In my previous essay I set the stage for discussing the concern about people switching competition categories to gain something. It is to this matter that that I now turn.
The Sickle Cell 5K in Tallahassee is well known for having a really good masters award for the overall male and female masters runners—it is better than the second and third overall awards. One year a masters runner was third overall but decided that he wanted the male masters’ award instead. This created a bit of a problem—while there was no rule about this, there were well established running norms in place: overall places take precedence over the masters category and the masters category takes precedence over age group placing. So, a 40+ year old runner who placed first to third would get the corresponding overall award. The first 40+ runner outside the top three would get the masters award and the next runner in their age group would win that age group. As would be expected, some people were rather mad about this runner’s efforts to get the masters award—he was breaking the award category norms and traditions to get a better award.
His argument, which was not unreasonable, was that he was the first masters runner and hence earned that award. This meant that the 4th place runner would get third overall. This might sound odd, but (as noted above) the running norms already allow for a person who finishes second in their age group to place first if the person who would win that age group wins an overall or masters award (most races have a strict no-double-dip rule). While his request did break the norms, he was legitimately in the masters category. One might say that he elected to identify as a masters runner for the purpose of the award category. He did end up getting the award when the original masters winner did everyone a favor by giving up his award and allowed the awards to continue. But this episode is still talked about today—switching categories to get a better award is seen as questionable. This episode can be used as an analogy.
Suppose that transgender athletes are like the masters athlete—they really do belong in their chosen category but they are changing from one category to another in order to get a better award (or win). The masters runner could have accepted the third place award, a transgender runner who identifies as female could stick to competing as male. But by switching categories, the athletes gain and thus they have a clear incentive to do so. They also are both picking a category they really belong in—so they are not engaged in a cheat or deceit. But their motive is to switch for a gain and in doing so they do harm another athlete. The masters runner took the better award from another runner and a transgender athlete who changes categories to win takes away a win from another female athlete. This can be used to ground a moral argument against allowing athletes to change categories to win. That said, there is an easy counter.
Imagine a runner goes to a Division 1 school and finds that they are good enough for the division but not good enough to regularly win. They switch to a Division 2 school so they can win regularly. They have changed their category to improve their gains and have also “harmed” other runners by doing so—they might displace a runner from the team and will take victories that would have gone to other athletes had they not changed their category. While this approach to sports might not seem morally ideal, the runner would not seem to be acting wrongly—they would legitimately be Division 2 even if they could have stuck with Division 1. Likewise, for an athlete who switches their gender category legitimately: one might take issue with such maneuvers aimed at gain, but they seem to be morally acceptable. But, some readers probably refuse to accept the idea that an athlete can legitimately switch categories, so I now turn to this matter.
Let us go back to the masters award incident but change it a bit. Imagine that the third-place runner is 39 years and 10 months old but decides to identify as a masters runner in order to get the award. In this case, the issue is easily resolved: age is an objective matter, and they are not a masters runner. Hence, they do not get the award. Likewise, athletes who claim to be female but are not have no right to switch categories. While this might seem to settle the matter, there are at least two replies.
One reply is to go back to the masters case. Imagine that the runner is 39 years old based on his birthday, but he is a devote Catholic who sincerely believes that life begins at conception and sets his age accordingly. By his standard of age, he is a masters runner. While the official age of runner for racing is based on their birthdate and not their moment of conception, the runner could make an argument based on freedom of religion—he is being discriminated against by the failure of the race officials to recognize that he is at least 40. Likewise, a runner who self-identifies as a female could argue that she is being discriminated against when she is not allowed to select her category based on her beliefs about what it is to be female. Both runners could agree that there is a fact of the matter about being a masters runner or a female runner, but they disagree with the standards being imposed upon them by those who they see as discriminating against them. As such, the debate becomes one of defining category membership.
In the case of age, the dispute would seem to be easy to settle: to avoid charges of attacking religious freedom, the rules about age could be put neutrally to specify that the time from birth is used to determine the competition age of a runner. The standard applies to everyone and intuitively seems fair. In the case of gender, the same approach should be taken: a fair set of standards to categorize people is needed. Unfortunately, the matter of gender is far more complicated than that of age.
If gender were only of concern in sports, then the matter would be much easier to address. But gender impacts every aspect of a person’s life and is, of course, now a key battleground in the culture wars. As such, even if one makes a good faith effort to develop gender standards for sports categories, then one will be facing a daunting task. This is not to deny that many people think they have the right answer already and think they could easily solve the problem by imposing their own views on everyone else.
There are, of course, some easy and obvious sufficient conditions for being admitted into the female category: people with XX chromosomes and female anatomy and physiology get an automatic admission (if they wish). Beyond that, the debates begin. Since this matter is complicated and not my area of expertise, I freely admit that I do not have a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. I do not even have a well-considered set of general principles.
One specific principle I do have is that it would be morally wrong for a male athlete to lie about his identify to gain a competitive advantage. The moral problem is, of course, the intent to deceive to gain an advantage. I also, obviously, also see any use of deceit to do something wrong as wrong—so a male who lied about their identity so they could see naked girls would be acting wrongly. This is analogous to my view that it is wrong for person to lie about their religious views to gain something—such as a person who just wants to use a religious excuse to get away with discrimination or to avoid paying taxes. My moral assessment would, of course, adjust in cases of sincere belief—even if the person’s belief turns out to be untrue. As with the religion case, there is the practical problem of sorting out when people are lying—though in the United States we generally do not put professed religious beliefs to much of a test.
While there does not seem to be a large crisis in sports involving male athletes switching categories in large numbers, allowing people to switch categories merely by saying they identify in that category does provide an opportunity for the unprincipled to exploit—just as allowing people to claim special treatment simply for asserting they have religious beliefs allows opportunities for the unprincipled. The moral and practical challenge is sorting out what test should be used to protect against such unprincipled exploitation while avoiding discriminating against people. We do not make people prove that their religious beliefs are true before allowing them to gain the benefits of professing belief and we need to be consistent when it comes to professed gender identity. One approach, which is what we generally do for religion, is take people at their word unless there is adequate evidence of an intent to deceive. For example, a male athlete who posted “LOL identifying as a girl just to win the 5K today, but fellas stay away I ain’t gay! After I win, I will be a boy again.” would seem to be intending to deceive and should, one would infer, not be allowed to compete in the 5K as a female. Likewise, if someone bringing a freedom of religion lawsuit so they can discriminate posted “LOL pretending to believe in God so I can hate on the gays!”, then they should probably not win that lawsuit. But in other cases, we should accept their profession as sincere. I do admit this does not settle the matter.