In recent years, a culture war battle has raged over masculinity, with skirmishes fought over the behavior of so-called incels (involuntary celibates), “toxic masculinity,” and the supposed scourges of “mansplaining” and “manels.”
But a similar, if slightly more roundabout debate, has also been raging about what it means to be a woman. What makes a person female? Is it limited to being born with certain sex organs and genitalia? Is it the experience of puberty, which exposes someone to female hormones?
These questions, once relegated to introductory biology classes, are no longer rhetorical. With the rise of the transgender rights movement, an increasing number of people argue that an individual’s claimed experience of feeling female and wanting to live as a female (even when one has been born male) should be the only requirement for being accepted as a woman. In this worldview, biological sex matters less than individual preferences.
It’s a radical argument draped in the soothing language of tolerance and acceptance, and it’s one that can only exist if people suspend belief in science. Writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, biologists Colin M. Wright and Emma N. Hilton described a “dangerous and antiscientific trend toward the outright denial of biological sex.” They added:
“If male and female are merely arbitrary groupings, it follows that everyone, regardless of genetics or anatomy should be free to choose to identify as male or female, or to reject sex entirely in favor of a new bespoke ‘gender identity.’ To characterize this line of reasoning as having no basis in reality would be an egregious understatement. It is false at every conceivable scale of resolution.”
This debate about biology has played out most starkly in women’s sports. Athletes born males are now competing as females at the college and professional level, and they are decisively beating athletes who are born female (even though these same born-male athletes would have ranked far below other born-male athletes if they competed against them).
This emerging dynamic has pitted old-school feminists like tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who has argued that trans athletes have an unfair advantage against born-female athletes, against progressive trans rights activists who refer to the feminists derisively as TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists).
And it has raised questions about what kinds of rules and measures can be established to allow a level playing field for female athletes in a world where trans women who experienced male puberty (and the irreversible physical benefits of testosterone in the form of greater strength, lung capacity, and bone density, for example) are at a significant advantage over their born-female peers.
The debate has now prompted a federal lawsuit, Soule v. Connecticut Association of Schools, that will attempt to address some of those questions. Three female high school athletes from Connecticut are arguing that the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference violated their Title IX rights by allowing men to compete as women in track and field events.
As the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the women, noted, “boys have consistently deprived Selina Soule, Alanna Smith, and Chelsea Mitchell of honors and opportunities to compete at elite levels. Mitchell, for example, would have won the 2019 state championship in the women’s 55-meter indoor track competition, but because two males took first and second place, she was denied the gold medal. Soule and Smith likewise have been denied medals and/or advancement opportunities.” In fact, were it not for the state’s policy of allowing trans women to compete against born-female women, Chelsea Mitchell would have been a four-time state champion.
And it’s not just the loss of a first-place ribbon at stake for female athletes. These girls miss out on opportunities for college recruitment and college scholarships. As the complaint notes, “Compared to boys—those born with XY chromosomes—in the state of Connecticut those who are born female—with XX chromosomes—now have materially fewer opportunities to stand on the victory podium, fewer opportunities to participate in post-season elite competition, fewer opportunities for public recognition as champions, and a much smaller chance of setting recognized records.”
What prevents common-sense rules that recognize biological differences from prevailing in such situations? Fear of being seen as transphobic at a time when cultural confusion reigns about the appropriate boundary between individual preferences and biological differences.
But as Duke University law professor (and former international track and field athlete) Doraine Lambelet Coleman argued in the New York Times, “Pretending that the female body doesn’t exist or that we can’t define the boundaries between men’s and women’s bodies is a bad idea for many reasons,” including the fact that without such recognition of differences, women would rarely win against men in sports competitions. “The women’s world records in all of the races on the track from 100 meters to 10,000 meters are also surpassed by many men each year, including by many high school boys,” Coleman notes.
As biologists, Wright and Hilton also argue that “separate sporting categories” are “necessary to ensure that women and girls don’t have to face competitors who have acquired the irreversible performance-enhancing effects conferred by male puberty.” In other words: a level playing field for female athletes is one in which they compete against others who were born female, not against men or trans women.
What the Connecticut lawsuit will force the courts to contend with is the fact that biological differences between the sexes are not the “social constructs” that trendy academic theorists would have us all believe. And they will have to judge whether or not embracing the idea that sex is a social construct is worth the harmful, real-world consequences this idea has had for many women.
Legal conflict about definitions of biological difference and gender identity is likely to remain an active front in the ongoing culture wars. In Madison, Wisconsin, parents recently sued a school district after finding out that its policy is to refuse to tell parents about their own child’s gender identity choices (even if that child is in preschool). As the district handbook advises: “School staff shall not disclose any information that may reveal a student’s gender identity to others, including parents or guardians and other school staff, unless legally required to do so or unless the student has authorized such disclosure.”
It’s not yet clear how the courts will navigate these different types of cases (some trans students have won cases in Virginia and Wisconsin involving the use of bathrooms that reflect their gender identity rather than their biological sex, for example). But, for female athletes, the cost is already too steep.
As Alanna Smith, one of the young women who filed the Connecticut lawsuit, said, “Even before I get to the track, I already know that I’m not going to get first place, or maybe even second place … I know that no matter how hard I work, I won’t be able to have the top spot.” For a country that claims to want to advance opportunities for women, and enacted federal Title IX legislation more than 50 years ago to ensure that girls and women have them, it’s an odd message to send.