At school, I was fortunate enough to have the most wonderfully animated English teacher. She would come powering into the classroom, rousing us from our teenage stupor, and inject vigour and verve into even the most mundane of A-level texts. When a woman can interpret The Waste Land as a riotous romp, you tend to listen to what she has to say. So when she told the wet behind the ears former version of myself that The Independent was the only newspaper worth cutting down trees for, I listened.
But that was last century, and now it is 2019. Things change, not least print journalism. It may be hard for younger people to imagine what we oldies are talking about, but before social media, journalists often had to seek out stories. Nowadays, news and gossip is delivered to all of us instantly, via our mobile phones. Even the most lazy of “journalists” can cobble together a story nowadays, simply by compiling tweets. I know celebrity culture is de rigueur these days, and that clicks fuel publications far more than quality, but I still retain the rose-tinted expectation that, in keeping with its broadsheet roots, The Independent should provide proper journalism or well-argued, evidenced commentary.
Unfortunately Jonathan Liew’s piece, “Why the arguments against trans, intersex and DSD athletes are based on prejudice and ignorance,” gives us neither. Conflating trans-identified people with intersex people was never going to be the best of starts. Trans people claim to feel a discord between their sexed bodies and an innate sense of gender. Intersex people are born with sex characteristics which do not fit typical binary notions of female and male. Feelings are subjective in a way that physiology is not. These two things cannot be conflated, unless you don’t know what you’re talking about and refuse to think things through. But it’s okay — intersex people are not what really concerns Liew. What he is interested in is not only dismissing female athletes’ concerns about their future chances of competing at a professional level, but in reducing these women to hysterical (he actually uses the term “hysteria” — apparently without irony) ninnies who cannot cope with a bit of competition from “men in sports bras” with “their giant bulging muscles and enormous flapping penises.”
It’s almost as if Liew is completely unaware — and, given his role as The Independent’s Chief Sports Writer (yes, really) you’d think he’d be clued up on these things — that, in the interests of fairness, sport has historically been segregated by sex. There is a reason Rebecca Adlington never raced Michael Phelps, and why Serena Williams doesn’t go head to head with Novak Djokovic. Male bodies are different from female bodies: they are bigger, stronger, and faster. These differences are encoded into our DNA. When archaeologists dig up thousand-year-old skeletons, the bones tell them whether the person was female or male. All the artificial hormones in the world won’t change this. You know this, I know this, my cat knows this.
Jonathan Liew knows it too, which is why his conclusion, “Transwomen are women,” is all the more astonishing. Worse, it’s disingenuous. Transwomen are not women — if they were, what does the “trans” prefix denote? But that assertion is not even the worst one in this car crash of an article. No, in a piece dripping with condescension, Liew — Chief Sports Writer, remember — rounds off matters with the stunning admission: “Sport, I’m afraid, is only sport.” Wow. I wonder why any of us bother, then, with competitive sport? Why does Liew bother reporting on sport? Isn’t he talking himself out of a job here? But no. Of course, what Liew really means is, “Women’s sport is only women’s sport.”
He envisions a world where transwomen sweep the board at female events. “Why would that be so bad?” he asks, with a straight face. Understandably, lots of people do think that would be bad. Martina Navratilova, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, thinks it would be bad: “It would not be fair,” she concludes (not unreasonably). Navratilova changed the face of the women’s game, being one of the first female tennis players to incorporate cross training and weight training into her regime. In 1981, at the top of her game, she was outed as a lesbian by the New York Daily News. It’s safe to say she knows a thing or two about fairness. She was retiring when Liew was still in nappies. But deference, it would appear, isn’t in his lexicon. “I have a lot of time for Navratilova,” he gamely concedes, “But on this one, she’s sadly misguided.”’
Liew appears not to have given a single consideration to the sportswomen who will be affected, instead falling back onto the “transphobia” accusation which now haunts anyone who questions trans rhetoric. That Liew puts women’s concerns down to “ingrained prejudice” is nothing less than a cheap slur, and it does him no favours. It is not transphobic to disagree with the claim that transwomen are the same as women. Conversely, it is misogynistic to argue otherwise, as Liew does. It is as though he has never considered that women are a distinct sex class, historically oppressed, and deserving of a place in all aspects of public life, including sport. The Independent’s Chief Sports Writer should work on his attitude towards women and the female athletes he is responsible for reporting on.
Laura Rimmer is a freelance writer based in Scotland.