I am going to regret writing this.
I already know and accept that. There is no way to touch upon this issue without really pissing off a lot of people. I agonized over writing this, and very nearly skipped it. Then I realized that the reason I did not want to write this piece was because I was afraid of the topic. That felt like a terrible reason to not write an article. So, like an idiot, I’m writing it anyway. I’m writing it from a place as close to pure objectivity as I can, and I am still going to fuck it up and piss off a lot of people. I’m sorry if you are one of them. I accept your rage as well-earned and will not pretend that the issue is not as sensitive as the glutes and hammies after a Wendler leg day. Let the healing (hating) begin.
So who is Laurel Hubbard? Laurel Hubbard is a transwoman weightlifter who has just qualified for New Zealand’s Olympic team. If that sentence confuses you, I’ll explain. Laurel Hubbard was born biologically male, and transitioned to female in 2012 via a lengthy and unpleasant process of hormone therapy and complex surgical procedures. If you are still confused, then you are not smart enough to be reading this piece. Go eat some crayons.
The circumstances of her gender identity and the nature of her chosen sport have caused no dearth of uproar in the internet for reasons both compelling and horrific, depending upon which dark holes of iniquity you frequent. I intend to try and explore as many of these as I can in the vain hope of elevating the discussion surrounding this issue beyond what I have seen up to this point. Yes, I am a moron.
Issue One: Official Status
Laurel Hubbard is a woman. Full stop. I refuse to live in a world where a person cannot choose the circumstances of their own life with as much freedom as physically possible. She has every right to be the best version of herself she can achieve, and she does not need me to tell you that. If your argument against her participation in women’s sports begins and ends at “she’s not really a woman,” shut the fuck up and go play with the rest of the bronze-age idiots. Objectively, philosophically, morally, intrinsically, and for all purposes both practical and impractical, Laurel Hubbard is a woman. If you can’t get to that conclusion then just stop reading and go tweet something half-baked about how liberal Jewish space lasers are turning the frogs gay or whatever.
Issue Two: The Rules
Believe it or not, the IOC has rules regarding the status of transgender athletes. Rules are good, right? The friendly folks at Wikipedia provide the following:
In 2003, a committee convened by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Medical Commission drew up new guidelines for participation of athletes who had undergone gender reassignment. The report listed three conditions for participation. First, athletes must have undergone sex reassignment surgery, including changes in the external genitalia and gonadectomy. Second, athletes must show legal recognition of their gender. Third, athletes must have undergone hormone therapy for an appropriate time before participation, with two years being the suggested time.
It was not until 2004 that the IOC allowed transgender athletes to participate in the Olympic Games.
In 2015, the IOC modified these guidelines in recognition that legal recognition of gender could be difficult in countries where gender transition is not legal, and that requiring surgery in otherwise healthy individuals “may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights”. The new guidelines require only that trans woman athletes declare their gender and not change that assertion for four years, as well as demonstrate a testosterone level of less than 10 nanomoles per liter for at least one year prior to competition and throughout the period of eligibility. Athletes who transitioned from female to male were allowed to compete without restriction. These guidelines were in effect for the 2016 Rio Olympics, although no openly transgender athletes competed.
Laurel Hubbard has met all of these criteria, and is therefore eligible for participation. This renders most of the discussion about her legal status entirely moot. But that is not the real thorny issue here, is it?
Issue Three: Athletic Advantages of Sexual Dimorphism in Humans
Sexual dimorphism is the phenomenon in some species where the male and female versions express morphological differences beyond the purely reproductive. Female ball pythons tend to be larger than males, for instance. Male peacocks have elaborate plumage and coloration that females do not. The list goes on ad nauseam. Sexual dimorphism is common in many species and serves valid evolutionary purposes. Among humans sexual dimorphism is primarily exhibited through secondary sexual characteristics and body composition. There is no scientific debate over this, I might add. Male and female homo sapiens are not biologically identical. This is where the Laurel Hubbard situation really gets dicey.
It starts with testosterone. This is the hormone that produces many of the athletic advantages men typically have over women. It makes the muscles grow. It keeps the fat levels down. It makes hair grow in weird places. As with general sexual dimorphism, there is no scientific controversy regarding the athletic performance of the average male versus the average female across the human species. Generally speaking, the average human male will be larger, stronger, faster, and more durable than the average female. I don’t like saying that. It sounds pretty dismissive of all the exceptional female athletes out there, many of which make the average male look like 189 pounds of tapioca sliding down a wall. That being said, there is no intellectually honest debate around this part of the discussion.
The IOC rules state that a trans woman (or as I like to call them: women) must be on hormone therapy for two years prior to competing and have testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least one year. But what does that actually mean, physiologically speaking? More than one thing, unfortunately. Hold on. It’s about to get weird.
Issue 3A: Growing up Male
There is a pervasive argument that says transitioning after puberty leaves the transwoman in question with many advantages that never really go away. During puberty, a normal healthy male human will have testosterone levels high enough to make Alistair Overeem jealous. I fondly remember being sixteen years old and lifting weights for 90 minutes, then going to a 90-minute judo class. After which I would walk home and eat (not a joke) about 2500 calories of whatever I could find in the fridge. I’d go to sleep, wake up the next day, and do it again. In my early 20’s I would teach phys ed all day, go train at an MMA gym for three hours, then go work as a bouncer until 2 AM five days a week.
I am 43, now, the same age as Laurel Hubbard. If I attempted this sort of stupidity today I would die in a week. Graveyard dead. Gone. That’s what high testosterone will do for a body.
Now, research has demonstrated that the excess muscle mass from normal male levels of testosterone does in fact go away after a period of hormone (estrogen) therapy. The testosterone is necessary to keep the gains, as they say. Without high testosterone, one cannot maintain the muscle mass derived from it. We have a lot of data to prove this, too. If you want the simple version, just look at any professional bodybuilder when they are not on a steroid cycle. Those guys positively shrink, because the hypermuscularity is only sustainable while the hormones are elevated. This is why the IOC makes a transwoman be on estrogen for 2 years before competing. It’s enough time for the muscles born of cis-male test levels to drop off. How much does that matter? Just wait. We’ll talk about that more in the next section.
One other pervasive argument in play here is built around the following thesis: Living through this formative period as a biological male may produce permanent levels of bone density and bone mass that no biological female could achieve without supplemental hormones. The science is a little scarce on that issue, but there may be some truth to the argument that these advantages can be permanent if the person in question maintains an athletic lifestyle after transitioning. But not how you think.
See, here’s the surprising bit: Testosterone makes bones bigger, but estrogen makes them dense. It’s why post-menopausal women tend to get osteoporosis. It’s a complicated biological recipe where it takes a little bit of everything to produce that perfect cocktail of superhuman cyborg bones. In the linked studies, post-transition women showed increased bone density as more estrogen was added:
With the initiation of estrogen, many studies report a positive change in BMD in trans women. After 1 year of GAHT, a study of 231 trans women from Ghent and Amsterdam reported BMD increases at the lumbar spine (+ 3.67%, 95% CI 3.20–4.13%, p < 0.001), total hip (+ 0.97%, 95% CI 0.62–1.31%, p < 0.0001), and femoral neck (+ 3.67%, 95% CI 3.20–4.13, p < 0.001) . A recent meta-analysis reviewed 13 studies with 392 total trans women and showed significant gains overall in lumbar spine BMD at both 12 months (+ 0.04 g/cm2; 95% CI + 0.03 to + 0.060 g/cm2) and 24 months (+ 0.06 g/cm2; 95% CI + 0.04 to + 0.08 g/cm2), which is within a range often considered clinically significant.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the cross section of a cisgender male’s bone is still larger than the transwoman’s in this study. This might lead one to think that the increased bone density from exogenous estrogen is less an issue considering the difference in size. Well, that is where lifestyle comes into the game. There is a severe lack of data regarding transgender athletes that has many scientists hedging their bets on this topic, and wisely so. This is a very young field of research and there is a lot we do not know yet. Every scientist lives in fear of the ubiquitous specter of “confounding variables.”
“Compared with cisgender men, transgender women have lower bone mass and cortical size even prior to initiation of hormone therapy, suggesting sex steroid-independent effects in these individuals. These individuals are more likely to have vitamin D deficiency and less likely to be involved in sport than cisgender men,” says Dr. Davidge-Pitts.
Here is the rub: Ms. Hubbard has been a weightlifter her whole adult life. There is no question that prior to her transition, Ms. Hubbard possessed better-than-average bone density and size even for a male. Post-transition, she may (MAY!) have maintained that larger cross section as well as increased bone density. There is simply not enough research on it to say one way or the other. Which is maddening to those of us who want to make fair and equitable arrangements for athletes of all stripes.
In short, because she began her life as a biological male, and furthermore, a physically strong biological male, the introduction of estrogen as part of her transition might have increased her bone density. But it also might not have, because she likely already maxed that particular stat out long before this became an issue. Furthermore, for reasons we will get into shortly, there is a very real possibility that this has granted her no advantage at all within the current paradigm of competitive weightlifting. In short, we cannot be sure that any of this is making a difference because there is so little data on the topic specific to elite athletes. But, in the interests of objectivity, it must be accepted that there is a real chance Hubbard possesses a skeleton both larger and denser than her opponents can produce naturally.
So, we accept that there is at least some scientific evidence suggesting there might be an advantage vis a vis bone structure. It’s not exactly a smoking gun for those objecting to Ms. Hubbard’s participation, but objectivity demands we talk about it.
Maybe. Crap. Keep reading if I haven’t lost you already.
Issue 3B: How Much Testosterone is Too Much?
Let’s return to those IOC rules about testosterone, all of which Ms. Hubbard is in compliance with. One of the more interesting rules is that her testosterone levels must be less than 10 nanomoles per liter. If you must know, a nanomole of testosterone is 602,200,000,000,000 molecules (give or take a zero, I got lost.). Is that many molecules per liter of blood a lot of testosterone? Not for a guy. That’s very low for a male human. But unfortunately for Ms. Hubabrd’s competitors, it’s kind of high for a woman. Like, ten times the average, to be exact.
This raises an interesting question: why does the IOC allow such a high threshold? Even amongst elite cisgender female athletes, testosterone levels never even approached 10nM/L.
“Within the same press release, the IAAF cited research that states “most females (including elite female athletes) have low levels of testosterone circulating naturally in their bodies (0.12 to 1.79 nmol/L in blood), while after puberty the normal male range is much higher (7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L).”
It’s not just weightlifting, either. The paucity of data on the topic of trans athletes leads to some tough conclusions. Groundbreaking research by Joanna Harper may shed some light on the subject, and the data from her studies seems to indicate that 10Nm/L is just too high a limit for “fair” play. The prevailing theory is that the level was set here to accommodate female athletes with legitimate conditions that elevate their testosterone. Track athlete Caster Semenya is a woman with naturally high testosterone. She has not cheated nor has she ever been biologically male. She simply has a genetic condition that makes her a fantastic athlete. Nature can be very unfair like that sometimes. It is theorized that Semenya’s success in track events has been a large part of how these rules were constructed.
Even as a full-on supporter of trans-people of all stripes, this represents a bit of a problem. All the available scientific data indicates that Ms. Hubbard’s opponents will be competing against someone with between five and ten times as much free testosterone as they (naturally) possess. I do not have time or space here to talk about how that impacts every olympic event. What can be said unequivocally is that in a pure strength sport, having ten times the testosterone of your opponents constitutes an enormous advantage. If the conclusions from Harper and the IAAF prove compelling, then the allowable testosterone levels for transwomen competitors may need to be adjusted downward. Outliers like Caster Semenya will not appreciate this change, nor should they.
Issue 4: None of This Probably Matters.
The available science seems to tell us that Ms. Hubbard just might have an advantage over her opponents. Now, before you hoist that pitchfork and light the torches, let’s talk about the ugly reality behind weightlifting and the Olympics for a second. Hubbard’s testosterone levels are probably not the real issue here, with plenty of data to back that assertion. How, you ask?
I said it and I’m not taking it back. You want ugly truth? If you are an Olympic weightlifter angry because Hubbard’s testosterone levels are a threat to your medal contention, then I say you are a hypocrite. No one can expect to ever stand on the podium in weightlifting without pharmaceutical help.
If you are a champion at the international level in any strength or physique sport, you are almost certainly taking some kind of performance-enhancing drug. Period. The great bodybuilder Jay Cutler was once asked about steroid use in an interview. He said, “If you aren’t using, you aren’t winning.” The interviewer then asked. “So you use?” He replied with a cheeky smile, “I’m winning.” And don’t pretend it’s only bodybuilders, pal. Olympic weightlifting is one of the worst offenders, and it is not even much of a secret anymore.
In the 2012 London games, all three of the 94kg weightlifting medalists tested positive for something illegal, and six out of the top seven finishers also tested positive in that division. Half of all the weightlifters competing tested positive. HALF! Between 2008 and 2012, 61 lifters tested positive for illegal substances. Bulgaria’s entire team was BANNED for 2016. Do you want to know what’s really crazy about that? Their best finisher was 5th place. Even soaked in stanozolol, Bulgaria could not make the podium. These are just the ones who got caught, by the way. There were many more who got away with it, I promise.
In that context, what does the current allowable testosterone level even mean? What difference does female bone structure make when EVERYONE is running gear? Olympic weightlifting is so steeped in performance-enhancing drugs that penalizing Hubbard for having extra testosterone seems petty and strange. Virtually all the athletes in medal contention are likely enjoying some kind of pharmaceutical assistance, so why does it matter? Is she even in medal contention? Hubbard last competed at the world championships in 2019, where she finished 6th overall. Even with her elevated testosterone and all those advantages, she could not make the podium. Her best lifts are way off the women’s world records as well. What does that tell us, really?
Where Does This Leave Us?
If we view Ms. Hubbard’s Olympic situation outside of any context at all, it appears likely that she is enjoying a competitive advantage over her opponents. Biologically speaking, the allowable testosterone levels for transwomen athletes is almost certainly too high. All the available science supports that conclusion. Then again, all the available science on the issue could not fill a Dixie cup. When in doubt, do more research. In any case, if we ignore the other performance-enhancing elephant in the room, it is the RULE that is the problem here. Fix the rule and the problem goes away.
It can work. US track and field athlete CeCe Telfer has not qualified for the Team USA Olympic trials (women’s 400m hurdles) because the governing body for US track and field (USATF) limits testosterone levels for transwomen athletes to 5 nM per liter (Half what IOC allows). Incidentally, Telfer’s best time is 57.53 seconds, or a full 5+ seconds slower than the women’s world record held by Dalilah Muhammed. It should be noted that Olympic track and field is almost as fair as weightlifting for all the same reasons. Ms. Muhammad has been adjacent to several doping scandals herself, though she has never tested positive. Just her coaches and teammates and most of the people she is faster than…
But I digress. Within the context of the competitive women’s weightlifting scene, Ms Hubbard’s participation becomes a non-issue. Objectively, she is not likely to be any more juiced up than her competitors, and all the available data support this assertion. Is that a cop-out? I don’t think so. Success in competitive weightlifting has long been deeply steeped in performance-enhancing drugs, and pretending that Hubbard’s elevated testosterone is any more or less an advantage than a professionally adminstered regimen of stanozolol or trenbolone is both stupid and hypocritical.
pretending that Hubbard’s elevated testosterone is any more or less an advantage than a professionally adminstered regimen of stanozolol or trenbolone is both stupid and hypocritical.
That’s my M. Night Shyamalan twist for this article, folks. Did I fool ya? Hubbard’s situation as a competitor is literally the least-important issue pertaining to competitive weightlifting right now. The international weightlifting scene has a lot of housekeeping to take care of before I’m ever going to get excited about the relative advantages of a transwoman athlete versus her ciswoman opponents. The argument looks good on paper, but in the real world it all falls apart with only a cursory glance at the numbers. Clean up your sport, first. Then we can talk about “fairness.”
And fairness is what this is all about. Can Hubbard compete on a fair and level playing field with her ciswoman peers at the international level? Do those other athletes have the right to exclude her because of her transwoman status? What is “fair” in this context? The answer is nebulous at best, because there is no practical way to satisfy everyone. No matter what decisions get made, someone is going to feel wronged. Especially if we move the conversation to non-strength sports and include young athletes pre-transition.
In the sport of Olympic weightlifting, at least, the answers are easier. I’m a cynic by nature so the irony of it all amuses me. Can one really screech about “fair play” in a sport where cheating is the only viable path to victory in the first place? I hope you try. I really need the laugh. I sometimes wonder if other weightlifting champions whinge about Hubbard while waiting for their state-sanctioned AAS injections. Picturing this puts a smile on my face, and that makes me question my own character in ways that don’t feel good. Ah well. I’m kind of a jerk.
What should never be part of the conversation is Hubbard’s status as a woman or her dedication to her sport. If you can’t have this debate without sinking to either of those depths, you’re not ready to talk about this with the adults.