December 4, 2023 - 2:35pm

A friend of mine has a theory that men only created sports in order to feel physically superior to women. We might be better at living longer and creating new humans, but they’re better at running fast, jumping over poles and flinging balls around. 

What about playing pool, though? Are male people at an advantage there, too? According to the authors of a new petition, they are. Supported by Fair Play for Women, a group of female pool players is asking that entry to women’s tournaments be restricted to those who are female-bodied. Naturally, the question many are asking in response is “but does it really make a difference?” Well, yes. It does.  

One of the worst things about the debate over trans inclusion in sports is that it forces women to state the bleeding obvious. In order to maintain any categories of their own, women are forced to explain, again and again, why it is not fair to make them compete against male people. Instead of being allowed to celebrate female exceptionality, they are forced to declare themselves smaller, weaker, slower than men. More often than not, they will then see themselves accused of having declared women to be all-round inferior physical specimens.  

The whole thing is enraging, not just because it enforces, once again, the lie that male bodies are the default against which we must all measure ourselves, albeit only in categories pre-selected by men themselves. It’s enraging because even if male pool players were not advantaged by greater upper body strength, greater height, larger hand size and longer reach — and they are — their demanding entry to female categories would remain grossly unfair. 

After all, if there were no physical advantage for males, why have separate categories for men and women at all? If all bodies were equal in size and strength, who would benefit from maintaining woman-only tournaments? 

The answer depends, of course, on how one is defining the word “woman”. If one is thinking of female people, one could maintain separate events out of respect for the historic exclusion women have endured, not to mention the lingering prejudice women face as “impostors” in spheres men once claimed as their own. This is something the petition’s authors allude to when they mention “social factors”.

If, on the other hand, one is thinking of “woman” as a gender identity, then one is essentially creating a “feminine” version of “normal” sports. This is an insult to the courageous, gender non-conforming women who fought for their sex to have its own sports in the first place. It is asking that every time a female player enters a contest, she implicitly pledges allegiance to beliefs about what women are which have nothing whatsoever to do with female bodies and legacies, and everything to do with the social stereotypes which have seen sportswomen sidelined, belittled and denied respect as exceptional people. 

As Sharron Davies writes in Unfair Play, “women’s sport grew thanks to female athletes and coaches, strong mothers, members of women’s rights groups and sports organisations, who had to fight long and hard every step, stride, stroke, pull, push and throw of the way to achieve equality”. It grew precisely because women refused to accept the conflation of sex and gender which insisted female people were too “feminine” to engage in sports at all. Female sportspeople aren’t entering women’s categories in order to perform femininity. On the contrary, they’re pushing femininity aside.   

Women are not inferior versions of men, and female people are not an inferior subcategory of women. Indeed, there is something incredibly pathetic about the mindset which will not allow women to flourish in their own spaces, on their own terms. It’s the same mindset that spent so long denying us anything at all. So really, leaving aside questions of powerful breaks, who are the weak and small ones here?  

Victoria Smith is a writer and creator of the Glosswitch newsletter.