Deconstructing Dr Rachel McKinnon

Those of my readers who are keen followers of trans rights issues - likely none - may be aware of the controversy surrounding Dr Rachel McKinnon (person's preferred Twitter handle) who is a man who identifies as a woman ("trans woman"). McKinnon was previously an OK-but-far-from-top-tier cyclist in the men's arena. Upon "becoming" a woman, McKinnon quickly powered to the top ranking, including a win in the UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championship in the 35-44 age group (female), and if you click through to that link you might have an inkling why.

McKinnon has been assiduous on chasing down (and blocking) anyone on Twitter who questions the fairness of a physiological man competing with physiological females. I can't imagine why, unless there's a certain element of feeling guilty about sudden un-earned success.

Luckily, the golden fountain of academic publishing has provided a definitive voice on the subject[1]. McKinnon has published a paper (co-authored with Dr. Aryn Conrad) in PHILOSOPHICAL TOPICS, VOL. 46, NO. 2, FALL 2018 which settles the issue once and for all. [Rachel, FYI, I've squirrelled away a copy of this in case you delete it.]

Aryn Conrad, if you were wondering, also appears not to have been born in the same gender to which they now identify. Apparently Aryn is "the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants" though I wonder whether that's exactly the same relationship that the grandparents would state.

Let's take a walk through this article. The abstract sets out their goal:

We argue that the inclusion of trans athletes in competition commensurate with their legal gender is the most consistent position with these principles of fair and equitable sport.
Gosh, that's not something we could have predicted, at all. But perhaps we're being unfair, what's the actual argument? Well:
We suggest that the justificatory burden for such prima facie discrimination [endogenous testosterone limits] is unlikely to be met. Thus, in place of a limit on endogenous testosterone for women (whether cisgender, transgender, or intersex), we argue that ‘legally recognized gender’ is most fully in line with IOC and CAS principles.
In other words, it doesn't matter if trans athletes have a material physiological advantage over women, the paper wants to talk about whether the existing regulations are fully consistent with respect to the issues of male-to-female athletes. This approach is certain to win over female athletes on the lower steps of the podium, of course.

It's a poor quality "paper", by the way; 61 double-spaced pages without diagrams before you get to the appendices, so about 30 normal pages. Contrary to what aspiring academics might think, length is generally inversely proportional to quality. If you can't make the core argument in 10 pages, you're probably relying on length to cover up plot holes. It also doesn't follow the usual structure of "tell 'em what you're going to say, say it, tell them that you've said it" - perhaps because that would make it much easier to check their claims.

Reading through the paper, the key claims are:

  1. Internation sport regulations, and their legal effect and scope, are complicated;
  2. There are some edge cases of people born as women with high testosterone, which have not been handled consistently;
  3. Sport regs say we must not discriminate on various grounds - is "gender identity" (as opposed to biological sex) one of those grounds? (you'll be shocked to learn that the authors think that it is);
  4. Apparently not clear that biological women with excess testosterone have a significant physiological advantage over other women;
  5. What is the meaning of "fairness / level playing field" in sport? There's a huge amount of waffle here, but seems to boil down to "gender identity is intrinsic, so you can't base fairness on it in the same way that you can't say that a 7 foot tall person has an unfair advantage in the high jump". (I'm doing some serious editing here, the text is sprawling and terribly structured and summarised).

At this point I'd like to pull out the quote:

So if trans women are female, we ask, why would 'male' physiological data be relevant to the question of fairness? We know this won’t be convincing. But it is an important question to confront.
Well, there's the tiny matter that male physiology is hugely relevant to performance in sport."We know this won't be convincing" - yes, because it is not at all convincing. It is, if you excuse the phrase in this context, bollocks.

Continuing, we have:

  1. Placing upper limits on testosterone in "women" is totes unfair;
  2. Trans women's physiological advantage is not that big, in fact men and women almost completely overlap in physiology (I swear, that's what they say);
  3. Trans women are actually just like regular hi-testosterone women in sports performance;
  4. Indeed, setting testosterone limits on women in sport is probably unfair and unreasonable;
  5. Bodies are complex and testosterone levels are not the whole story by a long chalk;
  6. Testosterone levels don't seem correlated with performance by elite men;
  7. Actually, just don't use testosterone to judge who's a man and who's a woman - just take their word for it;
  8. Let's look at Caster Semenya as an edge case of high-performing woman with testosterone, trans women are totes the same as her
  9. If you don't let men identifying as women compete in women-only events, it's just not fair dammit.
My goodness me. I'm glad I only had to read that once. If I were designing a paper structure to bury the facts and specific arguments, I don't think I could have done better. Props to McKinnon and Conrad. Of course, if they were actually trying to convince rather than write an obscure scrawl to point to as "academic validation of our argument, baby!" they'd have written it differently.

I don't know who the reviewers were for this paper, but if they got any remuneration then I'd recommend clawing it back, sharp-ish.

Rachel and Aryn: if you want to submit a more compact version of the paper to a journal with standards on conciseness, you're welcome to build from the above structure. I don't want any co-author credit because I think your arguments are ludicrous, but I'd like to see them at least argued clearly.

Rachel McKinnon and Aryn Conrad appear to be desperate to get external validation for their lifestyle choices. I'm reminded at this point of Robert Pirsig's comment in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance":

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

[1] No, not really.

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