Becoming Philippa York - Part 2.3


Having been an elite rider, York finds some of the myths about trans women athletes laughable. “Victory is ensured just by being born male, not even being an athlete.” She says the attitude is ‘crap’, calling out the idea that “anybody could come along and win in women's sport and then change back again, so where's the volunteers to show us how right you are?” She issues a direct challenge to the male doubters:

“Get a few of your mates who want to protect women's sport. Sign up for the system and show us that we're all wrong. Because things aren’t going to be the same again, even if you’re not taking oestrogen.” 

So far, York says, there have been no volunteers.“The British Cycling thing I just pfft. Whatever.” York shrugs in a way that’s half Gallic, half Beavis and Butthead.

“This has damaged me enough. I might come back to it later. But I am not in that place yet. And I'm not going to do it again. I'm not gonna engage with people who believe in advance you're not really what you say you are. That's the really insulting part.”

York is updating me on the long-running saga of her battle to update her British Cycling membership and apply for a UCI licence. “And the woman said, ‘Oh, if you go to the British Cycling website, you'll be able to log in, you'll be able to see your membership. Strangely enough, the British Cycling website isn't somewhere I go. And this was about two weeks after they banned us from existence, right?” York says at least they saw the funny side of their website not being saved in her favourites, or appearing in her search history. “But they didn’t ask for any documentation or deposition, my passport, driving licence, tax codes. I haven't had to do any of that. So I've self IDed basically,” she hoots.

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/ - 10/02/2018 - British Cycling Awards 2018 presentation and dinner - The Vox Conference Centre, Birmingham - Philippa York

“I’m almost tempted to apply to be the UCI director sportif course in September.” she adds. “Because the person that helped them to set up is Scott Sunderland, who was an Australian rider on TVM when I was the race director for the Flanders Classics group. So I roomed with Scott for three years. It won't be hard to find out how to pass.” She laughs again, delighted at the thought of putting one over on British Cycling and the UCI.

It brings us to the subject of the science that British Cycling and the UCI have relied on to exclude trans women from women’s racing. York claims it has “massive holes” because of the selective use of data:

“I've sat in I don't know how many of those meetings with British Cycling and said this has been torn apart by so many people. And now this is the basis of your policy, and it's an insult to everybody who's been working with you.”

Pressure groups like Fair Play for Women, whose website states that “The concept of fair play, the bedrock of all competitive sport, is undermined by transgender sport policy”, have campaigned relentlessly for the exclusion of trans women from sport. A campaign which is now targeting participation events like Parkrun and the London Marathon. “Where all you get is a medal and sore feet,” York says.

Defending its policy on trans gender participants in sanctioned races, the UCI has said, “Given the current state of scientific knowledge, it is also impossible to rule out the possibility that biomechanical factors such as the shape and arrangement of the bones in their limbs may constitute a lasting advantage for female transgender athletes.” York has plenty to say about this “disgusting organisation with no backbone.” 

“You're asking people, ‘Do you want to compete with somebody who might be competitive?’ They're going to say no. Because most athletes are selfish. And women don't escape from that.”

She wants to know why the UCI actively seeks out the opinions of cis people about trans athletes. She may be softly spoken, but the anger is palpable: “They’re just going to ban people with no justification, and then they’ll come up with puberty and bones. I mean, who actually knows the width of their pelvis?”

For so-called ‘transinvestigators’, the pelvic bone - along with other ‘male skeletal markers’ including the Q Angle, straight across the clavicle and brow ridge - is the Holy Grail of fail safe sex-based identification. Social media is littered with memes about architects digging you up and ‘knowing your skeleton is a dude, dude’, despite research showing that FTM transsexuals display male-typical measurements for six pelvic features and archaeologists admitting the fallibility of skeletal ID.

The UCI may appeal to science, but a number of studies - Bruton, O’Dwyer & Adams, 2013; Hertel, Dorfman & Braham, 2004; Kernozek & Greer, 1993; Thomas, Corcos & Hasan, 1998; Nguyen et al., 2009; Sigward & Powers, 2006 - show that pelvic width and the q-angle have little impact on athletic ability (running and jumping), lift ability, gait differences and risk to injury. Even the Sigward & Powers study that references increased injury in athletes states that “No differences in kinematics were found.”

Bone density is also widely used to prove the supposed advantage trans women retain after transition. I talked to Kirsti Miller. Olympian, educator and co-author of the paper The Impact of Gender-Affirming Hormone Therapy on Physical Performance, who told me:

“These claims are unsubstantiated, with no citations to demonstrate bone density as a performance enhancer in any sports.”

Bone density varies greatly for each individual based on nutrition, sex, age, and race. Bone structure also varies greatly by individuals based on genetics. A 2003 study of the dimensions of shoulder width with the consideration of height and weight of a sample of over 500 males and females shows that there is a significant overlap of male and female bodies. A recent study found trans women have bone density lower than natal males, natal females, and FTMs, as a group before hormone therapy even begins. She tells me the study used a sample size of 711 participants, far larger than any of the studies used to justify the UCI’s ‘science-based’ decisions.

Miller also points out that arguments based on bone density derive from systematically racist arguments and the rise of the eugenic movement in the 1920s, despite the fact that Leslie (2012) shows black women and women of colour with higher bone density than white men, thus removing bone density as a factor for unfairness when considering trans women athletes.

York says if she were really militant, she’d be asking the IOC why sports that don’t follow the guidelines for inclusion - like swimming, cycling and athletics - are still in the games. “The Olympics isn’t a public body,” she points out. “It’s a business that can set whatever rules it wants. And if you don’t meet the criteria to be part of our business model, you’re not coming in.” 

“People argue sport has to be separate from politics, but it can't be. Sport is part of life. And politics is involved in arts and sports and every part of life.” York points out that trans exclusion is simply part of a pattern of bigotry. “We don't want this kind of people involved. It was a case of ‘We don't really want gay people.’ And they lost that argument.”

If the participation of trans women in sport has been weaponized by the Gender Critical movement “just asking questions”, York has several of her own:

“In what way is the trans person affecting other people? What do you mean by ‘affected’? Are you insulted by that person’s presence? Because that’s prejudice and discrimination and transphobia. There’s no evidence to say that the trans person has in any way damaged them. They’re already damaged by their own phobia.”