On Laurel Hubbard and sex testing in sport

One day, the name of Laurel Hubbard will be celebrated as the first trans athlete to compete in Olympic sport. Today though, instead of being praised for her courage, she’s having mud thrown at her. Tons of it.

Laurel Hubbard Will Be the First Transgender Athlete to Compete in the  Olympics | SELF

I’m getting a sense that some people are wary of defending her. I don’t know if this is because she’s previously competed in male sport, or because her father is a very wealthy businessman. On top of this, there’s an awful lot of misinformation about her that’s doing the rounds, so the first thing is to be aware of the facts. She isn’t a male athlete who decided to cheat. She gave up competitive lifting in 2001 when she was just 23. After a gap of over 15 years, the last few of which she’d been on hormone treatment, she returned to the sport, this time entering women’s competitions. She submitted to every test and followed all the rules laid down by the sport governing bodies.

The real argument is whether these rules are unfair. I’ll come to this presently, but first, a bit of history and context.

Women’s sports evolved as a way of giving women equal access to men to competitive sport. In most sports, men have a competitive advantage, though this varies between sports, and between individual events, due to the differing physical attributes required. One Olympic sport in which men and women compete on an equal basis is equestrian.

Successful female athletes who don’t conform to gender stereotypes have long been subject to baseless suspicion and misogynist remarks. Serena Williams felt the need to publicly respond to conspiracy theories that she’d been born a man.

Sex testing in sport has always targeted female athletes, and it’s often been very invasive. At first this took the form of a genital check: “In some cases, this involved what came to be called the ‘nude parade,’ as each woman appeared, underpants down, before a panel of doctors; in others, it involved women’s lying on their backs and pulling their knees to their chest for closer inspection.” After protests from women, this was replaced in the late 60s by a chromosome test. The chromosome tests didn’t uncover any cheaters, but they did identify a few (intersex) women whose chromosomes didn’t match their primary sex characteristics.

In 2011 the IAAF and IOC introduced a new set of tests which targeted women with high testosterone levels. One trigger was this seems to have been the furore surrounding the South African athlete Caster Semenya. It was widely believed – without evidence – that she had an unfair advantage, so the goalposts were moved. Testosterone levels were identified as the main issue. Athletes were ineligible to compete in women’s sports unless their androgen (testosterone) levels were below the limits set by the IAAF.

Dutee Chand was a young Indian sprinter caught out by the new tests. She came under suspicion because of her exceptional performance, and her appearance. The Indian authorities subjected her to a series of tests, including a gynecological exam that she found humiliating. This though was as nothing compared to the shock of being told that she could no longer race, and the shame of having the entire country commenting on and speculating about her gender.

“For days, Chand cried inconsolably and refused to eat or drink. ‘Some in the news were saying I was a boy, and some said that maybe I was a transsexual,’ Chand told me. ‘I felt naked. I am a human being, but I felt I was an animal. I wondered how I would live with so much humiliation.’”

Chand refused to undergo the potentially harmful medical interventions required by the IAAF to lower her naturally occurring high testosterone levels. She went to court – and she won. The court found that the rules were discriminatory, and based on insufficient scientific evidence.

Testing for androgen levels continued. Sports governing bodies acknowledged that they were discriminatory against some women, but took the view that they were justified in order to maintain the integrity of women’s sport. Meanwhile, they had other fish to fry. Since 2004 transgender athletes had been permitted to compete in the Olympic Games, but only if they’d undergone sex reassignment surgery and obtained legal recognition of their gender. These conditions were certainly discriminatory: legal recognition wasn’t possible in many countries, and requiring people to submit themselves to major surgery violated their human rights. So in 2015 the IOC introduced a much more liberal set of rules. Female to male athletes could now compete without any restrictions. Male to female athletes could compete after a certain period of time in their new gender if their testosterone levels remained below the specified amount over a 12 month period.

Significant numbers of elite women athletes and former athletes are heavily critical of the new rules. This for example from Martina Navratilova – “It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.”

Many people will instinctively agree with this. But suppose that every sportsperson was made to compete only against their birth sex. A ciswoman tennis star could find herself competing against a trans man who’d been boosting his testosterone levels instead of reducing them. Where’s the fairness in that ?

There are important principles at stake. But there is more than a whiff of moral panic in this whole debate. This isn’t the end of women’s sport. In over five years since the new rules came in, Hubbard is the only trans athlete to qualify for the Olympics. Undoubtedly there’ll be more, but trans athletes remain few and far between, and there’s no sign that the floodgates are about to open. Also, many people who should know better seem to forget that trans people have rights too – and sport governing bodies have a duty to safeguard the rights of all athletes.

The present rules aren’t fit for purpose. They discriminate against women with naturally occurring high testosterone levels, such as the two Namibian runners Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi who this week were barred from competing in the Olympic 400m event. And there’s no solid scientific consensus behind them. There’s a debate among scientists as to whether testosterone gives any significant advantage at all. It’s known that there are many other factors that contribute to male competitive advantage. Different events require different physical attributes. Many elite athletes have bodily abnormalities which work to their advantage. Use of performance enhancing medication is commonplace in certain sports. Trans women athletes, let’s not forget, take hormone treatment which reduces their performance levels, though I don’t know of any studies that have tried to quantify this.

The IOC is currently working on yet another new set of guidelines. I confidently predict that these guidelines won’t be the final word in this debate.

Any solution must safeguard the integrity of women’s sport while also avoiding as far as possible creating barriers that prevent trans people from competing in sport. (And believe me, if you tell someone who’s taken hormone treatment and lived for years as a woman that they can only participate in sport if they use male changing rooms and compete with men, very few people would choose to compete under those conditions.)

These two aims are not incompatible; however it should be noted that popular opinion is divided on the question of whether trans women should be allowed to compete in women’s sport. In America this issue has become a major political battleground. On June 1st – the first day of Pride month – Florida became the ninth state to enact legislation restricting the rights of trans women in sport. The Florida bill, which will be challenged in the courts, bars transgender girls and women from playing on girls sports teams at public schools.

In a school system which permits children to socially transition and to use toilet and bathroom facilities corresponding to their adopted gender, there can really be no justification for preventing trans girls from participating in girls sports. Without a ban, every girl would still have the same opportunities to take part in sports, and potentially have the benefit of any extra training if they show special promise. Such a ban would serve only to expose and humiliate trans girls, defeating the object of allowing them to transition in the first place.

Elite sport is a different matter, and in principle I don’t have a problem with sporting authorities setting preconditions for entry to elite competition by transgender athletes. My problem is with barriers to entry being imposed when there are gaps in the research, there are unresolved debates among scientists, and there are groups of ciswomen who the rules unfairly target.

Until the scientific issues have been resolved, I would like to see sex testing in sport suspended altogether, on the basis that all trans women who’ve been on hormone treatment for an agreed period of time should be allowed to compete in women’s sport, with their performance over time being closely studied so as to inform decision makers in future years.

One thought on “On Laurel Hubbard and sex testing in sport

  1. I’ve been tussling over this issue for a while. I kind of throw my hands up in despair when I think of competitive sport anyway and trans athletes is just another complication. I wonder if it is possible to be a top athlete and not take any chemicals to enhance performance? Knowingly or more likely not.
    I’m not a big sports fan as you can guess.

    I have a friend who would not like a trans woman to use the ladies loo. I think it’s time public toilets were fit for anyone to use in safety and privacy.
    As for trans women in female prisons, yes of course, if they have to be incarcerated. Prisons are barbaric and outdated but I think female prisons might be less dreadful (we recently watched Time) than men’s. But then again I remember the horrors of Bad Girls and Cell Block H.
    Sorry to have gone off the subject, Linda.
    Slightly on the subject, have you watched Girl on All4? I thought it would be interesting but it got boring. Also odd that a cisman should play Lara.
    Best wishes x x x Barbara Gleave


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