Philosophy and Current Issues

A Simple Solution to Transgender Athletics Issues?

Photo by REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Should transgender athletes compete in the sex category that matches their self-identity? Or should their sex category be determined by some objective physical criterion? Or perhaps there should a third category for trans athletes?

Some have argued that transgender female athletes should at least sometimes be barred from competing in girls’ or women’s divisions, on the grounds that transgender female athletes’ physical advantages can easily crowd out genetic female athletes, and also that genetic female athletes would be put at greater risk of injury in contact sports.

But a growing majority, it seems, including the ACLU, dismiss these concerns as illegitimate or at least outweighed by the moral need to accommodate trans athletes in their chosen gender.

If you accept the latter view, I’d like to hear your reaction to this proposal. To ensure once and for all that transgender athletes are accommodated, we should eliminate all sex divisions from athletic events, full stop. In every sport, there should be exactly one category: the category of all humans, regardless of their sex or gender. If trans athletes really have no physical advantage over genetic females, then nothing would be lost by adopting this proposal. But two things would be gained. First, athletes who do not feel comfortable publicly disclosing their transgender status would not need to do so. And second, sneering suggestions that a transgender athlete performed so well because of an unfair biological advantage would disappear.

If transgender athletes have no unfair physical advantage over genetically female athletes, wouldn’t a no-gender-categories policy be the best, simplest, and most respectful?


  1. Obtuse Angle

    I think this makes a strong case for the conditional claim that “If transgender athletes have no unfair physical advantage over genetically female athletes, a no-gender-categories policy would be the best, simplest, and most respectful.”

  2. Anonymous comment

    Agreed. If there’s a good case for an unfair advantage, then there’s a good reason not to let people identify in to a category that doesn’t match the biology they were born with. If there’s no good case, then we should abolish gender categories in sports. Either way, maintaining gender categories but letting people identify across gender lines is the wrong solution.

  3. Dan Demetriou

    This proposal seems to assume that the purpose of sport is to suss out the best performers and performances. But is it? Here two alternatives of many:

    1. It’s an agon (moralized contest), meant to improve us. If so, then excluding females would keep them from being improved in the way that agon improves .
    2. It’s a mating lek meant to reveal genetic quality. Abandoning gendered sport would present females w/ fewer opportunities to show off their genes.
    3. It’s a form of entertainment. Some people like watching females play, and they have the right to watch females play, or avoid watching transgender people play.

    • Dan Demetriou

      Sorry, three alternatives.

    • Obtuse Angle

      I don’t think there’s a suggestion here that we should exclude females from sports. It’s an argument that we should let females and males compete against each other, conditional on the assumption (argued for by the ACLU et al) that being biologically male confers no competitive advantage.

      • Dan Demetriou

        Yes, I am just contemplating the likely consequence, which is that few females would make it into the upper levels of professional, or even amateur, sport. Few females would even make it onto their high school soccer/tennis etc. teams.

  4. I appreciate that this is likely to just be an ironic jab at those in favor of male-bodied people competing in female sports. The trouble is that (a) the point is hamfistedly obvious and by now quite well-worn, and (b) the situation has already developed way beyond the point of these sorts of ironic drive-bys having any kind of positive effect. Those who already understand the damage caused by this attack on women’s sports will in no way be bolstered by this sort of cute jab, and those who care more about transgender access to women’s sports than about women or their athletic opportunities will be neither convinced nor shamed.

    • Comment by post author

      Mister Jacko

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen this dichotomy expressed anywhere else. It’s not meant as an ‘ironic jab’, but a serious question. IF one’s sex at birth brings no advantage, as some say, wouldn’t it be better to just do away with sex categories? If not, why not?

      • I can’t speak to what you’ve seen, but I wrote about this exact point two years ago. At the time there was substantial discussion of it.

        I’ve tried to link to the article here, but Diablog is preventing me from doing so. For those interested, just go to The Electric Agora and look for “Sex and Sports.”

        • Comment by post author

          Mister Jacko

          Thanks! Beat me to it, I reckon. Glad to link to your blog:

        • Obtuse Angle

          Hi Dan,

          We saw on Twitter that you suspected you’d been blocked from the site. This could not be farther from the truth. We would NEVER block someone for good-faith engagement here, as your contributions clearly have been. Your comments just got caught in the spam filter, I guess because they included links. We’re a bit new, and still working out these kinds of kinks. A week ago we were inundated with spammy prescription drug ads, and so we put a more strict spam filter in place, and that appears to have been too strict in this case. We’ll look into this some more to avoid similar errors in the future. If you’ve got any advice on how to manage spam from your experience running Electric Agora, we’d be grateful!

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