14 October 2010

Beryl Burton and Lana Lawless

I am going to mention Lana Lawless and Beryl Burton in the same post. Why?, you ask.

Well, I just happened to read about both of them today.  All right, you say, but what else do they have in common?

Not much, I'll admit.  But Beryl Berton is relevant to a question brought up by what Lana Lawless has done.

Ms. Lawless has made the news during the last couple of days because she's suing the Ladies Professional Golf Association because they won't let her play in their tournaments.  Why is that?

The LPGA is excluding her for the same reason they would probably exclude me, even if I met the organization's other requirements.  Yes, Ms. Lawless (Don't you just love the name?) is transgendered.  She had her sexual reassignment surgery in 2005.  

The LPGA, and much of general public--even some who are fully willing to accept that Ms. Lawless is as much of a woman as Lisa Ann Horst--argue that Lawless and other transgender women have advantages conferred upon them as a result of their XY chromosomes.  Although I don't have any statistics handy, I'd bet that, on average, we are taller and heavier than most women born with XX chromosomes.  Also, we have broader and denser bone structures (which is the reason why, even after years of taking estrogen, which weakens bones, osteoporosis is all but unknown in male-to-female transgenders) and, usually, more muscle mass. 

Now, it's easy to see how such differences would confer advantages on us (well, not me, given  my age and the shape I'm in!) in sports like American football--or in basketball, where height makes right.  But even in the latter sport, mens' (or trans-women's ) advantage isn't as great as one might think, since basketball players of both genders are in the top percentile for height.  (I mean, really, how much advantage does someone who's seven feet tall have over someone who's six-foot-nine?)  And, while I admit I don't know much about golf, as I've neither played the game nor followed the sport, I still have to wonder just how much of  an advantage one gender really has over an other.  Some argue that someone with XY chromosomes can make longer shots, but somehow I suspect there's more to winning a golf tournament than that.  Otherwise, why would there be so much of an audience for it, and why would even social golfers spend so much time practicing.

My point is, it's commonly assumed that if a woman with XY chromosomes were to enter a women's competition, she would dominate it and eliminate the women's competition's/league's/race's raison d'etre--or, at least, eliminate its audience and sponsorship.

That brings me to Beryl Burton.  She dominated British women's cycling at a time when it was coming to its own.  In fact, she was arguably as well-known as the male racers of her time.

That's because, at one point, she held the 12-hour time trial record.  Not the women's record, mind you--the record.  Moreover, she held that record for two years (1967-69), and at 277.25 miles,  she had an advantage of five miles over the men's record.  

Think about it:  She was riding faster, over a distance, than most of the male professional cyclists of her time.  And her record still stands as the women's record; only a handful of men have beaten it--even though she was riding in the days before disc wheels, carbon frames and skinsuits.

You might argue that she is an exception.  She is certainly unusual, but she's not the only female athlete to have held  a record for both men and women. Such a thing is relatively common in swimming and a few other non-contact sports.  As an example, when Gertrude Ederle set the record for swimming across the English Channel, her time was a full two hours faster than the previous record, which had been set by a man.

So, the examples I've set out beg this question:  How much of men's dominance of sports is really due to men's actual or alleged superior athleticism?  Could it be that men's dominance in sports other than American football, basketball, or a few others, is really due to the facts that they've been playing longer and that there is more of an infrastructure, if you will, of sports for boys than there is for girls?  Even after nearly four decades of Title IX, it's a lot easier to find a team, league or program for boys than it is to find their counterparts for girls, particlarly in smaller and rural communities.  

And what does that portend for the future of transgenders in sport?


  1. These are complicated questions, made more complicated still by the emotionality that is attached to them. Although there are female both-gender record holders, the fact is that they are outliers. Same is true with women being taller, stronger, etc than men. On average, all factors remaining equal, yadda yadda yadda, a man will be better at any given sport than the female equivalent. The next step, however, is to ask how gender is defined. XX women do not all have the same levels of hormones, bone density, etc. And I would venture to say that *in the context of professional sports* you will find plenty of XX women with higher testosterone levels, broader shoulders, etc than some of their transgendered counterparts. On average however, the TS female athlete will likely still have the advantage in these aspects. So, what to do?

    One way I would propose to solve the dilemma without excluding TS women, AIS women, and so on, is to go by numbers. Set standards for weight and heigh variation, min and max levels of various hormones present (over a consistent time period), even bone density. Only women whose bio stats fall within those ranges are eligible to compete, period, and what her chromosomal make-up is is none of anybody's business.

  2. Velouria, you make valid points about where transgenders fit in the "spectrum" of size, strength and such. And your proposal is intriguing, and the most intelligent I've read on the subject. Thank you for your comment.

  3. I have never been able to comprehend the idea of competitive sports being someone who likes cooperation...

    I do like the idea of individual achievement as in time trials where you are exploring your own limits. Beryl had been told by her doctors that she was too ill to ride a bike, wonder what she might have done if she had been in better health!

    I have a friend whose only worry about her transition is that since hormone treatment her golf game with reduced strength has become more calm and results have improved to the point where she is worried that her male friends will not wish to continue playing with her since they are being beaten by someone becoming more female with time...

    One of Scotland's greatest cyclists was a wee mountain climber who could wear the spotted jersey in the Tour de France. Now vanished from public sight after a change in of life, I wonder how their competitors feel about being beaten by someone not really like them...

    Velouria is right, a more scientific grading of competitors is needed to make any reasonable comparisons.

    Since finding your blog I have just dipped in to some old posts, I need to make a more concerted effort on a rainy day to start from the beginning...