Gender is the agenda: The question is “why?”
13 August 2021
Radio New Zealand’s (RNZ) Media Watch on August 8th was headlined, “GOAT in a boat – and a trans trailblazer in Tokyo”. It focussed nine of its eleven minutes on the latter – the transgender weightlifter, Laurel Hubbard.
The inclusion in the Olympic Games’ women’s weightlifting of someone who had set national records at junior level as a male and transitioned to living as a woman in 2012, resulted in extremes of opinion for and against.
Hubbard failed to make it into the second round of the competition. The weightlifter admitted subsequently to having been “overwhelmed by the occasion” and acknowledged an age-related reliance on anti-inflammatory drugs in order to be able to compete.
An unseemly scramble
The scramble for media places at an event which usually attracts comparatively little attention was an insult to the female athletes. That insult was compounded by the graceless exit of a third of the media as soon as Hubbard was eliminated. Laurel had left the building; nothing more to see there – only natal women. (Almost all women of colour as it happens, but I imagine the irony in that escaped the hacks.)
Maja Burry, who was present, said the sound of the cameras when Hubbard appeared was deafening. It was not as deafening as the silence of the three medallists when asked at the post-competition press conference what they thought about the inclusion of a transwoman in their event.
Hubbard’s rather ignominious exit did nothing to calm the media frenzy, and RNZ’s description of the weightlifter as a trans trailblazer, alongside Lisa Carrington, is an outcome of that.
Why was “gender the agenda”; why was there so much media noise about the mere presence of a forty-three year-old transgender weightlifter who had lived as a highly privileged white man for thirty-five years? Why were there global headlines about an athlete who failed; whose achievement was to identify as a trans woman and to enter a women’s sport in which the average performance advantage for natal men is in the region of thirty per cent?
Is Hubbard the shy, modest, and self-deprecating person of the carefully managed press interviews, or a coolly calculating and driven competitor intent upon becoming a medal winner in the only category in which that was possible? Or, as some would have it, is Hubbard an ideologue working to push trans athletes’ participation in women’s sports into the media spotlight and to garner public support?
The back story
As a promising young weightlifter in the newly created super heavyweight division, Hubbard set the New Zealand Junior weightlifting record of 300kg in 1998, before retiring from the sport in 2001.
In 2012, having been appointed as Executive Officer of Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand, Hubbard transitioned to living as a woman, entered the tiny world of New Zealand women’s super-heavyweight weightlifting, and took the New Zealand spot at the 2017 Commonwealth Games, only to sustain an elbow injury when trying to break the Games record.
A subsequent return to competition saw Hubbard represent New Zealand at Olympic qualifying events, culminating in clinching the Oceania spot in the Olympic Games, only to fail to make it through the first round.
After the Commonwealth Games, and while preparing for the Olympics, Hubbard was charged with careless driving causing injury but was discharged without conviction and granted name suppression. The former judicial decision was to enable international travel to sporting events, and the latter was to avoid any media scrutiny which might interfere with Olympics preparations. Hubbard fought for a year to maintain name suppression – which seems like the action of a strong-minded and success-focussed individual.
Although claiming never to have been involved in sport for “publicity or profile”, the intense media attention of competing at the Oluympics as a transgender athlete was completely predictable, as was the wider public attention. Was all that highly focussed effort and fighting back from serious injury purely because of a love of the sport – a non-competitive purist’s love of lifting? If so, surely that could have more easily been expressed in other ways – like coaching and smoothing the pathways to success of less privileged young people, for example.
Putting all that together, it is quite hard to believe Laurel Hubbard is actually, or at least totally, the intensely private, shy, and self-effacing person of the curated public image.
But what got up a lot of noses about the RNZ report, which is part of a significant increase in trans-positive media pieces over the past two years, was that crass juxtaposition of Hubbard with Lisa Carrington.
Carrington is an extraordinary athlete who is a great ambassador for New Zealand sport and for Māori. A wāhine toa who, by winning three gold medals, became New Zealand’s most decorated Olympian ever.
And there’s Dame Valerie Adams, another great ambassador for her sport and her country. A wāhine toa who, having had two children, and in her very last international competition, won a bronze medal.
Then there’s Emma Twigg, a proud lesbian and spokeswoman for lesbian and gay rights; a wāhine toa who came back from retirement to win a gold medal.
And how about young Ellesse Andrews, a track cyclist who rode an astonishing race in the keirin to win silver, and who set a New Zealand record in the sprint. A wāhine toa on wheels.
Every one of these great female athletes, and all the others who competed, could be beaten by mediocre male athletes because of the average performance advantage that genetic males who have gone through male puberty have over genetic females – advantages that, Brendan Telfer, please note, are NOT all lost on transition.
When is doping legal?
Telfer was cited in the Mediawatch report for his response to Duncan Garner on the question of the loss of performance experienced by male to female trans athletes post transition. He coyly referred to “certain medical procedures which reduce testosterone level” and claimed that meant Hubbard no longer had male strength.
Clearly, he had not bothered to read the science which shows that male average performance advantage is not all lost on transition – which is why Hubbard, aged forty-three, eight years after transition, can still lift to within fifteen kgs of what was achieved over half a lifetime ago as a man.
Telfer ignored the fact that many trans athletes do not have an orchiectomy, and those who retain their testicles only need to reduce endogenous testosterone to a level that is above the bottom of the standard reference range (SRR) for males, and four times the top of the SRR for females.
He also ignored the fact that male to female trans athletes who have surgically transitioned – thanks to Kristen Worley’s successful challenge of the limits imposed by the International Cycling Federation – can take exogenous testosterone under a therapeutic use exemption, which is individually negotiated between the sport’s governing body and the athlete and their doctor.
The final act in this testosterone farce was the International Association of Athletics Federations’ and International Olympic Committee’s decision to impose a much lower endogenous testosterone level on 46 XY DSD athletes in middle distance running events only, which targeted black athletes.
All the talk about how the IOC’s current transgender guidelines are “no longer fit for purpose” obscures the reality that they were never fit for purpose. They were always a slapdash solution by a bunch of men in blazers who don’t give a damn about women’s sports.
And one thing is certain – if female to male trans athletes’ automatic therapeutic use exemption to take as much testosterone as they want, resulted in women self-identifying as men, and entering men’s sport and taking men’s sponsorships, places on national teams, professional contracts etc – I can guarantee there would be no weasel words like, “there is a need to resolve the tension between inclusivity and fairness.”
But that’s not going to happen because all the synthetic testosterone a genetically female body can take will not offset male average performance advantage which sees the very best of female weightlifters lift 335kgs combined, while the men’s record is now 448kgs.
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