By the time she stepped out onto the stage, straightened her back, bent her knees and wrapped her hands around the barbell on Monday night, Laurel Hubbard had already made history.
The 43-year-old professional weightlifter, who hails from the New Zealand city of Auckland, was there, in Tokyo, because she had successfully qualified and fulfilled the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) criteria for transgender athletes. She was the first openly transgender woman to compete in the Olympic Games.
Amid a storm of controversy and a rabble of voices claiming her inclusion in the women’s event was “unfair,” Hubbard, who prior to her transition in 2012 competed in men’s weightlifting, took to the stage on Monday night to represent New Zealand in the super-heavyweight category of her sport. Millions of baleful eyes were upon her: months of fear mongering, pearl-clutching and firepoking had been building to this moment.
It was over within minutes. Of the 14 women from 14 countries around the world, Hubbard was the only competitor in the field not to complete a single lift. She came in last.
This is not the outcome her loudest critics had warned us about. Irate commentators had suggested that Hubbard, who was born in a male body and publicly identified as a man for the first 34 years of her life, would easily win the women’s event.
She had an “unfair biological advantage,” they claimed, arguing her participation swamped any chance of a level playing field. In the words of self-proclaimed feminist writer Julie Bindel, Hubbard’s appearance at the Olympics heralded “the beginning of the end of women’s sports.”
None of these predictions came to pass. Whatever so-called “advantage” Hubbard might have had, it was no match for her cisgender opponents.
“Physically, she certainly wasn’t the biggest or the strongest or the most capable lifter by any stretch of the imagination,” Joanna Harper, who has published a peer-reviewed article on the performance of transgender athletes and worked as an adviser to the IOC on matters of gender and sport, told VICE World News via video call. “It’s absolutely true that Laurel has been more successful in women’s weightlifting than she ever would have been in men’s weightlifting—but she certainly doesn’t have an overwhelming advantage. She wasn’t going to win the competition, and it would’ve taken a superb day for her to medal.”
Harper, who is herself a transgender athlete, acknowledges that trans women have certain athletic advantages over cisgender competitors. But she also believes that Bindel’s claim, that trans athletes will dominate women’s sports, is unfounded.
Instead, Harper acknowledges that there is a way to create “meaningful competition” that includes both trans and cisgender athletes, particularly through relevant eligibility requirements for women’s categories in sport.
One way to do this is by subdividing sports into categories based on physical ability—which, as Harper pointed out, is already standard in many sports. In weightlifting, for example, athletes are divided into appropriate weight classes based on their body mass.
The other way is to require that all transgender athletes complete their gender-affirming hormone therapy—in the case of transgender women, by taking medication to block the action of testosterone—before qualifying to compete. People underestimate how significantly hormone therapy reduces an individual’s athletic performance, according to Harper, who claimed, “Women’s sports aren’t so easy if you have to do them with women’s testosterone levels.”
“There are very good reasons why we have men’s sport and women’s sport—that part of the argument is quite sound,” Harper said. “And while there are a lot of trans advocates that believe trans people should be allowed to compete in the category in which they identify, I don’t agree with that. I think it is important to require trans women to go through hormonal transition before competing in the women’s category.”
As per the requirements of the IOC, Hubbard had completed her hormone therapy. As per the requirements of weightlifting in general, she had also been pitted against competitors based on her weight class. In spite of many detractors' claims to the contrary, each one of those competitors had the chance to beat her.
And when it came to the crunch, every one of them did.
It was Li Wenwen, the 21-year-old cisgender weightlifter from China, who took out the gold medal while breaking three Olympic records in the event.
“In most sports we can have meaningful competition between trans women and cis women,” said Harper. “[And] I think that Laurel, within the 14 women that she was competing against, there absolutely was meaningful competition.”
It’s worth stressing that Hubbard is just one person, though—a single athlete in a single sport—and not, as many have implied, a paradigm or poster child of transgender athleticism at large.
“I think it is important to require trans women to go through hormonal transition before competing in the women’s category.”
A data pool of one can only tell us so much about the advantages and disadvantages that transgender athletes experience. But Hubbard is also one in a long line of trans athletes who, over the past 45 years, have been the subject of hysteria and demonisation. And as Harper pointed out, that ought to tell us something.
“We are 45 years out from the first time trans women competed in a women's category, and for 45 years people have been saying ‘it’s not fair, trans women will soon be taking over the women’s category,’” she said. “And clearly that’s not happening.”
Harper counted off a number of previous trans athletes who, in spite of their allegedly unstoppable biological advantages, failed to make it to the top of their fields. Hannah Mouncey, an Australian women’s handballer and Australian rules footballer, was neither the best performer in her team nor chosen to compete in the World Championships squad. Brazilian volleyball player Tiffany Abreu did not make her country’s Olympic roster for the Tokyo Games, nor did Nikki Hiltz of the United States’ track and field team. And Chelsea Wolfe, a transgender cyclist, only made it as a reserve for the U.S. squad of the women’s BMX Freestyle.
In short: not quite the end times some people were forecasting when the IOC announced that trans women could compete in the games without having to undergo gender confirmation surgery.
“This narrative that these 2016 rules that went into place allowing trans women to compete [in the Olympics] just based on hormone therapy would lead to trans women taking over, and that we would see this in Tokyo, hasn’t happened,” said Harper. “Trans women aren’t going to be taking over women’s sports any time soon—that’s certainly something we can say [following Hubbard’s loss], although of course it's something that I’ve been saying for quite a while.”
“Chelsea [the cyclist] was only the alternate, Laurel was last, and that’s the best that trans women could do in these Olympic games.”
“We are 45 years out from the first time trans women competed in a women's category, and for 45 years people have been saying ‘it’s not fair, trans women will soon be taking over the women’s category’ … And clearly that’s not happening.”
Specious claims that transgender athletes might sweep in to women’s events, overthrow all competitors and trample their way to the gold medal aren’t just hyberbolic, though—they also often fail to appreciate the physical prowess of cisgender female athletes. While men in sport do often have a biological advantage over women, Dr. Jami Taylor, a professor of political science at the University of Toledo, told VICE World News that people frequently overestimate the size of that gulf.
“There is great variation between women and between men, and there is a lot of overlap in the sexes when you look at individual athletes,” she said. “People also ignore human variability both within biological sexes and across the sexes.”
Harper expressed a similar point when highlighting the fallacy of people’s arguments against letting individuals like Hubbard compete against cis women.
“I think this idea sells women athletes short,” she said. “Because women don’t physically achieve in sports the way that men do people tend to dismiss women athletes, but if these male sports writers were to try women’s sports with women’s testosterone levels they would quickly realise just how challenging that is.”
Harper added that while she would have liked to have seen Hubbard perform slightly better than she did on Monday, there is a sense of relief in the fact that she didn’t fulfil the naysayers’ prophecies by taking home the gold. If she had, Harper speculated, then the voices trying to stop trans athletes would be even louder.
She doesn’t think Hubbard’s loss will silence those voices either, though.
“These people are persistent and not easily dissuaded. Will it dissuade them? I don’t know—it should. But I’m not sure that narrative will go away because it’s all that these people have,” she said. “These people will say ‘just wait until Paris,’ and then ‘just wait until Los Angeles,’ and then ‘just wait until Brisbane.’ It’s never going to end.”
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