especially for this demographic, as it’s been reported that “twenty percent of transgender people have served in the military, which is double the percentage of the U.S. general population that has served.”

The most suggestive support for the ban comes from research from the RAND Corporation which indicates that including openly serving trans folk in the military would make up “a 0.04- to 0.13-percent increase in active-component health care expenditures.” However, research from countries that allow openly serving in the military according to your gender identity, including the UK, Israel, and Canada, suggests that there is no cost to military preparedness or problems with the military’s budget.

The supposed extra cost of healthcare has been used as a tool of discriminatory practices both inside and outside of the military. Before Obamacare, it was allowable practice for women’s health insurance to be more costly than men’s, for instance. Even harsh critics of the law admit, “The Affordable Care Act enacted pricing rules that largely prohibited charging women higher health-insurance premiums than men, and the Republican plan would relax some of those restrictions, which probably would result in women’s paying higher premiums.”

Debates over whether being a woman should play the role of a “preexisting condition” bring to light the way healthcare should be conceived of and distributed. It is true that women pay more over their lifetime for healthcare than men, on average, despite, again on average, taking better care of themselves.

Health is a human good that is unevenly distributed by a natural lottery – both at birth with conditions that make health needs vary and later in life in the form of health-altering events such as accidents and disease. That some individuals may need more assistance in order to maintain health does not undermine its status as a fundamental human good.

There isn’t evidence that being trans interferes in any way with one’s ability to serve in the military – the inclusive policies of other nations serve as evidence to the contrary. The proposed ban on openly trans military service member is thus at best a matter of medical discrimination, but that justification is thin, given the diverse medical needs of diverse populations. In reality the ban is a barely veiled instance of putting transphobia into policy.

The Gray Area at the Intersection of Gender, Biology, and Identity in Sport

Runner Caster Semenya running across a finish line on a track in a stadium

There is a case currently before the at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland in which South African runner Caster Semenya is contesting a new rule proposed by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) that aims to restrict the levels of testosterone in female runners.

Semenya’s challenge is being closely watched, as the ruling will have important implications for the category of women’s sport and the rights of intersex and transgender athletes to participate in it.

Caster Semenya is not a transgender athlete, she was born female and has always identified as female; she does, however, have naturally much higher testosterone levels than most women by virtue of a DSD condition. DSD conditions are congenital, and they cover a range of cases in which development of chromosomal, gonadal, or anatomical sex is atypical.

DSD can stand for “disorder of sexual development,” which is essentially a medical term that takes intersex traits and other variant or atypical sex development as medical abnormalities. But, at least in the literature outside professional medicine, the terminology of ‘disorder’ is adjusted so that DSD stands for “difference in sexual development” to reflect dissatisfaction with classing intersex conditions as disorders that require correction, treatment or surgical intervention in favour of accepting these as natural variations in human anatomy and physiology.

The range of DSD conditions includes the presence of internal testes in females, which results in much higher than usual testosterone levels. Typical testosterone levels in women and in over 99 percent of  female athletes ranges from 1.12 to 1.79 nmol/L (nanomoles per litre), while the normal adult male range is 7.7-29.4 nmol/L. The IAAF wants a limit of 5nmol/L – which would exclude Semenya from the competing.

The IAAF argues that:

“If a DSD athlete has testes and male levels of testosterone, they get the same increases in bone and muscle size and strength and increases in haemoglobin that a male gets when they go through puberty, which is what gives men such a performance advantage over women.”

The rule, if upheld, would necessitate athletes like Semenya take testosterone suppression drugs for 6 months prior to competing.

Semenya contends that the rule is discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable and a “violation of the rules of sport and universally-recognised human rights.” She says: “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”

A central question here is why her physical competitive advantage should be treated differently from any other competitive advantage gained by a natural physiological trait –when natural physical strengths are the essence of elite athleticism.

It isn’t easy in this case to make a definitive judgement because of the fuzziness of operative concepts like female and male at the intersection of sex, gender, biology/physiology and identity. It goes to the heart of feminist and LGTBQI challenges to the notion that sex, gender and sexuality are correlated binaries.

The IAAF claims that it is not trying to cast doubt on Semenya’s gender, but just to preserve the categories of female and male sport so that the competition is fair for all, yet these seem like contradictory claims. At the very least the IAAF are making a determination on what counts as female in the sense that it is determining the parameters in principle of that category, physiologically, in a way that in effect qualifies or disqualifies someone from competition.

That a ruling must be made on something that is essentially not determinate makes it very difficult to balance rights of DSD athletes against those of women in sport, and points up the inherent tensions between fairness and inclusivity.

Until quite recently it has been usual practice for medical professionals to assign a gender at birth to intersex babies followed by socialization, and sometimes further or ongoing medical interventions. Intersex traits, and other DSDs do not of themselves cause medical problems, but have long been considered as abnormalities which necessitated the assignment of a male or female gender as a treatment or correction.

Intersex activists have been campaigning against medical jurisdiction over the intersex/DSD body as well as for non-interventionist policies including cessation of gender assignment surgeries and other medical interventions, on the basis that bodies that are gender diverse, or display differences of sexual development, are normal, healthy bodies which simply represent instances of atypical variations on the statistically average male/female body.

In light of these types of consideration, many, including the South African government, consider any rule requiring Semenya to take testosterone suppressant drugs to be a gross violation of human rights. By taking such measures, the IAAF would be implicitly treating her as having a deviant physiology which could be corrected to normalize her.

If the ruling holds, Semenya can compete only if she changes her own body’s natural process to bring it into line with typical physiology. Semenya’s high testosterone gives her a significant advantage – she is, as it stands, unbeatable in her running events by a typical female athlete. Yet it is difficult to escape the sense in which her ‘femaleness’ is implicitly put into question, since the IAAF rule is aimed at preserving the category of women’s competition.

Her supporters argue that she simply has a natural physical advantage – like long legs or extra muscle mass, and that there is no difference in kind between these sorts of physiological advantages, and that of elevated testosterone.  

The ‘categories’ of men’s and women’s sport exist because, in general, men have significant competitive athletic physical advantages over women. Testosterone increases in males at puberty and is thought to be responsible for increases in muscle mass, strength and haemoglobin carrying capacity of the blood, all of which increases strength and endurance, and which ultimately bestows  competitive advantages.

There are, however, some dissenting opinions on that. The available research to date on the question of whether testosterone plays a definitive role in the general advantage male athletes have over female athletes does not provide a definitive answer. (A paper published by Bermon in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2017, which claimed that elite women runners with high testosterone levels performed as much as 3% better than those with lower levels, has been heavily criticized by three academics – Roger Pielke, Erik Boye and Ross Tucker – who say that 17-32% of the data was erroneous. That looks immensely damaging to the IAAF’s case.)

It might be tempting for some to think that science could, in principle, provide an answer in the above-mentioned way. But that would be to ignore the vast wealth of feminist and queer theory, which questions the very idea that sex and gender can be made to adhere to a strictly binary classification.

Those arguing with the IAAF for testosterone limits are usually citing problems of competitive fairness in women’s sport which is, after all, a protected category. On the other hand, there is no reason to suppose that the category of women’s sport need be definitive for broader questions about gender binaries.

In a sense it is a practical problem of maintaining the categories of women’s and men’s sport, when some individuals do not neatly slot into those categories. Because of this practical problem, there does seem to be a significant clash between fairness in sport, women’s sport, and inclusivity.

Martina Navratilova recently drew strong criticism for weighing in. She argued that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sporting tournaments was “insane and cheating.” Navratilova’s comments were called “disturbing, upsetting, and deeply transphobic.”

Semenya is not transgender, but it seems reasonable to segue from one discussion to the other; indeed it has already been noted that transgender activists are closely watching the case for the implications it will have for transgender athletes. As such, a question here that needs teasing out is whether there are any salient differences between born females and transgender females, relevant to the question of preserving fairness in the category of women’s sport.

Navratilova was expressing a view that it is not fair for (non-trans) female athletes to have to compete against male-to-female transgender women who may retain the significant competitive advantage of the male over the female athletic physiology. Does such a view make her transphobic? She denies that she is prejudiced. But the criticism she received highlights the issue of whether questioning trans women’s inclusion in the category of women’s sport is necessarily, of itself transphobic. Can the question of trans women competing against other women in athletics be discussed free from the assumption that a contrary opinion is necessarily a hateful one?

To sum up, the case of Semenya’s testosterone levels currently before the IAAF, and the segue made to trans athletes, raises questions which are not insurmountable, but may never be final or definitively settled. One is the question of the categories of men’s and women’s sport: how to understand them, and to make sure they do what they are there to do, which is to provide the opportunity for fair competition. Another is how those categories do and should relate to intersex and transgender identity and rights, and to medical views of transgender and intersex; and the difficulty of conducting rational and respectful debate about these issues. The IAAF has promised a ruling at the end of March.  

For Testosterone Testing in Sports

Image of numbers on the lanes of a running track.

In my last post, I explained that the IAAF has a new policy on testosterone testing for female athletes. See that post for the details. I presented an argument against testosterone testing in sport and now I’ll present an argument for it. Which is the better argument? You decide. (Full disclosure: I don’t know.)

The first thing we need to consider is why sports are gender-segregated. It’s not because there’s a need to segregate people with different gender identities (why would we do that?). Sports are gender-segregated for reasons having entirely to do with bodies. The crux of the matter is that people with female bodies would be at a tremendous disadvantage if they competed against people with male bodies. Averaging over different sports and different individual people, male bodies have a 10 percent advantage. With gender mixing, the female-bodied wouldn’t as often qualify for and win events. To enjoy all the goods associated with sport, people with female bodies have to compete amongst themselves.

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Against Testosterone Testing in Sports

Image of hurdles on a track.

The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) has returned to the policy that female competitors must have circulating testosterone under a certain level. The policy had been suspended as a result of a judgment by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, after a complaint was filed by Dutee Chand, an Indian runner with DSD (differences of sexual development, also known as being intersex). For now, the new policy will apply only to mid-distance events—400 meters to a mile—and to people legally recognized as either female or intersex (which presumably includes trans women). More details on how the policy will be implemented are here.

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Should Conscientious Objections Apply to Healthcare?

An image of a surgeon operating on a patient.

While executive orders and high-profile legislation garner the most media coverage, much of the change that comes with a new presidential administration happens in the individual departments staffed by new political appointees. The current administration has pushed far-reaching changes regarding the place of religious belief in the healthcare system through actions at the Health and Human Services Department. I’ve previously covered the administration’s decision in October 2017 to widen the scope of exemptions to the contraception mandate. More recently, NPR reported that the Department of Health and Human Services is opening a new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom to defend health care workers who object to participating in medical care for patients because of their sincerely held religious beliefs. Notably, the establishment of the division also reverses an Obama-era rule barring “health care workers from refusing to treat transgender individuals or people who have had or are seeking abortions.”

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Pronouns and Provocateurs: Wilfrid Laurier University’s Free Speech Controversy

A photo of an academic building at Wilfrid Laurier University

At the beginning of November, Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University,  made the fateful decision to show a video clip of a debate about pronouns to her tutorial for students in a large first-year writing class. The debate, which aired on Canadian public television a year ago, featured firebrand Jordan Peterson, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and a crusader against political correctness.

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Feminism, Privilege, and Trans Inclusivity

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is known for advocating an understanding of feminist values that is inclusive and diverse. Race and gender play important roles in her largely personal works. Best-selling author of “Americanah” and “We Should All be Feminists,” she emphasizes that fundamental to feminism is that “’because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything,” and that, “I matter. I matter equally.” Her focus in much of her writing, especially in her latest project, “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions,” is how to raise a daughter and that feminism is a project that binds mothers and daughters (she discusses the shaming dialog with her mother surrounding her first period, for instance).

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Should Americans Hope for a President Pence?

A little over a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, chaos continues to swirl around even the most basic of the administration’s operations. High profile controversies – most notably, the emerging details about Trump surrogates’ contact with members of the Russian government during the campaign – continue to roil the nascent administration. From within, leaks to the press abound, painting a portrait of a chaotic White House even more defined by power struggles and botched policy rollouts than usual. And all the while, Trump continues to make inflammatory statements, most recently asserting without evidence that then-President Barack Obama ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower during the 2016 election.

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Between the Lines of National Geographic’s “Gender Revolution”

In its 128th year of publication, National Geographic has put the spotlight on gender issues. As a renowned culture and travel magazine with significant resources, National Geographic has tremendous influence on how important issues are perceived by its wide audience. “Gender Revolution” is inherently a weighted title for their latest project, implying that a deep-seated problem is in need of revolution, and that their project sheds light on this problem. National Geographic interviewed over 100 nine-year-olds from around the world to gain their perspective on gender, as well as shared stories of many individuals who identify as more than male or female. The “Gender Revolution” is a battle for the fluidity of gender that encroaches more sensitive subjects besides gender.

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Transgender Rights in Rio

With the increased prominence of LGBTQ issues and the implications of former Olympic superstar Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner transitioning from male to female this year, it comes as no surprise that the International Olympic Committee has turned a fresh eye to its regulations and practices. An announcement was made January 24th indicating that new guidelines had been released, and would be in effect for this year’s Olympics in Rio.

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HERO in Texas

Though it’s always the big-ticket national elections that draw the most public attention, we need to put Trump, Hillary, Carson and Sanders away for a few minutes and talk about the local elections. A number of interesting issues were put to vote this year on the local level. Some of the issues that were determined popular vote were fracking in two California cities, decriminalization of marijuana in Ohio, minimum wage in Washington state, a ban on GMOs in Benton county, Ohio and a LGBQT issue in Houston, Texas. Such measures, which affect citizens at the community and state level, would modify, pass or vote down certain policies.

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Caitlyn’s Costume Controversy

Spirit Halloween released a costume for Halloween 2015 in the likeness of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair magazine cover. The immediate reaction of many was one of disgust, feeling that the costume was mocking the former Olympian and her recent transition. Others were concerned that the costume perpetuates a transphobic view.   Vincent Villano, from the National Center for Transgender Equality,  sums up these views by saying  “There’s no tasteful way to ‘celebrate’ Caitlyn Jenner or respect transgender people this way on the one night of the year when people use their most twisted imaginations to pretend to be villains and monsters.”

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Whitewashing Stonewall

In just a few weeks, audiences around the country will have the chance to watch the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 play out before their eyes. Over 45 years after the riots that sparked the LGBT movement in America, the events that took place at the Stonewall Inn will once again be immortalized in film. Directed by Roland Emmerich, Stonewall will come to theatres in September, promising to explore the story of “A young man’s political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots.”

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