At the beginning of the year, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that a transgender athlete can play on the team most consistent with their gender identity. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation of Connecticut defended the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) and its transgender youth participation policy in Soule et al v. CT Association of Schools et al, the nation’s first federal court case to decide the constitutionality of transgender placement on teams.
However, this weekend, the governing body for international track and field, the World Athletics Council, declared it wouldn’t allow transgender women athletes to compete in elite competitions for women.
These contrary decisions are going to feed debate for the next few years. Florida, a state that banned transgender athletes in 2021, is now facing a reopened federal court battle in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which may make a different decision than the Second Circuit Court of Appeals up north.
We’d be mistaken to think this is a modern contest; the same debate was raging in the Ancient world, although not necessarily in real time. And that history should get some attention as we seek to reconcile the varying decisions from courts and international governing bodies about transgender inclusion.
In Classical antiquity, the same kind of disparate treatment affected those people who pushed gender boundaries. When women dressed as men, crossdressing in togas — togae in Latin — they either suffered a reduction in status or were beheld as with divine creatures. Much the way the same activity — competing as a transgender person — is prevented in one place, but permitted in another.
Aristophanes called a character in his play Women at Thesmophoria a “man-woman” and even referred to sporting education, specifically wrestling, in saying “What contradictions his life shows! A lyre and a hair-net! A wrestling school oil flask and a girdle! What could be more contradictory? What relation has a mirror to a sword? And you yourself, who are you? Do you pretend to be a man?” It was transphobic to be sure, but people identifying differently than their natal gender is nothing new.
While the ancient world could hardly be described as woke, there were indications that they could have come around to understanding a non-binary concept of gender. Latin-language prose writer, Platonist philosopher and rhetorician Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, a comedic novel, features a raunchy and detailed tale of the priests dressing in women’s clothes and acting like they were castrating themselves. The scene is often cited as evidence that ancient Rome was patriarchal and misogynistic but was a wee bit tolerant toward those who “transgressed” against gender lines. “While we have established that ancient Rome was no rainbow coloured paradise, nor was it the hell that it has been for many LGBT people in Western nations until the last few decades,” wrote the blogger “Neo Polytheist” — an expert in European polytheism who writes under the pen name “Sentia Figula” or “Felt (past tense of feel) Figure” in English.
Those are but a few cultural touchpoints. But the cradle of split opinions on transgender people was the development of Western thought, namely the way Socrates taught Plato and Plato taught Aristotle and Aristotle influenced and spawned different ways of thinking.
Neither Aristotle nor Plato or Socrates specifically addressed the concept of gender identity as it is understood today but their other teachings show us how opinions transgender identity have cleaved.
Socrates was an iconoclast. In his dialogues, he often questioned conventional wisdom and he engaged in philosophical discussions with women — his teachers were women — and recognized their intellectual abilities and contributions, which was in itself unusual in ancient Athens. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates advanced what the modern world would consider a more “gender fluid” argument and claimed that the differences between the genders were not significant enough to alter their roles in what he called an ideal state. To Socrates, biological women could take the place of biological men and vice versa, except in child bearing.
Plato, summoning Socrates, thought that if human beings are defined by their bodies, the division between men and women would be unavoidable. But Socrates didn’t think people should be defined by their bodies; Socrates believed that a person’s true identity was determined by their inner character and virtue, rather than their physicality or social status. Achieving personal excellence — arguably one of the goals of sports — was a matter of self-reflection, not performance. Socrates likely would have agreed with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Plato taught Aristotle, who diverged from his teacher’s lessons and his version of Socrates’ line of reasoning. If one understands Aristotle, then one can find the root of patriarchy. Aristotle stated that the “courage” (a virtue in his eyes, much like the modern concept of sound judgment) and “justice” (goodness and obedience) of men and women were unequal. In Aristotle’s view, men and women had different natural capacities and functions; women were biologically inferior to men. He believed that men were more rational and better suited for leadership roles, while women were more emotional and better suited for domestic duties. To Aristotle, biology was everything.
Because they’re based on the idea that biological differences in physical strength, endurance, and other physical attributes give men and women competitive edges in athletic competitions, gender-segregated sports are distinctly Aristotelian. As much as one might disagree with Aristotle, segregated sports are often viewed as a practical solution to the physical differences between men and women and the desire to provide opportunities for women to participate in athletics. Legal experts have argued that segregating sports by gender sends a message to young female athletes that they can’t compete against other genders. Others have noted that transgender girls don’t necessarily have physical advantages if they haven’t gone through puberty.
But, judging by all the discordant decisions coming out, any policy on transgender inclusion probably won’t be universally accepted. That means that transgender athletes won’t be treated the same across ages, or across geography. We’re nearing a tipping point, a moment where the way transgender athletes will be accommodated must be decided in one most equitable way.
While it hasn’t been hashed out at the highest court in the country, whether transgender athletes have a constitutional right to play on a team that aligns with their gender identity will likely arrive at the Supreme Court of the United States within a few years; it’s the Court’s job to reconcile conflicting rules and laws. How the Supreme Court justices will rule is unknown but the way the current court is constructed suggests that transgender athletes may watch their opportunities dwindle.
The debate will rage on, which leaves the most important question to everyone: Which side are you on?