Reflections on the 2023 Creating Change Conference
This post is part three of a series of reflections on the 2023 Creating Change Conference. For part one, see “Mixed-Race and Rootless”. For part two, see “Accessibility, Ableism, and Accommodations”.
At the Creating Change Conference, one of the sessions I was most looking forward to attending was on trans inclusion in sports. I was familiar with two of the scheduled presenters, trans athletes Fallon Fox and Chris Mosier, from the news, and I knew another presenter, trans activist and journalist Karleigh Chardonnay Merlot, through social media.
So I was disappointed to find out only after the session started that none of these scheduled presenters had actually made it to the conference. One of them was sick, but the others had difficulty getting funding to attend. Trans advocate Kayley Whalen explained and complained about this, saying that these trans folks did not get the support from the conference organizers that they needed and deserved, but they were still going to hold the workshop with alternate presenters.
Neither the conference website nor app were updated to reflect these changes to the panel. The lack of support for trans presenters and attendees would come up again at the closing plenary later that afternoon. I’ll write about that in my next (and final) entry in this blog series.
Regardless, it was a very good session. They reviewed the controversy over trans athletes (women, in particular) competing alongside cis athletes of the same genders, and offered strategies on countering transphobic and misleading rhetoric shared by the media and lawmakers.
During the Q&A, I mentioned that I was a “former and hopefully future” amateur runner, and that I was glad more official races were allowing folks like myself to compete as non-binary. I also attempted to make a supportive comment about women athletes, but it didn’t come out very well. So below, I will expand upon what I intended to say.
Arguments against trans women competing alongside cis women often assume that people assigned male are always superior to people assigned female in athletic competitions. (Of course, such arguments rarely use “assigned at birth” language, instead misgendering trans women as men or males.) They claim, as World Athletics president Sebastian Coe stated last year, that “if you don’t have a gender separation, no woman would ever win another sporting event.”
I’ll put aside for now the misgendering of trans women and the over-reliance on testosterone levels as indicators of athletic potential, as many other writers have covered that territory. The fact is, even the claim that cis women are always inferior to cis men in physical prowess is simply untrue. Cis women should feel offended rather than supported at this insistence that they are the “weaker sex”.
To illustrate, I’ll give two examples of cis women who have excelled in their sports, neither of whom you’re likely to hear about in the mainstream media.
This is US-American ultrarunner Pam Reed. In 2002, at the age of 39, she won the Badwater Ultramarathon outright, beating all of the runners, women and men, in that year’s field. In 2003, she did it again.
For those unfamiliar, this is no ordinary race. A standard marathon is 26.2 miles (42 km). Badwater is 135 miles (217 km), with 13,000 feet (4000 m) of total ascent. In Death Valley. In July.
Pam isn’t a robot or superhuman. She is a mother of five (including two stepchildren). She is also a highly skilled athlete who has excelled in an extreme endurance sport that few people of any gender even attempt.
If anyone told Pam that it was impossible for a woman to beat every male competitor in a 135 mile uphill footrace through the desert in the summer heat, she clearly didn’t believe them. Neither should you.
This is Johanna Nordblad, a Finnish freediver. Last year, I watched a Netflix documentary, Hold Your Breath, on her attempt to break the world record for distance traveled under ice on a single breath. She did so in March 2021, not only beating the women’s record, but the men’s as well, swimming 103 meters (338 feet) while wearing neither a wetsuit nor fins.
Johanna is an extraordinary athlete, but she is neither a robot nor a superhuman. She is a mother with a day job in marketing. She was also 45 years old at the time she set this record.
If anyone told Johanna that it was impossible for a woman to swim 103 meters in freezing cold water, wearing only a swimsuit, while holding her breath for over two and half minutes, she clearly didn’t believe them. Neither should you.
These athletes demonstrate that cis women who train hard enough can excel in athletics, beating cis men in even the most demanding sports. People who claim that every person born with so-called male anatomy has an automatic physical advantage over every person born with so-called female anatomy are not protecting women. They are holding them back, cis and trans alike.
Let every woman reach her potential by participating in women’s sports. Stop the invasive and humiliating testing and probing of women and girls’ bodies under the pretense of “fairness”. Discriminating against trans people is what’s unfair.