Is There a Work-Around for Sports to Avoid Gender Discrimination?

A Biden administration proposal would prohibit “blanket” bans of transgender athletes from participating in sports when their gender identity differs from programs’ prior sex-based classification.  The proposal renews the headlines’ focus on gender and sports issues. 

Blanket exclusions of transgender women from women’s sports or transgender men from men’s sports does, in fact, deny a person’s ability to embody their chosen identity if it conflicts with the traditional norms.  As such there is an apparent denial of that person’s right to the pursuit of happiness.  Pursuit is a right that is enshrined in America’s founding creed, stated in the Declaration of Independence.

That creed does also see a need for government, by consent of the governed, to secure rights.  There is a civic standard implied in the acknowledgement that governments have a role in society.  Any determination of consent of the governed requires at least a tacit social contract among the governed – and government of any sort will impose some constraints on some people.  

Thus there is debate about the appropriateness, mostly of transgender males participating in women’s sports.  Disagreements may involve community standards and traditional or religious tenets, but in sports there are purely secular questions that come into play – fairness of competition, and safety.  The former has been highlighted by Lia Thomas, a transgender woman who won an NCAA swimming championship; the latter was cited by World Rugby’s exclusion of transgender women from women’s competition.  The Biden proposal does allow for sport-specific exclusions on grounds of this genre. 

One question, asked here specifically in the context of sports, is: what if, instead of “men’s,” we were to say “XY” sports, and instead of “women’s,” we said “XX” sports?   Is it specifically the designation of sports as “men’s” or “women’s” that denies a transgender person’s right to their chosen identity?  

The new definitions would allow sports administrators to address safety and fairness issues.  Generally, the prototypical “XX” persons have, for instance, lower muscle mass that “XY” persons.  Thus an “XY” person would generically be expect to run faster or jump higher than an “XX.”   The XY would likely hit harder in a contact sport. 

Re-labelling the distinctions, meanwhile, would excise gender language from the sports so designated.  Limiting such designations to sports where such considerations actually affect outcomes or safety would further cut implied reference to gender.  If “XX” and “XY” are too reminiscent of “women” and “men,” other terms could be used.  The new designations would define sports by competitive factors that may or may not correspond to sex. 

Would this change satisfy both arguments?

One objection might be that there are muscle mass and other physical variations within each traditional sex.  A very small and slight boy, for instance, would historically have been steered away from contact sports.  A very strong woman would have a natural physical advantage over average women and could be expected to perform better in certain sports.

Perhaps the concept of defining sports eligibility by physical measures relevant to the competition, instead of genetic differences, would be an answer.  Wrestling and boxing have always been organized by weight class.  Devising more comprehensive measures, tailored to the sport in question, would allow balanced competition with no reference at all to gender.

Of course this latter method would be complex and perhaps might be subject to change as we discover more things about any given sport and its dynamics, and perhaps biology as well.  No system will be perfect. And the effort in this post is not to prescribe particular ideas, but to clarify the issue.

Do current definitions of sports deny transgender persons’ rights because they would enforce assignment of a certain sexual label to the transgender person, or because that person feels it their right to participate in sports with “women” or “men” based on her/his self-identification?

Conversely, do “women’s” and “men’s” designations of various sports denote some essential element of those sports, or are they essentially distinctions to ensure fairness and safety?

Would answers to these questions satisfy all concerns for sports?  


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