Piers Morgan is wrong about transgender athletes
Everything that Piers Morgan and his ilk are so afraid of when considering trans athletes carries as much weight as a popped kernel of corn.
What is Piers Morgan really all about? Is it all hysterical tweets and petty on-screen spats, or is there method behind the madness? Perhaps a half-hearted leap for fame, some sort of narcissistic Katie-Hopkins-style career sustained by public frenzy. Or maybe he really does believe the answer to everything is a return to a previous century.
In either case, a 2019 article by Piers for the Daily Mail once again smacks of intolerance. In it, he responds to – and fully endorses – athlete Martina Navratilova’s claims that transgender women have an unfair advantage in sporting competitions. Writing in the Sunday Times, the tennis player argued: “A man can decide to be female […], win everything in sight and perhaps earn a fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating.”
Yes, she is genuinely concerned men might discard their own genitals as a ploy to secure medals. Naturally, social media hit back at this with fury. Navratilova was recognised as transphobic, blamed for fuelling hate, and was later even dropped as an ambassador for the LGBTQ campaign Athlete Ally
Piers, for his part, gushed all over Navratilova’s words, pronouncing her to be ‘so obviously right’. Judging by her flawed view of transgender issues, she is clearly so obviously wrong.
By claiming a transgender athlete might simply ‘go back to making babies if he so desires’, Navratilova spins a ridiculous narrative that trans people apparently flip flop between genders like it’s a choice of hat. Dr Rachel McKinnon, researcher of trans issues and also the first transgender woman to win a cycling world title, drives home the ridiculousness of such claims.
“She imagines a non-existent cisgender man who will pretend to be a trans woman, convince a psychologist and a physician to prescribe hormone therapy, undertake the process for legal changer recognition, then wait the minimum 12 months of testosterone suppression required by the current IOC rules, compete, and then change his mind and “go back to making babies”? No such thing will ever happen.”
Clearly, it’s utterly ludicrous, but there is danger in letting the ridiculous mask troubling ideas. McKinnon sees the issue as deeply concerning. “This is an irrational fear of trans women,” she says, “which is the very definition of transphobia.
We already know trans people face relentless discrimination from society and peers.
Might I brazenly propose we build trans people up instead of knocking them further down?
We’ve known for years of the devastating bullying both trans children and adults can face, with terrifying figures revealing the truth. One report, for instance, found that up to 45% of trans school pupils have attempted suicide at least once. This new debate is just another shove in the hallway.
By painting trans athletes as ‘cheaters’ in sport, not only do we discount their long, hard struggle to even get there, we chip away at their status as a member of society. Everyone has the right to compete in sport – everyone. If there genuinely are biological issues affecting fairness, we must find a way to get round them without languishing terms like ‘cheating’.
This brings us back to the main point of contention: are trans women afforded an unfair advantage when allowed to compete in women’s sporting events? It’s still an under-researched and misunderstood area. The arguments behind such concerns usually revolve around things like testosterone, build and muscle mass. In truth, there is a reason competitions are segregated by gender: those who were born male seem to repeatedly outperform females. For instance, the world’s fastest male marathon runner (Eliud Kipchoge) is almost 14 minutes faster than the world’s fastest female (Paula Radcliffe). In fact, the top 10 male marathon runners all achieved faster times than the fastest woman.
This is why the International Olympic Committee has strict regulations in place. As McKinnon described, trans women may compete, but only once they have been demonstrably reducing their testosterone levels for 12 months. Playing field levelled, they conclude, but not everyone is satisfied. Some argue the raised levels of testosterone, absorbed for years before the individual undergoes gender reassignment, leave a lasting ‘legacy effect’. Thanks to puberty, individuals may be left bigger, taller, and with more muscle mass than cis (non-trans) females.
The threat is scary indeed, but fear not – because it’s also completely imagined. Some would have you believe in a full-on invasion of women’s sports by huge, snarling men in tiny shorts. They envision burly hunks slamming onto the track and punching aside terrified ladies with their testosterone-fuelled man muscles. Independent news organisation WND decries how “biological males are joining women’s teams, smashing records and dominating in sports.” To illustrate the predicament, it goes on to discuss a few instances of trans women joining a sports team, one case in which a trans male won a girls’ high school competition, and – shock horror! – someone actually eyeing up the 2020 Olympics. Dear god, they’re everywhere!
Back down on Earth, the problem would be quantifiable if we could name a single trans athlete that has won, or even competed in, the Olympics since it was approved in 2004. Medical physicist Joanna Harper goes some way to explaining this phenomenon. “Transgender women have disadvantages too,” she says. “When they transition they have substantial loss of muscle strength and aerobic capacity, which causes them problems with agility, quickness and stamina.” Indeed, research undertaken at Loughborough University seems to confirm this notion. In a study by lecturers, professors and PhD students, it was found “There is no research that has directly and consistently found transgender people to have an athletic advantage in sport.” That said, more studies are needed in this area.
Martina Navratilova has since apologised for the wording used in her original piece. Sadly, she also shows that nothing has been learnt. When referring to the use of the term ‘cheating’, she now states, “I attached the label to a notional case in which someone cynically changes gender, perhaps temporarily, to gain a competitive advantage.” Somehow, she and various other sportspeople, such as Sharron Davies and Paula Radcliffe, are still convinced this is a genuine possibility.
Piers, meanwhile, has moved on to more important matters (such as lamenting Virgin Atlantic’s decision to remove makeup from its air hostesses’ compulsory dress code). He did what he does best – stoked a fire and wandered off. It matters not.
Our direction from here is clear: find a way for transgender people to compete in sport without unintentional advantages, and shun the transphobia dressed up as the innocent protection of women’s sport.