Recently, transgender athletes have made news competing in women’s sports. In what is perhaps the most high-profile example, Laurel Hubbard, a natal male, has been selected to represent New Zealand in the women’s weightlifting competition at the Tokyo Olympics. Hubbard, 43, transitioned from male to female in 2012 at the age of 35. Prior to transitioning, Hubbard competed as a male weightlifter.
How much do you know about transgender athletes in women’s sports? Let’s play “Two Truths and a Lie” and find out. Can you identify which of the following statements is not true?
A. Without separate men’s and women’s sports, female athletes wouldn’t have the same athletic opportunities as men.
B. Federal law requires American schools to provide equal athletic opportunities for males and females.
C. Allowing transgender women to participate in women’s sports won’t negatively affect athletes who were born female.
Let’s take these statements one at a time:
A. TRUTH! Without separate teams for women and men, men would dominate women in competitive sports where strength, size, or speed are relevant factors. Physiologically, the average male is stronger, bigger, and faster than the average female. In fact, between elite males and elite females there is an average 10-12% performance gap. The gap is smaller between elite females and non-elite males, but, as Duke Law Professor Doriane Lambelet Coleman has noted, “it’s still insurmountable, and that’s ultimately what matters.”
B. TRUTH! Title IX prohibits schools that receive federal money from discriminating “on the basis of sex.” This non-discrimination statute applies to all aspects of the educational experience, including athletics. High schools, colleges, and universities that receive any federal money are required to “provide equal athletic opportunity for members of both sexes.” Federal regulations that enforce Title IX provide that schools “may operate or sponsor separate teams for members of each sex.” Given the competitive advantage that male athletes generally have over female athletes, Title IX plays an important role in leveling the proverbial “playing field.”
C. LIE! On average, female-bodied athletes who are forced to compete against male-bodied athletes face a significant disadvantage and are less likely to win competitions against such athletes. Moreover, for women’s athletic teams with limited roster spots, the inclusion of male-bodied athletes necessarily takes spots (and potentially scholarships) away from female-bodied athletes.
Bottom line: In the realm of athletics, biological sex differences matter. Women have fought long and hard for equal athletic opportunities. Ignoring the physiological differences between male-bodied athletes and female-bodied athletes will inevitably erode some of those gains.