Rachel McKinnon — the so-called defending “world champion” of women’s track cycling — is a man. I’ll repeat that so my meaning cannot be misconstrued. He is a man.
Maybe my kind-hearted reader is offended by this blunt phrasing. Why am I calling McKinnon a man — when, perhaps for complicated reasons, he would rather be called a woman? Why don’t I compromise and call him a “trans woman,” as others do? Or be polite and address him by “she/her” pronouns, like everyone else in the media?
Well, I’ll tell you why, since you asked. This is precisely the well-meant, tragically naïve logic that has enabled a structure of lies and tyranny to be erected around us, a structure that most cannot opt out of without incurring an enormous social cost. It is a structure in which cheating and viciousness are rewarded while civility and truth-telling are punished. Rachel McKinnon is the perfect example of how this structure works and operates, as well as why we should resist it.
For context: McKinnon lived unambiguously as a man (called “Rhys”) until the age of 29. In addition to male puberty, he has had a full experience of modern academia where he developed a particular enthusiasm for the philosophy of lies (literally) and for “gender studies.” Graduating first from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, he completed a Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on assertions, “Why You Don’t Need to Know What You’re Talking About” (the literal subtitle). Later, he published a book on this subject titled The Norms of Assertion: Truth, Lies and Warrant, in which he argues “that in some special contexts, we can lie.” Which contexts might those be?
While serving as an associate professor at the College of Charleston, S.C., McKinnon decided to get into sport cycling. (Fair.) He won the 200-meter sprint record for women in the 35–39 range in 2018, and then the UCI Masters World Track Cycling Championship in the Women’s Sprint. (Not fair.)
This month, he defended his title. From the news last week: “Rachel McKinnon successfully defended her track World Championship title in Manchester,” per Cycling Weekly; “Prominent trans rights campaigner McKinnon has defended her right to compete,” per the BBC; “[McKinnon] found herself defending her title against a critic — the president’s son,” per CBS News; “McKinnon keeps dominating women’s cycling. And she keeps creating controversy all the way,” per the New York Post.
So, what’s this got to do with the culture at large? First, by pretending that McKinnon is not a man, we have allowed him to cheat at sports at the expense of his female competitors. Because McKinnon being a man is directly relevant to the argument that he should not compete against women, in calling him something other than a man, we obfuscate that argument — and all for the sake of a very recently invented set of blasphemy norms (e.g. “misgendering” and “deadnaming”) that don’t apply to us non-believers.
Second, by pretending that McKinnon is not a man — but rather a vulnerable woman — we have forsworn all expectations of accountability and decency. The most egregious example of this, and the precise moment I decided to stop lending McKinnon special courtesies, was when he lauded the terminal illness of a young woman, Magdalen Berns, whom I held (and still hold) in great esteem.
Berns believed strongly that men cannot be women. As she lay on her deathbed in Scotland, at the age of 36, surrounded by her loved ones, McKinnon tweeted that he was “happy” when bad people died, that this feeling is “justified,” that Berns is a “trash human,” and further advised his followers “don’t be the sort of person who people you’ve harmed are happy you’re dying of brain cancer.” By contrast, here is a characteristically civil, clear and courageous quote from Berns: “it’s not hate to defend your rights and it’s not hate to speak the truth.”
Men can be so rude sometimes.
Other women have tried to articulate similar sentiments with regard to McKinnon. Take Jen Wagner-Assali, who, after coming in third to McKinnon at the UCI Masters Track World Championship in 2018, tweeted: “it’s definitely NOT fair.” After being bullied, Wagner apologized to McKinnon for causing offense. But that wasn’t enough, as McKinnon explained. “The apology is not accepted: she still thinks what she said. She merely apologizes for being caught saying it publicly.”
She still thinks it’s not fair for a man to beat her in the women’s category? Just imagine!
McKinnon then lashed out at the tennis star and longtime defender of sexual minorities, Martina Navratilova, who wrote in the Sunday Times of London that to allow men to compete against women was to permit “cheating.” Already, trans athletes had “achieved honours as women that were beyond their capabilities as men,” Navratilova argued, worrying that other women would also be “cowed into silence or submission.” McKinnon called Navratilova a “transphobe,” and demanded that she apologize.
Evidently, it’s not only sportswomen McKinnon has issues with. It’s journalists and women’s-rights campaigners, too. When a spokesperson from Fair Play for Women was invited by the BBC to discuss Navratilova’s comments, McKinnon wrote on Twitter: “I will not participate in a discussion panel that takes them seriously and gives them a platform.” The BBC subsequently disinvited them.
McKinnon was strikingly rude and sneering to Abigail Shrier, a gentle writer for the Wall Street Journal, when she appeared on Fox Nation with him to discuss women’s sports. As well as baselessly calling Shrier a “transphobe,” McKinnon has tweeted that others who disagree with him ought to “die in a grease fire,” a comment which resulted in a temporary suspension from the platform, much to his irritation.
So, can you compromise or appease a tyrant? You can certainly try. In a surprisingly balanced interview with Sky News — in which the interviewer explained that the science shows that even after taking testosterone suppressants, men retain indisputable physiological advantages that are especially pronounced in a sport like track — McKinnon explained why he thinks skeptics like me, who consider the science of sex, are wrong:
I’m legally and medically female. But the people who oppose my existence still want to think of me as male. They use the language that I am a man . . . If you think of trans women as men then you think there’s an unfair advantage.
Of course, nobody is questioning McKinnon’s existence — for how could the continually aggressive presence of such an unpleasant man be denied? What is being disputed is his belief that he is a woman and his sense of entitlement to compete against actual women. But for those who might be more sympathetic, or for those who don’t know quite how much of a thug he is, he makes the classic cartoon-villain mistake: overreach. Those who are not with him entirely, he explains, must be entirely against him:
[Sport] is central to society. So, if you want to say, “I believe you’re a woman for all of society except this massive central part of sport” then that’s not fair. So, fairness is the inclusion of trans women.
As it happens, I do not have an ideological commitment to gender terminology or pronouns one way or another. For struggling, respectful souls, I’m happy to lend special courtesies (in fact, I frequently do). But for cheats and liars, for bullies and tyrants, for those who seek to use my words to propagate deceit and injustice? Oh, just drop it, sir — I’ll never call you “ma’am.”