Categories, Gender Identity, and Women’s Sports

September 4, 2019

We categorize things, using general terms to classify a group of objects. Some things are chairs, others tables, and still other things are fish, fruits, or flowers, and so on. We employ categories for a host of practical reasons, including, of course, to facilitate communication and accomplish various objectives efficiently. Categorizing things makes eminent good sense, so much so that most of the time we don’t even think about this process.

That said, our use of categories can result in self-inflicted perplexities and difficulties. For centuries, from Plato and Aristotle onward, philosophers chased each other down the rabbit-hole of “essences” and “universals.” They reasoned as follows: if one uses a general term to refer to some objects, be they chairs, tables, or fruits, that implies these things have certain critical characteristics, a set of necessary and sufficient properties, that distinguish them from everything else and allow them to be placed in a certain category. If one had trouble specifying those essential properties, one could simply resort to some variant of the general term itself. The essence of being a table is “tableness.” Yeah, that’s it.

Without retracing the history of Western philosophy here, suffice it to say that the contention that use of a general term implies the existence of an essence is now generally disfavored. (For a concise overview, search for “Wittgenstein” and “family resemblances”.)

Philosophers, however, are not the only ones who have been trapped into thinking that our use of general terms always implies clear, sharp, definable distinctions between objects placed in category A versus objects placed in Category B.

Which brings me to men and women and contemporary controversies over gender identity.

For most of human history, as far as almost all cultures were concerned, there were men and women, and nothing in between, nor, outside of mythology, was there any transitioning between the two sexes. You were born one or the other and stayed that way. This rigid binary classification is reflected in our “holy” texts, e.g., the Bible states God “created them male and female.” Gen. 5: 2. (Yet another reason not to rely on these ancient scribblings as a guide to life.) No point in blaming our ancestors for having an insufficiently nuanced view of sexual/gender distinctions. They had little understanding of biology, and the rigid categories of male and female worked well enough for their prime objective, which was survival. You may have noticed that respect for autonomy and self-determination was not a priority for most of humanity’s time on this planet.

Of course, our ancestors were aware that some children were born with sexually ambiguous features. Sadly, this often resulted in infanticide or being treated as a freak “hermaphrodite.” Similarly harsh treatment was meted out to those whose sexual conduct didn’t conform to the expectations for their category.

Things have changed dramatically, for the better I’d say. Can’t explain in this essay all the factors that went into the profound social changes that have taken place over the last forty or fifty years, but certainly, a better, scientifically grounded, understanding of human sexuality has played a role. Homosexuality is no longer considered a psychological disorder. Also, we now recognize the existence of intersex individuals, and, importantly, even for those who anatomically appear to fit into traditional categories, we recognize male/female sexual identity isn’t always an either/or matter. Human biology is complex. (But what about testosterone—doesn’t that simplify classification? I’ll get to that hormone below.)

Equally important has been a transformation in attitudes and beliefs. Simplifying greatly, many people now hold the view that people should be free to pursue whatever consensual sexual activity they want with other adults, whatever their biological classification, provided no one is harmed or exploited. Moreover, we now distinguish between physical sexual characteristics and gender identity, and many hold the view that individuals should be free to identify with the gender of their choice, again, however they may have been biologically classified.

So why all the heated debates about transgender individuals, in particular transgender women? Controversies about bathrooms, segregated shelters, women’s sports and even how, when, and to whom the term “woman” should be applied. (If you haven’t been aware of these debates, you have been absent from social media the last few years.)

Part of the reason is that the social changes I have mentioned are recent. I mean very recent. In the U.S., transgender activism didn’t get underway until the 1990s, and the numbers needed to gain public attention probably weren’t achieved until some point in the 2000s.  (Today the percentage of those who consider themselves transgender is about 0.6%.) Thus, even those with a liberal, supporting attitude toward transgender individuals have to consider how or whether institutions and practices accepted without question until just a couple of decades ago should be changed or modified.

Furthermore, many still tacitly allow traditional classifications to do the thinking for them. Those with male body parts over here, those with female body parts over there. That’s the way it’s always been.  But our categories are supposed to work for us, not the other way around. All issues should be examined pragmatically, after considering what objectives are appropriate to pursue.

Can’t possibly address all the transgender controversies, so let me address the issue of women’s sports, in part because I think given its specialized features, the issue of how athletic competitions should be organized best illustrates how pragmatic considerations can resolve controversies and help us achieve widely shared objectives.

Let’s start with these presumptions: we want women to be able to have equitable opportunities to participate in athletic events and sports generally; we also want transgender individuals to have the ability to act in conformity with their gender identity.

Women have participated in games and sports for pleasure for millennia, but it’s fair to say that organized athletic competitions for women were rare until modern times, due in part to stereotypes regarding appropriate conduct for women. Even after organized competitions were started (women first participated in the Olympics in 1900), athletic opportunities for women were limited. The situation has improved recently, although parity still hasn’t been achieved.

In any event, women’s sports have almost always been women’s sports, that is, they have been sex-segregated. The principal reason for separate women’s and men’s competitions is that women would not have equitable opportunities to participate in sports were all sports unified, e.g., if there just the NBA and not the NBA and WNBA. Individuals biologically classified as men have more testosterone, on average, than individuals biologically classified as women. Testosterone provides a very significant advantage in most athletic competitions, and this advantage largely accounts for the performance gap between men and women.

It’s for this reason that many athletic organizations use testosterone testing in determining who qualifies to participate in a women’s athletic event. They should continue to do so. The testing is imperfect and in isolated cases arguably work an injustice because some women have naturally high levels of testosterone, but for now it seems to be the only feasible way to ensure that we can continue to have competitive events for women who are not transgender, while, at the same time, leaving open the possibility of transgender women participating in these events after they have reduced their testosterone levels, chemically or through surgery.

That last sentence indicates I have not forgotten our other presumptive goal, that is, ensuring that transgender women can undertake activities in conformity with their gender identity. Transgender women should be able to participate in women’s sports provided their transition has proceed to the stage where their testosterone levels are comparable to other women.

This position, of course, is unsatisfactory to those who take more uncompromising stances. On the one hand, there are women who argue that reducing testosterone levels isn’t sufficient to ensure a level playing field because transgender women who transition after puberty (the norm) will still have certain advantages in accumulated muscle mass or height, particularly important in some events, such as rugby. To this, I’d respond by saying these transgender women are unlikely to preclude meaningful opportunities for women who are not transgender—especially when one considers how few individuals we’re talking about. Furthermore, with respect to athletic competition, the genetic lottery disadvantages most of us, in one way or the other. Few men or women can compete at the level where significant rewards in money or prestige are at stake. Is Sally any worse off if she doesn’t make the college basketball team because she’s out-competed by a transgender woman who is three inches taller as opposed to being out-competed by a woman who’s not transgender who is three inches taller?

On the other hand, some transgender activists take the position that transgender women are women period, and insisting that they meet certain testosterone levels to qualify for women’s sports is discriminatory or even “transphobic.” Interestingly, and paradoxically, the position that, for all purposes, transgender women are women period, and that’s the end of the discussion, is similar to the traditional use of rigid male and female categories to dictate policy. All these transgender activists have done is expand the category of what is essentially female.

There is no male essence and no female essence. We group persons based on a range of characteristics, in accordance with our objectives. That’s not to say physical realities can or should be ignored. A chair can be a table and vice versa, depending on the circumstances; tomatoes can be a fruit or vegetable, depending on context.  But one can’t build a workable chair or table wholly out of tomatoes.

We should respect the autonomy and dignity of all individuals and do our best to ensure that opportunities in all areas, including athletics, are equitably distributed, regardless of sexual classification or gender identity. No policy is going to be perfect—and I concede up front there may be flaws in the policy I’ve outlined. (Among other things, testosterone testing may be impractical at the level of high school athletics, but the stakes there are also lower.) However, if we leave dogma aside and think pragmatically, giving due weight to the interests of all concerned, satisfactory solutions can be achieved.