Skip to content

Podcast #238: Supporting Trans People Without Denying the Facts of Biology

Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay talks to Duke University law school professor (and former US National Collegiate athletic champion) Doriane Lambelet Coleman about her new book, ‘On Sex and Gender: A Commonsense Approach.’

Image of Doriane Lambelet Coleman

Welcome to the Quillette podcast. This week’s guest will be a familiar name to those listeners who’ve been following Quillette since the late 2010s. Some of you might remember a blockbuster 2019 article entitled, A Victory for Female Athletes Everywhere by a Duke Law School professor—and former US National Collegiate Indoor 800-metre champion—Doriane Lambelet Coleman. In that article, Coleman made the case for upholding rules that protect the integrity of female athletic categories from the encroachments of trans-identified biological men who assert a female gender identity. Some Quillette readers may also recognize Coleman as the author of a 2021 article whose byline was shared with tennis legend Martina Navratilova, arguing the same principles.

On the Issue of Female Athletics, the IOC Has Shirked Its Duty to Lead
The Olympic Movement and its stakeholders have traditionally looked to the IOC for leadership beyond the Games themselves when issues arise that affect the global sports community and the harmonization of regulatory approaches serves everyone’s best interests.

Of course, Coleman isn’t the only Quillette author and podcast guest we’ve featured who argues for these points. But she is unusual to such extent that she’s not only a former elite athlete, but also a legal scholar at one of America’s best law schools—just the sort of progressive academic bastion where a maximalist expression of trans rights is often presented as non-negotiable.

And Coleman has indeed taken her share of abuse online and at public speaking events. But the world has changed since 2019, and Coleman’s views are no longer universally dismissed as “trans exclusionary,” even in the ivory tower. In large part thanks to the patient advocacy of women such as Coleman, various sporting bodies have come to rediscover the common-sense principle that biology matters when it comes to protecting female athletic categories.

In a newly published Simon & Schuster book titled, On Sex and Gender: A Commonsense Approach, Coleman lays out her views on what she regards as the most humane and sensible way to reconcile the demands of trans activists with the scientifically unambiguous fact that elite male athletes are invariably bigger, stronger, and faster than their female counterparts.

While she urges traditionalists to make room for trans-identified athletes wherever possible in sports, and society in general for that matter, she also opposes the conceit that biological sex can ever truly be erased by medical means or otherwise. Please enjoy my conversation about these subjects, and more, with Doriane Lambelet Coleman.

Jonathan Kay: Your book starts with your April 2, 2019 appearance at the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives. And your book has now appeared just after the fifth anniversary of that appearance. Tell me why you were appearing before that committee.

DLC: I was appearing before the Judiciary Committee to make the case for an exception—or a “carve out”—to the provisions of the federal Equality Act, in particular for separate-sex sports [categories]. I was called specifically to talk about sports with the view that sports is illustrative—kind of low-hanging fruit in terms of all the other ways or other contexts in which sex might still matter; so that we might still need ongoing exceptions to a general non-discrimination rule, and that’s what the Equality Act is.

JK: And for those Quillette readers who have long memories, this is a subject you wrote about for Quillette, around the time of of your 2019 appearance.

A Victory for Female Athletes Everywhere
When we are told that 46, XY males with DSD who identify as female are simply “women with hyperandrogenism,” or “women with high T,” we aren’t fooled.

DLC: Yeah, so I was grateful, by the way, for the opportunity to have appeared in Quillette and to have published that with you.

JK: I was grateful to see it quoted in the book at some length, so thank you for that.

DLC: It was really a wonderful opportunity. I remember you reached out to me…

JK: That’s because you were quoted in The New York Times. Your name appeared on the front page of the print edition. I remember looking at it and I said, “Oh wow. Duke Law School. Fancy! Give her a call…” And this was early in the debate. I was especially interested in your perspective because of your pedigree as an elite athlete, as an elite runner, who also has looked into the law at the highest level, and has been advising international bodies on this.

What I thought was particularly interesting about your description of that day you appeared in front of the Judiciary Committee… [In your book], you linger on the testimony of the legal director of the National Women’s Law Center. The NWLC. The W stands for women. It’s the second word. And yet, if I remember correctly, her testimony to the committee pretty much [endorsed the idea of] erasing the carved out protections for women in this sphere.

Excerpt from the testimony of Sunu P. Chandy, Legal Director, National Women’s Law Center, before the US House of Representatives Committee on The Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, Hearing on the Equality Act (H.R. 5), 2 April 2019.

DLC: So the National Women’s Law Center, it’s one of our—if not our—leading nonprofit that has supported women’s rights for a really long time. And as I note in the introduction, my husband was on its board for a while. It’s a really extraordinary organisation and it does still does a lot of good work for women. But at one point, in the few years before that [2019] hearing, it had started to define women to include trans women who had not had any medical interventions—who just identified as women.

And now that’s a lot more common. We’re used to hearing nowadays and understanding that people define the word [women] broadly to include self-identified trans women, no medicalisation required. But at the time, it was not the common understanding…

JK: It’s still not the common understanding, [except] in those elite circles…

DLC: Great correction. Thank you. Even in those circles I travel in, that was the first time I had heard [this view], and I was working on this stuff, right? A specific example. [It was] noted that trans girls and women have been participating in [female-categorised] sports for, like, 10 years with no problem, and the suggestion was that [since people were already doing this], it should not be [seen as] a problem.

And when you come from [the world of] sport, like I do, you can care about people and be a good human and respect people for however they identify, but also understand that there are different bodies, right? And a body that has experienced female puberty or male puberty is different from a body that hasn’t, however we identify. And she [Sunu P. Chandy, Legal Director of the National Women’s Law Center] was clearly lumping together anyone who is female-identifying in terms of their identity or their gender expression, and growing the group in a way that had different implications for sport.

Meanwhile, in [the world of] sport, we were already wrestling with the question of what amount of transition medications would mitigate the [male] performance [advantage]; how long does it take or whatever. And all of a sudden, you don’t have to be on transition [meds at all]. And I wasn’t privy [to that new idea] before I walked into the hearing room, right? I wasn’t privy to that last move. I just had not heard it before. That’s probably my fault. I wasn’t paying close attention to what was going on…

JK: Yeah, I think you’re blaming the victim here.

DLC: No, no. I’d been working in the international sphere almost exclusively and in the international sports space. The international sports space is its own silo, right? And so that’s where I had been doing most of my work. So I hadn’t been paying attention to sort of politics on the domestic [US] front And so for me, it was quite a jolt [to hear Chandy], whereas it might not have been for other people who’d been paying attention.

JK: Well, I would, I’d argue that the “silo” you were in was a silo of biological reality. But throughout the book, you strike what… I don’t know whether to call it an apologetic tone, but you make it pretty clear that you had expected to drift through adult professional life more or less in a sphere that’s consistent with progressive activism—LGBT rights, feminism, etc. And suddenly you found yourself in this weird space where I think it was at the behest of Republicans that you had appeared [before that Congressional committee]. And again, I don’t know if the word “apologetic” is right, but you make it clear that it was a disorienting feeling, especially when hyper-conservative media such as Breitbart started calling you for comments. Because on one hand, you didn’t want to be gaslit: biology is biology. On the other hand, you also didn’t want to be a full-throated defender of all the political baggage and political motivations that maybe were behind people who wanted to push you in front of the cameras, right?

DLC: Yeah, so I probably couldn’t say it better than you just did.

JK: Haha. I’m amazing at saying things…

DLC: So I definitely like “disoriented” better than “apologetic.” I mean, on the apologetic side, I really do care about everybody. It sounds corny, but I do. I want every human being to be taken care of, especially kids.

I’ve done a lot of my scholarship over the years on child maltreatment and on pediatric medicine, entirely outside of this space. And I’ve raised two phenomenal young men. And yes, I come from a very liberal background. I’ve never been an activist myself, but my husband is an advocate for civil-rights causes.

My father came from a civil-rights family, so it’s my orientation. And so it’s been really disorienting to be on the “outs” with my people. My beef is really with the strategy of many trans advocates. It’s not with trans people, and it’s not with rights for trans people. It’s with the way certain trans advocates want to get those rights. And I also have a beef with the idea that we should all think of nirvana as a sex-blind society. And so, to the extent that my beef with the strategy makes some people feel like I don’t care about them, that makes me feel bad. You weren’t wrong to sense that.

The disorienting aspect of this is related, obviously. I didn’t testify for the Democrats. I testified for the Republicans. Like, in what world does that happen to me?

JK: And later in your book, you back-end into your background. You were born in Switzerland. And you grew up in America with a French mother and an American father. And I believe on one side you’re descended from slaves…

DLC: …My father’s side…

JK: There are some scenes here that could be from the biographical backstory of many incredible activists. You know, you’re not exactly Tucker Carlson. But what’s interesting about your book is it’s in equal measure a discourse aimed at progressives who deny the reality of sex, but also an informed discourse aimed at conservatives who deny the reality of gender dysphoria. The political reality you inhabit, being a professor at an elite university, you’re not going to face any backlash for those lectures aimed at conservatives. I mean, if you’d written an entire book that’s just one diatribe about how awful [Donald] Trump is, you’d just get nothing but golf claps from your peers. But you do get backlash from your progressive colleagues and students [for dissenting from their ideas]. You describe how you’ve been treated horribly by some people, who have said terrible things about you.

Like, you were accused of [something called] “misogynoir”…

DLC: That’s misogyny as directed toward black women. I actually read about it while researching for the book. I was looking it up and realised that my own name was attached to a few instances of accusations of misogynoir.

When I was writing about the [Caster] Semenya case, and then when I was asked to testify about it, I did a bunch of reading. [This accusation came from Semenya’s] supporters—not necessarily people who were directly associated with her, but her allies around the world…

JK: Caster Semenya is the famous 800m runner in the female category who, as is well known, has a disorder of sexual development—essentially a male-bodied person who, for a variety of complex reasons and through no fault of her own, ended up in female athletic categories. She’s from [South] Africa and has been unwittingly thrust into the center of this debate about male bodied participation in female sports categories.

European rights court to make final decision on Olympic champion Semenya
Caster Semenya’s costly legal marathon enters its last lap as the highest chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Wednesday begins a hearing into whether the double Olympic champion can…

DLC: Yeah, she’s a multi-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist in the 800 metres. She came out first in 2009 for the World Championships and had a decade of dominance on the international circuit. Essentially, she became a symbol of the question, “What is a woman?” well before it was [commonly] asked.

JK: And she was a named party in sports litigation, right?

DLC: Yes. She has what’s called a 46,XY DSD, which means she’s a genetic male who was identified at birth as female and carries a female passport that says female, and so was entered into female competitions early on by her sports federation in South Africa. Then she became an adult and owned her continued appearance in that category and continues to fight for her right to be there.

JK: Under difficult circumstances and with great dignity.

DLC: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, she’s an extraordinary person. So, one of the claims that was made by her allies was that it was both racist and sexist to see her as anything but female. That if you understood that black female bodies come in all different sizes, shapes, and colours, etc., you would not be so ignorant, racist, and sexist [as to misgender her]. When I talked about making sure that the female podium at elite levels—meaning the World Championships and Olympic Games—features female-bodied people, I was accused of misogynoir. And the idea was that I was [allegedly] resisting black female bodies on the podium; that I wanted only to see white female bodies on the podium. And, you know, obviously, as I write in the book, they didn’t know me, and they don’t understand my background. And in any event, that wasn’t what I was writing. I was writing that I wanted to see female bodies on the podium, not male bodies on the podium.

JK: You’re not going to say it, but I will say it. Based on your book, my understanding is that you’re multiracial—you’re half black—and as I understand, you’re married to a black man with a long history in social activism.

DLC: Correct. So the two points I try to make in response to that claim are: They don’t know my background, but even if they did know my background, they shouldn’t accuse me of [misogynoir] because, in fact, in track and field, almost all of [these] podium spots are taken by black women [anyway], right? And so when we allow male-bodied athletes whose legal identity is female on the podium, they’re displacing mostly black women. And so if they knew those two things, they probably wouldn’t have said that I was engaging in misogynoir.

JK: The best example is the 2016 Olympics, where, if I remember correctly, all three podium spots in the 800-metre female category were occupied by Caster Semenya at the number-one spot, and the other two spots were occupied by other women who happened to be black and who also happened to have the same disorder of sexual development as [Semenya].

Semenya, centre, displays her gold medal, flanked by the silver and bronze medal winners—Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba (left), and Kenya’s Margaret Nyairera Wambui (right), respectively—in the female 800m category at the 2016 Olympics.

DLC: Correct. All three athletes have [a] 46,XY DSD [condition], which in effect means that of the six podium spots in the 800-metres in [2016], all six were occupied by male-bodied people.

JK: On this podcast, we’ve had elite female rowers, we’ve had elite female swimmers, and one thing they often tell us: a lot of their training takes place in the company of men.

Podcast #208: Fair Play for Female Athletes—Then and Now
Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay talks to former U.S. Olympic team rower Mary O’Connor about her 1970s-era fight against sports sexism—and today’s battle to keep male bodies out of women’s rowing.

And so sometimes it’s right in front of their face—the performance differences between men and women.

In general, when you’re having these conversations, or when you’re listening to activists such as Chase Strangio, who is front and centre with the ACLU on anything to do with trans [issues], do you often just say to yourself, “So, this is a person saying things that no one who has ever done sports above a recreational level would ever say if they had actually experienced [real] competition”?

DLC: Yeah. So I do. I have that reaction a lot. I don’t know Chase personally, and so I don’t know what he knows from either his own experience or from having researched the matter. He’s litigating a lot of sports cases now, so maybe he knows more than he did a few years ago. But in general, I find that a lot of the language or analysis—and I’ll put those words in quotes—that the advocacy community uses in the sports space is uninformed and/or intentionally misleading.

For instance, when I read something from the Human Rights Campaign, “Do males have an advantage over females in sport?” And then they conclude that they don’t. I read that. And I think either they don’t know. And I get irritated because I think that if you are going to make an argument, you should learn the facts and make an argument from the facts. Or they do know that people are relying on them and aren’t going to do the homework themselves. And so they say things that they can get away with because most people are just going to hear them and adopt their positions.

JK: So there are certain kind of lies you can tell in public but not in private.

DLC: Correct.

JK: So, for instance, you can get in front of a microphone in front of a million people and say, “Trans women are women. There are no biological differences between male and female. And everyone needs to get over their cisheteronormativity,” and everyone will clap. But then if somebody comes up to that same person [in private], and says, “So you’re really saying that it’s totally cool for former NHL players who identify as women to play in a women’s hockey league?” that person will acknowledge that these claims break down, and don’t make sense, except as hashtags and slogans. Have you ever had that kind of conversation?

DLC: I’ve been fortunate to have conversations with people across the political spectrum, including in the advocacy space. I’m assuming it’s the same in lots of other political spaces, where people have talking points that they push out…

JK: But this is science. So this is different from “the red party is better than the blue party.” It’s like saying COVID vaccines don’t work and then, when the mic’s off, you say, “Actually, I’ve been vaccinated four times.” There’s an extra level of hypocrisy when it’s about science.

DLC: The most obvious example I can give you of this phenomenon is the whole argument about whether testosterone is performance-enhancing. Many of the advocates are willing to say things to the newspapers that are sort of one liners about how it’s either not performance enhancing, or male and female T levels overlap. But then, when [such people] testified in the Semenya [legal] hearing, they were not willing anymore to say those [slogans]. They were in a room with their peers, [among whom] the peer-reviewed evidence is clearly to the contrary [of their claims].

[At that hearing], we were expecting a multi-day debate about the role of testosterone in human performance, and it actually lasted like an hour because all of the experts who had been quoted in the papers before the hearing—who’d been willing to say those things to the newspapers—were no longer willing to say them in a hearing.

JK: On page 31, you’re quoting the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Because one thing you learn when you get into this issue is there’s this whole legal ecosystem of specialised tribunals that no one had ever heard of before. So this is a quote from them, where they’re talking about the need to protect “individuals whose bodies have developed in a certain way following puberty from having to compete against individuals who, by virtue of their bodies having developed a different way following puberty, possess certain physical traits that create such a significant performance advantage that fair competition between the two groups is not possible.”

Was there nobody at the CAS who just looked up and said, “Guys, this is ridiculous”? I mean, it sounds like Victorian writers trying to avoid the word vagina. There’s something comically prudish about it, except the prudishness isn’t based on avoidance of being sexually explicit. It’s based on avoidance of saying a word that Chase Strangio will dislike.

DLC: So there was nothing in the anti-doping work that [I’d done previously in my career] that prepared me for this because at that time, the late 1980s through the mid to late 1990s, everybody got that there was a male and female body and that androgens were a particular problem.

Both males and females dope with androgens, but androgens have more of a performance-enhancing effect in females than they do in males. Because we have so little to start with that you could take a tiny bit and essentially double your circulating levels. Having said that, the one thing you didn’t say when you read the passage was that the way I introduced that passage was to say it was a “brilliant judicial passage.”

As you said before, Caster Semenya is an incredibly dignified human being. You know, she’s complicated like everybody’s complicated, but she’s incredibly dignified. And she was in the room, as we all were in the room for the entire time of the hearing—and also insisting throughout, as she does in her book, [that she’s a woman]. I recommend reading [her book] because I think we can learn a lot from it.

Covers from two regional editions of Caster Semenya’s 2023 book, The Race to Be Myself.

She believes she’s a woman and, by her cultural standards, I think she’s probably right. And in the face of that, all three of the [CAS] arbitrators could accomplish what they needed to accomplish, or what they concluded they needed to accomplish after five days of testimony, without insulting her; and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

JK: Also, it’s worth noting that there have been plenty of people [in the past] who have been made to endure incredibly humiliating inspections of their secondary sex characteristics by doctors to ensure that, according to the standards of proof that then governed, that they were women.

DLC: Right. I mean, so look, if you’re going to have sex classification, sex testing is necessary. The term “sex testing” has gotten a bad name, but in fact it’s necessary if you’re going to have eligibility standards. The choice of how you do that is really important. And not doing unnecessarily invasive and humiliating tests is a really good idea for all kinds of reasons, right? Including the dignity and the privacy of the individual who would be tested.

[Measuring] testosterone is an incomplete proxy for sex. But one of the reasons it is still, I think, the best proxy—if you’re not going to do chromosome testing, which would really be the best proxy—is because it’s so uninvasive.

JK: It’s a blood test.

DLC: Well, it’s a blood test, but you’re [also] getting [results] from urinalysis, and [that] comes from doping control. So it’s not even initially an extra test, right?

JK: It’s the same technology used to see if you’re on steroids or something like that.

DLC: Yeah, exactly. And it has nothing to do with your genitals. But it’s not a complete proxy in the sense that testosterone isn’t the same as sex. Sex is a whole-body and integrated system. Testosterone is a bit of it, but it is a really good indicator. Genitalia are a really good indicator at birth, and so too is testosterone a good proxy from the point of puberty, of whether a person is likely to be male or female. It drives male sexual development, and it drives the aspects of our bodies that make for more power, strength, and speed.

JK: Is one unintended benefit of this whole controversy that it has caused feminist intellectuals, such as yourself, to sit back and say, “Let’s look at the basic question: Why are protections for sexed females important [in the first place]?” And maybe go back to basics and do work that maybe you had taken for granted before.

DLC: Absolutely. And in fact, you wrote this great piece. And we had an exchange about it, I think, if I remember correctly. You wrote this great piece about a woman who was married to a person who came out as [trans]…

JK: Shannon Thrace [was the author].

Once a Man, Never a Woman
In an extraordinary new book, Shannon Thrace describes her disintegrating marriage to a man consumed by narcissism and gender dysphoria.

DLC: One of the things that you said in that piece that struck me, and I realised when I read it, that it was a great description of what I was doing, is you wrote that it’s forced us to articulate the reasons that sex matters. It [seems] so obvious to me in a really primal, pre-cognitive way. And so when people ask me the question, sometimes I freeze, right, because I’m wondering where this person is coming from that they don’t know, too.

By insisting, as it does, on sex-blindness, the trans advocacy movement has forced us to articulate a non-religious case that sex matters. There’s an easy religious case that sex matters, and an easy scientific or reproductive-science explanation for why sex matters. But in terms of a personal and political argument, if you come from circles where I live in now, where a lot of sexism is gone, and we’ve controlled aspects of our biology through medications and things like that, we’re a lot like the men around us, and the men don’t treat us differently anymore. That’s really a privileged moment in time and place, right? But if you’re outside of those [elite] settings, [sex] so obviously matters.

The trans-advocacy movement has forced us to articulate this non-religious case that sex matters and how it matters. And if we care about [trans people] too, we have to work hard, and we should work hard, to find a way to be sex-smart, not sex-blind.

By “smart,” I mean doing the least harm possible when we’re using [the sex category]. Beyoncé talks about making lemonade, right, out of lemons. I think we can make lemonade, though I’m not sure everybody thinks it’s sweet enough yet…

JK: I’m going to stop this metaphor right now because it’s going to get out of control. Seeds and acidity and …

DLC: Look, the argument for sex blindness has been there for a really long time. I talk about it in the book. The trans-advocacy movement didn’t make it up. They picked it up, and they’re running with it. But it’s been there all along. We didn’t need to [make the case against it] at the time, but I think we need to make one now.

JK: I’m glad you brought up this phrase, “sex-smart.” And you talk about a common sense approach. To bring in my obligatory reference to disc golf, when I play in a recreational league, and there’s men and women together, no one cares. We’re all having a good time. It’s a non-contact sport. What I do object to is that once money is involved and you’re at a professional level, and I’ve written about this, is that [some] professional male disc golfers can throw a disc 600 feet. Most women can’t crack 450. So if there’s money and trophies on the line, it makes absolutely no sense to let a male-bodied person into [the female] space.

Disc Golf’s Lia Thomas Moment
As a biologically male player continues a meteoric rise on the female circuit, women are starting to speak out.

And as a father of three girls, I have followed them longitudinally through many sports. A typical pattern is they will play in co-ed leagues. There’s boys and girls, they’re all having fun. And then, around the ages of 10 or 11 or 12, there’s this quantum leap where the boys don’t just get faster and stronger. They get more aggressive. They’re faster on the puck. You know, I remember in soccer in particular. My daughter was then 10 years old. She loved soccer. It was around that age when some of the male players were muscling her off the ball and she stopped enjoying it. That was when I started switching my kids to female-only leagues.

DLC: If you’re going to have sex-segregated sport for kids, you need to understand why you’re doing it, and it needs to be evidence-based.

Your disc golf example is perfect, right? In a non-contact sport where it’s recreational and everybody’s having fun, then there’s no reason, really, to talk about bodies that develop one way versus bodies that develop another way, right? But, like you said, if there’s money on the line, or with kids… Girls in general start dropping out of [even] same-sex sport around the onset of female puberty because the body changes are so huge and there’s so much going on in their lives. We want to do everything we can to encourage them to participate. And so, at that point, there are good arguments for considering same-sex for [girls] even when it’s just recreational.

JK: You also get into the fact, in one of your chapters, how denying the existence of biological sex is arguably homophobic. Can you explain that?

DLC: The reality is that lots of kids who are… I like the term “gender-questioning”… are questioning their gender identity, questioning their sexual orientation. Some people who are gay will tell you that that’s their childhood. Some of them realise they are trans, but mostly they settle on the fact that they are gay. And they worry, and I think legitimately, that the cultural moment [now serves] to prefer trans people to gay people in terms of what is popular…

JK: What gets the parade.

DLC: Also what’s cared for. And so a kid who says, “I’m confused,” often the suggestion will be that maybe they’re trans. And maybe they are, but also maybe they’re gay, and, and so that’s one piece of it. The other piece of it is that if being gay is defined as sexually preferring the male body or the female body, then if something known as “the male body” or “the female body” doesn’t exist, then neither does being gay.

And for a movement that—and I’m talking about the trans-advocacy movement—that is based on respecting someone’s self-identification, it comes off as really disrespectful, right? Because it’s like: you have to respect the way I self-identify, but I’m going to tell you how you should identify.

JK: I learned that you were in Budapest in 2022, on site, when the world governing body regulating not just swimming, but other aquatic sports, passed new rules that essentially enshrine the age old biologically based standard. As I understand [that standard], if you went through male puberty, at the highest levels [of competition], you’re going to have to compete in male categories.

DLC: If you experienced any part of male puberty.

JK: You can’t put the genie back in the bottle by reducing your testosterone because…

DLC: Testosterone is the primary driver of the performance gap, but it’s not the only driver. The idea underlying the World Aquatics rules, which have since been adopted by World Athletics, is if you have experienced any part of male puberty, you are not eligible for the female category at a later level.

PRESS RELEASE | FINA announces new policy on gender inclusion
BUDAPEST (Hungary; 19 June 2022) – FINA Member Federations voted today in support of a new FINA policy on gender inclusion presented at the FINA Extraordinary General Congress 2022.

JK: Does this mean that common sense is winning? I think World Rugby has also adopted common-sense rules. Have we passed the point of Peak Strangio when it comes to biology-denying rules regarding female sport?

DLC: I think we’re in a moment where courageous leaders of international sports federations are insisting on protecting the female category for female-bodied people, yes. [But] it’s a highly political environment. And I don’t think for a minute that the advocacy groups are done trying to push for change. As you and I speak, the European Court of Human Rights is going to hear the appeal in Caster Semenya’s case. It’s not going to be legally binding, whatever the result is, but it has a lot of influence when it says something is or isn’t a violation of human rights.

And so I think that we are in a moment where we’re trending toward common sense, but this is not over.

European rights court to make final decision on Olympic champion Semenya
Caster Semenya’s costly legal marathon enters its last lap as the highest chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Wednesday begins a hearing into whether the double Olympic champion can…

JK: When you started speaking out on this issue, as you write in the book, there were some appalling incidents. There was one, I think you were speaking in a university, and the campus left-wing club stormed into the proceedings and took pictures of everybody who was there and said, “We’re going to publicly shame you because you’re here with these transphobes.” And so people left the room, and then [the group] claimed, “Well, look, the room’s empty, so no one wants to see these [trans-exclusionary feminists] or whatnot.”

And there was an episode at your own university where I think student-law journal members tried to shame you publicly. I get the sense that the environment has changed a little bit, and so those kind of stunts don’t work as much anymore. And people are coming around to the fact that there’s at least a legitimate debate here, which you’re not going to successfully prosecute by trying to get people like you cancelled. Do you find that there’s a slightly friendlier environment for you at places such as universities for the arguments you’re making?

DLC: The environment is friendlier for me at Duke, but I’ve not travelled since then. The first event you described was at UCLA law, and that was right at the start of COVID. So part of it was that none of us travelled for a couple of years [after that], right? And then I was writing the book, and so I didn’t travel then.

So I don’t know how many female academics, including myself, would be welcome for a public talk at a university on these subjects right now. I definitely feel like the students have taken a turn in the right direction in the sense that even if they disagree with me, they’re willing to have a civil conversation. And they’re interested and want to argue about it and all that, which I love, right? People don’t have to agree with me, especially at a university, right? We’re here to hear each other’s ideas and arguments.

I’ve been really well supported at Duke in general by the administration—not because I know that anyone agrees with my arguments, but just because they believe in academic freedom and civil discourse. And they’ve done a really good job promoting that here.

Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay is a Quillette editor, podcaster, and advisor to The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. His books include Among the Truthers, Legacy, Panics & Persecutions, and Magic in the Dark.

Doriane Lambelet Coleman

Dorianen is a Professor of Law at Duke University, specializing in interdisciplinary scholarship focusing on women, children, medicine, sports, and law.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette