Becoming Philippa York - Part 2.2

York says one of the first things that struck her about the “trans debate” was the idea that trans women in sport would cheat performance tests by stopping their hormone blockers and microdosing testosterone. She patiently explains that gender-affirming hormones don’t simply burst into life straight away and that an athlete would have to stop taking them for at least six months for the endocrine system to recover, in effect detransitioning in order to fool the testers.

Another myth York joyfully debunks is the idea that trans women can somehow cheat physical tests before blowing cis women away in competition.

“They can tell if you’re flat out,” she says. “because the lactate levels in your blood goes way up.” She decries the bad faith actors who peddle the myths across social media, saying

“If you don't perform to a high enough level, you're never gonna get a “real” woman’s place. Laurel Hubbard qualified 16th at the Olympics. Finished 16th. Nobody mentions that anymore.”

Instead, the same names and the same lists designed to incite frothing outrage make the rounds. Austin Killips, the first trans woman to win a UCI sanctioned race, was targeted after her success in the Tour of Gila despite suppressing her testosterone to meet the sport’s designated levels of 2.5 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) for 24 months. It’s worth pointing out that cis women produce on average between 0.5 to 2.4 nmol/L testosterone in their ovaries and adrenal glands (cis men produce the hormone in their testes) and that the hormone has an essential role to play in cognitive, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health. It’s also worth remembering that ‘Gender-Affirming Hormone Therapy' (GAHT) is simply another name for the HRT used by menopausal cis women. However, shortly after Killips’ success and an outcry from gender critical organisations, the UCI changed the rules for participation, creating an open/men’s category and citing “scientific uncertainties” for their decision.

Not surprisingly, York has plenty to say about the thinking and science behind the recent spate of decisions to banish trans women from everything from swimming to chess. She starts by asking the question, ‘Would the average man be willing to give up sexual function or his genitalia to win a medal?’ “Does he think that, firstly, he’s actually going to be competitive? And secondly, is he going to fully recover his sexual function? Because six to nine months down the androgen deprivation route, it’s all over. How many average men are going to sign up for that?” 

York says no cis person would voluntarily mess with their hormones if they understood the consequences. The endocrine system governs the release of hormones to receptor cells in the body, passing on a set of instructions including growing new cells, absorbing sugar or releasing another hormone. Disrupting this delicate balance can result in weight gain and lack of energy: “They're going to be knackered because your hormone system is what allows you to function every day. And as soon as you start messing with that, the whole thing falls apart. All you keep is the structure,” she says.

“So we see that from the criteria that have been in place up until now, there hasn't been anybody who's highly competitive because your hormone system is what runs your body. And as an athlete, and even just as a normal person, as soon as one thing goes wrong, you're no longer a healthy person.”

She outlines the effect of transition on her own body: “I don't have enough testosterone, and I'm not recovering, I don't process protein in the same way. The oestrogen that you're taking builds up more fat. I don't build muscle when I don't have the same blood values. And if you move just one of those values, I am no longer a top athlete. You can't do the workload. You don't have the same explosive strength.” 

She says with a strict diet, she could probably weigh the same as she did at the height of her professional career: “But I’d feel dreadful, I’d make myself ill.” She talks about training camps when she’d find herself riding with elite women cyclists:

“You might drop them with a giant burst of power which they can't generate. So physiologically, they could be dropped because they usually didn't have a massive burst of power. And that's probably the only way you're gonna get rid of them. Because you're not gonna ride them off your wheel on the climb.”

But what about the lowly ranked men who transition and become world-leading women athletes? The male juniors who can outperform women? She has plenty to say about the spurious and ill-informed comparisons made between men’s and women’s sports and the inherent misogyny that informs them:

“Elite women’s sport is not some part-time thing where you work in a shop and then go and run or cycle for an hour. It’s full-time and comes with all the same restrictions as men’s sport.” 

First, she points out, if you’re ranked in the top 50 in men’s sports, you’re not average. “And juniors may well run or cycle faster than women because you can have a 15-year-old kid who's six foot tall as a result of their upbringing and their genes. So the people you see in Junior World Championships, they're all giants. And they're all really talented. But they're also really far through their puberty.” Ultimately, she says, some people are just faster or stronger because sport isn’t inherently fair.