The Senate Judiciary Committee recently convened for a “Protecting Pride” hearing relating to the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, one which I had the opportunity to witness firsthand. To an observer, though, it seemed as if there were two distinct hearings. While Democratic senators widely discussed discrimination against trans individuals, inviting multiple qualified witnesses to discuss the legal barriers placed in front of trans-Americans, especially trans minors, Republican senators seemed far more concerned with the experiences of Riley Gaines. Gaines was an NCAA University of Kentucky swimmer who lost a race to Lia Thomas, a trans woman. While this sort of discussion is hardly new within our political discourse, what most intrigued me was the rhetoric employed by Gaines and indulged in by the Republican senators and what her invocation of feminist ideals more broadly represents.
Riley Gaines defines feminism, wildly incorrectly
Gaines’ framing of the issue of trans athletes was not solely the generic tack towards “athletic fairness,” or the belief that it is inherently unfair to not separate sports by biological sex, though this belief will be addressed later on here. Instead, Gaines employed rhetoric that feminists will undoubtedly be familiar with. She broadly claimed that the dissolution of female-only spaces – such as the swim locker room, bathroom, and sororities – directly violates the right to privacy, and then affirmed her total commitment to women’s rights, safety, and security. To describe her beliefs in her own words, she simply said the following: “females should not be asked to step aside and make room for male-bodied individuals no matter how they identify. Defending women’s rights is not anti-anyone.” Questioning later from Sens. Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz saw her refer to herself as a feminist for this advocacy, and that simply vocalized what was already all but stated. On the face of it, this seems to be something a reasonable feminist could nod along to. It doesn’t seem to be about denying anyone rights, just ensuring that the rights of one group don’t infringe on the rights of another to create a nice balance of equality. This framing has seemingly paid dividends within the public, with 69% indicating that biological sex should decide athletic competition in a May 2023 Gallup poll. However, this sort of rhetoric and indeed this entire debate surrounding trans athletes is not only a Trojan horse for transphobia but also rooted in deeply misogynistic assumptions.
What actual experts have to say
Now, before addressing the nature of the argument, it is worth noting the actual medical authority’s muddled nature. At the very same hearing, Dr. Ximena Lopez, a witness called by the Senate Judiciary Committee with a background in pediatric medicine and especially transition care, cited that the authoritative body on such competition, the International Federation of Sports Medicine, recommends athletes compete within their preferred gender due to the wealth of medical research showing no harm in their inclusion. A small number of international sports bodies have, however, found that undergoing male puberty provides a distinct physical advantage and have distinguished between trans athletes and those who transitioned post-puberty, advocating for a third “open” category for the summer Olympics. This has primarily related to swimming and track/field events. But this only aids in engaging with the core claim made and does nothing to understand its purpose or why its claim to feminism is disingenuous.
The anti-trans bigots disguised as feminists
Many who make claims about women’s sports claim the support of feminist groups.
For example, this past April the New York Post, the fourth-largest daily newspaper in the US by distribution and one that tends to skew conservative, made this very claim about a Republican bill to ban trans women from women’s sports. The two groups they cited as the major feminist organizations supporting the bill were the Women’s Liberation Front and the Women’s Declaration International USA, and upon further research both groups have a very unique definition of advocating for women. The former puts “abolishing gender ideology” as its top issue, defends “sex-segregated spaces,” and has been labeled as aiding and abetting anti-trans hate groups in an article by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The latter, the American arm of a British organization, has a similar focus towards sex fundamentalism and hostility towards trans people. Its founders, Sheila Jeffreys and Heather Brunskell-Evans, have previously referred to trans people as “parasitically occupying” women’s bodies and been fired from the Women’s Equality Party for calling accepting parents of trans children “abusive” respectively. In short, the groups cited as feminist backers for anti-trans legislation are not what typically comes to mind when one describes a group as feminist advocates.
Being a “feminist” bigot empowers anti-feminist bigots
To be clear, bigotry is inherently anti-feminist, and attempting to reconcile bigotry with supposed feminism does much more harm than good. Instead, they’re heavily focused on similar transphobic policy objectives, and what Heron Greenesmith commented to the Southern Poverty Law Center describes the impact of this better than I could: “Anti-trans feminist groups like the Women’s Liberation Front and associations of anti-trans medical professionals like the Society for Ethical Gender Medicine, and groups of anti-trans parents like the Kelsey Coalition give Christian Right mis- and disinformation a veneer of legitimacy that contradicts the global medical consensus.” It simply gives those voices who have expressed previous hostility to trans people and sympathy towards transphobic figures, such as the New York Post, cover to pretend they’re fighting for progressive causes while they amplify regressive ideas. Those arguing that they’re defending women by doing this tend to voice fairly hostile opinions towards feminists too, such as once again the New York Post. Instead of simply trying to reject any push towards trans equality outright, this specific debate attempts to portray the rights of trans people as incompatible with the rights of women with the hopes that more people are going to argue to protect women than they will to protect trans people. It is not a serious feminist argument, but rather a dishonest appropriation of advocacy for women in the hopes of convincing feminists to aid them in furthering oppression lower on the social ladder.
Even on their own terms, transphobes are flatly wrong
Despite the dubious faith this argument is made in, we will be indulging in its premise of biological sex. Riley Gaines cited that, pre-transition, Lia Thomas was nowhere near as competitive in the men’s division as she was in the women’s division as proof that a trans athlete was inherently advantaged. This does not even say that, if Thomas and Gaines had all things equal aside from the biological traits associated with XX and XY chromosomes, Thomas would inherently win due to possessing the latter. Gaines discussed how hard she worked and contrasted it with implications that Thomas chose to identify as a woman for a competitive edge. Setting aside the absurdities of upending one’s entire life for an NCAA career, this also implies that even such a well-trained woman like Gaines could never beat a supposedly-lesser biological male. It implies that an untrained man has such a physical advantage over even the best-trained woman that it’s not worth a woman even trying. While well-documented studies do show that different kinds of puberty do lead to physical advantages, the assumption pushed by Gaines and others like her when it comes to natural male ability – crucially, even over any form of training and practice by women – is about the most misogynistic one can truly get while still claiming to advocate for women. To me, it’s reminiscent of the poll that 1 in 8 men believe they could win a set against Serena Williams. Can you imagine every eighth man you know being a suitable match for one of the greatest tennis players of all time? Biological puberty may lead to physical changes that cause some advantages, but it does not give you that kind of overwhelming benefit, no matter what men may wrongly think and the women who enable this narrative push.
Biology isn’t actually a simple binary
Furthermore, it is worth noting that biological sex traits are not a simple binary. Having a Y chromosome doesn’t necessarily pump you full of testosterone and two X’s full of estrogen. Sexual dimorphism, or the distinctions in sex characteristics, has a wealth of research indicating it exists more on a bell curve than it does sort people into binding categories. This is best represented by athletics once again, where South African Olympic runner Caster Semenya, a cisgender woman possessing two X chromosomes, was barred from competing in the women’s division due to her high testosterone levels. She was on no steroids, nor was she transitioning, nor did she do anything other than exist as her normal self. She simply has naturally high levels of testosterone that, despite her being a cisgender woman, flag her under the hormone-based rules regime. While extreme examples of highly physiologically masculine individuals and highly physiologically feminine individuals exist, the vast majority of humans are below the 99th percentile those individuals are in. This makes the entire process of athletic gender separation far murkier. It falls apart further upon the inclusion of trans men, like professional boxer Patricio Manuel, who’s picked up his first career win – in a career of only three fights to date – against a cisgender opponent. Clearly Manuel’s lack of a Y chromosome did not stop him from emerging victorious or even being competitive against a cisgender opponent.
Even the premise of biological advantage is misleading!
Accepting Gaines’ premise of biology, despite the misogyny inherent to the argument she makes. If we are to consider biological sexes as comparing apples and oranges due to differing testosterone and estrogen levels, I will leave you with this. One of the greatest swimmers of all time, Michael Phelps, comes to mind. Phelps is 6’4”, double-jointed in all four limbs, has slight webbing on his disproportionately large hands and feet, and even has a biological quirk where his body generates significantly less lactic acid, causing him to experience much less fatigue for the same amount of physical effort. In short, Michael Phelps has inherent biological advantages that other swimmers at his level may not. Instead of calling for his head for being such an inherently unfair opponent due to his biology, he’s been celebrated, with 28 Olympic medals won over his career. This is not to demean Phelps’ accomplishments, as there are plenty of people with similar biological advantages who aren’t renowned Olympians or even varsity athletes for their high school. Phelps put in the hard work to get to that level, same as anyone else who’s ever competed at such a dizzying height. Likewise, Lia Thomas put the work in to reach the NCAA level, and biological sex notwithstanding she and all our other trans athletes have earned what they’ve won.
What should we take from this as feminists?
If one thing should be rather clear, it’s that none of this is clear whatsoever. There is no truly right answer, no definition that solves everything perfectly. While there may be an inkling of an argument related to male puberty, attempts at defining standards for competition quickly lead to further exclusion and harm towards women, such as in the case of Caster Semenya. Biological advantage has no broad definition and is based on a variety of factors, the least of which is simple XX or XY chromosomes. But this nuance is quickly swept aside in the public debate. Anti-trans propaganda defines the discussion in comically simplistic terms: women will lose their rights if trans people are given theirs, and any hope of finding an accommodation is quickly lost in the attempts to put people – especially women – in boxes. If we are to find true equality for people of all genders, it will not be on the terms of bad-faith actors like Gaines and the people who platform, endorse, and repeat such rhetoric. There will never be this equality so long as we indulge petty attempts to divide our movement, misinform people, and provoke bigotry.
Joseph O’Brien, Chapters Intern