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Trans Athletes and Fairness | Munk Debates

SEASON TWO - EPISODE #10

Trans Athletes and Fairness

Be it Resolved: Safety and fairness preclude participation of trans athletes in high level women's sport.

Guests
Linda Blade
Joanna Harper

About this episode

For almost a century now the international sporting community has grappled with the question of determining who gets to compete in the female sports category. Fifty years ago the question was answered with humiliating physical exams, but in more recent decades most international sporting federations have embraced a science focused approach. The International Olympic Committee, for example, uses testosterone levels considerably above the female range, not gender, as the main determinant of who gets to compete in the women’s elite sport. But last October, World Rugby made international headlines when it announced a very different approach. The governing body’s new guidelines prohibit transgender athletes from playing elite women’s rugby because of concerns about the safety of players.

Advocates for trans athletes say that these guidelines are discriminatory not least because they underestimate the extent to which hormone therapy and surgery diminish the biological advantages of being born male. They also argue that it’s dangerous for international sporting bodies to try and regulate the factors that go into superior performance - a complex matter that cannot be reduced to a gender binary.

Advocates for women’s sport say that for reasons of basic fairness and safety more governing bodies should develop guidelines that bar biological males from participating in female sport. They argue that trans women who are born male enjoy immense physical advantages that are not eliminated through testosterone therapy or surgery. Female athletes argue that the increasing participation of trans women in their division is pushing them off of the podium and undermining the whole reason behind creating a women’s sports category in the first place.

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Guests

Linda Blade

"The male advantage is never completely extinguished by lowering testosterone. You cannot shorten bone length with a drug."

Linda Blade

"The male advantage is never completely extinguished by lowering testosterone. You cannot shorten bone length with a drug."

Dr. Linda Blade has worked for 25 years as “Sport Performance Professional” coach in Edmonton teaching fundamental movement skills to athletes in over 15 sports (beginner to elite). Since 2014, Linda has served as President of the Board for Athletics Alberta, where she has a duty to contend with proposals to insert gender ideology into Canadian sport policy. Linda’s entire life has been about sports: playing street soccer as a small child and then becoming Bolivian champion in Track & Field at age 15 yrs; securing a NCAA Title IX scholarship and winning “All American” honours while at University of Maryland; later becoming Canadian Champion and competing internationally with Team Canada in heptathlon; and obtaining a PhD in Kinesiology with a specialty in studying physical anthropology and sexual dimorphism in growing children. Listeners will find that Dr. Blade is an informed and passionate advocate for women’s sports.

Joanna Harper

"Using testosterone levels to separate elite-level male and female athletes is a reasonable compromise to allow transgender women to compete while maintaining meaningful competition for all women within the category."

Joanna Harper

"Using testosterone levels to separate elite-level male and female athletes is a reasonable compromise to allow transgender women to compete while maintaining meaningful competition for all women within the category."

Joanna Harper has a master’s degree in physics and several years of experience working as a medical physicist. After her gender transition in 2004, and subsequent reduction in running speed, she turned her focus to the performance of transgender and intersex athletes. In 2015 Harper published the first peer-reviewed article containing quantitative analysis of the athletic performance of transgender athletes with differing hormonal values. Since then she has collected subsequent retrospective data on transgender athletes and is currently engaged in a prospective analysis of two transgender athletes. She is the author of the Rowman and Littlefield book Sporting Gender: The History, Science and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes. Harper has authored articles on gender diverse athletes in both peer-reviewed publications and in the Duke University Law Review as well, including “The Fluidity of Gender and Implications for the Biology of Inclusion for Transgender and Intersex Athletes.” Harper has served as an advisor to the IOC on matters of gender diversity and sport since 2015. She was also a witness for the IAAF at both the Dutee Chand and Caster Semenya cases before the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Harper has also worked with other international and national sporting federations to help develop appropriate transgender specific eligibility policy. Harper speaks frequently at scientific and professional conferences around the world on transgender and intersex athletes. In the fall of 2019 Harper relocated to Loughborough University where she is now engaged full-time in the study of transgender athletic performance.

Show Notes

Linda Blade is the author of UNSPORTING: How trans activism and science denial are destroying sport, which will be published by Rebel Media in Spring, 2021. You can follow Linda on twitter @coachblade.

Joanna Harper is the author of Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes. You can read her article about the need for compromise not conflict on the issue of trans athlete participation in women’s sport in this article for The Guardian.

During the debate Joanna and Linda disagree on whether trans athletes who have transitioned continue to benefit from the biological advantages of being born male. In this article that Joanna published in the Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities, she reviewed race times for transgender athletes and concluded that after undergoing testosterone suppression therapy transgender women had hemoglobin levels almost identical to cisgender women while their testosterone levels fell below those of an average cisgender woman.
 
Linda argues that even though testosterone suppression therapy in transgender women may result in the elimination of some biological advantages it still doesn’t change the athlete’s body type – a body that has been created in part by testosterone, including during puberty. In sporting events where strength and weight are important, transgender women will continue to carry a ‘legacy advantage.’ Linda’s argument is supported by this article in Sports Integrity Initiative.
 
During the debate Linda and Joanna share their perspectives on the impact of the new U.S. Executive Order that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity (President Joe Biden signed it on the first day he took office). Read this Newsweek article to learn more about how the Executive Order may impact Title IX, the 1972 statute that outlaws sex discrimination in education, including athletics. In this article The Independent Women’s Forum suggests that the Executive Order may impact the ability of schools to offer single sex teams.

During the debate both Linda and Joanna agree that the introduction of Title IX was a game changer for women and competitive sport. For much of the 20th century women were discouraged from competitive sports. In the U.S. women were not able to participate in intercollegiate sports until 1957 and national championships for female athletes weren’t organized until 1969. As for the OIympics, although women were able to compete in some events starting in 1900 (quite the step forward given there is evidence that during the 2nd century women were banned during the actual games on penalty of death), it wasn’t until 1991 that the IOC determined that any new sports included in the IOC programme had to include women’s events. You can learn more about the history of women’s sport here.

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