Politics & Policy, Sports

Good Discrimination: Why Feminists Should Oppose Gender Identity in Athletics

photo by P. A. Jensen

She went skittering across the floor. Or, maybe I’m over-remembering a traumatic event. But she did slam into the decades-old, brightly colored vinyl pad against the brick wall, and hard. And the coach did call off practice. Immediately.

I was in ninth grade, and it was near the end of the basketball season. The girls’ varsity team was starting playoffs soon, and they were going to face a top team in the region, and that team was nearly undefeated, I think. They had some horses. Some real studs.

(Or mares, maybe? Fillies? Hm.)

Anyway, the girls’ varsity coach wanted to “borrow” some freshman boys for practice. The girls’ opponent had some top-notch athletes, and the coach wanted to mimic the increased speed on the court.

With freshman boys.

And not just any freshman boys, but the scrubs. Our own coach sent the five worst players on the team, including yours truly, to scrimmage the girls. This group of five was no all-star squad: four were literally about 5’6” or shorter, and three stopped playing basketball before the next season—and not to focus on other sports, either. This was a rag-tag bunch of kids who “played basketball” but never saw the floor, who got jerseys only because tiny towns don’t have tryouts. We were the kids you could practice without.

Frankly, we sucked.

I distinctly remember that the girls’ coach wanted us to “skip pass,” meaning to pass the ball from one side of the court to the other, over all of the defense. The upcoming opponent did this often, and the girls were having trouble replicating it in practice without hitting the ceiling. It turns out that freshman boys can manage it.

Boy, did we feel like studs that day. For once.

Until, of course, Dominic flung the ball not only over the defense, but over everybody, sailing into the bleachers. See, girls use a smaller ball than boys do. We hadn’t touched one of the smaller balls since elementary school. He let that thing fly, like a baseball player unknowingly hitting a tennis ball.

Awkward. That should have been our first clue.

We practiced in the half-court like that, passing the ball around especially hard, letting the girls get used to adjusting their zone defense from side to side, just more quickly than usual. All of this was well and good—the biggest problem was that we smelled a lot worse than they did. But it was kind of fun.

At least, until the coach wanted to go “up and down”—to use the full court. He wanted us to push the ball up the floor on offense, to give the girls a feel for the increased speed. And he wanted us to press on defense, to show how fast the girls would have to get rid of the ball before they were smothered.

I don’t recall how that went, at least until the end, which is burned in my mind. That happens when you think you crippled someone.

The girls were coming up the floor, and a long pass came to Kally under the basket. I remember hustling as fast as I could to get to her before she shot.

Now, before we prematurely climax, I’d like to give some context. Kally was the single most attractive girl in school. She was a senior, and the kind of girl you notice if you’re a fourteen-year-old boy. If anything, I was scared of her.

And I chased her down as she went up to the basket. But when I say “up,” I don’t really mean “up.” And when I say “to the basket,” I don’t really mean “to the basket.” And this quickly became a problem.

See, when boys go “up” for a lay-up, even freshman boys, they do indeed go “up.” Not like varsity boys go up, and nobody’s hitting his head on the rim or anything, but it’s still up. And when boys—even freshmen—go “to the basket,” they literally move “to the basket.”

So, because I was trying to be nice—I was playing with girls, after all—and because I only wanted to block the ball and not lay out the prettiest girl in school, I decided to jump behind her, and swat the ball above her head as she went “up” “to the basket.”

Didn’t work.

See, Kally was not only a girl, but the girl of girls, and not particularly strong or boyish or aggressive or even athletic, maybe. And instead of going up and to the basket, she kind of hopped—emphasis on “kind of.” And instead of going toward the basket, she just stayed put. She jumped like a seventh-grader.

A seventh-grade boy, anyway.

So, when I “flew” by, at least relatively speaking, I had jumped toward where she was, thinking that she would have, you know, moved by the time I got there.

She didn’t. And she went skittering.

Now, imagine a fourteen-year-old boy essentially tackling the hottest girl in school, and by accident. Also, he just bulldozed a starter on the girls’ varsity basketball team into a wall the day before playoffs. He quickly realizes he may have busted up her face, or broken her neck.

Imagine the horror. It was real.

Imagine the scene as he scrambles to stand over her, apologizing profusely, trying to help her up—but not touch her—and she’s crumpled in a pile. She’s conscious, but she’s not sure if she’s hurt, or angry, or what on earth just happened.

Her teammates were less than impressed, too.

She hadn’t jumped, see. Not like I was used to, anyway.

Now, maybe some of this has gotten dramatized in my mind during the last quarter-century. After all, getting knocked down by a 120-pound weakling, probably in slow-ish motion, would have to count as minor in the world of sports injuries. But that’s the point: I was a scrawny freshman boy, but the coach still wanted me and my ragtag ilk for our “athleticism.” And playing with girls, even varsity girls, was so foreign to us accidental athletes that someone skittered into a wall, albeit without much consequence, thankfully.

Boys and girls are different, it turns out.

I know that everybody knows this, but I wonder if we really understand the extent. When I would referee basketball decades later, I would ref double-headers of junior-varsity games—one boys’, one girls’—while the varsity games were going on in a different gym. Switching between girls and boys, even at that level, was literally disorienting, for a few seconds, anyway. The speed is fundamentally different. The game moves differently. The body contact is night and day.

At least in small-town America, and at least in basketball, a typical girl on the varsity squad plays at the speed of an athletic eighth- or ninth-grade boy.

And no, this isn’t because boys are taught to be more aggressive, or because boys are in the weight room more—these kids from Up North aren’t killer athletes, and most boys in junior high aren’t in the weight room much, especially basketball players. No, it’s because they’re just different. Physically, muscularly, molecularly, chemically different. Starting after about seventh grade, the chemical switch flips, and it’s off to the races, and the girls get left behind.

I know you know this, but thanks for playing along. Or, if you are unsure about whether the differences are really that stark, and if you doubt my personal experience as both a player and referee, then please remember that I was a biology professor. Developmental biology, in fact.

So, trust me. Or, go see for yourself at any middle school or high school in America.

If this is so obvious, why is it interesting? Well, some of our country’s leaders seem to have forgotten this fact of differences between the sexes (or, more technically, “sexual dimorphism” [“di”=”two”; “morph”=”form]). And this forgotten fact is rearing its ugly head in our latest iteration of sexual politics, transgenderism.

Most interestingly, this forgotten fact of science is being forgotten by people on the Left, in the Democratic Party, which is supposedly the party on the side of science. See, for years Democrats have chastised Republicans for their failure to grasp some scientific facts, like evolution. Or, climate change, even if the policy decisions regarding climate change are trickier than those surrounding evolution. Either way, as a former scientist I can say that those criticisms are largely warranted, at least in the arena of science itself.

But here, regarding the biology surrounding transgenderism, the Left seems to be missing the mark of empirical evidence. Wholly.

So, to put a fine point on it, here’s an introductory science lesson for politicians. Stay close:
1) Evolution is real.
2) The planet is getting hotter.
3) If you were born with a penis, you should probably give up your dream of running girls’ track.

It’s science, see. Quiz on Thursday.

If that last one seems random to you, it’s not. Our current debate about transgenderism has “gotten real,” as the kids say. Importantly, this is not a hypothetical debate about a kid going into a different bathroom, as if anyone cared. Nor is it a semantic argument about pronouns, as if anyone could care any less.

No, it’s real: boys are winning state titles in girls’ track in Connecticut. Maybe “dominating” would be a better description.

I guess I would say that it’s typical patriarchal dominance, but, you know, that seems in poor taste.

Now, before we go further, I’ll relent. I think I’m aware that the people in question would bristle at being called “boys,” and I’m fine calling them “girls.” I’m libertarian enough that I’ll call you whatever name you want, or refer to you as whatever sex or gender that you want. I don’t much care. I’ll maybe even entertain the idea of learning some new pronouns to address your specific combination of biology and psychology—fine.

But I do care when people who were born with penises—and only penises—compete in sports designed for people who were born with vaginas—and only vaginas. That’s flat-out thumbing your nose at the systems that we’ve created, and created for many reasons, and good reasons, too. And it strikes at the very question of equality, actually.

For the uninitiated, two people who were born male placed first and second in the 100m dash at the state track meet in Connecticut last spring. They were allowed to compete because they identify as girls, or are transgender, or trans. It’s worth noting that they were both underclassmen, meaning that they were not only trans girls, but young trans girls, and still ran away with the competition. They placed first and second again at this year’s indoor (winter) championships, beating the fastest “cisgender” girl (as opposed to “transgender”) by a whopping two-tenths of a second, which is a big deal in a race that lasts a total of seven seconds. In fact, the winner set a state record.

You don’t say.

This isn’t an isolated incident, either: apparently seventeen states allow athletes to compete as the gender with which they identify.

Like Kally, lying crumpled in a pile under the basket, the rest of the girls are wondering what hit them. Many of the girls and their parents are angry. There’s talk of boycotts.

Again: you don’t say.

And Connecticut is sticking to its guns to allow trans girls to compete with girls. To be glib, for some reason there seems to be less concern with trans boys wanting to compete with boys. Regardless, the authorities are trying to justify the policy by citing anti-discrimination laws. Let’s say that again: anti-discrimination laws. This is where it gets interesting. See, the whole point of women’s athletics, the whole point of Title IX generally, is to discriminate.

“Discrimination” gets a bad rap, of course, and rightfully so. It’s a hot-button word on the Left—a rallying point. But something has gotten lost in translation here. Let’s remember that not all discrimination is created equal. Some discrimination is warranted, like when it protects people. Some discrimination is not only good, but necessary.

Girls’ athletics is a classic example of good discrimination. So is separating athletes by grade or age: sure, you can “play up” with bigger kids if you can handle it, but you can’t play down. Our whole system of youth sports, which is ostensibly aimed at teaching young people discipline and giving them a structured environment in which to be healthy and compete, is built on discrimination, both by sex and by age.

And that discrimination is warranted, especially for safety. Just like you don’t want high-school seniors competing with seventh-graders, you don’t want boys competing with girls. Girls’ sports afford girls opportunities to compete, as well as protect them—yes, protect them—from bigger, stronger, more aggressive boys. This is sexist, I suppose, but only in the strictest, empirical, statement-of-fact sense; not the pejorative, misogynistic sense. Girls’ sports protects girls’ opportunities to compete at all, actually: if each school had only one basketball team, it would be dominated by boys, and girls wouldn’t see the floor. They wouldn’t get to compete.

And they would get hurt in practice, like Kally.

So, we create separate events for girls, so as to discriminate against boys. Overall, this is a good idea. Sure, not as many people attend girls’ events, and virtually all of them lose money, but the fact that we afford the same opportunities is a good thing. In Minnesota, for example, the boys’ hockey tournament is the pinnacle of the high-school-sports calendar, at least in the winter. The tournament rents out the same arena in St. Paul where the Wild, the state’s NHL franchise, play. It’s a spectacle; the place isn’t empty. The girls? They rent out the same building two weeks prior, and it’s like an airplane hangar in there. The pep bands echo among the upper decks. No matter: the girls get to play on the big stage, and more power to ‘em. It’s not “equal” in terms of revenue, or viewing interest, or athleticism, but it’s an equal opportunity. And we create that opportunity under the banner of discrimination, the positive kind.

In this case, that discrimination is against biological males. I am a biological male. I am fine with this. I understand it. I applaud it, actually.

Feminists of yesteryear, no strangers to notions of inclusion, fought for this kind of thoughtful discrimination.

This new breed of “non-discrimination,” where people born with penises run with girls? No. This undercuts the progress that equal-opportunity sports represents. All the work of the feminist pioneers who demanded equal opportunities for girls—exactly because they are different than boys—is undercut by letting people with bodies indistinguishable from boys’ compete with girls. It undoes a legacy of equality. It tarnishes the purity of the mission of producing well-rounded young people, both young men and young women.

That it does so under the banner of “non-discrimination” is at once laughable, horrible, and borderline criminal.

And if you think I’m exaggerating on that last point, consider that the girls in Connecticut are only running sprints, which is the definition of a non-contact sport. In sprints, you don’t even jostle to merge lanes, like you do in distance races. Wait until some girl gets decked by a girl in a boy’s body on the basketball court. Or on the ice in hockey. Or, tries to block a slapshot that’s harder than she’s ever even seen before. Wait until transgender girls start to dominate contact sports, and see who’s liable then.

Think that won’t happen? Did you ever think you’d see a day when we were talking about girls’ track champions, especially at the state level, who were boys?

So, yes, I think it’s both laughable and horrible when girls are beaten in footraces by people in boys’ bodies, but I think it’ll get downright sinister when girls get not only beaten, but beaten up, in other sports.

And yet, some prominent people on the Left, the warriors of non-discrimination, are doubling down. Ilhan Omar, a nationally celebrated freshman in the US House from my home state of Minnesota, recently got involved by writing a letter to USA Powerlifting demanding that a transgender woman be allowed to compete with cisgender women in the sport.

Powerlifting. A sport where straight-up muscle is, you know, relevant. To quote National Review, “Omar calls the notion that trans women have a ‘direct biological advantage’ over biological females a ‘myth’.”

What? A myth?

Also, she calls the policy “unscientific.”


See? It’s myth vs. science, apparently. It’s like creationism all over again, but the Democrats are on the wrong side this time. The mythos of the Left has run up against the logos of… well… the reality that they claim to love so much when the anti-science Right starts hollering.

Sorry, friends: this time, the Right is right.

In her calls of discrimination, Omar cites the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which provides protections against discrimination of transgender people—apparently for any reason, good or bad. Of course, if you were against the adoption of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, or any other “human rights act,” even if you were noting only that it was too broad and would catalyze nonsense like this, you were cast as a bigot. I know—that’s happened to me in polite conversation. Or, what quickly turned to impolite conversation.

I thought this was the party not only of science, but of tolerance, too. Wrong again.

Conservatives and libertarians all like to pile on Democrats for their recent crescendo while singing the tune of identity politics. Some of that is veiled bigotry, and some of it is ignorance. But here is where, I think, the Democrats have started to eat their own tail. Here’s where they have started to undercut sensible, hard-fought equality based on discrimination, all in the name of equality without discrimination.

Weird, right?

Sure, there are lots of ways to structure a society, and the Left has led countless reforms that have increased our personal freedoms and our appreciation of diversity. However, we’re finding the limits—the boundaries—of those possible societal structures. There’s not just one “American way,” but that doesn’t mean there are an infinite number, either. And in instances like this, the logic behind crossing the boundaries in the name of diversity has started to cave.

In this case, we have tried to expand our definition of tolerance past an existing boundary of sex-based discrimination, but unlike the case in other bold reforms, this boundary that we are trying to cross is not defined by nebulous cultural norms or abstract notions of civic cohesion. No longer are we hearing that it’s “unladylike” to play sports, for example, or that homosexuality can’t be “biological.” We’re not even getting the grand fallacy of the appeal to tradition—Title IX is only a couple of generations old. We’re not hearing these old, bad arguments.

To boot, here we’re supposing that transgenderism is not only real, but that it may have a biological root, yet undefined. In this case, though, the boundary that supposedly limits the freedom in question was not erected to squash rights or encourage conformity, but to protect people and encourage equality. Just as important, that boundary was not erected just by culture, or just by preferences, but with the help of cold, hard, obvious science.

Because it is defined by science, and because it is therefore much less amenable to cultural or political change, that boundary is to be crossed at our own peril. In fact, we are now sprinting across the very boundaries of sexual dimorphism that we both recognized and reinforced with Title IX generations ago.

So, let’s review. When Title IX was conceived, we had realized that the sexes, precisely because they are different, would thrive if they were separate. Not in the classroom, where they are more equal, mind you. Not in band. Not in one-act play. Debate, speech, chess club—no. But certainly in athletics, where it mattered—where there are inarguable, immutable differences between pubescent male and female humans. By pretending that there are no differences—by over-charting the historical trajectory of progress in the name of equality—we are trampling on a boundary that makes sense. A boundary that is both important and rooted in scientific fact.

And unlike evolution and climate change, this scientific fact isn’t even complicated—everybody already knows it.

And for what? Why are we trampling this boundary between the sexes in the name of poorly defined inclusion? So a vanishingly small percentage of people in men’s bodies can dominate women?

Isn’t that exactly what we were fighting against?

That might be the least progressive thing I’ve heard from progressives, actually.

I don’t care if someone’s transgender. I’ll call them (!) what they (!) want to be called. But transgender athletics crosses the line.

The finish line, it turns out. In record time.



P. A. Jensen is editor of RuralityCheck.com.

He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.


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