Going on offense
TRENDING | Female athletes are fighting in different ways to keep men out of their sports
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When the World Surf League announced a new rule allowing men who self-identify as women to compete as such if they suppress their testosterone levels for more than a year, Bethany Hamilton wasn’t on board with it.
The champion Christian surfer has vowed not to participate in World Surf League events if the pro tour lets biological males compete in its women’s division. Hamilton lent her star power to a movement that’s gaining steam: Female athletes past and present, and their supporters, are fighting to keep men who claim to be women from displacing real women and girls in their own sports.
Hamilton is one of the most high-profile athletes to push back against the presence of what she called “male-bodied athletes” in women’s sports. The 33-year-old Hawaiian’s story of becoming a champion surfer after losing her left arm in a shark attack is well known thanks to her autobiography Soul Surfer and the 2011 movie of the same name.
In an Instagram video, Hamilton dialed up the irony to question the World Surf League’s new hormone suppression rule: “How is this rule playing out in other sports like swimming, running, MMA [mixed martial arts]?”
Riley Gaines can answer that question firsthand: A 12-time All-American swimmer for the University of Kentucky, she saw the University of Pennsylvania’s Lia (formerly Will) Thomas become the first man to win an NCAA women’s swimming championship last spring. Under since-changed NCAA rules, Thomas had to sit out a year and suppress his testosterone to compete as a “female.”
“[I] watched on the side of the pool as Thomas won a national title in the 500-yard freestyle, beating out the most accomplished female athletes in the country, including Olympic and American record-holders,” Gaines said earlier this year, testifying before the Virginia Legislature in favor of a bill aimed at protecting women’s sports. “Whereas just the year before, Thomas was ranking in the 400s in the men’s category.”
Hamilton isn’t alone in refusing to compete against men: Mid Vermont Christian School (MVCS) bowed out of its state’s high school girls’ basketball tournament in late February because the Eagles’ first-round opponent, Long Trail School, had a male player on its roster.
“We withdrew from the tournament because we believe playing against an opponent with a biological male jeopardizes the fairness of the game and the safety of our players,” Vicky Fogg, MVCS’ Head of School, said in a statement. “Allowing biological males to participate in women’s sports sets a bad precedent for the future of women’s sports in general.”
Long Trail went on to lose in the state quarterfinals, and MVCS paid a heavy price in its forfeit. In March, the Vermont Principals’ Association, which governs high school athletics in the Green Mountain State, banned the Eagles’ sports teams from participating in future state competitions.
But MVCS and others pushing back against male athletes—hormone-suppressed or not—in women’s sports are pointing to science. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics showed suppressing testosterone levels does not cause male athletes to lose significant muscle mass or power—and what they do lose, they can easily regain. Whether leveraging the explosive arm and leg strength required to swim faster than a woman to catch a massive wave and stand up on a surfboard, or outmuscling female opponents for shots or rebounds in a basketball game, male athletes retain a significant advantage.
That advantage becomes even more pronounced when biologically male athletes need not suppress their testosterone. Few female athletes know this better than Selina Soule, a former high school sprinter who repeatedly watched helplessly from an adjoining lane as two male competitors, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, rewrote Connecticut’s track-and-field record books.
Miller and Yearwood have set 17 state records and collected 15 state titles between them. Whenever Soule and other girls competed against them, she knew they would be fighting for third place at best.
“It was very frustrating and demoralizing to have to go through almost every other week during the season,” Soule said. “In the 100-meter dash, they’d be finished when all the other girls were at the 80-meter mark. It wasn’t fair at all.”
For this reason, Soule and three other former high school sprinters—Chelsea Mitchell, Alanna Smith, and Ashley Nicoletti—have sued to have Miller’s and Yearwood’s names stricken from Connecticut’s state record books.
Connecticut’s federal district court dismissed Soule’s case as moot given that she and her fellow former athletes have graduated. After initially upholding that ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has elected to reconsider its decision. The court will hear oral arguments in June.
Soule’s attorney, Christiana Kiefer of the Alliance Defending Freedom, is thrilled about that—especially since her clients might have advanced to prestigious meets and perhaps attracted college recruiters’ attention but for the dominance of two biological males.
“The [original] three-judge panel got it wrong,” Kiefer said. “My clients have lost opportunities. The panel was incorrect that the records don’t matter.”