L-R Stephanie Davies-Arai, Helen Saxby, Sheila Jeffreys, Ali Ceesay. Photo: Anne Ruzylo
Women’s sports and transgender rights are currently in the news, but a recent contribution by Joanna Harper in the Guardian is unhelpfully misrepresentative of many of the facts. Harper talks about ‘respecting the rights of all athletes’ and wanting ‘equitable competition for all’ whilst also recommending a testosterone level for trans athletes which has not been properly researched to ensure fairness. Most outrageously though, Harper claims the credit for a reduction in the testosterone limit by the International Olympic Committee, and argues that the original limit was set too high:
“Paula Radcliffe and others have suggested that the current limit of 10 nanomoles per litre of testosterone (T) for trans women is too high – cisgender (or typical) women are usually under 2nmol/L – and I agree. In 2017, I was on a committee that recommended to the International Olympic Committee that it should reduce the limit to 5nmol/L, and I believe this change will be implemented for next year’s Tokyo Games.”
But the fact is that it was Harper’s own flawed research and presence on the original IOC committee that set the high levels in the first place. Compare this report from January 2016 about the original higher guidelines:
Joanna Harper, chief medical physicist, radiation oncology, Providence Portland Medical Center, was one of the people at that meeting. She also happens to be trans, and she said her voice in the room was important in determining these guidelines.“The new IOC transgender guidelines fix almost all of the deficiencies with the old rules,” Harper said via email late Thursday night. “Hopefully, organizations such as the ITA will quickly adapt to the new IOC guidelines and all of the outdated trans policies will get replaced soon.”
The choice of the higher or lower limit of testosterone allowed in transgender athletes begins to look a bit arbitrary. No new research project has been done with trans athletes and no new scientific evidence has been presented to the IOC, so even though a lower limit is obviously preferable, it is still not evidenced. What Harper is actually advocating is using women’s sports as an experiment in how trans inclusion will pan out, whilst at the same time purporting to take a ‘middle ground’.
Here is some background to the story:
In March 2018 I attended an open lecture by Joanna Harper and Professor Yannis Pitsiladis at the University of Brighton, entitled ‘Beyond Fairness: The Biology of Inclusion for Transgender and Intersex Athletes’. Unaware at the time of who Harper was, I had expected a fairly dry scientific presentation, interesting mostly to students of sports science. What I got instead was a party political broadcast on behalf of the trans lobby. Harper’s presentation was crudely designed to manipulate public opinion. It contained flawed research evidence, an obfuscation of the biological differences between males and females, diversions into weight categories to muddy the waters of sports classifications, and a suggestion that it was old fashioned to still see sex as a binary. Harper’s lecture suggested that testosterone alone was the difference between male and female athletes. No reference was made to the lasting benefits of a male puberty: bone structure, muscle to fat ratio, height, strength, heart rate, lung capacity and all the rest. There are differences in socialisation and external pressures too when you grow up female. Women are not just men with reduced testosterone.
To add insult to injury we were presented with some quite offensive sexual stereotypes based on gendered expectations. We were invited to swoon over a picture of a transman athlete described by Harper as a ‘hunk’, and encouraged to find a transwoman more ‘feminine looking’ than the female athlete also pictured. Fallon Fox was shown standing next to a victorious opponent to suggest there was no advantage, and the difficulties of Hannah Mouncey’s career were described in full, without any mention that both these athletes had injured female opponents. Fox broke an opponent’s eye socket and Mouncey broke an opponent’s leg, but you wouldn’t know it from this lecture.
I attended the meeting in the company of three other feminists from the Brighton area: Ali Ceesay, Stephanie Davies-Arai and Sheila Jeffreys. After the presentation Sheila spoke first from the floor in the Q and A. Introducing herself as a political scientist she launched into a tirade of justified and righteous anger at the complete disregard for women’s rights we had just witnessed. The eloquence of Jeffreys’ fury was a joy to behold. Harper’s shocking response was to flounce. There is no other word for it. Harper ‘flounced’ to the far end of the stage and refused to answer any of the criticisms. Ali Ceesay then had a turn with the microphone, and she too was angry. She challenged the scientific evidence used by Harper, giving an account of all the physiological differences which benefit all athletes who have been through male puberty. The response from Harper was the same as before: another flounce, another refusal to answer questions. It was quite extraordinary.
Stephanie Davies-Arai and I collared Professor Pitsiladis after the event to talk some more. Professor Pitsiladis was genuine in his desire to hear all sides of the argument and he gave us a lot of his time. He asked us to email him with all the important points we had made, and assured us our views would be taken into account. The points I made to the professor included a concern about male socialisation, which I repeated in my email:
“Further to this, your research into muscle memory was interesting, especially as regards the idea that strength training may have a lasting effect which could be beneficial in later life. You could look at gender in a similar way: that male socialisation and privilege provides men with a bank they can draw on, even after transition, which can give them confidence, a sense of entitlement and a drive to succeed – all attributes seen as natural for males but a little bit less attractive in females. I believe you cannot separate physical attributes of sporting achievement from psychological ones, and that to do so gives you an incomplete picture which favours trans identified males over females.”
Stephanie made the point that female athletes too have difficult choices to make:
“We are all adults, we all have to make choices and sacrifices in life. Some female athletes sacrifice motherhood in order to reach their potential in sport. Some sacrifice sport in order to have children. Some manage to do both, continuing in their sport after pregnancy and childbirth. Men do not face any of these choices or sacrifices. Why should a man who makes the decision to hormonally alter his body to superficially resemble a woman not be expected to make any sacrifice, but to in fact gain advantage in his sport? Clearly female athletes who make the same decision do make a sacrifice as they are unable to compete on a level playing field with men, so why is it that we must do everything we can to accommodate men, even to the extent of sacrificing women’s sport?”
Ali made the point in her email that trans inclusion will always mean women will lose out:
“With every inclusion of a transwoman athlete in sport, (despite the advantages listed above), she failed to acknowledge the experience of dedicated female athletes that missed out on their lifetime dream of competing in order to facilitate this. This is after all the reality: that every biological male competing professionally in a biological class to which they do not physiologically belong, takes the position and opportunity of a biological female.”
In contrast to Professor Pitsiladis’ openness to evidence and valid concerns, Joanna Harper just expressed shock that anyone could hold contrary opinions, and seemed to assume that we were transphobic for voicing them. When I subsequently found out the part Harper had played in IOC decision making, I was furious. I had expected that sport, with its wealth, its international power and its plethora of public regulating bodies, would have plenty of people at the top looking out for human rights in general and women’s rights in particular. I assumed scientific rigour would be sacrosanct. I was wrong on both counts. In a global industry which hardly seems to stop talking about doping, there was not one person who stood up for women’s sport when faced with the transgender agenda.
And now, in trans-friendly Brighton of all places, four women had.
The following month it was reported in Pink News that the IOC had changed its rules on testosterone levels, halving the limit to 5 nanomoles per litre.
Joanna Harper is now busy doing some not-so-subtle damage-limitation, possibly because the recent participation of elite sportswomen in the debate has highlighted how much public opinion is on the side of women’s sport. The Guardian article tries hard to present a voice of reason, and includes a claim to have petitioned on behalf of women in the IOC’s latest decision to halve the testosterone levels. The truth is different. Harper had no choice but to back down when faced with the depth and fury of feminist opposition. The impetus for the rethink, according to a source, was a direct result of the Brighton lecture and the response to it.
Who then really influenced the IOC? Was it a transgender athlete who has always campaigned for the inclusion of transwomen in women’s sports, at the expense of a level playing field for female athletes? Or was it in fact down to the righteous fury and concerted input of four fearsome feminists? My female socialisation (obviously) makes it difficult for me to blow my own trumpet, but on behalf of my three comrades in arms… Come on…
Credit where credit’s due.