Does biology still matter in women’s sports?

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday the 4th of February, 2021.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up: women’s sports.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating broad acceptance for transgender Americans, including in high school sports. Practically speaking, that means schools must allow boys who identify as girls to compete on girls teams.

REICHARD: Some states already organize teams based on gender identity, rather than biology. Others are actively trying to legislate team division based on chromosomes and the innate physical differences they create. The issue has united conservative Christians and liberal feminists in an effort to defend women’s rights.

WORLD’s Leigh Jones reports.


BRIANNA: I started competitively swimming around 6, and yeah, ever since then, so it’s been nine years.

LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: This is Brianna Gapsiewicz. She’s a freshman at Pearland High School and a member of the varsity swim team.

BRIANNA: My main events are the 200 freestyle and the 500 freestyle.

It’s a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in this suburb south of Houston. But Brianna is hard at work inside the city’s natatorium.

Before COVID, her club team included both boys and girls.

BRIANNA: It was nice to practice against the boys and everything. It was fun. Competitive. 

Competitive, but not exactly equal. The boys are stronger and faster.

BRIANNA: I would say for most events, especially the time standards to qualify for different things, it’s quite different. Especially in the longer distance events, it can differ about 10 seconds.

That 10 second difference is why boys and girls don’t compete. But that could soon change thanks to the president’s order. The Department of Education has 100 days to propose new policies to prevent what the order calls gender-based discrimination.

Christiana Holcomb is an attorney with the religious liberty law firm Alliance Defending Freedom.

HOLCOMB: So we’ve seen how these policies play out. We’ve watched it happen in Connecticut, when gender identity is elevated, women and girls lose. They’re the ones who suffer the harmful consequences.

ADF represents three female high school athletes in Connecticut challenging a state policy that allows boys to join girls’ teams. Two male runners did in 2017 and quickly dominated track and field events. Since then, boys have taken 15 state titles previously held by girls.

HOLCOMB: Biology is what matters in sports. So the reason that we have women’s sports as a separate category is because of those inherent physical differences.

The Connecticut case is still in its early stages, at the trial court level. A similar case out of Idaho is awaiting a hearing before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Holcomb says the president’s executive order doesn’t change either case.

HOLCOMB: The executive order is unlawful, it flatly contradicts federal law, specifically under Title IX, which was designed to stop sex discrimination against women and ensure that women have equal athletic opportunities with male athletes. So we are optimistic that we ultimately will be able to restore fairness and a level playing field to women’s sports.

Fairness is key for feminists who also oppose the president’s order. Lauren Adams is legal director for the Women’s Liberation Front.

ADAMS: So we’re just concerned, because a lot of girls, especially lower income girls, they rely on the ability to be champions and get scholarships and be able to do that. And this puts that at risk.

Adams believes the emotional needs of people with gender dysphoria are legitimate. Things like inclusion and acceptance. But she says that shouldn’t trump the physical needs of women.

ADAMS: We definitely are not gonna stand for being called, like hateful, prejudiced people just for saying like, hey, actually, some of our struggles are based on biology and physiology, and these things that exists like sex segregated locker rooms and things like that, you can’t ask us to just give those up when they are like a huge, huge, huge part of our ability to meaningfully participate in public life and to be safe from male violence.

The Department of Education could order schools to allow boys to compete against girls without any restrictions. But it could also set requirements for hormone therapy that would limit the inherent physical advantages men have over women.

Dr. Timothy Roberts is a pediatrician and the director of the adolescent medicine training program at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. Last year, he co-authored a study on the athletic performance of transgender men and women in the military.

The study looked at how long it took for men to lose their athletic advantage after starting hormone therapy.

ROBERTS: It took two years for their performance to decline to the level of all the other women in the Air Force. For the runtime, their performance, followed for two and a half years. And we never saw their performance coming all the way down to the level of the other women in the Air Force.

Roberts supports allowing transgender youth to participate on the sports teams that match their gender identity. But he admits it’s not fair to have boys competing against girls without any medical intervention.

The International Olympic Committee currently requires men to be on testosterone blockers for one year before competing against women. Roberts says two years is probably more reasonable for elite athletes. But for youth sports, he thinks a shorter time frame is sufficient.

ROBERTS: So I think after about one year on testosterone blockade, it’s probably okay to put the transgender women with the other women for competition, because the small advantage they have retained is going to be washed out by benefits of variation in normal women.

Roberts says the young women who excel in youth sports already have natural physical advantages that help them win. But that discounts the amount of effort most student athletes put in over a long period of time to improve. Just ask Brianna Gapsiewicz.

BRIANNA: I have Pearland high school practice starting at 5:30 every morning. And then Peak practice is Tuesday, Thursday, and Fridays at about 7 o’clock, and that’s about an hour and a half. 

That’s at least 90 minutes of practice, five days a week. It’s hard work, but it’s paying off. Last month, Brianna earned a spot at regionals. And she hopes all those laps will eventually give her a leg up on her future through a college scholarship.

BRIANNA: I’m starting to look around and everything, so I hope I can make it onto a college team.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Leigh Jones in Pearland, Texas.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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