Trans-sport: Wrestling with fairness

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A 2-time state wrestling champ wanted to compete in the boys’ division, but he was only allowed to compete in the girls' division. What's fair when transgender athletes compete at elite levels? I'm still not sure.

When it comes to transgender issues, I’m firmly at the tolerant, liberal end of the spectrum, and it didn’t take a bunch of persuasion and soul-searching to get there. I’ve had to update my understanding here and there, like not learning until the last decade or so that “transgender” didn’t always include a desire to “have the surgery” to match, but there was never a time when I thought someone whose gender identity didn’t match their sex organs was less than fully human, or that they should be treated with contempt, anger, or fear.

For everyday issues like what bathroom someone uses, what gender is listed on a driver’s license, or how someone identifies in everyday life, I think everyone should be free to live how they want, without backlash or obstacles. I think (or at least hope) that’s mostly the way it is, because until and unless there’s a sexual relationship involved, it’s not as obvious as people think. People tend to picture Tim Curry in Rocky Horror, but when I’ve seen pictures or video of “out” transgendered people, I’d usually have no clue if they weren’t talking about it. Except for a couple people online, I couldn’t even say if I know any transgender people in my personal life – maybe, but none have told me and I don’t think my “transdar” is that good. Based on my online exposure to everyday trans* people going about their every day lives, I’ve seen many that I’d have no idea were transgender if that weren’t the topic.

That is all preamble to hopefully lessen the reflexive scorn when I admit…I don’t know what “fair” is or should be when it comes to transgender competitors in sports. I think it’s a non-issue for recreational or low-level competition because I expect most to blend with the average talent range like anyone else. However, as the competition reaches elite levels like state or national titles, or pro competition, I think the competitive imbalance of mixed gender competition is too much to ignore. Most of the time, I expect that advantage to favor biological males competing against biological females. Even after hormone therapy, I would expect M2F weightlifters, for example, to have an unfair advantage over their cis-female competitors – at the elite levels.  (Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t know.) I don’t think transgender people should be denied the mental, physical, and social benefits of competing, but even if it’s not intentional “cheating”, what’s to be done to keep things fair?

Vocabulary

The best vocabulary to use about trans* issues is hotly debated. I’m not an authority on it, but if you don’t recognize some of the vocabulary here, here’s the way I’m using some terms, with no disparagement intended:

trans*/transgender – Born with the chromosomes or anatomy of one sex, but identify as the other, whether they opt for surgical re-assignment or not.

M2F – Born anatomically male, identify as female

cis- The prefix for when gender identity corresponds to birth sex. 

F2M – Born anatomically female, identify as male.

Dr. Frank N Furter stereotype image, next to photo of Mack Beggs, real-life transgender high school wrestler What brought this to mind today was a story I read about high school wrestler, Mack Beggs, who just won his second consecutive Texas wrestling title…in a girls division. The video clip shows a depressing shower of boos disapproving his victory, and some disgusted grimaces and shouts of “Cheater!”, all of which I find reprehensible.[/caption]

If you click through the linked article and watch the video of this kid, you will see a kick-ass kid who worked hard to accomplish what he did. If not for the twist that makes this a notable story (he’s a F2M transgender boy, on hormone therapy), you would just see a boy who wrestles, not a “girl who’s confused and thinks she’s a boy” or even, “used to be a girl”.

Dr. Frank N Furter stereotype image, next to photo of Mack Beggs, real-life transgender high school wrestler
If you think transgender people stand out like Dr. Frank-N-Furter, you're wrong.

He didn’t want to wrestle the girls, and it sounds like most of the girls he wrestled didn’t want him in that division, either, but his choice was to wrestle that division, or not at all. So, he wrestled and won two state titles. The part of me that wants a level playing field thinks that this boy benefited from testosterone that his opponents would not be allowed, and that’s unfair. On the human level, though, he tried to do the right thing and was blocked by the governing body, so I blame them, not him.

If he had been allowed to compete against the boys, I doubt he would have had undefeated seasons and won consecutive state titles. Unless he outed himself or was outed somehow, I think he would have passed as male under those circumstances and been a better wrestler than some and not as good as others – but unlikely to have been elite. The only F2M competitive advantage I think is likely to even be noticeable is the kind of situation he was in, where he was forced to compete against girls.

I’m more conflicted about M2F competitive scenarios. Let’s say Bruce Jenner, male decathlete, had transitioned to Caitlin right after his gold medal and wanted to continue competing. I doubt she’d still be a match for the men after hormone therapy (and reassignment, if she chose that), but I don’t think she’d be a fair match to women, either. I don’t think there’s a huge risk of men faking transgenderism to get a competitive edge, but when the stakes and rewards are high, competitors have been known to cheat or otherwise take extreme measures to have a shot at the top. Besides the prestige, there is often big money at stake. Whether completely authentic or gaming the system, though, I can’t shake the feeling that M2F athletes would have an unfair advantage at elite levels. I don’t have a problem with Mack Beggs or kids like him being allowed to wrestle boys, but I do with forcing them into the girls division, or if M2F wrestlers were allowed (or forced) to wrestle girls. I feel like they should have someone to wrestle, too, but I don’t know who that is. Acknowledgement and acceptance of trans* people is on the rise, which I think is a positive thing, but it’s still rare enough I can’t imagine every permutation having it’s own division and having enough competitors in them for “elite” to even mean anything. Besides which, I think such divisions would suffer from stigma, like if the traditional divisions based on a gender binary were further divided by sexual orientation. I think there are legitimate biological reasons that categorizing trans athletes in binary divisions is complicated, but I also think divisions based on transgenderism would easily devolve into mere discrimination, and the increase in bigotry would be more noticeable than any increase in fairness.

On the bright side, my transbivalence about athletic competition at the highest levels is a pretty narrow concern. For everyday stuff concerning rights, freedoms, and what bathroom someone can use, I don’t find it difficult at all to be in favor of trans people being treated with the same dignity and respect as anyone else. There’s more “Macks” among us than most people realize. I find that reassuring, not disturbing.

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