Sex and Sports


by Daniel A. Kaufman


The politics swirling around the question of gender identity are developing so quickly and furiously both in the US and the UK that it is difficult to keep track, but my interest here is the current brouhaha over Rachel McKinnon’s gold medal win in the UCI Masters Track World Championship and the questions it raises about women’s sports.  (McKinnon is a trans-woman.) In particular, I’m interested in an argument that McKinnon has made in response to those who have deemed her victory unfair.  (McKinnon also has hurled accusations of bigotry and “transphobia,” to which I will pay no attention, given that they are dialectically irrelevant.)  That argument, roughly, is as follows:

To suggest that there is something unfair about biological males who identify as women competing in women’s sports, because as biological males they enjoy any number of physical advantages over their female counterparts, would force us also to deem it unfair for females who have greater natural height, strength, endurance, etc. to compete with other females, which is obviously absurd. (McKinnon also points out that she has lost races to female cyclists in the past.) (1)

Rachel McKinnon (center), flanked by those who took second and third place.

As I said, I’m not really interested in the particulars of McKinnon’s case (or even in the question of trans-people in sports), but in the implications of the argument she has made with respect to it.  Specifically, I don’t see how McKinnon’s argument is not effectively a case against sports being sex-segregated at all. That is, I don’t see how the argument that invokes natural advantages/disadvantages within a sex as a relevant analogy to natural advantages/disadvantages between sexes can only apply to trans people.  If the argument is a reason to think that Rachel McKinnon should be able to compete against female cyclists, then I don’t see why it isn’t also a reason to think that Rafael Nadal should be able to compete against female tennis players.  McKinnon’s argument that one should limit this to trans-women, because they are women – she points out that all of her legal documents have her down as a woman – is easily ignored, insofar as sports are sex-segregated, not gender-segregated.  And the argument that trans athletes are a special case, because the hormone treatment they receive renders them weaker/stronger than their non-trans sex-counterparts also seems unavailable, given the argument we have been discussing. (It is worth noting that McKinnon opposes testosterone limits on trans-women athletes. (2))

It seems clear that the elimination of sex segregation in sports would mean that women could pretty much forget about ever being athletically competitive to any significant degree again.  Not too long ago, John McEnroe made the case that as good a tennis player as Serena Williams is, she wouldn’t rank much better than around 500 in the world if she had to compete with the men.  (Others have suggested she would rank even lower.)  And Williams herself has admitted that against top male players, she wouldn’t stand a chance; that the men’s and women’s games are fundamentally different because of the physical differences between males and females.

For a visceral confirmation of this point, consider the following, in which we watch male professional tennis players serving against female professional tennis players.

Surely there are men whom these women could beat, just as there clearly are men whom, say, former UFC champion, Ronda Rousey could beat up.  But that really isn’t the point is it?  No one in their right mind would suggest that Serena Williams should have to face Rafa at the French Open or that Ronda Rousey should have to face Conor MacGregor in the ring.

Or perhaps they would.  More and more, the current arguments being made by gender-identity activists seem to be pointed in the direction of eliminating sex segregation altogether, across our society.  Certainly, that is the direction the arguments have taken in the UK (see the ongoing battle over the Gender Recognition Act, in which my friend and colleague Kathleen Stock has been involved).  This greatly disturbs me, as I believe that there are very good reasons for maintaining sex-segregated prisons, shelters, and yes, sports.  Undoubtedly, it is a complicated question, as my Provocations piece on bathrooms indicates (and over which I remain somewhat conflicted, given the arguments being made by gender-critical feminists), but the speed at which this is all developing and the ferocity with which the gender-over-sex case is being made seems to suggest that for gender-identity activists, it’s not complicated at all.



(2) From USA Today:

Jillian Bearden and Rachel McKinnon have much in common as cyclists, Olympic hopefuls and transgender women — and much in conflict as opposite poles of an intractable argument over how to balance what’s fair with what’s right.

Bearden agrees with the International Olympic Committee that naturally occurring testosterone gives transgender women an unfair advantage in competition against cisgender women, meaning women who were born female, while McKinnon believes subjecting trans women to testosterone blocking violates their human rights.


  1. Spotted this today

    Really sweet story.

    Third grade transitioner – what happens in five years or so when puberty kicks in? Will it be fair on the female team mates to be playing against a male? Or is that trans child going to be put on a life-time cocktail of hormone-adjusting drugs?

    This doesn’t sit well with me. Let him be the feminine boy he is.

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