In October 2018, Canadian associate professor of philosophy, activist and professional cyclist Dr. Rachel McKinnon won the UCI Masters World Track Cycling Championship in the Women’s Sprint 35-44 age bracket. Her victory marked her the first transgender woman athlete to hold a world title in track cycling. In spite of a long history of the presence of trans and intersex people in competitive sports, public discourse continues to be riddled with a confused sensationalism and fear-mongering over the alleged encroachment on the hard-won women’s spaces in athletics. Over the course of her career as an academic, activist and athlete, Rachel has done remarkable work to further awareness of trans rights in sports.
There was a lot of controversy around you last year on Twitter. It seemed to have been stirred primarily by cis women athletes competing with you in the same category. What were their objections? Do you think any of them were reasonable at all?
The short answer is no. I think it’s very important to frame these objections as only two athletes out of the entire field. They just get all the attention. The history of the event is often not properly reported. On that Wednesday, our first competition was the 500m time trial. I came fourth, Sarah Fader won and Jen Wagner came third. Both of those women beat me in the first event.
In the sprint event, which is the only other event that I do, they try to run the qualifying slowest to fastest. They put me sort of in the middle, so I didn’t have an awesome qualifying, I had gone much faster in the summer outdoors. I didn’t ride a really awesome time for me but it still broke the master’s world record. That record stood for all of 10 minutes and then Fader, who won the 500m time trial, beat it. She rebroke the record, so she currently holds it, which means she qualified first.
She beat me both times and then she withdrew from the sprint competition in protest over me being trans, claiming it’s not fair. When you ask me if it’s at all reasonable, that’s a big no. Jen Wagner came third at the 500m TT, beating me, and then she came third at the sprint competition that I won. Up until the sprint tournament, she beat me 10 of 12 times. The sprint tournament was the third time I won out of 13 competitions with her. Again, it’s really hard to say that someone who wins less than a quarter of the time has an unfair advantage.
Competitive sports have traditionally been a masculine domain. Women fought long and hard to create a space for themselves within it. Would you say that what we are witnessing is an irrational fear that this space is being taken away from them?
That is a primary worry and an irrational fear of trans women is the dictionary definition of transphobia, which seems to be very specific to trans women. So when you ask me what’s behind it… it’s this. The term we have for that is transmisogyny.
What does transmisogyny entail?
One of the things it often involves, for example, is an active forgetting that there are also successful non-binary or trans male athletes. We have to remember that the single most commercially successful trans athlete is a man – it’s Chris Mosier. He’s had Nike ad campaigns during the Rio 2016 Olympics. It’s not even close comparing me to him in terms of corporate sponsorship and promotion. In 2018, Rolling Stone published a feature on Patricio Manuel. This obsessive focus only on trans women matters.
The heavy objectification of our bodies and dissecting of our anatomy is something both cis and trans women face. In a sick way it’s an affirmation that we really are women because we only do these things to women. It’s a combination of transmisogyny but also very basic sexism. The idea that women are weaker, smaller, less aggressive, all these false beliefs we also apply to cis women athletes and they’re specifically then used against lesbian athletes.
Public discourse has tended to fixate obsessively on testosterone levels as an argument against the participation of trans women in women’s categories being “fair”. What are the merits of this assumption?
The idea that trans women inherently have higher testosterone levels and that this gives them a competitive edge is both empirically false and irrelevant to the question of trans athlete rights. Firstly, the logic is completely upside down, even if it were the case. There are a long list of other physical characteristics that confer comparatively much larger advantages than testosterone, such as being tall in volleyball, or being short in gymnastics. The idea that trans women have ‘muscle memory’ that allows them to ‘remember’ pre-transition endogenous testosterone, which is also something we often hear, is also not supported by science.
Were testosterone levels in male athletes ever an issue, either on an institutional level or in public discourse??
Never. The way the regulations work is that it only exists for women. It primarily makes 3 mistakes. First and biggest one – it’s actually irrelevant to the human rights argument. Second, it falsely believes that men and women are fundamentally different in terms of their physiological characteristics such as that all women have much lower testosterone than all men.
Even the way that we speak about sex hormones is biased and contributes to this misconception. We talk about testosterone as the male hormone and estrogen as the female hormone when every single human has both to varying degrees or in varying concentrations.
We believe that the population graphs don’t overlap but they do, quite significantly. So in one study of nearly 700 elite athletes about ¼ of the men are below 10nanomol per liter, the current IOC policy. So that’s the number they set as the highest the women can compete in but a quarter of elite male athletes are naturally below that number. In the same study, 6.5% are naturally below the newly proposed 5nanomol per liter number.
Then the third problem is that all the data that we have, including the study the IAAF uses, found no relationship in men at all between natural, endogenous testosterone and performance.
When people think of testosterone and sport performance, they’re thinking about exogenous testosterone which is the stuff we add to our body, which is doping. We know clearly that if you add testosterone to your body above your normal level your performance probably goes up. But that’s not true of natural internal testosterone. An elite man with 30nanomols per liter is statistically no bigger, stronger, faster than a man with 3nanomols.
This one study from Stephané Bermon and Pierre Yves Garnier (2018) that everyone likes to quote claims to have found a relationship between testosterone and performance in women in a very select few events and it doesn’t even mention that there were more events that found a disadvantage.
We often tend to think of sports as apolitical or non-partisan, of a space that is “fair”. What that translates into for most people is a “level playing field”. In one of your lectures, you talk about intuitive and philosophical views of fairness. Could you elaborate on that?
There is no such thing as a “level playing field” in sports. Some people have responded to that arguing that there is no fairness in sport. I don’t really agree with that and I think that inherent competitive advantages are part of fairness. The whole point of training is to get an advantage.
My sponsors, for example, are some of the very best in the world. I only work with companies who make high quality, world class race equipment. I fired a coach and started working with a different one and then I hired another one on top of that and did training camps with other coaches to get an advantage. My training, my travel, my nutrition—I have a nutritionist who has a PhD—are all attempts to get an advantage. Sport is structured this way. So you either have to say there is no fairness or include advantage in your definition of fairness which is what I do. Obviously then, fairness can’t mean an equal chance of winning.
Sports is a human right to compete, but not a right to win. There’s no human right to have an equal chance at winning. I don’t think fairness requires that either. I think those are the two biggest misconceptions about what fairness is and neither of them work.
How is fairness framed in philosophical debates on fairness in sports?
Whenever someone says ‘here’s what fairness is’ as a trained philosopher, I think does this work, are there counterexamples based on real examples not thought experiments?
John Rawls titled his work Justice as Fairness (1985), and his definition of justice was fairness. In my academic work when I looked at what philosophers say about fairness in sport, they all appeal to Rawls and then they just fuck it all up because they use everything except the veil of ignorance, a crucial part of his understanding of justice. Putting the veil of ignorance back in the equation, what I think we get in terms of sport policy is trans inclusion. I don’t think that behind the veil of ignorance, someone who could be trans would create a trans-exclusionary policy.
Ok, let’s look at a specific example. In the state of Texas, state laws only allow athletes to compete in the gender categories they were assigned at birth. In 2017, trans male high school wrestler Mack Beggs was criticized for undergoing hormonal therapy (exogenous testosterone) while competing in the women’s category after winning the Texas girls‘ 110 lb championship. Does undergoing hormone therapy while competing qualify as doping?
First, it’s been hilarious to a degree to see him included in images of all trans women athletes and used as an argument against trans women. I think people wrongly think that he’s a trans woman so they thought, like, this guy who looks like a guy is competing with girls and he’s a trans woman and it’s unfair. He did not want to compete with the girls, the girls did not want him to compete with the girls. His parents, coaches, nobody wanted him to compete with the girls. But this regressive state law required it. I’m happy to report he’s now in college wrestling on the men’s team where he belongs.
It was a law that forced a situation that nobody wanted. Standard medical transition related care for trans men is to take exogenous testosterone but trans men can apply and always receive what we call a therapeutic use exemption, TUE. You apply to a sports governing body (usually the athlete’s national anti-doping association). Then your doctors explain why you need this and then the association decides whether or not to grant you the exemption. He has an exemption. So yes, he’s taking exogenous testosterone but it’s wrong to call it doping because he has a TUE for it and it’s a standard part of trans men’s treatment.
I think that people who were complaining and saying he’s doping are still assuming that he’s a trans woman competing against women. They don’t tend to be saying that he’s doping in an unfair way against cis men.
Is testosterone the only physical characteristic for which we deem some people ineligible to compete in women’s categories?
It’s the only one and that matters to why it can’t be justified — it’s the only one. Because other natural physical characteristics such as height or weight offer much larger advantages than testosterone.
There’s an infographic I put on twitter which looks at the height of the 2016 Olympic high jump final for the women. The average height for the podium was almost 6’’2’, and the tallest person in the event was over 6’’3’ and she won. The tenth-place person was 5’’5’. You have this 10-inch difference between first and tenth in a sport that massively selects for height and tall people to the degree that a tall person has a much larger advantage than anyone is attributing to testosterone. If that’s true and you don’t regulate height and you do regulate testosterone it can’t possibly be justified in the human rights framework.
I feel like I learned a lot from watching your lecture, “Including Trans Women Athletes in Sport” that you have at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in July 2018. At one point, you talked about how gender is determined differently across different legal or national jurisdictions. It follows that athletes coming from LGBTQ hostile countries are a priori excluded from participation. This is incongruous with the International Olympic Committee charter framing the practice of sports as a human right. Has the IOC, to your knowledge, taken any steps to address this?
The landscape of sports right now is changing rapidly and unfortunately in really unpredictable ways. The IOC just don’t care. I gave an updated version of that lecture in February this year in Victoria and even from then it’s been updated. It’s so hard to do this work because everything keeps changing. In a landmark 2015 CAS decision about intersex female runner Dutee Chand, the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) decided that an athlete’s sex is a matter of legal recognition. In the case of inter-sex runner Semenya they said no, an athlete’s sex is not a matter of legal recognition, it is a matter of chromosomes plus testosterone.
The problem is that the court ruled that there needs to be a way to determine an athlete’s sex irrespective of their legal recognized sex. This is the literal opposite of what they said in Chand. The president of the arbitration panel was the same in both cases, Annabelle Bennett.
It’s bizarre to see the court within a few years of each other with the same panel president in both cases engage in opposite reasoning on issues such as whether your competition sex is your legally recognized sex.
Since the most recent decision said “no, we don’t care what your legally recognized sex is, we’re going to use this biological marker”, I think the IOC was really waiting for the Semenya decision because I think they really agree with the IAAF.
So which human rights codes is the IAAF subject to?
The IAAF tried to argue that they are not subject to any national or international human rights codes because they are a stateless governing body that answers to no one. That’s legally speaking absolutely false. They are held to account to the human rights codes of every country that they hold an event in.
In short, governments try to leave sports alone in some really problematic ways.
Given the discrepancies between human rights enshrined in the IOC charter and actual institutional politics on this, would you say the human rights framework is useful at all then?
It’s kind of all that matters. The legal structure of sports is such that the IOC charter is like national constitution, it’s meant to be a governing legal document and the IOC has to be held accountable to its own charter. When you go to CAS or a normal actual court, that’s the thing that you point to as part of your argument to win your case. They have their own constitutions that they have to be accountable for. They all say that sport is a human right and the IOC is the clearest of all when it says literally to quote – participation in sport is a human right.
Intuitively, people will sometimes suggest creating a third, trans, category. You’ve argued against that in your work. Could you briefly explain it?
If we’re creating a trans category, are you only going to have trans women and trans men competing against each other? If anyone says to create a trans category, they haven’t thought it through. It’s nonsensical.
Let’s be more charitable and say there are cis women and trans women, and cis men and trans men and we want all these different categories. There are a few reasons why that should never happen. The first is, in many legal jurisdictions, particularly in the US, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation is inherently unjust. You can’t separate trans women from cis women, they can’t compete as “other” legally recognized women. That is inherently unjust. In the states, it’s illegal.
You have to be able to show there’s sufficient difference between the groups to separate them and my work is on how that doesn’t happen. That’s the first part, that’s the ethical consideration.
Then there’s a practical consideration. Who the fuck am I going to race? There’s no other trans woman on my level. By creating a trans only category you’re denying me competition. If sport is a human right then you’re actively excluding me from that right. Trans athletes are so few and far in between that there is no trans track cyclist on my level.
Is it meaningful at all to segregate athletes into men and women, then?
The way I respond to that is why are we asking this in response to whether we should include trans women as women? I think it’s a legitimate question but it’s unfair to ask it for this issue. It’s suggesting that we completely change how we do sports just because you can’t solve the trans women inclusion issue. Just include us and the problem is gone.
I get asked this often and my answer to it is given that we still live and exist in heavily patriarchal societies that treat girls and boys differently from before birth, this is a reason to keep sex-segregated sport. There are studies on how we treat mothers of expected girls and boys and the way we play with girls and boys and toddlers is different in ways that often make a difference in physical performance, we don’t give girls baseball gloves and bats but we do to boys.
The very concept of throwing like a girl is a social construct created by how we treat boys and girls differently. Given that we still live that is why it’s a good argument to keep sports sex segregated and it’s a worthwhile conversation to have but fully separate from this issue of trans athletes.
You have argued that self-identification of an athlete is the only legitimate way to their gender should be recognized. Why?
There are a few reasons. The first reason is again in this legal patchwork. If sport is supposed to, for athletic purposes, respect your legally recognized sex then we’ve got an issue that we’ve raised before: if you just happen out of luck to be born in a progressive country, you get to compete as a trans person, whereas someone else doesn’t and that’s inherently unfair. A solution to that is the international sports bodies could extend legal sex recognition for the purposes of sport to someone who can’t get it in their home country. That would be the fair solution.
I’m Canadian and I think Canada may be the most progressive nation in the world on this issue. Birth certificates are provincial, not federal. In the province that I’m from (British Columbia), you do not need any hormone therapy or genital surgery to be legally recognized as the sex that you are. Canadian sport is now officially under a policy of self-identification. Hockey Canada, Cycling Canada all these national sport federations are really explicit about this.
Some people have worries about that – won’t there be fraud or unfairness? Well, we also happen to live in a deeply transphobic society and the social and economic costs of being trans are so high that there hasn’t been a single case of gender identity fraud in sport. I think we should really trust athletes to know which category they best belong to. By and large, the overwhelming number of athletes are interested in fair competition and are not interested in obtaining some kind of unfair advantage just by gaining the gender identity system.
Some countries already have basically self-identification policies and for the 2016 and 2018 Olympics they had their new policy which didn’t require genital surgery, just the hormone therapy and because a quarter of male athletes are naturally below that 10nanomol number, unscrupulous countries could have already given a birth certificate for men as female and then you throw them in the Olympics as female, that’s already been possible over a summer and winter Olympics, we’re talking about 12000 athletes and how many cases of gender fraud were there? None.
Do you think that public perception of trans participation in competitive sports in the US has changed for the better in recent decades at all?
It is undeniable that in the past 40 years trans rights have massively advanced. They have massively advanced within just the past 5 or 6 years. The march of trans rights has been accelerating which is always exciting. We still lag behind other LGBQ rights. There’s marriage equality in the US and a lot of people thought that the fight’s over. And then all trans people were like no. So we started a hashtag called more than marriage because LGBTQ rights is more than just marriage rights. I think it’s true that any time a heavily marginalized group has advanced their civil rights, there comes a moment in time of intense pushback and opposition. We’ve seen this over and over.
I think we’re at a moment of pushback for trans rights and it’s a dark place to be, it feels hopeless to a lot of trans people because for the past few years they’ve been excited that things are getting different and you see it, it’s getting better. The Trump administration is actively stripping away trans rights banning us from the military and so you just feel like it’s never going to get better but it will eventually. I mean it gets better with work and activism; it doesn’t just get better by itself. I think we will get past this and it’s just a momentary but damaging setback. People are dying because of this setback, and people are being harmed because of it but I do think it’s temporary.
As an activist, what do you think are the most effective strategies of resistance? What works best?
I don’t think anything works best. There are multiple effective strategies and especially some people are just better suited to engage in some strategies than others. There are people who have saintly patience in order to sit down and talk to a raging transphobe and with empathy try change their mind. I cannot do that; I am so bad at that. As I’ve developed severe PTSD I actually physically can’t do that anymore. So, what you see is me doing is presenting data and arguments but not responding to people. That’s why I do so much media, it’s what I’m good at and I can contribute.
Here’s how I put this to my friends: I give zero fucks about who anyone is in terms of if they say something shitty, I don’t care who they are I will call them out. This is what happened with Martina Navratilova, I don’t care how famous you are, if you say something shitty, I’m going to say so. I never even responded to her, I just retweeted her and said well I guess Navratilova is a transphobe, which I still stand by. I think it’s further evidenced by all her behavior. I don’t think famous people expect that, I think they expect deference and a certain level of care like being handled with kid gloves. I never do that; I’ve become this sort of lightning rod for ‘oh my god look how bad Rachel is.’
I have such stable employment for example. In the US the median household income for trans women is 10,000$, and that is household income. The household income is way below the poverty line over here and I make many times that in a job that is very hard to lose because I have tenure and academic freedom. I have all this social privilege and power and this is a very useful way to use that is to stand up to literally anyone. I don’t give a shit who you are and I think that’s a powerful tool for someone like me that other people can’t use.