In the previous essay I discussed gender nominalism—the idea that gender is not a feature of reality, but a social (or individual) construct. As such, a person falling within a gender class is a matter of naming rather than a matter of having objective features. In this essay I will not argue for (or against) gender nominalism. Rather, I will be discussing gender nominalism within the context of competition.
Being a runner, I will start with competitive sports. As anyone who has run competitively knows, males and females generally compete within their own sexes. So, for example, a typical road race will (at least) have awards for the top three males and also for the top three females. While individual males and females vary greatly in their abilities, males have a general physical advantage over females when it comes to running: the best male runner is significantly better than the best female runner and average male runners are also better than average female runners.
Given that males generally have an advantage over females in regards to running (and many other physical sports), it would certainly be advantageous for a male runner if the division was based on gender (rather than biological sex) and people could simply declare their genders. That is, a male could declare himself a woman and thus be more likely to do better relative to the competition. While there are those who do accept that people have the right to gender declare at will and that others are obligated to accept this, it seems clear that this would not be morally acceptable in sports.
The intent of dividing athletes by sex is to allow for a fairer completion. This same principle, that of fairer competition, is also used to justify age groups—as older runner knows, few things slow a person down like dragging many years. Because of this, a runner could, in general, gain an advantage by making a declaration of age identity (typically older). Perhaps the person could claim that he has always been old on the inside and that to refuse to accept his age identification would be oppression. However, this would be absurd: declaring an age does not change the person’s ability to compete and would thus grant an unfair advantage. Likewise, allowing a male to compete as a woman (or girl) in virtue of gender identification would be unfair. The declaration would not, obviously, change the person’s anatomy and physiology.
There are, however, cases that are much more controversial and challenging. These include cases in which a person has undergone a change in anatomy. While these cases are important, they go beyond the intended scope of this essay, which is gender nominalism.
Some competitions do not divide the competitors by sex. These are typically competitions where the physical differences between males and females do not impact the outcome. Some examples include debate, chess, spelling bees and NASCAR. In these cases, males and females compete equally and hence the principle of fairness justifies the lack of sex divisions. Some of these competitions do have other divisions. For example, spelling bees do not normally pit elementary school students against high school students. In such competitions, gender identification would seem to be irrelevant. As such, competitors should be free to gender identify as they wish within the context of the competition.
Interestingly, there are competitions where there appear to be no sex-based advantages (in terms of physical abilities), yet there are gender divisions. There are competitions in literature, music, and acting that are divided by gender (and some are open only to one gender). There are also scholarships, fellowships and other academic awards that are open only to one gender (in the United States, these are often limited to woman).
Since being a biological male would seem to yield no advantage in such cases, the principle of fairness would not seem to apply. For example, the fact that males are generally larger and stronger would yield no advantage when it came to writing a novel, acting in a play, or playing a guitar. As such, it would seem that if people should be able to set their own gender identity, they should be able to do so for such competitions, thus enabling them to compete where they wish.
It could be argued that the principle of fairness would still apply—that biological males would still have an advantage even if they elected to identify as women for the competition. This advantage, it might be claimed, would be based in the socially constructed advantages that males possess. Naturally, it would need to be shown that a male that gender identifies as a woman for such competitions, such as getting a woman’s only scholarship, would still retain the (alleged) male advantage.
It could also be argued that the divisions are not based on a principle of fairness regarding advantages or disadvantages. Rather, the divisions are to given more people a chance of winning. This could be justified on the same grounds that justify having many categories. For example, there are awards for being the best actor in a supporting role, which exists to create another chance for an actor to win something. If a person could just gender declare and be eligible, then that would create an “imbalance”, much as allowing non-supporting actors to declare themselves supporting actors to get a shot at that award would be unfair.
Of course, this seems to assume that there is a justified distinction between the genders that would ground the claims of unfairness. That is, it would be as wrong for a male to win best actress as it would be for a female screenwriter who never acted to win best actress for her screenplay. Or that it would be as bad for a male to get a scholarship intended for a woman as it would be for a football player who cannot do math to get a math scholarship. This approach, which would involve rejecting one form of gender nominalism (the version in which the individual gets to declare gender) is certainly an option. This would not, however, require accepting that gender is not a social construct—one could still be a gender nominalist of the sort that believes that gender classification is both a matter of individual declaration and acceptance by the “relevant community.” As such, the relevant communities could police their competitions. For example, those who dole out scholarships for woman can define what it is to be a woman, so as to prevent non-woman from getting those awards. This would, of course, seem to justify similar gender policing by society as a whole, which leads to some interesting problems about who gets to define gender identity. The usual answer people give is, of course, themselves.