by Bob Cesca
Before we dive in, I'd like to ask for your patience on this one.
Like many Americans, I'm still learning. I'm still attempting to ascertain the correct terminology and to develop a solid understanding of what it means to be transgender. That's not to say I'm a troglodytic red-stater by any stretch of the imagination. I've had significant advanced schooling in human sexuality, and I've spent countless hours reading about the experiences of transgender Americans including several of my friends, who happen to be either fully transitioned or in the process of doing so. Given the news lately, too, regarding the formation of the GOP's Toity Patrol, I've written about the issue quite a bit and approached each article from what I believe is an open and rational point of view.
I'll start by describing what I firmly believe. It won't be surprising. Transgender people ought to have complete latitude to identify as whichever gender (or gender variation) they prefer. Duh. I believe, therefore, they have the legal and constitutional right to whatever services or privileges that are commensurate with their gender, as we all do. This includes access to public restrooms appropriate to their gender.
It's clearly not for Ted Cruz or Michelle Duggar to decide whether transgender women should have to endure the embarrassment of using the men's bathroom (and vice versa). Furthermore, it goes without saying that exactly zero men-disguised-as-transgender-women have been caught trying to molest young girls in public bathrooms.
But there's one area where I'm admittedly conflicted. For now. So bear with me.
In Alaska, parents, students and high school track & field enthusiasts are furiously debating the participation of Nattaphon “Ice” Wangyot, a transgender teen girl who successfully made it to the state championships. Of course, conservative groups descended upon Wangyot to hector the high school athlete, accusing her of unfairly competing in the girls' races.
“We are here today as a voice from the community to ensure that female athletes are not denied the playing opportunities and scholarships otherwise available to them and to make the playing field even again,” Minnery said during a press conference at the state meet, per the Alaska Dispatch News. “… Allowing students to play on teams of the opposite sex disproportionately impacts female students, who will lose spots on track, soccer and volleyball teams to male students who identify as female.”
Their objective doesn't simply have to do with transgender athletes having an unfair advantage over the other girls. The Alaska Family Action group simply denies the reality that Wangyot is a girl. In their twisted worldview, she's a boy who's stealing competitive berths away from the female competitors. In other words, they don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of transgender citizens and, instead, prefer to deny them their gender identity.
In 2016, it ought to be a foregone conclusion that transgender girls should be allowed to compete alongside other girls. However, and this is where I might require some education, but perhaps the general rules should be changed to accommodate the shifting sands of gender acceptance. Specifically, it doesn't quite seem fair for women (or girls) who were born male, especially those who went through puberty as male, to compete against woman and girls whose bodies weren't altered by testosterone.
The introduction of the male sex hormone whether in vitro or during puberty, as we all know, induces the human body to grow and strengthen. Testosterone increases lean muscle mass; hands and feet grow larger; vocal cords loosen; facial and body hair appears; and so forth. That's not to say that every man has equal testosterone, nor does it suggest that all men are physically larger or more powerful than all women. Human traits vary from person to person and ethnicity to ethnicity. Some men are five-feet-tall with scant muscle tone. Some women are six-feet or taller with larger hands a stronger shoulders -- professional athletes or otherwise.
In the case of Wangyot, she looks just like any other girl. And her birth gender hasn't made her faster or stronger than other girls on her team. Indeed, she placed third and fifth in the state competition. So, whatever testosterone that's been introduced into her system by her pituitary gland and testicles hasn't led to a performance enhancing advantage. Perhaps she made it to the states because of this alleged advantage, but it can't logically be regarded as an advantage any greater than another girl who just happens to be a better athlete than most. Put another way, it's not unlike a cisgender male MMA fighter whose genetics give him an advantage over other male athletes -- he might be stronger or thicker, with a lower lactate threshold or a higher tolerance for pain, than other cisgender males.
Female MMA fighter Fallon Fox, who happens to be transgender, pulverized the eye-socket of a female opponent last year, causing a similar fracas outside of the octagon. Tamikka Brents, who suffered a concussion and a smashed orbital socket, said of Fox, “I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life." Fox only recently transitioned to female and therefore enjoys the advantage of having testosterone pumping through her veins for most of her life, building bigger hands, greater muscle mass and increased stamina. Still, she was allowed to compete against another woman in spite of her significant outside-the-box advantages.
I'm not sure she should've been allowed.
It's obviously not due to the fact that she's transgender. It has everything to do with possessing a self-evidently unfair advantage due to her body's production of testosterone, and the physical changes it manufactured. Fox's biology is not unlike a cisgender female's body that happened to have been altered by a lengthy cycle of steroids, complete with testosterone as the centerpiece of her stack. Her natural, pre-transitioned biology pushed her body well beyond the physical range for cis female athletes. While, yes, having the physicality of a man isn't itself a recipe for victory alone, it will, more often than not, tip the scales enough to push a transgender female athlete's performance beyond what's considered to be fair.
And that's what it's all about, really. Fairness. It's fair and, in fact, constitutional to be all inclusive, yes. But it's unfair if the inclusiveness results in some women possessing the strength and stamina of male athletes in the same sport, providing an unfair advantage over her competitors, not unlike an athlete who abuses steroids for a similar Herculean advantage.
So, perhaps it makes sense to test athletes for hormones and muscle mass to determine whether those athletes, cis or trans alike, are inside or outside the range for competition. That's not to suggest that physically stronger athletes are excluded. And it certainly shouldn't lead to anti-trans discrimination. But if a transgender female athlete has a testosterone level that matches male athletes, it's obvious that she'll have an unfair advantage. Likewise, if her testosterone level is normal, but it was elevated at male level long enough to produce a physical, muscular advantage, then it not only ends up in a lopsided competition, but it can be dangerous to other competitors.
Does this make me just another transphobic white guy? I don't know. I certainly don't think so, but then, it's not for me to decide. I'd like to believe I'm very much not, but it's not always easy to tell. And, again, I'll underscore that the testing would apply to every professional athlete in the field, administered not unlike routine steroid tests. But, at the end of the day, I have to concede an up or down vote on the idea to those who'll be impacted most. If transgender activists see the testing as somehow discriminatory, it's their prerogative to oppose it, and I wouldn't presume to stand in their way.
Editor's note: I wrote a piece about Fallon Fox back in 2014 and argued that she should not be allowed to compete with women who were not born men for the following reason:
"Speaking from a good deal of experience in Martial Arts and years of training with high level women fighters, I would err on the side of not allowing transgendered athletes to fight women.
Over the years, if you train hard enough, you develop an instinctual understanding of human physiology. You get used to moving around (or being moved around) other fighters, and quickly learn to understand body type and inherent levels of aggression. Men and women feel different, both physically and psychologically, and that's why there is so much skepticism within the Martial Arts world."