Diversity and Speech Part 19: The Gendered Sports Dilemma – by Carlos E. Cortés

The theme for this month’s edition: what gender related issues should be addressed and how can they evolve productively?  Let’s up the ante.  What gender related issues must be addressed?  Here’s one: transgender women in sports.

Oh that all equity conflicts could be resolved simply by mouthing diversity clichés.  Not this one.  With regard to this perplexing issue, two pro-diversity camps have gone to war.  Probable allies on most equity concerns, these two camps have dug in their heels, often engaging in hyper-accusatory rhetoric in what has become known as the TERF wars.

TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminists.  That term is used derogatorily by trans activists when referring to feminists who are perceived as not fully and unconditionally accepting trans women into their ranks.  Targets include TERF lesbians, revealing an LGBTQ split over this issue.   Athletics has become a major battleground.  Basically the issue is this.  Under what circumstances should trans women be able to compete in women’s athletics?  Immediately and unconditionally?  Incrementally with conditions?   This raises the question: is there an alternative path for resolving the tension between unconditional immediacy and conditional incrementalism?   

As I follow the TERF wars, I inevitably think back to the arduous journey of tennis player Renée Richards, a tall, hard-serving ophthalmologist who, in the mid-1970’s, burst onto the women’s professional circuit.  It turned out that a younger Richards had excelled in multiple sports as Richard Raskind before receiving hormone therapy and finally sex reassignment surgery at age 41.   When Richards announced plans to play professional women’s tennis, she became the target of vicious taunts and ugly humor.  The United States Tennis Association began requiring genetic screening for female players.  Richards had to win a court decision to be fully admitted to women’s professional competition.

Into the picture came all-time tennis great Martina Navratilova.  An astounding athlete and courageous equity pioneer, Navratilova was one of the first female athletes to come out as a lesbian.  She vigorously supported Richards and ultimately asked Richards to be her coach.  With Richards’ help, Navratilova won two Wimbledon titles and became the world’s No. 1 player.

Flash forward four decades.  In the past two years, Navratilova has waded into the discussion of trans female participation in women’s athletics.  With her traditional candor she has used such hot terms as “cheating”  in reference to those who had not undergone physical transitioning as had Richards.   Even Richards publicly offered that she could have dominated women’s tennis had she transitioned in her 20’s rather than more than a decade later, adding that this would not have been good for women’s tennis.   Because of her remarks, Navratilova became the target of trans criticism.

Navratilova and Richards are now part of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group.  Its stated goal is to come up with an ethical, science-based approach that both protects girls’ and women’s sports while accommodating transgender athletes.  However, trans activists continue to have legitimate concerns about the stigmatization and marginalization of trans athletes.    

Is a fully equitable solution possible?  I don’t know.  However, for diversity advocates to be able to address such complex and perplexing issues, they will need to commit themselves to constructive, non-vitriolic discussions.   All parties will have to listen to each other and consider alternative perspectives, not simply come to the table to defend their own positions and criticize the opposition.   

This brings me to the question: where do I stand on this issue?  Well, my position is in flux as I learn by weighing various perspectives.  But speaking as a father, grandfather, and new great-grandfather, here is my current thinking based on two hypothetical situations.

Let’s assume that one of my five grand-daughters has trained for years to become a modestly-achieving track athlete and has finally, barely made her high school relay team.  She has also talked to me about her friend Benjamin.  Today she comes home distraught because Benjamin has become Beverly and has bumped my hard-striving, physically-limited daughter from her relay spot.  While fully respecting Beverly’s sense of gender identity, I imagine that I would be upset because of the physical inequity in this situation.

Now reverse the circumstances.  Beverly, formerly Benjamin, is my daughter.  She comes home upset after being told that she absolutely cannot participate in the school’s women’s athletics.  I imagine that I would be upset with that rigid, arbitrary administrative exclusion.   These two personalized dilemmas suggest why my thinking is in flux.  At this point I simply have no definitive answer.  Spouting truisms about equity and inclusion will not suffice.

So where does that leave us?  Each day we learn more about the nuances of marginalization.  This include challenges that diversity advocates inevitably face when clashes of values complicate the quest for equity and inclusivity.  Words like social justice fit nicely on bumper stickers and T-shirts.  But the pursuit of social justice also involves dilemmas.  Justice for whom?  At whose expense?   

The issue of transgender women in sports is being fought out in the courts, athletic associations, school districts, and government entities.  President Biden’s Executive Order 13988 signed on inauguration day, January 20, 2021, states, “Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.”  The case of transgender female athletes may pose one of the ultimate tests for diversity advocates because it requires the difficult weighing of competing legitimate equity concerns, with no simple win-win solution in sight.

Image by Nicolas Hoizey – Unsplash   

See also Inclusive Sports by Martin Start

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés

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