VICE Investigates, the VICE News Hulu original documentary series, returned with its seventh episode, “Defending Champions.” The episode, featuring VICE Correspondent Gianna Toboni, discusses how transgender people are being policed in sports. Sports have historically been organized into two strict categories: male and female but what about those who challenge the binary?
The episode starts out by introducing viewers to Andraya Yearwood, a high school student who was forced to fight for her place on the girl’s track team after transitioning. Yearwood was not met with resistance from her school but instead, from the community. After Yearwood and another transgender student continued to take top spots in competitions, many wondered, mostly parents of fellow competitors, if they had an unfair advantage.
There are a handful of states that allow transgender athletes to compete with the gender they identify with, including Connecticut where Yearwood is from. However, more and more bills are being introduced to curb this. More recently, the fight has been taken to the federal government after The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a Title IX suit. The ADF focuses its argument on the fact that these women are “biologically male” and therefore it is unfair they can compete with women. According to Yearwood, the wording is demeaning and strips her down to her biology when she is so much more than that. And Yearwood is right to point out that no one would go through the turmoil trans people do just to win a few medals.
Yearwood sees the argument as someone who lost who is trying to blame anyone but themselves since the young woman whose family brought up the complaint finished seventh and was beat by women who were not trans in addition to Yearwood. But at the end of the day, like most young girls, Yearwood runs track because she loves it and wants to feel the beauty and commodity of participating in a sport. “Defending Champions” helps dispel the notion that trans athletes transition to win medals. The truth is, trans athletes transition to feel like themselves.
The ADF is not the only group fighting to keep trans women out of women’s sports. Doriane Coleman is a Law Professor at Duke University and a former elite runner. She firmly believes that having trans women compete with other women takes away from biological females’ talents. She points out the athletic differences between men and women and how male puberty prevents an unfair advantage to high school trans athletes.
However, the science behind whether testosterone affects athletic performance is up for debate. Joanna Harper is a medical physicist, athlete, and transgender person. During her own transition, she realized just how much slower she began to run after starting hormone therapy. She details how she lost her male advantage with nine months of hormone therapy. Her research has impacted the policies of the IAAF (now known as the World Athletics) and the IOC.
Harper’s testimonials and her explanation of the science behind hormone therapy is the best part of the episode. While Yearwood’s story is impactful and helps humanize the issue, Harper’s research is a better way to debunk the ADF’s argument. You can manipulate emotions all day but science doesn’t lie. That being said, Harper’s research, while published, has been scrutinzied by the scientific community because of its small sample size and the fact athletes self-report their data.
“Defending Champions” also tackles how the IAAF and IOC classify male and female athletes and how that has begun to affect not on trans athletes but Intersex athletes. Katrina Karkazis, a bioethicist who studies the testosterone’s effect on athletics, believes the current way the IAAF categorizes gender is unfair. She believes testosterone absolutely affects how athletes perform but there is no amount of it that necessarily determines a person’s biological sex. Additionally, some athletes with loser testosterone better perform better than those with high levels concluding that testosterone by itself is not a consistent factor to track. This is best seen in how the IAAF handled Mokgadi Caster Semenya, an intersex athlete who was forced to undergo tests and then because of the results, showing elevated testosterone levels had to take medication.
VICE Investigates excels when it focuses on the science behind the issues it sets out to cover and “Defending Champions” is no different. Breaking down the science behind how trans athletes and intersex athletes compete making the argument more understandable. Prior to this episode, I knew almost nothing about this issue and like any good documentary should, I feel much more informed. My only qualm with the episode is the pacing can feel slow at times and some of the information Karkazis is difficult to understand without having a science-savvy brain.
VICE Investigates is streaming now on Hulu with new episodes dropping monthly.
VICE: Investigates, Episode 7 - Defending Champions
VICE Investigates excels when it focuses on the science behind the issues it sets out to cover and “Defending Champions” is no different. My only qualm with the episode is the pacing can feel slow at times and some of the information Karkazis is difficult to understand without having a science-savvy brain.