TRANS WOMEN DON'T HAVE AN ADVANTAGE IN SKATEBOARDING
Taylor's Still Talking and I'm Still Writing (And Learning)
Since posting to her Instagram account on May 17, 2022, Taylor Silverman has gone from someone who rides a skateboard with about 3,000 followers to 16.4K new friends and counting. Actually, since I started this draft a week ago she’s up to 16.5K. That’s impressive and she didn’t even do it with sponsored ads–it’s organic!
The reason for this growth was her post voicing her disappointment with getting second place in a Redbull Cornerstone skate contest in Lincoln, Nebraska in December of 2021, which I discussed in a previous newsletter.
Taylor felt that her skill level should have netted her first place but that award was given to Trans skater Lillian Gallagher. She goes on to explain why the “Trans competitor” (she didn’t name Lillian but people know how to Google things) unfairly won and that she deserves the prize money. She also tagged Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, Redbull, and Blair White seen here almost sitting on Alex Jones’ lap. If you aren’t familiar with these folks, they’re Conservatives/Libertarians/people critical of the Trans Community with a large media presence who echo Taylor’s view that Trans people shouldn’t be allowed to compete against skaters cisgender females… and should maybe have their own divisions.
The right answered Taylor’s plea to be heard and since May 17 she’s appeared on Piers Morgan’s show, Trans Libertarian Sara Higdon’s YouTube show, Amala Ekpunobi: Unapologetic, and other forms of media to explain her views. She’s said she feels attacked by the comments on her post. Along with the trolls, there were plenty of rational people who thought what she said was Transphobic. Several pro skaters including Nora Vasconcellos and Chris Russell took the time to explain their views on why her position was not only flawed but insensitive and offensive. While many of the comments point out that she’s not a skilled skateboarder or bashed her with profanity, it’s important to understand that plenty of people tried to explain to her why what she posted was Transphobic in a productive way.
So aside from the issue of wanting the money she sees as hers, what is Taylor’s actual position?
From reading and listening to her interviews, that part is a bit gray but she does lean into the following talking points quite often:
1. People assigned as male at birth have an unfair advantage in skateboarding.
2. Perhaps there should be Trans divisions in skateboarding. (She thinks that would be “fun”, yes she said fun)
3. It’s not up to women to solve this problem.
That last part is interesting because it certainly is divisive. It’s vague what she means by this as she often says it’s not up to the female skaters to solve this, but she doesn’t include Trans Women in that group which implies she doesn’t believe they are women. Taylor often says that “it’s not their fault that Redbull etc. allow them to compete with women,” which sounds problematic.
She also leans into the terms “biological female” and “biological male,” insensitive and dismissive terms that are also inaccurate. Here’s a link to an informative piece if you’d like to learn more as to why.
So, before we get into Taylor’s gripes, I wanted to lay out a few things.
Taylor is often inaccurate in her claims about Trans athletes as many people are. As I’m learning through research and conversations with people who advocate for the Trans community, not only do I have a lot to continue to learn, a lot of what the governing bodies in sports legislate is a moving target as more data emerges and rules are evaluated. What that means is that as progress is made, actual rules and things such as language evolve.
I don’t want to get into the weeds of sports regulation or why Transphobia is so prevalent because those are two separate pieces if not studies. Instead, I want to dig into what Taylor’s saying on these shows and in her post, in order to parse her claims and also—maybe more importantly—let’s acknowledge that as a readership, most folks who have gotten this far who aren’t Trans know little about how nuanced these topics are.
Before we go any further, I’d also like to state that I believe Trans Women are Women.
That belief is central to my personal point of view but not my approach to this piece. I wanted to research Taylor’s claims and yes, one could argue I’m sourcing everything from “woke” media. If you want to debate that core belief, call into a talk show or open Telegram or whatever the fuck. Let’s just stick with the parameters and see where we land. If you think my sources are biased, I’d urge you to look into the statements and research, not the source. My goal is to provide insight backed by data and science from trusted sources.
THE BUSINESS OF COMPETITON
Skateboarding is a weird thing because it’s both a sport and not a sport. Sure, there are metrics used in contests but there’s no metric for style. And we love great style. And great pants. We also acknowledge that there are “contest skaters” and that being the “best” doesn’t necessarily translate into being the most popular or increased board sales.
So yes, contests have rules and regulations—really obvious ones such as how long a run is and how points are totaled—but unlike other professional sports, those rules and regulations aren’t always public. Also, Street League Skateboarding was once involved with the qualification process for the Olympics but that doesn’t mean they routinely test for illegal substances. Ask Cory Juneau, who tested positive for THC and received a six-month suspension from the USADA, later reduced to three months. Normally, SLS doesn’t care what’s in your pee but testing is part of the Olympics, so there you go. Busted.
Redbull’s current policy states that Trans people and people in general including Taylor—who entered a Men's division in the past—may compete in the division they’re comfortable with.
So we’re talking advantages and rules here, right? Taylor has an issue with Redbull’s rules but wouldn’t something proven to create an advantage such as using steroids be a concern for someone highly competitive and also concerned with fairness?
From strength to recovery, roids work but skateboarding doesn’t test competitors for them until the Olympic cycle kicks in, so it’s a free-for-all if you choose to juice. Taylor doesn’t get into that because she lost to someone who she knew was Trans. Who knows who is taking what? Right? I dunno, if Taylor’s position is to create fairness, that seems like a big glaring hole but she hasn’t brought it up.
She did, however, bring up gender and the perceived “unfair advantages,” people assigned as male at birth have over her. This is important as we can surmise that it’s gender she’s taking issue with, not performance enhancers and that makes her view objectively flawed. She’s also discounting how the body changes as one transitions and how it impacts these ghost advantages that she constantly repeats.
Lastly, if we’re talking about advantages we should bring up Italo Romano and Felipe Nunes. Both Italo and Felipe don’t have legs and they compete in the Men's division in contests. They skateboard using their upper body strength to perform tricks and have developed their own styles, completely different than other street skaters. While they're abled differently, both choose to enter those contests, knowing their skateboarding will be judged differently and most likely, knowing they won’t get first, second, or third. I’m not saying they’re bootstrapping and sucking it up, they just skateboard with the bodies they have and they’re both really impressive at it.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE “ADVANTAGES”
Before we drill into “biological advantages,” let’s discuss the advantages in sports in general. They exist and we love them. People who are really good at things naturally are impressive, like champion swimmer Michael Phelps whose lungs have double the capacity of an average human and who many have claimed has the perfect body for swimming. Sure, he worked hard on his conditioning but athletes such as Phelps have a clear advantage over their competitors. Remember Shaq? He had such a massive height and size advantage in the paint that he dominated, even if he couldn’t shoot free throws.
Here is an interesting bit about Mikey Phelps taken from Schuyler Bailar’s site:
Michael Phelps, the winningest Olympian of all time, has several biological features that provide unique advantages in swimming. His torso is abnormally long and his legs short, his wingspan is four inches longer than his height, his lung capacity is TWICE the average, and his body produces HALF the levels of lactic acid the average athlete does. Remember that lactic acid is what causes muscle fatigue—it’s what makes your muscles ache when you exert yourself. Lower levels of lactic acid production mean shorter recovery periods and therefore a higher capacity for athletic labor. Do you think these differences pose a genetic & biological advantage for Phelps? Of course they do!
On the other hand, Caster Semenya, an Olympic runner, is an intersex cisgender woman (she has intersex traits, was assigned female at birth, and identifies as female) who won the 800m in the 2016 Olympics. When Michael Phelps’ lactic acid levels were tested by the IOC, he was praised as genetically superior. When Caster Semenya was tested, her medals were taken from her and she was barred from competition unless she artificially lowered her testosterone levels. Read that again. Both athletes have biological differences based on genetics that could (positively) impact sport. Michael Phelps was praised. Caster Semenya, a Black Queer intersex woman, was defamed and barred from competition.
As Bailar states, advantages exist in all sports, so that includes skateboarding but the beauty of skateboarding is that they don’t matter as much, especially outside of competition. If we crunched data, we’d probably find that 27 is the sweet spot age for a skater and that some physical build is better than others. Sure, that would mean that there are folks out there born to dominate Street League based on their body type etc. but again, nuance.
Let’s say hypothetically that Skater X has that natural advantage or that secret sauce that predetermines them to be a great skateboarder.
Skater X does a switch back noseblunt on an SLS handrail effortlessly. Skater X grinds half the rail and has great form.
Skater Z is a “regularly advantaged person.”
Skater Z does a switch front blunt on the same handrail, sliding just as far, with a cleaner execution and a lot of flair.
Which one scores higher? That’s up to the judges, some of which who have affiliations with brands. Sounds a little sticky. What trick was better or harder? That depends on who you ask.
What trick is better in a contest or at your local plaza sometimes comes down to taste. Some argued that Jamie Foy shouldn’t have won the recent Tampa Pro. You see, there are points assigned to tricks but there’s no standard for them. Let’s put it this way, you can hit a solo home run in baseball with the ugliest swing on Earth but it still counts for one run. Skateboarding doesn’t exactly work that way.
Seriously, we might think a trick looks better because of someone’s clothes and that’s great. In regular life, we rarely think about advantages other than power, control, and balance. Some people have all of those. Take Daewon Song, he’s older than most people in Street League and he is clearly better than almost anyone at balancing on his loose-ass trucks. Jake Johnson… he does the hardest and least obvious tricks on really difficult spots. It’s amazing, yet have you ever heard someone say, “Fuck man, I could do that if I… were Jake Johnson!”
No, you really don’t.
It’s obvious why Jake or Daewon or Nugget do the things they do, they’re really good and maybe naturally gifted. The thing is, most skaters don’t look at skating through the lens that sports fans do. We don’t look up stats or bet on SLS en masse, nor do we even agree on who the GOATS are. It’s kind of ridiculous to say, “Jamie Foy has an unfair advantage because he’s naturally gifted and he stole my money because he’s better than me.”
Other than contests, we don’t collectively consider advantages and most people in the contest world accept the rules in order to win money. When the rules aren’t fair, such as equal contest wages, folks speak out, and things get changed. I’m not saying it was that easy or that it didn’t take a group of determined women to make that change but as far as judging, rules, and even the height of an Official SLS Ledge®, most civilians don’t really care. I mean, fuck, pros accept it so much that they’ll make replicas of contest courses in their backyard to train.
That’s just how it is.
Taylor doesn’t see it that way. She thinks the game is rigged for Trans people to come in and “take her prize money” (her words, not mine) but she’s not mentioning anything other than Trans Women having “biological advantages” and she is certainly not discussing her skill level as many have pointed out. Overall skill is easier to parse and agree on than our handrail debate.
The average skater can view someone’s footage and loosely say they’re good, bad, regular, stylish, or something else without much debate. While we don’t want to judge Taylor’s skill in order to dissect her points, it’s important to mention that her level does detract slightly from it or maybe a shit ton, depending on who you ask.
I want to circle back to the “conspiracy” the right is obsessed with and Taylor is as well, to a degree. They speak as if a human would willingly go through the process of transitioning, in order to “dominate” a sport they couldn’t dominate with the gender they were assigned at birth. In the case of skateboarding, a sport with little money in it. I don’t think anyone would go through this difficult process to win a local Redbull contest but also, why is that of any concern to anyone on Planet Earth? 258 NFL players have been suspended for PEDs since 2001, and you know what? No one cares. People care in baseball though, especially when a Black player who admitted “unintentional” steroid use breaks the all-time Home Run record. That player is Barry Bonds and he’ll never make it to the Hall of Fame and to be fair, neither will Roger Clemens, who was accused of PED use but never tested positive. That sounds like two different realities, right? Football, OK, Baseball, BAD!
But can we all agree Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter on LSD is really awesome?
FACT, MYTH, OR SOMETHING ELSE?
If we want to debate advantages let’s first establish some things that can inform the debate.
I didn’t take a poll but let’s psychically agree that the following attributes are really important to excelling at skateboarding: Balance, strength, coordination, and conditioning.
It starts with balance, you need that. Strength generates power and power propels you higher, from ollies to airs. Coordination is how your brain tells your body to do things, and conditioning stretches from how much you practice to how you choose to develop muscle and maintain your body.
Now, we can certainly debate three of these: balance, strength, and coordination. Let’s talk about data for a minute. We can find reputable studies based on data that will provide outcomes—sometimes down to the decimal—that can objectively state that one gender has a predisposition to having better balance, being stronger, or more coordinated than another but that ignores a variety of factors. Also, does that really scale to skateboarding?
Here’s an example, Rayssa Leal recently back-lipped the Hollywood High 16. Rayssa is less than 5 ft tall, about 90 lbs, and doesn’t have a large frame or large build. Still, she generated enough power and maintained enough control to do something very impressive in the streets with no one saying “that’s good for a 14-year-old girl.” Nah, it’s just really fucking sick.
So how did she do it? Is she naturally gifted? Did she train really hard? Is there some natural supplement that bolsters her strength to allow her to do things that seem unlikely? Well, the core of the trick is ollieng high enough to get over the rail. We aren’t talking about a ten-foot ollie, just enough to get on the thing before controlling it and landing clean. That’s probably more challenging for her than someone taller but Rayssa is light, so what she may lack in power—and I’m in no way saying she doesn’t have power—might be compensated for by her build. That’s in the streets, in a contest, she knows how high SLS obstacles are, so she can train to adjust to those heights because they might be harder for her to get on than someone taller with more muscle but because we’re talking inches and not feet, she can be extremely competitive.
If SLS made everything considerably bigger—say doubling the height of ledges and rails—the discussion would change.
So, conditioning. Some people treat their bodies like temples others treat them like junkyards and both types have won contests. Now, would Tom Penny or Fred Gall have been the greatest contest skaters of all time if they weren’t fried and hungover at times? Maybe but who cares? If you’re in better shape and you have a better conditioning program, you could do better but that’s a choice, not necessarily an advantage. No one is born with fully formed muscles and a metabolism and mind predisposed to 360 flip perfectly or not break a bone on a nasty slam. Diet, conditioning, and strength help prevent injury and some pros suck at 360 flips. Those are the breaks but you can still win contests, even if you can’t do certain tricks.
But are Trans Women stronger giving them an “unfair advantage” in skateboarding specifically? Guess what, there’s no Trans Skateboarder Performance data out there but I reached out to a lot of experts and found plenty of resources, so let’s quote a few of them and think about how this translates to skating.
Sports agent and advocate Yulin Oliver put me in touch with Dr. Anna Baeth, Director of Research, Athlete Ally who provided the following quote:
“The reality is that trans women and girls are widely underrepresented in women’s sport, and participate in sport for the same reason other people do: to feel connected to a community, to stay active, and to have fun doing something that they love. To spread misinformation and fear about trans women and girls is harmful and irresponsible, especially when the research shows us that athletic ability is based on a number of different factors. We cannot point to a single aspect of an athlete’s training or physical marker as the sole reason for their success. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and skateboarding historically has been a sport where athletes of all different body types, ages, and genders have been successful. We all want women in sports to thrive, which is why we should be focusing on the most pressing and ubiquitous challenges women and girls face – challenges that women’s organizations from The Women’s Sports Foundation to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport have been addressing for years. These include equal pay for women athletes, addressing sexual harassment and assault, increased media attention for women athletes, and women’s sports – the list goes on. No credible organization working on gender equity is focused on excluding transgender women and girls from women’s sports and neither should skateboarding."
The entire quote from Dr. Baeth is powerful, but the last sentence is particularly resonant. Let’s keep Myth Busting®.
(taken from Salon “Debunking "unfair advantage" myths about trans athletes”)
Myth - Male to female transsexual athletes have more muscle because men's bodies produce more testosterone than women's.
Fact - Actually it's not the body that produces hormones; specific glands in the body produce testosterone which is then spread throughout the body. There are only three glands that produce testosterone: the testes, ovaries, and the adrenal glands which sit right above the kidney. Since transsexual women have undergone the medical change they no longer have testosterone production from the testes, additionally, they do not have testosterone from the ovaries. Transsexual women have only one source of testosterone which comes from the adrenal glands, whereas cisgender females (females whose self-perception of their gender is the same as their assigned sex) have testosterone production from the ovaries and adrenal glands. In fact studies consistently show that cisgender females have higher testosterone levels than transsexual females.
What does this mean? After transgender individuals have undergone the medically accepted two years of hormonal replacement therapy it takes to change sexes, it is HARDER for transsexual women to attain and maintain the same muscle mass as their cisgender counterparts.”
Dang. OK. The above clearly lays out why Trans Women are at a disadvantage, right? Muscles are important in skating—people love to talk about muscle memory even though Huberman debunked it—and Trans Women have a harder time maintaining it.
AND THEN THERE’S BONE DENSITY
We learned that muscles are in fact a thing, so let’s keep digging. This segues into a point that Taylor and a lot of intentionally and unintentionally transphobic people love to bring up: BONE DENSITY. Honestly, I don’t think about bone density too often. I fell on my ass really hard the other day and I didn’t thank my bone density for saving my useless tailbone, I was just stoked I didn’t break it. But since Bone Density is a talking point—Joey Rogan loves this one—I wanted to learn more and felt it was relevant to this discussion since Taylor brings it up often.
(taken from Salon “Debunking "unfair advantage" myths about trans athletes” and edited for brevity.)
Myth - She has a man's body, her bone structure, and bone density gives her an unfair advantage.
Fact: Bone density varies greatly for each individual based on nutrition, sex, age, and race.
It is true that men have higher bone densities than women, but African-Americans also have higher bone densities than Caucasians and Hispanic people. The average bone density of African-American women is nearly the same as the average bone density of Caucasian males. Bone structure also varies greatly by individuals based on genetics. Additionally in a 2003 study of the dimensions of shoulder width with the consideration of height and weight of a sample of over 500 males and females shows that there is a significant overlap of male and female body dimensions. Try this thought experiment, if you were looking at two different skeletons would you be able to tell what gender, race, or age they were? Even trained forensic scientists can only tell this information correctly 9 out of 10 times.
What does this mean? - Everybody has different bone densities and structures and there is simply too much variation to exclude someone solely on the bases of that measurement. Not only is there an extreme amount of variation that overlaps between sexes, but bone density and bone structure is irrelevant to determining athletic performance. In my experience as a Division I rower for one of the best collegiate programs in the country, we had nutritionists talk to us about iron intake and proper eating habits plus we consistently had body composition testing to measure our body fat and muscle to a tenth of a percent in each segment of our bodies. But never in my four years have I heard one word about bone density or bone structure because it has a negligible effect on athletic performance. The same argument of bone density was used to keep African-Americans and Caucasians segregated in athletic competition fifty years ago.
I have heard the argument that bone density makes a difference because MMA is a combat sport and having a higher bone density means there is more force behind a punch giving female transsexuals an "unfair advantage". And to that argument I would look at the NFL; NFL draft picks are analyzed on everything that pertains to football: weight, speed, character, game IQ, but not once is a player's bone density or structure mentioned. If something like bone density or structure had a calculable impact on an athlete's performance then surely NFL coaches would measure that given the significant variation that exists between individuals and the millions dollars that hang in the balance.
SLS and skateboarding, in general, aren’t spending money and researching perceived advantages like the NFL (who don’t care about bone density), so maybe Taylor shouldn’t be so hung up on it. I mean, as we just learned, bone density is real but can we think of it as an advantage in skateboarding? If we want to say that it is one, is bone density the reason why a Trans Women division should be established? As the excerpt states: “The same argument of bone density was used to keep African-Americans and Caucasians segregated in athletic competition fifty years ago.”
I don’t think skateboarding wants to use a racist argument about bones to enact segregation but hey, I’m one person here, just like Taylor I guess. Some people have voiced their idea that skate competitons shouldn’t be segmented by gender, which was the case in the past—Elissa Steamer competed with men for example. That’s cool, to be honest, I’m not invested in contests at all, I’m more interested in inclusion, acceptance, and not being a Transphobe, so sure, All Gender Contests could make sense BUT, that would impact the road to the Olympics and with all the time, money, and energy invested in getting there, it seems unlikely to happen in sanctioned events.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Skateboarding isn’t a contact sport. No one is hitting each other in order to get points or win.
There is currently no agreed-upon or researched “prime” body type, age, or build that would predispose a skateboarder to dominate skateboarding.
Compared to the NFL or NBA, the contest money in professional skateboarding is low, especially compared to its influence.
Skateboarding doesn’t do large TV or streaming ratings, therefore, it doesn’t generate ad money as larger sports do.
Most of skateboarding exists without metrics and even the metrics that exist in contests don’t have the weight or value that they do in other sports. Regular people care about Home Run records but few in skateboarding know or could guess who ollied the biggest stair set ever. Also, is a big 20 stair larger than a regular 25? What’s a regular 25 and who the fuck is going to measure this. Who cares, really?
If there is an advantage to skateboarding, it’s not tangible. Mindset is a big deal. Fear. Two pros could be able to ollie the same height but one pro is focused on back 50ing a 20 stair while another is not only terrified of that idea, they just think skating handrails is stupid. Same ability, different mindsets.
We can’t measure mindset but we can say with certainty that excluding people and challenging their gender in the name of money is extremely harmful, toxic, unfair, and in many cases, illegal. You can’t deny someone a job at UPS because they are a Trans Woman under the claim that “Trans Women aren’t as strong as cisgender men” or some nonsense about bone density. Yeah, that’s illegal.
Skateboarding isn’t about sanctity. We don’t even have historical books about it. For real. There’s a Skateboarding Hall of Fame and that’s cool but people aren’t making pilgrimages to it as they do Cooperstown. It’s NBDs over records and sometimes, an ABD counts too. Skateboarding has never been too concerned with its legacy. It’s usually more worried about surviving the next economic crash or losing a sacred spot. Anyone who parrots podcasters and pundits and this irrational concern that people are going to transition in order to win as little as zero dollars and as much a whole lot less than other major sports is not arguing in earnest.
Trans Skaters at not a threat to skateboarders as much as some skateboarders are a threat to the Trans Community.
It’s a numbers situation. There are more non-Trans folks in skateboarding controlling the industry than the number of Trans people competing or even sponsored.
I’m going to make an assumption here. Most people who skateboard care about the environment around them more than what happens at SLS or a Redbull contest. If we agree upon that not-so-bold declaration, the biggest advantage we should care about is making people feel safe, accepted, and free to be themselves in that space.
Skateboarding is a lot better when it’s diverse and inclusive, and healthier for all those involved—that’s not up for debate.