May 27, 2024

Progressing beyond sport’s non-inclusive gender binary

New Zealand bioethicists propose breaking up the traditional division

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard

Weightlifter Gavin Hubbard set a New Zealand junior record in the 105 kg + division in 1998. Around 2010 he transitioned to a female and became known as Laurel Hubbard. In 2017, now aged 39, she won a gold medal in the heaviest 90 kg+ category at the Australian International & Australian Open in Melbourne. An elbow injury kept her out of the Commonwealth Games in 2018.

Her competitors were not happy. “It’s a little bit unfair given that she began weightlifting as a man and has that experience in weightlifting as a male, then to carry on as a woman we think is a little bit unfair and gives her an unfair advantage,” said a spokesman for the Nauru team.

Hubbard’s career is a neat example of the controversy over transgender people in sport. Sports associations are trying to balance inclusion against fairness, seldom successfully and never without resentment from some participants. A recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics by three Kiwi bioethicists analyses the issues and comes up with a novel solution.

International Olympic Committee guidelines from 2015 permit transwomen to compete against cis-women if their testosterone is held below 10 nmol/L.
However, this is much higher than that of cis-women. So should transwomen be allowed to compete in women’s events?

The University of Otago researchers believe that they should, but that “the existing male/female categories in sport should be abandoned in favour of a more nuanced approach satisfying both inclusion and fairness”. Their arguments are long and well worth reading in full. What they propose is dismantling gender segregated sport.

As they point out, it is a very tricky question. There are some trans-unfriendly solutions. Transwomen could be excluded from women’s sports, but this is not inclusive. Sportspeople could be allowed to compete in the gender with which they identify, but this is not fair (to women, mainly). Or the mandated testosterone level could be lowered – but this might endanger the health of transwomen.

The best solution is to dump the male/female binary in sport, replacing it with an algorithm which takes into account gender identity, socioeconomic status and physiology. The physiological parameters might include height, weight, haemoglobin levels, transition before or after puberty, testosterone levels with and without testes, bone strength, and so on.

With all of these and more in mind, sports associations could create a handicap system, somewhat like golf, and replacing the male-female binary with multiple categories as in weightlifting. They conclude:

“it is important to both extend and celebrate diversity, while maintaining fairness for cis-women in sport. To be simultaneously inclusive and fair at the elite level the male/ female binary must be discarded in favour of a more nuanced approach. We conclude that the gender binary in sport has perhaps had its day.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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