The Challenge of Transgender Politics
The Collapse of the Gender Binary and Future of Sports
So many terrors in the world right now. War, climate apocalypse, far right insurgencies, exploding inequality, Joe Manchin. Among the terrors is the raging fire of culture wars insanity consuming red state legislatures in the United States. In addition to efforts to suppress votes, block unions, support gun culture and erode social supports, the old culture war projects targeting hot button issues of race, gender and sexuality are baaaaack up to full force.
Efforts to ban critical race theory, restrict access to abortion, and protect children from information about The Gays have been joined by exponentially expanding attacks on transgender people—as athletes, children, people who pee. The forces loosely called “progressive” have a long track record and an arsenal of strategies to fight most of the culture wars onslaughts. But on transgender issues, I think we have some hard thinking and creative strategizing to do.
Transgender politics poses two overlapping challenges for all of us who value an inclusive democratic political culture. The first we have a playbook for—transgender activists rightly demand recognition, representation, and full participation in all areas of life. The second is the challenge we have yet to fully grasp—the disruption of the gender binary itself. It is not enough to accommodate those who wish to join the binary on their own terms (though we must do that), we need to think through how and why we organize political, social, or cultural practices around binary gender in the first place.
As culture warriors attack trans access to bathrooms, the strongest response is the expansion of gender-neutral public restrooms, designed to protect the privacy and safety of all—including transgender people. Access to treatment for trans kids is going to be a fierce battleground, but we do have arguments and support from medical providers as well as many trans kids’ families and allies. The place where the difficult challenge to the gender binary is the strongest is in the arena of sports competition.
Why do we have gender separatism in sports? Because the overall difference between the median male body and the median female body shapes both the nature of some sports and the level of competitive access in others. Gymnastics raises a different set of issues than track and fields, for instance. In some larger, overall sense, it seems that in most competitive sports male bodies in general have a statistical advantage (in height, weight and upper body strength, for instance). In those cases, separate women’s sports allow female athletes to excel in ways they could not in gender-unified leagues—that is why the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports (and not in men’s) is so controversial. This division has always been based on averages and norms though—there have always been male bodies that fit better, biologically, in women’s sports, and vice versa--and many who fit well in neither. The binary is not at all generally “fair” in the way it is portrayed by those defend it. But as the gender binary increasingly, publicly breaks down--with larger numbers of trans, non-binary, or gender fluid athletes—can this organization of sports hold up? I don’t think so. I think we need to take other possible modes of organization—by weight class, or height/reach, or some other criteria that would vary by sport. Even the actual movements and basic standards in some sports should change, as in the currently cartoonishly gendered sport of figure skating. (And the overall capitalist political economy of sports—and the race, class and gender contours of that—is of course a broader social issue.)
I don’t think this process can be quick or easy. Sports are irreducibly about biological characteristics that are not “fairly” distributed. How do we rethink the activities themselves, the way we organize teams and leagues, and basic aesthetics and terms of competition, to even out the field somewhat without establishing other hierarchies to replace the gender binary?
I don’t think it is enough, or that it will even work to simply allow transgender athletes to compete on the side of the binary that matches their gender identity. The identities themselves are unstable and inconsistent in many contexts. In the short term we have to fight all the attacks as they pop up, given the current organization of sports. But ultimately we have to rethink what sports are, and how to organize them for both maximum participation and the joy of excelling.
(And then there are the locker rooms! The whole set of assumptions around nudity and the threat of penises to be addressed in another post….. )
Please post links and citations in the comments!