From June 26th through 28th the newly founded non-partisan Independent Council on Women’s Sports (ICONS) brought together world-class female athletes, scientific experts, lawyers, and advocacy groups at a conference in Las Vegas, NV to address the importance of keeping women’s sports single-sex. Notable speakers included tennis superstar Martina Navratilova and Olympic champions Inga Thompson, Benita Mosley, Donna De Varona, and Sue Walsh.
The ICONS conference followed in the wake of a recent rally in D.C. on Title IX, a law designed to preserve equal access to educational opportunities, including athletics, on the basis of sex. Under the Biden administration, Title IX, which originally barred sex-based discrimination only, has been gradually changing to include provisions against discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
While the purpose of the D.C. rally was largely to inspire resistance through powerful storytelling and passionate speeches, the ICONS conference combined personal narratives with panels focused on delivering information about biology, law, and policy in an academic format. The conference was also not exclusively focused on Title IX.
“I watched them tell the girls to place their thoughts and feelings below those of males.”
ICONS was co-founded by two former athletes, Kim Jones and Marshi Smith.
Jones opened the conference by explaining that she created ICONS not only to oppose men in women’s sports, but to empower female athletes by creating a support network:
“I watched my husband connect in business with other athletes throughout industry–both in sports and in the business world. I watched a lot of our peers leverage that passion [for sports] into positions of power and influence and into a lot of success. I didn’t see that same thing happening for the women.”
As the mother of “a daughter who swims in the Ivy League” Jones witnessed “emotional blackmail and abuse” firsthand in the controversy surrounding Lia Thomas:
“I watched the Ivy League request the girls to be quiet. I watched them tell the girls to place their thoughts and feelings below those of males. I watched the intimidation and coercion in mandatory meetings and at announcements at every single dual meet and championship meet. I have kept and read the emails suggesting counseling to make yourself okay with shared locker rooms with males.”
Smith said she connected with Jones after she worked with past swim teammates from the University of Arizona to release a letter to the NCAA protesting the inclusion of males in women’s sports:
“We sent that to the NCAA board of directors 94 days ago and there has been no response. On the letter we have 47 signers. We have Olympic gold medalists, silver medalists, multiple NCAA women of the year, at least ten NCAA champions, world champions, this list is unbelievable.”
Her decision to co-found ICONS with Jones developed out of a conversation with five-time Olympic coach Dennis Pursley, who “talked about his experience with the East Germans.”
According to Smith, Pursely “said that the doping was prevalent. It was obvious…And yet it was not PC to bring it up at the time and so there were whispers on deck, but no one was standing up formally and publicly and making a proclamation.”
It was only when “the Chinese began doping as well, he said, ‘we had enough and we called a press conference and we said we’re just gonna’ speak directly to the media.’ And so with his idea I said ‘that’s what we’re gonna’ do too.’”
In a little over 50 days, Jones and Smith organized and launched ICONS. As a representative of one of the women’s advocacy groups, Women’s Liberation Front, I participated in the inaugural conference during which I met an impressive array of athletes, lawyers, and fellow advocates.
Smith and Jones’s introduction was followed by personal testimonies from female athletes who described the tremendous effort and dedication required of them to succeed in their sport, the importance of sports for their self-esteem, and their experience of being forced to compete with men.
Lily Brash, founder of Born to Prove, who was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy was told by doctors “I would not live past the age of four.” She is now 22. “From being expected to not walk, I have climbed a mountain,” said Brash, “Those of us who are able must speak for those who cannot.”
Riley Gaines described swimming with Lia Thomas. Gaines said that she and Thomas “raced and touched the wall at the exact same time down to the hundredth.” Despite the tie, the NCAA claimed that Thomas “needed to hold the trophy for photo purposes” and told Gaines she would receive her trophy in the mail.
“Those of us who are able must speak for those who cannot.”
Taylor Silverman relayed how she received no response from Red Bull after complaining about a male skateboarding competitor who “unsurprisingly took first place, receiving 5,000 dollars along with a thousand for women’s best trick.” At another competition, “a 29-year-old male took first place to mostly teenage girls.”
Macy Petty, a current NCAA volleyball player on scholarship, shared how “In high school I was forced to play my sport against a male athlete who chose to play on a women’s net…While being examined by college recruiters, we had the ball slammed in our faces.” The “standard men’s net is seven inches higher than a female’s net.”
Testimonies followed over the next two days from numerous other athletes, all viewable on the ICONS site.
Dr. Carole Hooven, a Harvard lecturer with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology who recently came under fire for defending the reality of sex, discussed the role of testosterone in the evolution of sexual dimorphism.
Dr. Ross Tucker, a science and research consultant for World Rugby with a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, delivered a lecture on the various ways in which testosterone influences male biology to produce male advantage in sport.
Tucker stated that:
“The foundation for male advantage is that testosterone difference” but that testosterone influences a complex system that transcends the testosterone level itself. There is “no single variable” responsible for male advantage since “everything [is] in a system that cannot be separated into its component parts because testosterone changes it all…There’s no simple way to unwind that.”
He listed some of the many “attributes we know contribute to performance” including “muscle mass and strength, the skeleton, anthropometric variables, heart and lungs…” In the case of “every single one of them the effect of testosterone creates differences that have material effects for performance.”
It’s true that “many women outperform many men,” said Tucker, but “at any matched level, many men outperform all women.”
In terms of hand grip strength, for example, “the strongest women are stronger than one third of men. There is overlap, but the moment you compare like versus like, strongest versus strongest, average versus average, bottom third versus bottom third–total separation. That’s an important point because people will try to convince you that overlap means less advantage and they’re only doing that by manipulating who’s been compared to who. That’s quite an important sleight of hand that’s used in this debate.”
Tucker argued that “categories facilitate inclusion” and likened sex categories in sport to other non-controversial category divisions such as weight:
“The reason we have categories in boxing is because when we watch boxers…what we’re trying to reward is power, strength, endurance, agility, balance, coordination. We’re not trying to award size…If boxing did not have weight categories, then the important elements of boxing performance would be ‘overwhelmed’ by size…It’s the same thing that sex does…The moment we pretend that stuff doesn’t matter, we take away the purpose of women’s sport and, therefore, the meaning of women’s sport.”
Tucker revealed how trans activism crept into women’s sports under the radar:
“It was in 2003 that the first group of men [Tucker’s emphasis] got together to discuss trans issues and guidelines in sport for the IOC [International Olympic Committee]. Did anyone know that happened? I didn’t know it happened. I was in the field.”
Tucker stated that his own organization, World Rugby, set “a policy that said that transgender woman cannot play elite women’s rugby because we recognized that safety and fairness were priorities.”
Sports governing bodies have differed radically in their stance on this issue. The German Football Association, for example, treats self-ID as sufficient while FINA (International Swimming Federation) permits males to compete with females only if they have undergone hormonal treatment prior to puberty.
Dr. Emma Hilton, a developmental biologist and founder of Sex Matters, challenged the claim made by trans activists that testosterone suppression removes male advantage. This claim, she noted, has been the running assumption of the IOC. Hilton undermined it in a widely cited 2021 research paper she co-authored with Tommy Lundberg titled “Transgender Women in the Female Category of Sport: Perspectives on Testosterone Suppression and Performance Advantage.”
Hilton insisted that lowering testosterone level in adulthood cannot undo the physiological differences produced by testosterone throughout development.
“You can’t unbuild a male,” said Hilton. Sex difference “is evident in utero. It becomes increasingly evident through childhood and at puberty becomes so divergent.” There are “at least three thousand differences [between males and females] in how genes are working in muscles alone.”
Hilton indicated that differences in athletic performances range “from 11 percent in swimming to something like 65 percent in powerlifting,” said Hilton.
“Some of the differences are quite small” such as “audiovisual response,” which is slightly faster in males, but other differences are vast: “The 15-year-old schoolboy 100-meter record is faster than Flo-Jo–she’s the fastest woman who ever ran down a track.”
Hilton outlined how scientific research has been manipulated to reach conclusions favorable to trans activism:
“The IOC has been guided by this principle of ‘ranking advantage’–and that is, if a transwoman within the female field is no better than that trans woman was in the male field, then there is no evidence of advantage.”
Joanna Harper in “2015 collected race times for trans women athletes when they were racing in the male field compared to when they were racing in the female field and what Harper showed was that when they crossed category their ranking stayed the same. If they were 50th percentile in the male field, they were then 50 percentile in the female field. No advantage. Except for runner 7 who was excluded from the data. Runner 7 got really good in the female field, right? Because they were training.”
Nonetheless, runner 7 was discounted as “an outlier rather than something, you know, that tells you trans women can out train the loss of testosterone. But the IOC liked this. They really liked this.”
“You can’t unbuild a male.”
Dr. Colin Wright, an evolutionary biologist, debunked common claims made by the gender ideologues about sex including the claim that there are more than two sexes in humans, that sex comes on a spectrum, and that human beings can change sex. Wright insisted that human beings were sexually dimorphic, being divided into males (those with small mobile gametes) and females (those with large, immobile gametes). He insisted that this is true regardless of the fact that masculine or feminine appearance comes in degrees (e.g. how hairy someone is).
Wright also surveyed the infiltration of gender ideology into prestigious scientific journals like Nature.
While each of the scientists insisted on the reality of sex, I noticed that many continued to use the term “transwoman” including Wright who defined “woman” as an “adult human female” on a slide.
For some speakers this choice may have been self-protective or simply a linguistic habit reflecting the capture of the English language by gender ideology. Others explicitly promoted a compromise position, namely, that sex and gender identity are both real, but that gender should not supersede sex in sports.
The Lawyers and Advocates
On the third day of the conference, lawyers and advocacy groups discussed the landscape of law and policy in relation to women’s sports. One panel brought together activist organizations from across the political spectrum who shared an interest in protecting women’s rights to fairness, safety, privacy, and free expression.
Participants included Women’s Liberation Front (represented by me, Dr. Devin Buckley, PhD) Women’s Declaration International (represented by Kara Dansky, JD), Concerned Women for America (represented by Doreen Denny, MPP), and Independent Women’s Forum (represented by Jennifer Braceras, JD).
I first offered a brief survey of the many meanings of the term “gender” and their impact on law and policy. We next outlined the achievements and goals of our respective organizations, including our policy recommendations, amicus briefs, and lobbying efforts.
“There would be no rules.”
I compared the violation of women’s boundaries in sports to the violation of women’s boundaries in prisons, citing WoLF’s ongoing lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections, which, under state law SB 132, allows men to be housed with women if they identify as women or non-binary.
Though not on our panel, another notable advocacy group present at ICONS was U.K. group Fair Play for Women (represented by Fiona McAnena). Fair Play for Women has tackled a wide array of issues in the U.K. including men in women’s prisons, crime reporting, census data, self-ID laws, and sports policy.
The group has worked with over 30 sports governing bodies in the U.K. and influenced the Sports Council Equality Group to issue official guidelines declaring the inclusion of males in women’s sports to be mutually exclusive with fairness and safety.
Following the advocacy discussion was a panel of attorneys focused on litigation.
Title IX expert Nancy Hogshead-Makar declared, “equality requires sex segregation.”
Hogshead-Makar explained the negative ramifications of changes made to Title IX by the Biden administration:
“The administration would conflate sex with gender identity.” There are “two really bad things that can come out of it. One is if sex discrimination equals gender identity discrimination somebody who identifies as being a woman can compete in the women’s category…you know how the NCAA has rules? There would be no rules.” Secondly, “a judge could not affirm formal sex segregation.”
Hogshead-Makar has herself won three Olympic gold medals in swimming after surviving a brutal rape while attending Duke University on a swimming scholarship. Hogshead-Makar then went on to become a civil rights attorney and CEO of Champion Women, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting discrimination against and sexual abuse of female athletes.
She also works with the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, a self-described “bi-partisan” organization made up of those with experience in “women’s sports policy” and “LGBTQ advocacy.”
“Chelsea lost out on state championship titles. Not once, but four different times.”
As James Larew explained, Hogshead-Makar’s work was instrumental to the success of his Title IX lawsuit against the University of Iowa, which led to the reinstatement of lost sports programs for women and the addition of new ones including women’s wrestling.
Christiana Kiefer, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, appeared on stage with her client Chelsea Mitchell to discuss their lawsuit. Mitchell, along with runners Selina Soule and Alanna Smith, was forced to compete against males at a Connecticut high school.
“In Selena’s case, she lost the opportunity to advance to the next level of competition,” said Kiefer, “Chelsea lost out on state championship titles. Not once, but four different times.”
“Chelsea and Selena’s case is the only affirmative case in the country right now that that has been filed by female athletes to secure their rights under Title IX…The other cases that are currently pending across the country are actually defensive litigation…so they are states that have passed women’s sports laws to protect the integrity of women’s sports and the ACLU has filed suit to have those laws declared unconstitutional.”
The Connecticut lawsuit has “been, in essence, dismissed” by a federal judge on the grounds that the male competitors had already graduated. The same judge had earlier instructed them “to refer to these males as ‘transgender females’ because he viewed it to be far more scientifically accurate.”
The case has been appealed to the second circuit. The next level would be the Supreme Court.
According to Kiefer, the ACLU has elsewhere offered “deposition testimony” stating that “being a girl is about liking pink and it’s about unicorns and it’s about rainbows” and “Being a male is about…quote ‘being able to be president of the United States.’ You can see here the sex stereotypes that are being propagated by this ideology.”
Both Kiefer and Hogshead-Makar encouraged more litigation to shift the balance of power so that organizations and institutions are afraid of female athletes, not just the ACLU and trans activists.
The conference closed out with supportive messages from Martina Navratilova and Olympic champions Inga Thompson and Benita Mosley. All three shared stories of overcoming sexism in sports and, in Navratilova’s case, repression under communism.
Despite the astonishing list of names and organizations involved in the conference, media coverage has been minimal.
A few days after ICONS, on July 15th, The University of Pennsylvania nominated swimmer Lia Thomas for the NCAA "Woman of the Year" award.
Nonetheless, dissent is growing. In the United States, 18 states have passed some version of a Save Women’s Sports Act. World Rugby, International Cycling Union, and the International Swimming Federation have banned males from the women’s category.
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