Jenner, gender and Tokyo: A trans athlete will be competing in the Olympics, but not everybody is thrilled
This column is about sports, but transgender athletes have made the societal conflict relevant even here.
Years ago, Bruce Jenner was my sports hero.
The gold-medal winner in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics didn’t just set a world record (8,616 points) in that most amazingly varied event, he symbolically whipped the Soviet Union at a time when the Cold War scared us all.
Keenly muscled, dashingly handsome, Jenner carried a little American flag around the track in victory, reminding all that maybe the Soviet empire had won gold and silver in the decathlon in the 1972 Games, but the USA never gives up.
Now Bruce Jenner is a woman named Caitlyn.
Do I understand this?
I do not.
But I feel it is my duty to understand. Somehow, someway. I must.
It has been said we fear what we don’t know. I think it’s more precise to say we fear what we don’t understand.
Which brings us to the current revolution in LGBTQ+ awareness and that group’s demands to be allowed the freedoms, protections and relevancy all humans deserve.
Civic battles rage over bathrooms, pronouns, police protection, discrimination and oppression of nonbinary citizens. This column is about sports, but transgender athletes have made the societal conflict relevant even here.
Indeed, there will be transgender athletes in the Tokyo Olympics. At least one.
New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, 43, is in, for sure. Formerly a man who competed as Gavin Hubbard, she began transitioning to female nine years ago.
Though trans athletes have been allowed in the Olympics since 2004, Hubbard is officially the first one to compete in the modern Games’ 125-year history.
Not everybody is thrilled.
Anna Vanbellinghen, a Belgian weightlifter who will compete against Hubbard, says though she is very supportive of the transgender community, something is just wrong about going against a former male in a female sport.
“Anyone that has trained in weightlifting at a high level knows this to be true in their bones,’’ she told NBC Out. “This particular situation is unfair to the sport and to the athletes.”
Hubbard is unlikely to win a medal, but it’s the principle that troubles Vanbellinghen and many other observers.
Scientists have said the advantages of being male at puberty — more muscle mass, denser bones, larger heart and lungs — might lead to an advantage even after that key male hormone, testosterone, is ratcheted down.
Indeed, the trans-athlete movement has brought up what has been called the “existential question of what it means to be female.’’
According to Olympic guidelines from 2015, there are no longer any surgical procedures men must undergo while transitioning to female.
Trans women can compete as females as long as they have identified as female for at least four years and have a testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least a year.
In the past, there were rules about physiology and chromosomes — what are your sex organs and/or genetic makeup? — but those guidelines proved too vague. Gender is now seen as running on a spectrum, not a simple check-the-box. And yet we have only two competition categories — male or female.
Not surprisingly, for females transitioning to male, there are no rules. It’s hard to think of a sport in which a woman has an innate advantage over a man.
Ultimately, this is about fairness. Or it should be.
Detractors will point to boys who identify as girls winning girls high school championships, as they have in Connecticut and elsewhere. On the flip side, you have states, such as Texas, mandating that athletes must compete in the gender category declared for him or her at birth.
This has led to an unintended, ironic consequence. To wit: Texas wrestler Mack Beggs, a female transitioning to male who wanted to compete as a boy but wasn’t allowed to because his birth certificate says he’s a girl, subsequently destroyed his female opponents en route to two recent Texas state wrestling championships.
According to studies, there are 1.2 million nonbinary LGBTQ adults in the United States. But only 20% of Americans say they’ve met a trans person.
What we don’t understand, we fear.
I would like to understand Caitlyn Jenner. It’s so complex, so startling, so new.
And there is Jenner herself, running for California governor, saying she is against “biological boys who are trans competing in girls sports in school.’’ The reason? “It just isn’t fair.’’
But is she right? Do females need that protection?
I’m not so sure.
Maybe Caitlyn has forgotten the drive and grit and pride that made Bruce the greatest athlete in the world so long ago. I wonder.