In this second part of the three-part special feature, Suze Clemitson explores with Philippa York the subjects of trans women competing against cis women, the science of transitioning, and the current policies of cycling’s administrators.
“She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.” Nella Larsen Passing
Passing is a sociological construct. The inhabiting of an identity that is free of stigma. The ability to pass seamlessly from one identity to another. Yet the woman on my phone screen, those astonishing razor-sharp cheekbones a distant shadow of a past time, couldn’t be more unapologetically herself. Or give fewer fucks.
York is talking about her life now, at this moment, as a trans woman. She’s just finished filming - “I might be the random gay person from the gay spectrum” - and opining about her new status: “When you suddenly become a minority, the media imagines that you need the exposure, and you'll be desperate to do it just because they've asked you.” She tells a familiar story about the precocious life of a freelancer in the gig economy, where the transactional currency for content is exposure. Her famous spiky combativity strikes out. “Piss off then, you're annoying me,” she tells an imaginary media Tarquin.
“You know, you're asking for my time. If I put myself out there, I've got to get even more crap than I get now. Why would I do that for nothing?”
She has pertinent things to say about the corporatisation of Pride and its increasingly performative nature. She says she won’t speak to the media “because, for the rest of the year, it's just a constant dose of crap. And then when it's Pride Month, you come along and make this performance. I've watched what you did with trans stuff, and it's just dreadful.”
So is there a way to get trans inclusion right? She talks about two gigs she’s had recently, both in Europe. “They didn't treat me as something else. It’s as basic as that, right? They didn't get one thing wrong. They treated me as a normal human being, not as a trans person, right? From the moment I got there to the moment I left it didn't occur to any of them to say anything. Which is just…” Her voice trails off, perhaps astonished that such straightforward respect isn’t the norm rather than the exception.
York compares the experience to some of the situations she finds herself in, when “it's a kind of performance to know you, because they feel like that's what you expect from them. But I just want to go, Jesus, you know, somebody's making me do this. I really want nothing to do with people like you.” She’s usually there, she says, “because you tick a box. So the things I did in Europe were just so much better than all the things that I did in the UK.” She chuckles ruefully and adds, “Which is sad, really, isn’t it?”
Then she tells me a genuinely shocking story, typical of her encounters with policymakers and the way that trans voices - when they are heard - are never listened to:
“I sat in a meeting with various people from government and sports bodies. And they went through all this sport for all and everybody's welcome crap. It's just a performance for them. And at the end of it, after we've done all this policy stuff, one of them said, ‘Why don't you tell us what it's like to transition?’ And I told them, and I got to the end, and one of them went, ‘I don't believe you.’ And that was it. ‘I don't believe you’. And not one person who sat on that Zoom call said ‘Why have you said that to this person?’”
“They all sat there and thought that one person was brilliant, because they were prejudiced enough to say, to my face on a Zoom call, ‘I don't believe you, I think you still had advantage.’ No reasons, no examples. And you can feel them all thinking that. And every person at that meeting went away with that ‘I don't believe you.’ And that was the end of the call.”
Shortly after we speak, York - a native Glaswegian and the finest rider Scotland has ever produced - was excluded from any role in the UCI’s first unified world championships. She wasn’t included in any commentary team, despite knowing the roads like the back of her hand and the route going directly past the Robert Millar mural. Her insights into the men’s road race were passed on through tweets by Ned Boulting. She was effectively cancelled from an event to which she could have made an indelible and meaningful contribution. Then, in the official programme for the event, she was deadnamed without her consent and the wrong photo used. Her complete erasure was in stark contrast to the gender critical voices that proclaim their cancellation from every available media platform.
And this despite the UCI and its partners and key stakeholders signing up for an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Pledge in March that promised to ensure that “those who are most vulnerable in society, impacted by stigma and discrimination and excluded from sport and public life are included in this narrative.”
Two months later, British Cycling effectively banned trans women from competition. In July, the UCI followed suit, stating that, as a governing body, they have a “duty to guarantee equal opportunities for all competitors." York’s response: “The very essence of sport is unfair because people beat you. There's nothing fair about competition. You set off at the same time, and you're in the same place. That's the fairness. What happens in between is the competition, and there's nothing fair about it.”
|1.1 Everyone, regardless of their gender identity, expression and/or sex variations should be able to participate in sport safely and without prejudice.|
|1.3 Sports organisations should work together to advance inclusion and prevent discrimination based on gender identity and/or sex variations, through training, capacity-building and campaigns that are informed by affected stakeholders.|
|1.5 Where sports organisations choose to establish eligibility criteria in order to determine the participation conditions for men's and women's categories for specific contests in high-level organised sports competitions, these criteria should be established and applied in a manner that respects the principles included in this framework. Individuals or parties responsible for issuing such criteria should be appropriately trained in order to ensure that these issues are handled in a manner consistent with these principles.|
|1.6 The design, implementation and evaluation of these measures and mechanisms should be done in consultation with a cross-section of affected athletes.|
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.
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.
“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.”
The final part of this three-part feature will be published on Monday 13 November.
For more on the complex issues of trans gender competitors in professional sport, see Suze Clemitson's piece "Sometimes You Witness History" and learn about the story of Willy (né Elvire) de Bruyn in Issue 28 - see below...
The charmingly chilly roads of the Arctic. The hellishly hostile route up Mont Caro. Heart-breaking stories from the COVID frontline. Female champions who beat male champions. Female champions who became male champions. And magical BMX memories: from pulling rad crossed-up wheelies on the bonnet of your neighbour’s Vauxhall Viva to getting major air, courtesy of "Ramp Mum".
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