Why the handling of transgender and intersex members is neither sporting nor surgical

Tommy Burns once said, “I propose to be the champion of the world, not the white, or the Canadian, or the American. If I am not the best man in the heavyweight division, I don’t want the title.”

As well as being the shortest male heavyweight champion of all time, Burns was the first to agree to fight a Jew, a Native American and—fatefully—an African-American. The widespread refusal of white men to face black men in the ring was likely a symptom of that racism which takes the form of insecurity and inferiority; his title defence against 6’1″ Jack Johnson that December would be his last.

In Burns’s day, there was no recognised boxing authority, and often fights were “decided” by the newspapers. Twelve years later the National—now World—Boxing Association formed, and after it, the New York State Athletic Commission. Neither of them had to present a philosophy on who should be able to fight who, demographically speaking: the decision had already been made for them, by a lone Canadian fighter.

This is not to say there were or are no divisions in boxing, which is divided by sex and weight. Similar divisions exist in less dangerous sports, and in 1976 Renée Richards, a male-to-female transsexual, was disqualified by the United States Tennis Association from competing as a female. Richards fought to reinstate herself, and the issue was legally and morally controversial. Every high-level athletics commission in the world subsequently spent some forty years ignoring this growing question and declining to form a coherent set of principles determining who may contend against whom, and why, and in 2014 male-to-female MMA fighter Fallon Fox broke the skull of Tamikka Brents. The decalcified skeleton of a solution was developed in Texas, which ruled by state law that a fighter may only compete as the sex they are assigned at birth. Consequently, female-to-male wrestler Mack Beggs, who received testosterone-boosting medication while his opponents would be disqualified for doing the same, was consigned to dominate the female state championships, whether he wanted to or not.

Conversely—and perhaps perversely—middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, a woman with intersex traits, was suspended from competition by the International Association of Athletics Federations from 2009 to 2010. In 2018 the organisation altered its rules to mandate that all female athletes must take measures to reduce their blood testosterone concentration to “normal” female levels, in a move widely interpreted to be targeting Semenya specifically.

With perhaps a hint of melodrama, this problem might be categorised as a Hegelian tragedy: the right of women to compete on a level canvas coming into conflict with the right of transgender athletes to compete at all. The vacillating and chaotic approach outlined above is not incidental, and couldn’t be blamed on the novelty of the matter, even if it were in fact new. Athletics commissions have never articulated a coherent set of principles as to why one set of traits should be segregated and not another. The problem runs to the core of sport itself because there is no consensus as to what it is about. If they had, the details might follow as if mathematically. The IAAF and comparable bodies might have saved themselves some mental gymnastics.

Steph Haynes of bloodyelbow.com interviewed a number of medical experts in the wake of the Fallon Fox controversy and the science of transgender fighters remains controversial. Sex reassignment surgeon Dr Marci Bowers commented that “most measures of physical strength minimize, muscle mass decreases, bone density decreases, and [male-to-female transsexuals] become fairly comparable to [cisgender] women in their musculature”, while endocrinologist Dr Ramona Krutzik argued that “typically, you’re looking at about 15 years after androgen suppression and SRS to really start to see significant changes in bone density”. Dr Johnny Benjamin, an orthopaedic surgeon and MMA columnist stated that “everyone says, ‘Well there’s been a few studies that say after two years this, that and the other…’ That’s not true. There are no studies for this”.

Dr Benjamin’s later incarceration for malpractice hardly engenders trust, but it’s clear that the medical community has not reached the point of consensus on this question. Conducting those studies might be a good place to start – but what position is to be taken until then?

And why are the IAAF and comparable bodies framing the question purely in terms of testosterone when the doctors are not? A person’s performance —depending on the game—is affected by their height, ape-ratio, adrenaline, cortisol, fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle composition, dietary budget, circadian rhythms, and so on. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has unusually large feet and a massive upper body and generates half the lactic acid his opponents do—for which, unlike Semenya, he is praised rather than punished. Many of the statistical advantages men hold over women are redoubled in African-Americans against their white rivals, a point which appears not to have escaped Fallon Fox: “Remember when commentators said Jackie Robinson had an unfair advantage because black people had ‘larger heel bones’ than the white men he was competing with?”

So when is an unfair game fair game in this transgender debate? It may be that if we isolate every advantageous trait nobody can compete against anybody else. If we isolate none of them, we might see Anthony Joshua knocking out sickly welterweights and physically slight women. If everybody gravitates to their natural level of opposition, then divisions are altogether unnecessary: an artificial ceiling of opportunity hangs over women, and others. One polemical meta-study argues that the IAAF rulings against intersex participation are unfair precisely because the sport itself is—irreducibly—unfair, and to make ad hoc distinctions between one type of natural advantage and another is the least fair approach conceivable. Whatever the solution, the IAAF and others need to get their methodology straight. Repeatedly and arbitrarily, they have shifted the goalposts.

If there is an argument for making a complicated question simple, it’s the law of unintended consequences. In 2013 came the circulation of various reports that four elite female athletes, having been identified as possessing intersex traits, underwent clitoridectomies. Since the day Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson opened the gates for black men to enter boxing, we have seen a century or more of backstreet abortions and drug cartels. A rule is only a good as the measures people will take to play by it. Perhaps we should ask ourselves how they’ll play when they are on the ropes.