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Slow Views • The Tortoise Take

Debate is not hate

Friday 25 June 2021

The case of the weightlifter Laurel Hubbard illustrates the clash in elite sports between fairness and inclusion. It should inspire a more open discussion about trans rights, in which we recognise the good intentions of those with whom we disagree


This week, the trans weightlifter, Laurel Hubbard, was named as a member of the New Zealand women’s team for the Tokyo Olympics. With a regrettable predictability, her success triggered a firestorm on social media and on global news channels – generating plenty of heat, but little light. 

But what’s at stake is more than a medal: it’s our ability to discuss openly competing rights and values. Because this news story is a good example of the ruinous assumption – and increasingly common fear – that any discussion of trans rights is intrinsically transphobic. But debate is not hate. 

Laurel Hubbard’s selection has inevitably opened up a broader argument about transwomen in sport, about inclusion and fairness and about our capacity for civilised disagreement. 

Hubbard herself has behaved with dignity and propriety. She has won her place within the rules. The question is whether the International Olympic Committee’s regulations are fair. And if the IOC has chosen to prize inclusion over fairness, whether it’s done so openly and directly. 

Few words in contemporary culture exercise such a gravitational pull as “inclusion”. This is welcome. All decent societies and institutions should seek to be welcoming and open. 

In a pluralist society, however, there are bound to be values that require arbitration. Even groups protected by legislation such as the 2010 Equality Act have to engage constantly in such negotiations. Inclusion is one of many values. There are others, such as fairness and safety, that need to be weighed in the balance when approaching any question of social organisation: sporting, campaigning, civic or political. The pursuit of the inclusion of one group at all costs can itself become divisive, as – ironically – its exclusionary side-effects are felt by others. 

Yet even those who recognise gender dysphoria and champion trans rights can find it almost impossible to think aloud about the rules in sport, the role of parents, or the responsibility of medical services. There’s no place for incitement to violence and speech that endangers lives. But speech itself is being suffocated by accusations of hatred and the fear of causing offence. 

All too often, those who stick their head above the parapet are said to be denying the very “existence” of trans people, or even of encouraging suicidality – an especially irresponsible allegation. The issues at stake here are too complicated and important to be silenced.  

It is time to dial down the rhetoric and approach such questions afresh, adopting the philosophical principle of charity – namely that, unless you have overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you assume good faith on the part of those with whom you debate. We should proceed with a candour that does not seek to insult gratuitously but is not utterly constrained by a terror of perceived hurt. 

On Tuesday, Tortoise hosted a ThinkIn on Stonewall, the LGBTQ+ campaign group, which has faced profound controversy over the extent to which its embrace of transgender rights has left many gay people – especially lesbians – feeling that their sex-based rights are suddenly being ignored. To them, the policy of trans inclusion has been extremely divisive. The ThinkIn could hardly claim to have resolved the argument, but it did underline the value of hosting such an event in the first place. Its conclusion was: “pro-debate”. 

Good people will disagree in the case of Laurel Hubbard. But the arguments for her competing at the Tokyo Olympics have to be weighed: 

  • In elite sport, fairness matters – or should matter. Sport should be a venue for progress: but all meaningful progress requires a framework of rules, reality and a recognition of science. On the track, field, in the pool, or on the weightlifting platform, comparatively small differences can have immense, life-changing consequences, deciding who ends up on the medallists’ podium and who doesn’t. This is why there are such strict rules governing Paralympic categories, female athletes such as Caster Semenya who have unusually high testosterone levels, doping, and the equipment – such as carbon-fibre blades – used by Olympians.
  • Gender and sex are different. The former is a social construct, in relation to which people should be able to situate themselves freely. Any civilised society will respect and protect an individual’s right to identify as they choose, use the pronouns they adopt as a matter of common courtesy, and take all necessary measures to prevent the harassment and bullying of trans people. But – and it is a big but – that does not mean that biological sex can be ignored. In sport, it is fundamental – see this comparison of the performance of women competitors in the 2016 Olympics with that of US high school boys in their national tournaments in the same year – in aggregate, these adolescent boys were way ahead of the best adult female athletes in the world). The inclusion of transwomen athletes in women’s sports is manifestly unfair to natal women – not least those who are excluded from national teams, as the 21-year-old Tongan-born weightlifter, Kuinini Manumua, was by Hubbard’s inclusion in the New Zealand squad.
  • The current IOC rules require a transwoman athlete to have remained below 10 nanomoles of testosterone per litre of blood for 12 months before a competition (World Athletics sets the level at five nanomoles for international women’s races between 400 metres and the mile). Yet such limits are still considerably higher than the regular female level which rarely rises above three nanomoles, and usually falls between 0.12 and 1.79 nmol/litre. More to the point, testosterone levels alone do not address the many residual advantages enjoyed by transwomen athletes: muscle density, greater breathing capacity, larger heart and lungs, skeletal differences. The most definitive study to date on this by Emma Hilton of Manchester University, and Tommy Lundberg, of the Swedish Karolinska Institute, is unequivocal. Indeed, Hubbard’s successes as a 43-year-old transwoman competitor – well past her athletic peak – against much younger female-sexed athletes illustrates the point precisely.
  • Some argue that this unfairness is a price worth paying. In 2019, Rachel McKinnon, the first transgender cyclist to win a world championship, said, in effect, that sacrificing fairness to inclusion was justified. “Is it possible [that male physiology gives trans athletes an advantage]? Yes it is possible,” she conceded. But the alternative – “denying their human rights” – was worse. This has the important merit of honesty. But we respectfully disagree.

The fault in the case of Laurel Hubbard lies with the IOC. It has chosen inclusion over fairness, but neither admitted as much nor allowed the comprehensive discussion that is needed. It has evaded its responsibility to address trans people’s participation at the highest levels of sport. The review the committee has long promised has been postponed till after the Tokyo Games. It should not be delayed any longer, and must certainly be settled well before the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

“Live and let live” is an excellent principle, and one that underpins all liberal ethical systems. But – by definition – it involves give and take, sometimes uncomfortably so. It mandates a recognition that disagreement and mutual loathing are not the same, that there are usually good intentions on both sides. It requires a maturity of discourse that social media has made increasingly hard.

Yet it is a principle worth protecting and nurturing in an age of reflex vilification and tribal trench warfare. It is, indeed, the principle that underpins almost every other right and responsibility that we have in a free society. To recognise that debate is not hate is essential to human solidarity. What could be more important?


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