Does the trans debate harm all women? Yesterday, Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics – but her inclusion kicked off a firestorm online. In 2016, Namibian athlete Caster Semenya became the first person to win the 400m, 800m and 1500m titles all together at the South African National Championships. She later took a second gold medal for the 800m at the Rio Olympics.
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Laurel Hubbard makes history at Tokyo 2020
In 2016, Namibian athlete Caster Semenya became the first person to win the 400m, 800m and 1500m titles all together at the South African National Championships. She later took a second gold medal for the 800m at the Rio Olympics.
Does the trans debate harm all women? Yesterday, Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics - but her inclusion kicked off a firestorm online.
Little did she know this would mark the peak of her career. Two years later, new rules were introduced that bar athletes from racing in women's events if, like Semenya, they have high testosterone levels.
Semenya is intersexPeople born with both female and male reproductive anatomy.. She was assigned female at birth and has lived her whole life as a woman. Then she was told she would have to start taking medication to reduce her testosterone if she wanted to keep racing as a woman. She later said that the issue had "destroyed" her "mentally and physically".
Some feel Semenya was one of the first victims of an increasingly fraught debate over the differences between female bodies.
Today, the focus of that debate is on Laurel Hubbard, the New Zealand weightlifter whose participation in the Tokyo Olympics yesterday broke new ground. Ultimately, her technique let her down and she exited the competition early.
Hubbard was assigned male at birth, but came out as transgender and transitioned ten years ago. She has been a weightlifter since an early age, and after transitioning won the right to continue participating in the sport, now as a woman.
But some criticised the decision to let Hubbard compete. They argue that transgender women who went through puberty as males have advantages over cisgender women in testosterone levels, muscle mass and bone density.
Hubbard has also faced abuse online: some media articles have deadnamed her, and social media accounts have accused her of faking her transition just to participate in women's events.
But her defenders claim that this is based on ignorance. They argue transgender athletes do not have any significant physical advantages, because the process of gender transitioning causes changes in the body that eliminate them.
At any rate, sporting events have always recognised that some people have physical advantages over others. Some athletes are naturally taller, broader or heavier than others. That is why a flyweight boxer never faces up against a heavyweight, and sports like weightlifting are divided into weight classes. Hubbard is in the 87+ category, meaning that she will only compete with other women who weigh more than 87kg.
What is more, they suggest, the criticism and abuse Hubbard has received harms all women, cisgender as well as transgender. Around 5% of cisgender women have unusually high testosterone levels. Now some of them find their status as women being called into question, because of the new scrutiny on their bodies.
Black women are especially likely to be affected by this. This year, two more Namibian sprinters, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, were barred from the Olympics because of their naturally high testosterone levels.
Does the trans debate harm all women?
Yes, say some. Much of the debate is based on pseudoscience: there is no clear evidence that higher testosterone levels actually give a female athlete an advantage over others. Obsessing over what qualifies as a female body has meant excluding cisgender women with different kinds of bodies as well as transgender women from sporting events they worked their whole life for.
Not at all, say others. If only for sporting purposes, they argue, it is important to make a clear distinction between cisgender women and transgender women. Thanks to irreducible biological factors, the average transgender woman will be faster and stronger and have more stamina than the average cisgender woman.
Laurel Hubbard makes history at Tokyo 2020
Intersex - People born with both female and male reproductive anatomy.