The intersection of the transgender movement and sport is at the forefront of sport policy discussions. Dr. Higerd recently finished his doctoral dissertation examining the effects that transgender sports policies would have on girl's track and field. In this episode, Sean and Scott discuss with Dr. Higerd why biology matters for sports competition and how deeply transgender athletes would dominate girl's sports.
About our Guest
Dr. Gabriel Higerd is a transgender sport policy researcher who completed a doctoral dissertation: "Assessing the potential transgender impact on girl champions in American high school track and field" at the United States Sports Academy. He is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, father of six, and was an adjunct professor of Exercise Science at Azusa Pacific University, and an Army Officer.
Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. It's the podcast from Talbot School of theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.
Sean McDowell: And I'm Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics. Today we've got a topic that is certain to fascinate you because it's based on a recent doctoral dissertation that was completed by a friend, Dr. Gabriel Higerd, and it's on assessing the potential transgender impact on girl champions in American high school track and field. He did this at the United States Sports Academy. He's worked as a certified strength and conditioning specialist, a professor at APU. He's a father of six and an army officer.
Dr. Higerd, thanks for coming on. We really appreciate your time and research.
Gabriel Higerd: Absolutely. I'm thrilled to share with you today some of my research and excited to share with your audience. So I appreciate the opportunity.
Sean McDowell: Well, let's just in. And I'm really curious, of all the things you could write on, why did you choose to do doctoral work on the issue of transgender sports policy?
Gabriel Higerd: Yeah. So in 2014, collectively, we reached a transgender tipping point. That was actually the cover of Time magazine cover. And around that same time, there was the adoption of the international transgender sport policy that really changed it at the international level. At around the same time, I started to do some Title IX coursework as part of my doctoral studies. And I got into some peer reviewed journals of some pretty absurd statements that were out there, such as there's no evidence of transgender advantage at any point in transitioning and other things similar to that. And so I said, okay, well, if it is true that there is not good evidence to suggest that we should separate the sexes, then that is an opportunity for me to go into it. And so it was a fascinating topic. It was relevant and it had the potential to affect many lives.
And so I kind of consider myself as a Renaissance man, kind of doing a lot of different things, anything from being a football coach, strength coach, to some other cultural topics that I'm interested in. So I thought this would be a great chance for me to make a positive difference.
Scott Rae: Gabe, the thing I'm really curious about is you had to know that you were stepping into all sorts of minefields when you undertook this research. What's some of the pushback that you got, some of the resistance that you got, from your doctoral supervisors, from other doctoral students? I'm just really curious to know how people responded to you once you decided to do this area of research.
Gabriel Higerd: Yeah, so you're right. It's absolutely a hot topic and very contentious in modern context. Well, I tried to take the perspective of strictly scientific objectivity as much as I can, almost like a forensic anthropologist, someone like J Warner Wallace. If he goes and finds a dead body that has no hair, but it's been there. They're able to determine, make a determination of sex, either male or female, from that perspective. And so I tried to be as strictly scientific and objective as I could and try to take the emotions out of it.
But for sure, even if you try to do that, there are other issues, such as the language. I spent eight pages alone talking about definitions of what we mean when we say man or women or male or female, boy or girl, and the different aspects related to LGBTQIA+, an expanding acronym there. So it certainly is filled with all kinds of potential landmines. But I tried to go strictly scientific, tried to not offend where I could, but try to be faithful to the truth.
Scott Rae: And Gabe, just to follow up on that. You point out that when you review some of the other research that's been done in this area, presumably appealing to science alone, like you've done in yours, but you also point out that there's bias that enters into some of the current research that's already been done. How did you keep from having some of your own biases enter into your research?
Gabriel Higerd: Yeah, so I really kind of struggled with even how I was going to label things because you're right. A lot of the current research, it almost assumes an ideology just with the verbiage, even within the titles of the peer reviewed academic journals, such as using the terms transgender woman and cis-gender men to describe the same person, but depending on their subjective self identification. So it's something that I struggled with of okay, how to do this best and to be effective. And I'm not absolutely, after finishing it, after getting to the end, I'm still kind of wondering if I did it quite right, but I tried to really strike a balance. But some others that are currently out there, the other things that already published, yeah, it's very clear that their ideology is kind of established on the progressive end, even with just the wording in their titles.
Sean McDowell: Can you talk to us a little bit how and why this issue is so pressing in culture right now? And I know we've had a shift in administration, which brings a shift in certain policies towards this. So why is this issue so pressing right now and what are some of the policy issues that matter that are kind of coming down the pike, so to speak, that we're seeing played out before us?
Gabriel Higerd: Yeah. So this is perhaps the hottest issue in sport and it's because of the Biden executive order that was signed on day one of his presidency. And so Biden, throughout his campaign, he's been pretty clear about the direction he wanted to go. He wrote in a tweet that, and I'll quote, "Let's be clear. Transgender equality is a civil rights issue of our time. There's no room for compromise when it comes to basic human rights." And so, he built upon that pledge with his executive order. In that order, he says that, and I quote, "Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room and school sports." And so this executive order directs the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights and all of the executive actions of the federal government to pursue inclusion of transgender persons at all levels and even with sports. And so these rights are going to basically flood throughout both collegiate and high school level of sport.
You've also seen ... You had the two Connecticut runners who were very average males go on to become 15 time state champions in that particular state. You had a division two athlete who ran as a male, very average to mediocre, competing as a male, who then transitioned to female and was awarded the NCAA Division II national championship.
You've also got a flurry of pushback right now that it's occurring. You've got the lawsuits on behalf of the girls in Connecticut, which by the Alliance Defending Freedom. You've also got legislation that's sweeping across the country. It's been in place in Idaho, but it's also springing up all over the place, especially just this last week, there's been four different states who have advanced bills.
And then finally, there's the Looming Equality Act that's on the horizon.
Sean McDowell: Tell us a little bit about that, if you don't mind.
Gabriel Higerd: Okay. So the Equality Act was originally developed in 1974. And what it would do is amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation, gender identity as protected classes, similar to race and sex currently. And so what it would do, it would make it very difficult for any governing body, whether it be state, the NCAA or high school federations, to restrict access to transgender persons based on their ideology or even to restrict participation and make hormonal requirements, etcetera.
So from a competitive standpoint, it should not affect the male classification at all. Although there are some safety issues that would be involved with that, with a biological female going in to participate with boys, but there really is no competitive risks there. The really potential for massive change is at the female level of sport. The female classification could potentially be fundamentally transformed.
Yeah. So my research took basically three different steps. So I first, I want to establish that a, males and females were different, that we see a bi-modal distribution, that the actual performances were different. Then I looked at the effect of distance as related to that, to see if okay, if we geared towards more towards endurance, are we going to see the same difference as in power sports? But then, but the really crux of my research, was a statistical simulation that looked at the probability that one or more potential female champions, which is a biological male boy, who's better than the best girl in the state, would be transgender.
And so the findings reveal a really significant probability. So between 81% and 98% probability on that simulation.
Scott Rae: So, basically what you concluded was a transgender male who's transitioning to female will almost always beat the best female. Did I get that right?
Gabriel Higerd: No, no. It's more, so look at my model. Basically, imagine that we're a giant. We're the researcher, I'm a giant, and I've got a bag full of participants in my hand, and this is the entire male field, say it's 2000 individuals. And we've been told that 0.7% are transgender. So in this case, let's say it's 17 individuals out of this giant bag of 2000 individuals would be transgender. Well, I, as a researcher and we're going to go pull out at random 17 individuals out of this bag and check the times on their shirts. And so if the time is better than the best female, I'd place them on the podium in front of her. And if they're not better than the best female, then I would set them off to the side. So that would be one trial. So I'd draw out 17 names, sort them, see if one of them or more is better than the best female.
And I do this 10,000 times. And so the 81% means that 81% of the time, there was at least one transgender person on the podium in my simulation. But beyond that, I was able to see what is the mean number of transgender person at the top of the podium with these assumptions being true. And the result was two to six transgender persons at the top. So let's say in the 1600 meters, the top female was most commonly in seventh place. So there were six transgender persons in front of that female.
Scott Rae: Wow.
Sean McDowell: Tell me what surprised you most about this research, because I'm assuming you went in with, you expected to see a certain kind of dominance of transgender athletes in female sports, transgender males. But did things surprise you or catch you off guard, either weaker or stronger than you expected going in?
Gabriel Higerd: Yeah. So I, a couple things. So the first thing, I didn't expect to quite see the difference related to distance. So I saw the smallest performance difference was in the 100 meters and the 100 meters is geared more towards, yeah, geared towards power and explosiveness and strength. And visually, you can see that being manifested in the 100 meters. But we actually saw only 14% difference in the means from males and females. And some of our higher numbers came in the endurance events. And so there was a moderate positive correlation between the number of boys that were better than the best female and distance. And so the differences were greater in the endurance events than even in the power events. So that was the first one.
But the second one is really just the extent of the difference. It is so massive that a lot of times we don't appreciate it. And so the mean difference was 18%, with the lowest being 14% and the highest being 24%. But there was virtually zero overlap at the top of the classification. So this meant in every event, hundreds and even thousands of boys that were better than the best female.
The closest it ever got was we had one case of a girl here in California in 2017 in the long jump. She set the national record that had stood since before I was born, over 40 years ago. This record had stood. And in California, in that year alone, she was beaten by 79 boys. And her record may stand for decades.
In California, here we are, 1500 boys, 1500 boys in the 200 through 1600 meter races that I studied, were better than the best girl in each event. So imagine the fastest girl, we're talking a visualization. We're looking at a picture of a girl running. She is the fastest girl in the state. Her back is to the camera. And she's got individuals in front of her. There's 1500 individuals that are in front of her faster than her. Every single one of those individuals will be male. And and those numbers are really kind of stark and shocking when you really get into it.
Scott Rae: So Gabe, let's be clear for our listeners here. What are some of the differences between men and women in the events that you studied? I mean, what makes that difference so significant?
Gabriel Higerd: Yeah. So biologically, God has a bi-modal design for humanity. Males are 7% to 8% taller. We have longer bones. Not only do we have bigger bones, but we also have a greater density in cross-sectional area, both with the ... The humorous is like, the female humorous is only 65% of the males and their femur is 85% of the males. This leads to higher injury risk, lower force generation, reduced kinetic mass.
Males are bigger, up to 36%, on average. Upper bodies, even more than that, about 40%, if you look at that distribution. Males have greater muscle mass and not only the mass of the muscle, but also the type of the muscle. Fast twitch muscle fibers, which are helpful in explosion and power and strength, in relation to slow twitch, are a lot greater in males, as well just the size of the fibers.
And then if you look at the heart and the lungs, cardiovascular system, the lungs are bigger, the heart's bigger, which leads to greater stroke volume and cardiac output. Males have 12% greater hemoglobin, which hemoglobin is a protein on red blood cells that carries the oxygen to the cells. And so this leads to around a 30% difference in VO2 max, which is critical in endurance activities.
But there's also differences in males and females when it comes to the neurological system in the brain. So females generally approach pacing differently. So they're a little bit better. They're more measured with pacing compared to the males. Males are generally more competitive. And that's what my research also found, that the competition is greater than the male category. And they approach risk-taking just very different.
So all those physiological factors result in between a 5% difference in ultra endurance swimming, up to 35% difference in competitive weightlifting and other sports that really rely on the upper body. But again, we can see some massive differences in some other events, such as boxing. The striking power of males is 160% of what females are.
And so, yes, God has really designed us to be so significantly different that it really impacts the competitiveness if you tried to put us on a playing field.
Sean McDowell: Help us to understand some of the worldview issues underlying this, because when I hear the differences that you cite, which really are kind of in one sense, common sense, when you look at males and females, it makes sense to separate them out of fairness and protection for girls so they can actually compete and win. What is the worldview perspective that would be pushing against this narrative, actually wanting to get rid of these differences and feeling like that is the moral high ground? And as you quoted earlier, kind of a civil rights movement.
Gabriel Higerd: Right. So, the overarching philosophical conflict is one of ontology versus autonomy or objective truth claims versus more subjective relativism. So autonomy has really become one of the central tenants of the modern American mind. And you see this in virtually every Disney movie that my kids watch, it's preached, and the suppression of this autonomous spirit in the individual is one of the greatest secular sins that one can commit. And so this is opposed to a more view of objective reality that we would hold to, a created reality that is given and recognize rather than developed or assigned.
And so there's a big clash, again, with inclusion, that first philosophical take, versus fair competition, being competition and safety. And so we see this clash being worked out and it's, yeah, definitely something that we as Christians can basically go into and add some really valuable conversations surrounding this.
Scott Rae: So Gabe, let me, as we start sort of winding this down, let me ask you a couple, one final question. What do you think will happen to girls sports if the trends that we see emerging continue with the encouragement of the new administration?
Gabriel Higerd: Well, what we're likely to see with ... My model was based on some assumptions that aren't quite being fleshed out yet. However, my model is what the trans activists would want or what is their goals. And so those assumptions are that that transgender numbers would continue to increase or be substantial in our population. And that it's not a choice. It's more innate. And that they want full representation and full inclusion at every level of society, including sports.
And so we see this continued push, more and more, the modeling that I did in my study, would come to fruition, if being transgender was independent of ability. So if you just had a transgender person, has an equal likelihood of being a good athlete versus a poor athlete. And so it certainly is something that will be an issue because if you did not have sex segregation, if we mix the sexes, females would not win girls events. That is clear.
Sean McDowell: Yeah, that's heartbreaking. As a dad of a daughter who's 13, who just loves to compete, the idea that she would be competing against people with just such a grand physical advantage because of their biology. It's heartbreaking for a generation of girls coming up behind this.
So let me ask you this question, kind of wrap things up. What gospel opportunities do you think there are, just for Christians, amidst kind of the transgender policy discussions and changes that are emerging?
Gabriel Higerd: Yeah. So it's been fascinating, just some of my own contacts with what's going on with the different interest groups that are involved with this. So you have gospel minded Christians pairing up with far left lesbian feminists, united in a common cause of promoting and protecting female sports. And so you have some real bridges being built and some opportunities to be in there. So we have what seems to be a clamoring and a declaration of objective reality from really a population who seems to have long kind of rejected that, at least from a moral standpoint. And so I think there's great opportunity to build goodwill out there, to be part of some meaningful dialogue and discussions, in a way that perhaps was unthinkable just a short time ago. So I personally have had some wonderful conversations with people very much ideologically in opposition, in so many different areas, but we're able to have those good discussions.
And you see it culturally, there's this whole aspect of the they're now kind of seeing conservative Christians and organizations in a little bit different light, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, who's been defending Christian individuals and organizations for a long time. Now, they're defending basically the cause of some of these very far left or progressive individuals and the Alliance and the ACLU, the Democrat party, and some of the others are kind of in the doghouse right now for this population. And so that's been quite interesting, to say the least.
Scott Rae: Gabe, this has been absolutely fascinating. And Sean and I commend you for your courage in getting involved in this research and for facing the grief and the pushback that I'm sure you've gotten all along the way. Tell us a little bit, where, if our listeners want to read more of your research or find out a little bit more about some of the work you've done, how can they access that?
Gabriel Higerd: Yeah. So, what we can do is in the show notes, we can put a link to my study and I've made it publicly available, open source publishing, so everybody can look at it. So you can go in there and read the abstract and go through there. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter, Gabe Higerd, and we can continue this discussion and I'd love to answer any more specific questions. Because again, quite a massive study to be distilled down to less than an hour is kind of challenging, for sure.
Scott Rae: Well, we think you've done a great job of cutting to the chase and giving our listeners the really relevant conclusions that you've come to. So we appreciate your brevity in this. I know there's a lot more to talk about on this. Probably worthy of a follow-up conversation on this, particularly as this progresses in the next few years.
So, but Gabe, we're going to have to stop here for now. We're so delighted you could come on with us. Very grateful for your time and for your research and for the conclusion that you've helped us see so clearly.
Gabriel Higerd: Well, thank you. I appreciate the time and platform and appreciate you guys, the discussions that you bring to some really important topics.
Scott Rae: I think you can count on us having you back here. This was really good stuff.
Gabriel Higerd: Thank you so much. Appreciate you.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our new fully online bachelor's program in Bible theology and apologetics. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more about that.
If you've enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.