After a year-long delay, the highly anticipated 2020 Olympics will officially take place in Tokyo this July. I find myself counting down the days to witness Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Noah Lyles, and other athletes make history. However, amidst the bubbling excitement for another worldwide competition, controversy surrounds one of New Zealand’s weightlifting athletes, Laurel Hubbard.
For this summer’s competition, Laurel Hubbard became the first transgender athlete to compete at an Olympics. Olympic officials sorted her into the women’s weightlifting team after changes in eligibility requirements in 2015 qualified her. Her testosterone levels fall within the requirements for the women’s weightlifting category (10 nanomoles per liter in serum for at least one year before the competition). So, Hubbard will compete as a woman this summer.
The transgender controversy
Here’s where the disagreement comes into play. Critics of this decision protest it as a discriminatory, biased advantage against biologically female-born athletes. This argument leans on biological differences— such as Hubbard’s testosterone levels—to support its claims. Testosterone is a hormone involved in increasing muscle mass and bone density commonly found in men. As a transgender athlete, Laurel Hubbard, who experienced puberty as a male, naturally has higher testosterone levels. In turn, she has higher muscle mass and bone density compared to other women competing in the women’s weightlifting category.
By emphasizing Laurel Hubbard’s testosterone levels, critics proclaim Hubbard and transgender athletes possess advantages at the expense of cisgender athletes. A Belgian weightlifter, Anna Van Bellinghen, one of these critics, agrees with this sentiment. She stated, “Life-changing opportunities are missed for some athletes—medals and Olympic qualifications—and we are powerless.”
Shifting to a more personal level, I recently talked to colleagues who agreed with critics like Anna Van Bellinghen. They take the stance that her presence creates an unfair advantage over other athletes. So, they profess that Hubbard should either compete in a separate category for transgender athletes or not compete at all. Others say they don’t deny Laurel Hubbard’s right to express herself but assert it’s not fair for other women competing.
But what these critics fail to recognize is that Laurel Hubbard qualified to compete alongside the other Olympic women. She falls within the requirements for transgender athletes, especially since her testosterone levels fall below 10 nanomoles per liter. So, there should be no question of whether she should physically be allowed to compete. This seems to be more opposition against the idea of transgender representation, image, and equality on a worldwide podium.
A gendered perspective
Additionally, critics of this decision fail to recognize the variation and diversity within the men’s and women’s categories. Some of the most successful male athletes, such as Michael Phelps, have remarkable biological differences that aid their success. Phelps processes nearly “half the lactic acid of a typical athlete.” Lactic acid is an acid that produces fatigue. Yet nobody calls this advantage unfair or discriminatory. Nobody demands Phelps take medication to increase his lactic levels. Instead, the world simply accepts Phelps as a superior, almost superhuman athlete.
But when women like Laurel Hubbard demonstrate some minor biological differences, people denounce these differences as discriminatory and unfair.
Inclusion, respect, and representation
In opposition to these critics, I believe allowing Laurel Hubbard to compete in the women’s weightlifting category at the Tokyo Olympics is a crucial step towards inclusion and representation for the transgender community. It’s a step in the right direction for transgender rights, especially with the Olympics being a prominent and influential platform. If the Olympics denies Hubbard the chance to compete, then we deny another place that respects her gender identity. While critics argue that Hubbard’s participation is a violation of equality and fairness, in reality, it would be a devastating violation of equality and fairness in not allowing her to compete.
So, I argue against Anna Van Bellinghen’s statement and counter that trans people and athletes miss life-changing opportunities daily. To further deny transgender athletes the opportunity to compete on such a stage is a blatant disregard of transgender lives. It places value on certain lives and genders over others.
More change to come
However, this is not the only controversial transgender athlete policy made recently. Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, vetoed an anti-trans sports legislation amidst waves of approved anti-trans sports laws in other states (Tennessee, Idaho, Arkansas, Mississippi). This bill banned transgender girls and women from participating in sports teams for elementary, secondary, and college athletic organizations. Edwards called the bill discriminatory, which, he stated, “is not a Louisiana value.”
This veto is another step towards demonstrating respect for and representation of transgender athletes. It provides them a place and an opportunity to stand alongside everyone else.
Gender identity is a sensitive and complex issue, especially in the 21st century, and it’s one that everyone must acknowledge. In Laurel Hubbard’s case, we can no longer deny her the ability to be and express who she is. It is a matter of recognizing the humanity and rights of trans people and athletes across the world.