When I was eight years old, I decided that I wanted to play football—by which I mean American football, the kind with helmets and touchdowns. It was 1994, and my town’s only football team was for boys. Nevertheless, my parents signed me up without a second thought, believing that my participation was just fine. Unfortunately, the league officials didn't agree.
The head of the league requested that I prove myself able to compete. He was a member of the local karate dōjō, and had me go head-to-head with the sensei’s son in a make-shift strength test. It was an odd sort of trial, since prepubescent girls and boys tend to be physically pretty evenly matched. So it’s not like this was some kind of David-versus-Goliath showdown. My mom tells me now that we were all pissed off about it, though we cordially complied. My own memories are vague, but apparently I prevailed. My mother claims (with delight) that I “nailed” my assigned opponent in a convincing way.
I was on the team, and played for the next four years. For the first year or two, I was one of the star running backs. But by seventh grade, I started to lag behind the boys, who were now getting bigger. As I approached 13, it became clear that, at five feet tall and no more than 120 pounds, I could no longer meaningfully compete with the far more muscle-bound males. I bowed out, grateful to have played, and proud to have been one of the first two girls in the league.
It was almost a decade before I played football again. By the time I joined an all-women’s football league in 2006, I was a 20-year-old woman. But I immediately fell back into the joy I’d experienced as a child. I continued to play on and off for several different area teams. And yes, for those who are skeptical, this was real football: pads, hitting, tackling, the whole package.
By 2016, I’d made the move to an elite squad. Some of our coaches had NFL experience, and there was a lot of competition for roster spots, with little deference given to veterans. In some cases, star players would fly in from out of state, sometimes for just a few practices, and then get starting positions on game day. This wasn’t a feel-good league where everyone got a turn and the whole point was to just have fun. If you were good, you played. If not, not.
By this time in my career, I was already somewhat slowed by nagging injuries. But as recently as the 2015 season, I’d still been getting enough playing time to keep me dedicated to the team. Things changed the next year, however, when a trans woman joined our roster.
Jamie, as I will call her, played the same defensive position as me. She was young, had a great sense of humor, and could really knock the crap out of people. It was pretty exciting to see. She came to every practice, participated fully, and was an overall good teammate. She and I were friendly, and I’d often give her a lift to practices, during which we’d talk shop. I never resented her personally, and still don’t. The league permitted her to play. And she was just doing what the rest of us were all doing—playing a sport we loved. At the time, moreover, I didn’t want to process the fact that Jamie had a significant advantage over her natal female teammates and opponents. And if the issue had been put to me, I would have defended her right to play in the league.
I’m not sure what my logic would have been, because these issues weren’t as strenuously debated in 2016 as they are now. But I think that I believed that, if given the right dosage of drugs, a post-pubescent biological male really could be meaningfully classified as akin to a biological female. Maybe my propensity toward social justice inclined me toward trying to see the world through Jamie’s eyes—even if her presence ultimately cost me my own opportunity to win a playing spot in an all-women’s league.
Or maybe it was just force of habit—the reflex to not say anything lest one get labelled a bigot. And if you’re not going to say something, best to condition yourself not to think it in the first place. (Biological females consistently score higher than males on agreeableness in the Big-Five personality model. But that’s a digression for another day.)
But the facts were clear. Jamie was built like a naturally athletic male. She was bigger, faster, and stronger than the rest of us, without regularly working out or eating right. (I know this because we joked about it on our rides to practice.) She didn’t have particularly good tackling form, but it didn’t matter. Sub-par technique won’t hold you back if you can out-muscle any opponent. Usually, a woman of her above-average size would play on the offensive or defensive line. But she was clearly fast enough for linebacker, a position typically played by those who combine high strength and speed with somewhat more compact muscle mass. She stood head and shoulders above most other linebackers, and could chase down most running backs and quarterbacks even if she’d erred in her original positioning. She didn’t even have much need to closely study the plays and formations that the rest of us did our best to memorize: Her speed and strength allowed her to get anywhere on the field, even if it meant going through other players.
This nagging feeling that she had an unfair advantage arose every time we hit each other in practice. For me, it was like hitting a brick wall, a deflating experience. Even the strongest women I’ve faced seemed half as strong. I’d been too small to compete in boys’ football throughout high school and college, and I accepted that. But those weren’t female leagues. Here I was in adulthood, finally getting the chance to compete meaningfully against other females, and I was being out-muscled by someone who (from what I could tell) would otherwise be an average or below-average player on a men’s team. It was like I was 12 years old again, unable to keep up with the boys.
Looking back, it’s painfully obvious how unfair it was for a female to have to compete against someone who went through male puberty. The research in this area is now irrefutable. One study showed that trans women retain a nine percent faster mean run-speed advantage over female counterparts, even after a year of hormone therapy. Men punch harder, process more oxygen, and are less susceptible to sports injuries. Overall, the New York Times recently summarized, “men on average have broader shoulders, bigger hands and longer torsos, and greater lung and heart capacity. Muscles are denser.” All of this translates directly to superior athletic performance. And these advantages can’t be fully erased later in life by testosterone reduction.
Save Women’s Sports, an organization dedicated to defending female-only sports categories, has listed about 80 publicly known trans-identified males who have competed in a women’s sports category. This isn’t a full listing of all known trans women participating in female sports. But the catalogue is worth inspecting nonetheless, as the listed examples tend to illustrate a common fact pattern: an average or below-average male athlete transitions then goes on to break records in the women’s division.
Some supporters of trans women in female sports argue that if trans women and natal females were really unevenly matched, then trans women would be winning every single competition every single time. But given the relatively low numbers of trans women who play most sports, this can be dismissed as a strawman argument.
And while there is some overlap in the results of lower-performing male athletes and top-performing female athletes, this is hardly a reason to allow trans women in female sports. Consider that in track-and-field events, even elite high-school boys regularly perform at a level that outclasses record-holding female Olympians. On June 12th, the New York Times sports section fronted an inspiring story about a talented pitcher named Kelsie Whitmore, one of the best women to ever play baseball. What the author left to the end of the piece was the fact that Whitmore’s fastball tops out below 80 miles per hour, or at least 15 miles per hour slower than untold hundreds of rank-and-file minor-league male pitchers. To understand how the inclusion of any substantial number of elite natal males in the female division of sports will make a mockery of women’s events, just imagine any NFL football, NBA basketball, NHL hockey, or MLB baseball player announcing a female gender identification and then demanding entry into a woman’s league.
Transgender individuals experience all sorts of challenges in their day-to-day lives that the rest of us don’t, including transphobia. And on social media in particular, one sometimes hears the argument that we all need to make every allowance for them, so as to help compensate for the pain and marginalization they experience. One sometimes hears this argument in a legal context, as well. “Discriminatory things…happen to transgender people every day,” said Nicholas May, a lawyer who (successfully) represented a trans woman seeking to play with a female football team in Minnesota. “Even these small things can create significant mental health and esteem issues for transgender people.”
In this view, female athletes need to “take one for the team” (i.e., the social-justice team) as it were, and accommodate female-identified biological males so that they can flourish as their “true selves.” As noted above, this was more or less my line of thinking until just a few years ago—before I ran into that brick wall at practice.
Until recently, the things I am saying here were considered unsayable (at least in polite society). Such assertions of biological reality were denounced as an affront to the principle that transgender rights “aren’t up for debate.”
But such absolutist slogans are losing their force, thanks in part to the backlash produced by Thomas’s performance at the NCAA swimming finals in March. A sign of the times is the recent ruling from the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), swimming’s global governing body, to the effect that biological males who describe themselves as trans women (such as Thomas) won’t be allowed to compete in elite women’s swim races if they’ve already gone through any part of male puberty. The global body that oversees rugby union made a similar ruling in 2020. And track and field seems to be heading in the same direction.
None of these developments signal real transphobia any more than do my own views. I believe that transgender people have rights. But I also believe that, as in many other spheres of law and policy-making, there are trade-offs to be made between the rights asserted by different groups. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way as a child: The boys had their own football team while the girls didn’t, because there simply weren’t enough interested girls to justify the operation of a female league. Town resources are limited, and administrators have to make hard choices. It’s unfortunate, but I had to accept that. Being a girl who likes traditionally male activities put me in the minority, and so sometimes meant that I had to refrain from engaging in activities I enjoyed.
Had I refused to accept that reality, and instead found a way to play high-school boys, I would have risked seriously injuring myself because I am on the small side, even for a woman. The trans women demanding entry to female contact sports, on the other hand, are putting the risk of injury not on themselves, but on everyone else. Fox, for instance, infamously broke the skull of a female opponent, Tamikka Brents, in a 2014 MMA fight. And trans-identified Australian-rules football player Hannah Mouncey, at 6’3’ and 220 pounds, ended up in an on-field tangle that broke an opponent’s leg.
Such trans women are free to compete in male athletic divisions, even as they continue to assert their female identity—since professional male sports generally don’t have rules barring women. But of course, this would mean facing a much higher standard of competition. And when it comes to such imbalances, it is evidently expected that it will be biological women, not men, who make the necessary accommodations.
That fits with a persistent trend that runs throughout human history, of course. What’s surprising isn’t that today’s female athletes are being asked to make sacrifices for others. Rather, it’s that we’re supposed to pretend that doing so represents an exercise in social justice.