In the South Park episode Board Girls, a strong woman competition is won by a trans woman named Heather Swanson. The joke is that Swanson is very obviously male, towering over the women, with the bulging muscles of a bodybuilder and sporting a full beard and Stetson. Swanson is revealed to have begun identifying as female just two weeks prior to the competition, and goes on to roundly thrash the other athletes and then gloat on the podium above the bruised and battered runners-up, while the audience looks on in awkward dismay.
The episode was intended as a joke, but was roundly criticised as transphobic: it was branded both hurtful and unrealistic to imply that something so preposterous would ever happen in the name of trans rights. But with every passing month, the “strong woman” Heather Swanson – whose appearance and voice were reportedly modelled on those of professional wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage – looks less like a cruel parody and more like a real competitor in a female sporting event.
Last week, the women’s division of the Tour of the Gila, a UCI cycling race in New Mexico, was won by trans woman Austin Killips. This is the first year the Tour has offered equal prize money for the women’s and men’s races, meaning the biologically male Killips will walk away with $35,350 as first prize, as well as being awarded the “Queen of the Mountains” jersey for best performance in uphill stretches.
Killips is far from alone: at least 40 other biological males are currently known to be active in elite women’s cycling. Some, like Killips, had never been involved in competitive cycling before, but have experienced success after joining women’s racing. Others enjoyed long careers in men’s cycling before switching to the women’s side.
The number of competitors who now race as transwomen has prompted 25-year-old elite female cyclist Hannah Arensman to publicly announce her retirement from the sport. “At my last race [...] I came in 4th place, flanked on either side by male riders awarded 3rd and 5th places”, she wrote. “My sister and family sobbed as they watched a man finish in front of me.”
Some argue that it is fair for trans women to compete as women if their testosterone levels are suppressed as part of medical transition. The UCI – the international governing body for cycling – says that trans women can enter races as women only if their testosterone is suppressed to below 2.5 nanomoles per litre of blood (the normal range for women is between 0.5-2.4 nm/l, and for men 10-35).
But testosterone is not a magic potion whose absence turns men into women. We have separate sports for men and women because male and female bodies are different, and it’s a difference that goes far beyond hormone levels. If you take a man and woman of the same height and weight, the man will on average have much stronger muscles, greater heart and lung capacity, and skeletal differences that make it easier to run fast and to throw things. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that what little research we have suggests that males retain a significant advantage over females, even if their testosterone is suppressed to within the normal range for women.
Others might suggest that the fact that trans women don’t win every single time against female athletes proves there is no unfair advantage. But this is nonsense. Using a motorbike in the Tour de France would be obviously unfair, even if you didn’t use it for the whole thing, even if you didn’t gain that much of an advantage from it, and even if you somehow didn’t win as a result. Further, the number of trans women competing in women's sport remains low. As growing numbers meet the UCI requirements, it may not be long before one dominates.
The contradiction at the heart of this debate is that sport can be both inclusive and fair. It cannot. And so long as we labour under the pretence that it can, we will continue to see Hannah Arensmans throw in the towel. That seems remarkably unfair to me.