(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, August 8.)
History might well record that we reached peak craziness on July 20, 2019.
That was when I read a story in the sports pages about a champion New Zealand mountain biker named Kate Weatherly, who was born male but “transitioned to female” from the age of 17.
Weatherly was reported as objecting to a University of Otago study which found, surely to no one’s surprise, that transgender female athletes have an advantage over rivals who are born female.
Her own record seems to prove the point. According to the story, Weatherly went from being an “average” men’s downhill mountain biker to winning the women’s elite national championship. Some rivals – again, surely to no one’s surprise – say that’s unfair.
Weatherly resents being described as transgender and disputes the finding that she enjoys an advantage over her rivals. “I’m not a transgender,” she insists. “I am a woman who happens to be transgender. As a result I want to be able to compete with my fellow women.”
It was at this point that that I wondered whether we had reached peak lunacy. What civilisation has regarded for millennia as immutable truths are now up for redefinition in the light of personal preference. Down is up, wet is dry, night is day.
Weatherly’s perception of herself as “a woman who happens to be transgender” is a piece of semantic trickery. It plays into the fashionable ideological notion that virtually nothing is fixed and even words such as “male” and “female”, which until recently were considered to have a settled and universally understood meaning, are in fact infinitely flexible.
This in turn fits neatly with the neo-Marxist idea that sex and sexual identity are mere social constructs, imposed on people by a repressive, white, male-dominated, capitalist society, and must be overturned if people are to be truly liberated.
The underlying aim is to destroy social cohesion by magnifying minority grievances, and ultimately to subvert democracy by giving supposedly oppressed groups special rights over others.
I’m not suggesting that Weatherly is consciously part of a neo-Marxist plot. However I do suggest that she’s in denial when she insists she’s a woman - and that despite her protestations, she does have an unfair advantage over other competitors.
Weatherly may well have grown up wanting to be a girl. She may feel like a woman and think of herself as one. That’s entirely her right, and no one should stand in her way. She should be free to live as a female, as “trans” people have quietly done for decades.
But claiming to be a woman doesn’t make her one. It doesn’t eradicate that awkward XY chromosome conferred on her at birth. And it doesn’t oblige the rest of us to think of her as female.
More to the point, she can’t get away with the claim that she’s competing on a level playing field with mountain bikers who were born female.
You can see why this is a nightmarish issue for sports organisations, some of which have been intimidated into complying with the aggressive demands of transgender athletes. But the science is clear.
It was all coolly set out by one of the authors of the Otago University study, physiology professor Alison Heather, in an in-depth interview for the Stuff website.
Weatherly, who has been having hormone treatment since she was 17, says her testosterone is tested every three months and has never been above 1.4 nanomoles per litre, which is within the average range for “cis” women – those who are born female. The implication is that she enjoys no advantage from having been born male.
But as Heather points out, many of the physical advantages men have over women in sport – such as bigger and different-shaped bones, greater muscle mass, larger hearts and superior oxygen capacity – are formed in the womb and continue to develop through puberty.
In other words, they are fixed in place by the time a person is in their teenage years and can’t be undone by hormone treatment. This might explain Weatherly’s striking progression from an also-ran as a male mountain biker to podium-finisher as a female.
Of course you’re immediately branded as transphobic if you suggest that someone who transitions from male to female or vice versa can never be quite the same as someone who is “cis” gender. But transphobia implies fear and hatred, which is not what this is about.
Most New Zealanders, being a generally tolerant lot, probably accept that people should be free to assume whatever sexual identity suits them. It's only when they use their sexual identity or adopted gender to claim special treatment - or, in the case of sport, take unfair advantage over others - that it becomes an issue.