Sunday, February 18, 2024

About Alberta's Proposed Ban On Trans Athletes

Among the heartless and cruel things that Danielle Smith announced in her "policy package" about parental rights (anti-transgender policy, really), was an absolute ban on transgender women competing in sports in Alberta. The rationale being that somehow "transgender women have massive advantages in athletics", and somehow that having transgender women playing in women's leagues creates a "danger" to women. 

But, more seriously, does this make any sense from a policy perspective?

Sports Policies

Governments write policies around sports all the time.  These policies exist because sports influences people's lives in many different ways. At the highest level of sports, they are matters of national pride, and significant resources get poured into developing athletes who might one day compete in high profile events like the Olympics.  However, most of the world engages in sport for fitness and social reasons.  Government policies exist to fund and encourage participation at all levels, and across all ages from children to the elderly. 

Looking at Sport Canada's website, we find the following summary of Sport Canada's policy objectives: 

Objectives of the Canadian Sport Policy

Through five broad objectives, the Policy aims to increase the number and diversity of Canadians participating in sport: 
  • Introduction to sport: Canadians have the fundamental skills, knowledge and attitudes to participate in organized and unorganized sport.
  • Recreational sport: Canadians have the opportunity to participate in sport for fun, health, social interaction and relaxation.
  • Competitive sport: Canadians have the opportunity to systematically improve and measure their performance against others in competition in a safe and ethical manner.
  • High performance sport: Canadians are systematically achieving world-class results at the highest levels of international competition through fair and ethical means.
  • Sport for development: Sport is used as a tool for social and economic development, and the promotion of positive values at home and abroad.

As you can see, the policy objectives cover a wide range of goals, from community level participation through to developing elite athletes and the role of sport in economic development.  If you read further through the full documents of the policy, it covers a wide range of issues.

Perhaps most relevant to this discussion is the role of sport in health, socialization, and so on. In general, the policy objectives are to encourage lifetime participation for the health benefits, as well as the social and mental health benefits associated with sport.

Here's the fundamental point:  sport is for all citizens.  Those of us old enough to remember, there used to be a huge fuss made about girls playing hockey with the boys on community level leagues.  This was a particularly contentious issue in rural areas where the number of girls in any given community who were interested in playing hockey was almost never enough to form a team - even if multiple communities "pooled together".  We'll come back to this point later. 

The Arguments Put Forward

Three major arguments have been made about transgender athletes, and I think they each warrant a bit of exploration.  Two of them are topics that Premier Smith has raised in her announcement at the end of January, and the third is a common complaint from anti-transgender activists.  Let's get into them, shall we? 

1 - Athletic Advantages 

Much is made of supposed advantages in sports that transgender women have "because of male puberty".  In 2021, I wrote a piece on this blog that addresses the fact that athletic performance is a hugely complex subject, and to simplistically argue that someone has an intrinsic advantage because they went through male puberty is deeply problematic.  There has been more research done since 2021, but a brief survey of it continues to support my contention that we are a long ways from having that kind of concrete evidence.  An alleged "advantage" on any singular attribute does not equate to being a better athlete - not even close.  As I argued back then, if that were true, transgender athletes would be cleaning up at the podiums, and that simply hasn't happened. 

My argument in 2021 was, and remains, that the definition of "advantage" has to be assessed on an individual basis, in the context of the person and the sport they are participating in.  Not all transgender women are "built like linebackers".  We have to recognize that there are an enormous range of body types, and whether any of them represent "an advantage" is hugely dependent upon the context.  At this point, the research on transgender performance in sport is lacking in generalizability in any one domain, and tends to focus on one or two traits at a time.

In the absence of generalizable evidence, it seems far more reasonable to take a "case by case" approach. 

2 - Danger to Other Athletes

The second argument that Premier Smith made was that because of the (assumed) size and weight difference, that transgender athletes present an immediate physical danger to other athletes in women's leagues.  To support this claim, she showed a video of a large athlete bowling over a much smaller athlete in either rugby or soccer (I don't recall which).  But, it turns out that the person in the video was ... born female.  It wasn't even an incident involving a transgender athlete at all.  That incident itself raises a huge point:  athletes come in a huge range of sizes and shapes, and just because someone falls outside the assumed norms doesn't mean they are transgender.  If we can accept that a 6' tall, heavily built female athlete playing a contact sport against much smaller females isn't a threat, then one has to ask "why is the transgender athlete so much worse?".  

A quick perusal of the research literature turns up even fewer papers on this subject than there are on the "advantages" that Male to Female transgender athletes are assumed to possess.  In fact, I could find exactly zero studies querying such a topic, and only a handful of papers talking about the issue from a bioethical perspective.  

3 - ZOMG - Men Penises In Da Locker Rooms! 

This point keeps popping up in the arguments. More than anything else, it's rooted in the notion that "transgender women are really just men wanting to get a peek at women".  This is a variation on the notion of "transgender women are deceivers" claim we see in so-called "Trans Panic" defences. Ultimately, they are rooted in a bizarre combination of homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny.

I reframed it as "Penises in the Locker Room" deliberately.  The issue here isn't really transgender women in the locker rooms.  The fact is that transgender women have been using locker rooms uneventfully for decades.  The panic arises when someone is "clocked" as transgender in the locker room, and somebody "freaks out" and decides that "it's a man waving his penis about".  

There's a couple of things going on here in addition to the "trans woman as deceiver", the person who decides to panic usually starts off by assuming that the person actually has a penis.  Then they make an immediate leap to "if a person has a penis in the female locker room, they have to be a sexual predator".  This is regardless of whether the transgender woman actually has one or not.  I have seen this script play out repeatedly in alleged incidents across Canada, and almost without fail it turns out to not have happened as salaciously described in whatever far right media outlet picks up the story.

When the story turns out to be false, the fallback argument that gets dragged out is that because so many women have been sexually assaulted by men, they should never have to share a space with a "man".  I would suggest that it's both unreasonable to limit someone else's life because of your past traumas.  That trauma is for you to work through, and other people can't be expected to know about, or simply not exist because of those events.   

 Alberta's Policy Goals 

Building policy and legislation on assumptions about a particular group's characteristics raises questions as to the actual intentions of that policy.  Ostensibly, this is about "protecting women's sport", but where is the danger? It's one thing to assume a danger, it's quite another to show that danger actually exists in reality. 

Is Women's Sport In Danger?

The transgender population is small - very small.  Less than 1% of the population by any number of estimates.  Let's say, for example, that it's actually 1% of population who are transgender (and have actually chosen to transition), that means in the entire province of Alberta, you have maybe 40,000 transgender people.  Let's say that it's roughly equally divided between Male to Female (MtF) and Female to Male (FtM) people, and you're down to some 20,000 transgender females.  Only a fraction of those are going to engage in athletics.  The point here is that the numbers involved are tiny - in the entire city of Calgary, you might have 1,500 transgender females, and only a handful of those would be engaging in any particular sport. It's difficult to imagine how a tiny number of prospective athletes in any way endangers women's sports.

Prior to a series of moral panic-induced policy changes in the last couple of years, most major sporting organizations had policies that allowed participation after some number of years of Gender Affirming Hormone Therapy, or in the case of younger trans people, the use of puberty blocking medication by Tanner Stage II.  Given the available evidence, these were fairly reasonable policies, and they generally enabled principles like broad participation in sport.  While one or two events have occurred where a transgender female has won in an event, but those have hardly been commonplace.  

I find it difficult to believe that in any meaningful way that transgender women pose some kind of existential threat to women's sport, or female athletes.  The numbers of transgender athletes, and decades of experience with existing policy frameworks tend to support the idea that in no way does such a threat exist in any objective reality.

Alberta's Policy

Premier Smith's proposed policy bans transgender athletes of all ages, not merely those who started to transition after puberty.  In fact, it bans transgender children (and adults) from participation, regardless of age.  Looking back at the policy objectives of Sport Canada, this takes a very tiny minority of the population and forcibly excludes them from sport. 

  • Introduction to sport: Canadians have the fundamental skills, knowledge and attitudes to participate in organized and unorganized sport.
  • Recreational sport: Canadians have the opportunity to participate in sport for fun, health, social interaction and relaxation. [emphasis added]

This is an approach decidedly lacking in nuance, and it flies in the face of the long term benefits of participation in sports.  Why would we blindly exclude transgender girls / women from sport?  This makes very little sense - especially when we are talking about younger athletes.  

The message being sent is "you're different, you're bad".  Don't think for a moment that transgender Albertans will miss that message - and in particular transgender youth in Alberta will take it in ways that I can only guess at.  

Yes, Premier Smith made a hand-wavy gesture in the direction of co-ed or special leagues for transgender athletes.  The practical reality is that such efforts are doomed to fail.  The simple fact is that such environments simply won't draw athletes to them - even in casual / community league competition.  FINA (the world swimming body) tried something like that just recently, only to collapse it after a lack of interest / engagement. 

Let's step back to the issue of girls playing hockey back in the 80s/90s. There were numerous lawsuits around this over a number of years.  Eventually enough rulings occurred that pushed things in the direction of "deal with it", and make appropriate accommodations.  In the long term, this was the correct response.  The fact is that outside of large urban settings, it's beyond difficult to get enough athletes to field one team, much less fitting them in with age categories, and providing the kind of structures needed to have meaningful competition.  

The Alberta government has chosen to bow to a small, vocal group of anti-transgender activists.  Eventually, they will be held to proving that their policy actually reflects a meaningful interest on the part of the state.  Simply kicking a minority because you can isn't exactly a compelling argument. 


Anonymous said...

The Alberta government has chosen to ignore a small, vocal, and often violent group of transgender activists who aren't the least bit concerned with fairness to female athletes. And according to a recent Leger poll, Canadians agree with Danielle Smith when it comes to sports, with 68% opposing allowing athletes born male to compete in women’s sports, with only 17% in favour.

This isn't a difficult issue, and it's not about transgender athletes in general. It's about male athletes competing in the female category. In other words, turning women's sports into an open category.

It will surprise nobody to learn that on the whole men have more strength, speed, power, endurance and ability to withstand blows than women. This holds true at all levels and among disabled athletes, as a glance through world athletic records will confirm. According to the science that World Athletics and World Aquatics relied on, reducing testosterone does not reduce performance enough to eliminate the advantages of a male body. This makes it unfair to women to include athletes who have gone through male puberty in the female category under any circumstances.

In competitive sports, typical eligibility criteria include age, sex, skill level, disability status, and, in some sports, weight. All of those characteristics are observable, measurable, and verifiable to third parties. In other words, they're real. Gender identity is none of those. Whether those material realities “validate” an athlete’s beliefs about themselves has never been relevant or grounds to demand competitive category reassignment.

And contrary to the overwrought testerics of activists, trans-identified men are not being banned from sport. They are simply ineligible for inclusion in women's sports because they don't meet the material eligibility criteria. Just as adult men have never been eligible to play Little League ball, men should never be eligible to play women’s sports. They remain free to play men's sports and co-ed sports. Sports are played with sexed bodies, not gender identities, and female sports are not a Plan B for mediocre males who can't hack competing against other males. This is the position of transgender athletic icons Caitlyn Jenner and Renee Richards, and it's the position of all but a small number of extremists.

MgS said...

Your position rests entirely on the questionable notion that a transgender woman is IN FACT a man. I'm not going to argue this with you beyond saying that there's a ton of evidence across multiple disciplines that challenges that supposition.

Second, regarding the science used by FINA and other organizations, it is at best incomplete science. At worst it is not generalizable for a variety of reasons. I stand by my position that there's a long ways to go before you can conclude that transgender women have "massive advantages" that other women could not possibly have.

However, you also failed entirely to address the key aspects of my argument. You talk about how it's "unfair to allow a MAN to compete with women". Saying "go compete with the MeN" fails to recognize that transgender women simply aren't men, and do not have the same athletic framework of a cisgender male.

Further, there are long term lifestyle, health, and socialization implications for the individuals who are banned. You haven't addressed these realities. Saying to me, as a trans woman, that I should be kept apart from my social peers (other women) is hugely damaging to social adaptation and context. The psychological damage inflicted is far greater than I suspect you realize.

Very few athletes ever compete at the elite levels where some theoretical advantage might make a difference, and we have a government banning trans women at ALL LEVELS of sport. I fail to see how that exclusion makes any sense in the broader context of the goals of sport policy.

Lastly - appealing to the opinions of Jenner and Richards is hardly the compelling own you think it is. Both are making opinion statements without having relevant expertise in the science involved. Not just the science of the physical body, but also the science around the psychological health of the person. Both have made repeated statements in recent years that speak more to their political alignment (Jenner in particular, but Richards also) rather than their expertise.

MgS said...

One additional point: Riley Gaines makes quite a career out of running around the country punching down on trans women. If you think the reception she gets is somehow representative of trans women in general, you're the one with incredibly unrealistic expectations. She's actively campaigning to harm people.

... and regarding that "poll" about whether parents agree with Smith or not, health care access should never be a popularity contest, and it should NEVER be a political contest. That's another facet of Smith's policy proposals that is so far offside it's not funny - but you're quite sold on the idea that you can tell everybody else how to raise their trans kids so that your delicate sensibilities aren't offended.

Anonymous said...

My position rests entirely on the incontrovertible notion that transgender women are, in fact, male. Oxford defines transgender as "describing or relating to people whose gender identity does not match their sex at birth." So, by definition, a transgender woman (gender identity) is male (sex at birth). Like all mammals, humans are dimorphic and unable to change sex. None of this is scientifically controversial.

You say that FINA relied on incomplete science. I agree - science is always evolving and incomplete. But the burden is on those wanting to change the rules to show that what they propose is at least as safe and fair as the existing rules. We're still waiting. In fact, sports governing bodies, such as the International Cycling Union (UCI) and World Rugby, that jumped both feet into gender self-ID have reversed themselves as the unfairness and injuries to females mounted, and women started quitting.

It's worth asking why we have a female category at all. Why not be inclusive and just eliminate it? The answer is simple: in most sports, females would never win another medal. In swimming, cycling and track, for example, they'd never even make the national team since the fastest females in the world don't come close to the male time standards for the Canadian team selection trials. And let's not forget that the world champion US Women's National Soccer Team lost an exhibition match to a U15 boys academy team. The difference between male and female athletic performance is huge.

But, what about sports policy? Well, if your goal is to get the female half of the population to quit, by all means, let males self-ID into their sports. Elite athletes all work their way up from local community sports, and what happens at the elite level is a microcosm of what happens elsewhere. If world-class adult female athletes can be beaten by community-level U15 boys, what hope do community-level females have to succeed? What young female is going to commit to hours of daily training knowing that at her peak her dreams can be dashed by any flabby, middle-age male like Lauren Hubbard or Veronica Ivy who self-IDs into her sport? The goal of sports policy is normally to maximize participation, not demoralize half the population.

It's funny how speaking up for women's rights becomes "punching down" on trans women. If you think women protecting their rights might negatively affect yours, maybe you're not one?

As for healthcare, I've got bad news - what the government covers has always been a political popularity contest. Just ask the parents of autistic kids. As costs mount and governments push privatization, that's only going to get worse.

MgS said...

The Oxford English Dictionary is such an authoritative reference on matters like human development. /sarcasm In essence, you're making an essentialist argument that more or less asserts that chromosomes and primary sex characteristics _AT_BIRTH_ are all that matter. Human development isn't that simple, and the "but they're male" argument completely disregards a myriad of factors that are actually at play. The problem with so much of the anti argument here is that it completely disregards matters like when the person started GAHT, how much effect it had on the person, etc.

The human body is a set of very complex interacting systems. Singular measures like lean muscle mass don't tell the story on athletic performance, and just about every study on the matter that I have read acknowledges the profound limitations of their work (and it's quite a few - but I'm not going to publish a literature review in the comments).

I'm going to put aside your commentary about how "dangerous" trans women are as athletes for now because you have clearly ignored the nuances of my statements on the matter previously. Trans people have been competing in athletics for years, and what it took was one trans woman winning ONE swimming competition for you people to lose your shit. If those advantages were so damned huge in sport, then why aren't trans people absolutely dominating at the podium? The advocacy for transgender competitors in sport was going on long before Lia Thomas happened, and it was based on the available science at the time.

Elite level sports competition isn't the same thing as community level, and as I argued a blanket ban on transgender competitors at all levels is simply wrong when we look at the other aspects of sports policy. Nuance matters - policy has more than singular goals, and we have to encompass those goals without playing silly games like "separate but equal" - which won't work.

What I think is that a small group of radicalized people have bought into the latest "moral panic", and have decided that they're going to do everything in their power to misinform and attack a small minority of people. You arguing in effect to shove transgender women out of sport at all levels is but one example of a much larger political movement that bears a frightening similarity to what Nazi Germany did in the 1930s.

Lastly, I challenge you to consider the level of body policing that you are going to unleash on ALL women as a result of this panic.

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