What about trans-women in sports?
The presenting issue is whether there is scientific evidence that trans-women (born as male, now self-identifying as women) have an unfair advantage in sports over cis-women (born as female and self-identifying as female) in athletic competition.
This debate is divided into separate issues.
Basically the scientific issue is unresolved because science takes time and this has only recently become a matter to be studied carefully. Tentative results seem to say that trans women maintain a small amount of advantage over cis-women, but it is very uncertain that it is enough to make a difference among elite athletes who have to excel in many ways.
The social issue is heavily leaning toward "common sense" that "obviously these men turned into women are still physically stronger. It's why we have separate men's and women's divisions in athletics." So, just as clearly, cis-women are disadvantaged when trans women compete against them.
The strictly political issue is usually about whether laws should be passed or why some faction is using incidents to advance a political agenda. Too often these discussions pay no attention to anything but expediency. In other words, the issue is whose side you're on. Something trivial often emerges to befog the argument when it's really political, like "how can boys be let into girls' locker rooms?"
That's the presenting issue. There is no solution that is becoming a consensus. Professional athletic organizations are being pressured to make decisions. Each announcement reignites the argument and most of them are biased toward shutting trans women out, in one way or another. It's hard to be trans. It's even life-threatening in some societies.
Beneath the presenting issue is the cultural issue. It may be called "the issue of athletics in modern culture," or, "Why are athletes celebrities and athletics a measure of cultural value?" Or "How come sports became so important?"
First, it has not always been this way. In modern times this developed somewhere around the middle of the 19th century. Before that, sports were recreations for the upper classes. Then came a complex idea about what constitutes human nature and what makes some human beings superior to others. Throughout the Middle Ages birth was the factor. One was born into a class. Royalty were on top. But that was challenged, and by the 1850s other factors began to show up, including economic power, with wealthy people often better off than royalty. IQ was recognized as a measure of a person's "quality." And physical factors were added, but always further down the list, and inevitably imbued with racism.
Until the modern era, beginning in Europe and North America, military competition was the only real way to establish superiority. By superiority I mean identification of the truly superior people, not just the ones who control others and have power to exploit and benefit. In the modern era, new means were developed of being superior and -- this is important -- of feeling confidently superior as a human being and as a valuable member of society.
A distinction has to be made between elite and superior. Geniuses have always been identified and recognized, although some died before recognition came. Nobel prizes are for geniuses, as is the Chopin Competition. On the other hand, superiority is a more democratic quality. Superiority is a complex confidence that one is excellent in some important ways that can be demonstrated and recognized.
What happened to athletics in the modern era is that recognition expanded, spread throughout society, turning athletes into celebrities. Modern news media had a lot to do with this. Because news is what the media says it is, sporting events became news, and sports stars became popular. The modern Olympics, restarted in 1896 after 1500 years, created a new arena for demonstrating participants' physical superiority. This became, from that first modern Olympics in Athens, a way to show national superiority, as well. World Fairs were another way. Then came national and international sports.
These have taken hold of people's attention and created fortunes for organizers and stars. Commercialization has come to sports. Notre Dame University remains financially viable because of its athletic income (argue with me if you have the facts). Budweiser is America's beer, and Anheuser-Busch exists in that top rank of beers because of the Cardinals. Money helps sports.
Locally, athletics may be a community's main identifying factor. Athletes are temporary stars.
This is the heart of the cultural issue:
Since athletics are culturally important, and since athletics are competative by nature, the competition needs to be regulated so the "playing field" is level. Since athletics is also an important way for individuals to become outstanding and to feel successful, accessibility is sought and controlled.
In progressive times accessibility tends to be expanded. Paralympics were added in 1960. New competitions also expand the ways medals can be won. In conservative times, some non-athletic factor emerges to dominate the decision-making. Race was the big matter in the 1936 Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany. Jackie Robinson, the first Black American to play major league baseball, as a breakthrough. At that time, athletics were more progressive than politics.
It is imperative, when a previously exempted or unrepresented group tries to gain admittance to compete, that it be established that all competitors are equal in every way except in the skill being contested. It's up to the host to make sure the conditions for the competition are fair for all contestants.
The current effort to gain the right to succeed in sports is a matter of gender. Trans women are pushing for access. Athletics are a culturally valuable way to succeed in society. It is only fair that they, too, are given the right to play the games. But it is still unclear how some of the games are to be played for this to happen.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.