It’s Not Fair! 🏃♀️ 🏳️⚧️ 🏃
Transgender Inclusion in Sport
From Caitlyn Jenner’s quip to appeal to a conservative base for votes, to other politicians quoting sports icon Martina Navratilova to the ubiquitous ‘concerned parent,’ this simplistic but seemingly ‘just so obvious common sense fact’, has been the justification for attempts to throw up legal barriers to exclude transgender people of all ages from participation in competitions with their cisgender peers.
The fairness argument usually focuses on the supposed advantages that trans athletes, mainly trans girls and women, have over cis-counterparts due to the trans woman’s alleged greater strength, body type or speed. The supporters of this view assert that the benefits of going through male puberty and having higher performance enhancing levels of testosterone make it impossible for girls to compete against ’boys’ or women against ‘men.’ In other words, gender identity is irrelevant in terms of a ‘level playing field’ and may even be a ruse for boys or men to dominate female sports.
In this paper I will try to provide counterpoints to the common fairness arguments from two general perspectives. Part One generally focuses on biology/physiological factors and includes the following sections:
- Trans athletes will almost always have an advantage over non-trans competitors.
- The Myth of Fairness in Sport
- Trans women will dominate women’s competitions.
Part Two shifts the theme over to what I believe are the core social and political factors that have driven so many of the attacks on transgender inclusion in sports by asking:
- Sports: What do we value? What are our priorities? Should we rethink our attitudes?
- What is the true nature of efforts to exclude transgender adults and youth from sport?
Above all other factors that are part of the general discussion of this issue, the second question brings into focus how bigotry and a cultural war agenda to exclude transgender people from all aspects on public life have often shunted relegated rationale dialog and compassion to the sidelines, almost to the point of irrelevancy. That is, the debate seems to have ended, at least in the United States, and has resulted in accerlerating anti-transgender activism and legislation targeting trans children and adults in general.
Finally, due to the length of this paper, I will present it in two separate entries in Medium. I hope that offering the paper in this way will make it more flexible and convenient in terms of demands on your reading time.
Trans athletes will almost always have an advantage over non-trans competitors.
Why? Is it simply because a trans girl/woman will have higher testosterone levels that give them greater strength and speed? That is, no matter how hard a woman trains, the trans athlete will always have an unfair advantage. If you’re not convinced about this, just ask LGBTQ sports legends such as Caitlyn Jenner or Martina Navratilova. Unfortunately, the physiology argument is far more complex and also goes to show that sports legends, even a transgender one, can be as misinformed as anyone else. Let’s begin by examining the significance of testosterone levels in athletic performance.
While it is true that testosterone can increase muscle mass, and have other positive effects on performance, recent studies have shown that testosterone levels alone do not correlate with improvements in performance (See Note). This goes against the commonly held perception that a particular testosterone level will produce a corresponding performance. In other words, higher testosterone levels result in better performances.
One also has to consider the influence of gender-affirming hormone therapies and their effect on performance. In one study of trans women in the US military, their performance levels before and after two years of feminizing hormones were compared in terms of doing push-ups and sit-ups and running 1.5 miles. When the study began, the trans women had significantly higher numbers compared to their counterparts (31% and 15% respectively) and were 21% faster. At the end of the study, there were no differences regarding the first two exercises and the advantage in running had dropped down to 12%,
The sample size (number of participants) of this study was too small to draw any definitive conclusions and it is only one of a handful of experiments of this nature. Nonetheless, such studies add further support to the scientific findings that relying on testosterone levels as the sole criteria for allowing participation in sports competitions is a a flawed approach as it ignores the cocktail of factors contributing to athletic performance.
The Myth of Fairness in Sport
Although this thread includes physiological considerations, the central focus is on the social construct called fairness, or ensuring that athletes are playing on “an equal, level playing field.” Yet if we look at any athletic event, from the elite level to the schoolyard, it is often quite clear that all participants do not bring the same, or even comparable talents and abilities to the playing field. Nonetheless, we somehow overlook or rationalize the differences and believe that fairness in sports exists when in fact it is more of a myth than a reality.
This convenient illusion is often based on very subjective, inconsistent criteria. For example, if most members of a basketball team are much taller than their opponents, do we deem that as unfair and call the game off? Do we ban elite athletes such as Michael Phelps due to his ‘unfair advantage’ of unusually long arms and double-jointed ankles, or Usain Bolt for his exceptionally long stride? We don’t because these advantages are regarded as simply part of the natural physical diversity we’ll find among athletes. Therefore, such differences are seen as ‘just part of the game,’ especially for elite/professional sports, and may even be desirable in terms of marketing the ‘all conquering superhero’ or allowing us to root for the underdogs.
Similarly, we hear no outcries about women who are much taller than average or have bigger body types and are stronger, either naturally or through weight training. Do we worry about any advantages of tall women in a variety of sports? Does the second group pose a danger to other women in contact sports, such as rugby, and therefore should be not allowed to participate?
Yet when the discussion moves round to fairness and trans women’s participation in sports, the criteria shifts dramatically and what is acceptable for other athletes somehow morphs and becomes unacceptable with trans athletes.
The inconsistencies are also compounded by the unspoken assumption that transgender women will always be bigger, stronger or faster. Really? Not all trans athletes fit this profile (see the US military study above), and as American volleyball player, Chloe Anderson points out:
“As an athlete, being transgender poses particular challenges. I have struggled with coordination and muscle weakness as a result of hormone therapy, which also makes it harder to recover from injury.”
Therefore, I think it is ‘fair’ to say that the social construct of fairness is not absolute and must be assessed from many perspectives and contexts. Yet many sporting bodies or people with political agendas or biases will fall back on “fairness” and testosterone levels to exclude athletes, not just trans athletes, from competitions or even mere participation in less formal contexts. I will address this context later, but for now I’ll continue with the focus on elite levels of sport to conclude this section.
In the Tokyo 2020/21 Olympics, three African athletes were not permitted to take part in their best events unless they took testosterone reducing medication. Two of the athletes, teenage Namibian sprinters Christine Mbomba and Beatrice Masilingi, are female athletes with natural testosterone levels that are higher than the typical female range. In fact, it is estimated that as many as ten percent of all women have polycystic ovarian syndrome that in some cases can result in testosterone levels that approach male ranges.
The third athlete was the well-known South African Caster Semenya who, due to the condition known as DSD, (Differences of Sexual Development) could not defend her Olympic 800 metres title unless she subjected herself to hormone therapy. The Namibian athletes did compete in other sprint events, but Semenya refused to undergo hormone therapy and failed to quality for the Olympics in the 5,000 metres event.
So looking at these cases, which do not involve trans athletes, we have to ask what happened to fairness when female athletes are banned from their preferred events due to their naturally occurring testosterone levels unless they take hormones in order to compete?
In short, there is no fairness here. What we have is blatant and embarrassing harassment (i.e.sex-tests) and discrimination against differences with no regard for the dignity and even basic human rights of the athletes in question.
However, as objectionable as these policies are, I am not suggesting a free-for-all with no controls at all. If the will is there, acceptable policies can be managed in ways that are less draconian so that all athletes can compete with dignity on playing fields that can give everyone a chance to excel. I’ll bring up specific examples in context throughout the remaining sections of this paper.
Trans women will dominate women’s competitions.
While the ‘testosterone issue’ is about science and ‘fairness’ could be seen within the realm of philosophy, the ‘trans athletes will dominate competitions’ argument against inclusion can be examined empirically. In other words, let’s look at the numbers and then evaluate the validity of this position. We can start by staying with the Olympic Games for some data.
Beginning with the 2004 Olympics, transgender women have been able to compete as women. To do so, however, they are required to fulfill several conditions. First, they have to complete a four-year waiting period after they had publicly stated they are female. Next, they must take testosterone suppressing medication or undergo Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS) at least one year before the Olympics. Finally, all of the required levels of testosterone must be maintained throughout the games. So how have they done?
In short, up until the recent Tokyo games, cisgender women took home all of the medals in all competitions. History was made at the 2020 Games when the first openly declared non-binary transgender soccer player Quinn (who uses a mononym and gender-neutral pronouns) won a gold medal as a member of the Canadian women’s team. However, as wonderful as Quinn’s openness and sporting accomplishment were for themselves and transgender visibility, Quinn is non-binary — not a transgender woman or man. In other words, they could compete on the women’s team because they were assigned female at birth. Biology came to the IOC’s rescue to side-step controversy in this case!
Two other openly trans/non-binary athletes competed in Tokyo, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, a trans woman, and US skateboarder Alana Smith (they/them). Hubbard, in particular was subjected to an onslaught of tabloid attacks for her inclusion in the New Zealand women’s team before the Games and the attacks didn’t stop even after Hubbard did not place in her event (nor did Smith).
Other transgender athletes, such as United States 1500 metre runner, Nikki Hiltz, and Brazilian volleyball player Tiffany Abreu, did not quality for their Olympic teams. Another Olympic hopeful, 400 metre hurdler C.C. Telfer, was not allowed into the US Trials because she failed to meet the IOC conditions mentioned above.
So if we evaluate the domination argument in light of the Tokyo Games and national team trials, we can see that the trans/non-binary athletes results do not suggest anything out of the ordinary. A medal winner, and two proud, but non-medal winning participants, as well as others whose hopes of making their Olympic teams fell short in their national trials.
As for the case of C.C. Telfer, who accepted the decision with dignity, we see that a system is in place to ensure that only those athletes who meet the required conditions will be allowed to compete. We may question the fairness and validity of the criteria, but there are safeguards against the transphobic scenarios of ‘stealth males in disguise’ keeping women on the sidelines and taking home all the medals.
Now let’s move away from the Olympics to a well-known case from girls’ high school sports in the United States that underscores how dubious premises and baseless fear-mongering have been used in attempts to exclude trans girls from competing in high school sports.
The case comes from a federal legal challenge, brought forward by the Alliance to Defend Freedom (ADF) — more on them to follow — to rescind a Connecticut state policy to allow transgender girls to take part in girls’ sports competitions. Two trans girls, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, were the centre of attention, along with their close rival, Chelsea Mitchell, one of a group of three cisgender girls who filed the complaint against the state policy.
The plaintiffs claimed that the trans girls were not only denying other girls from winning events but as a result, also limiting their (cis girls) chances of winning college scholarships. The legal process involved both state and federal agencies, but at the end of the day, exclusion policies were deemed discriminatory so the trans girls could not be barred.
So what actually happened away from the courts and on the track? In the eight days following the plaintiffs’ submission of their case, Chelsea Mitchell defeated both of her rivals two times and won two state championships. As for college scholarships, Mitchell received a track and field scholarship to William & Mary, a NCAA Division 1 school. Neither Miller nor Yearwood won scholarships and both decided not to pursue their athletic careers upon entering college.
Once again, we see that it is far from a forgone conclusion that trans athletes will always be victorious. Yes, sometimes they might win, as Miller and Yearwood did on other occasions, but a talented cisgender athlete such as Chelsea Mitchell demonstrated that her natural ability and dedication could propel her to the top against all challengers.
As anyone who has participated in sports competitions at any level knows, sometimes you win or do very well, but sometimes you don’t. Simple as that. The Connecticut case provided further evidence that transgender athletes will not defy this ‘natural law’ in sports no matter how much organizations such as the ADF scream out that “trans athletes will make girls spectators in their own sports.”
Such outcries about domination are often brought up in the context of protecting women’s sports. However, I have to ask,“What do you mean by protecting?” If one argues that women’s sports must be protected from ‘masquerading males’ out to dominate women’s competitions, this is clearly not justified by any evidence.
I believe the real issue here is the massive imbalance of funding, support and media attention given to men’s sports compared to women’s sports. It pains me to even write these words, but for the sake of argument, even if you totally banned transgender athletes, the core resources disparity still remains and the development of women’s sports will continue to be hindered.
Finally, let’s wrap up this domination thread with some simple number crunching about the likelihood of transgender identified people “taking over” in sports. A 2017 US government study estimated that 1.8 percent of high school students identify as transgender, though another study estimated the number of trans girls to be closer to 3%( see Notes). These figures roughly correspond to estimates of the number of trans identified people within the general US population. Next, consider that the number of trans people who visibly present themselves as they identify may only be about half of that overall percentage. And how many of all of these people would choose to participate in organized sports and dedicate themselves to excel and make “girls/women spectators in their own sports?”
I’m not aware of any specific studies to examine the latter question, but let’s add the following figures from a 2012 Infographic Journal article to the mix. The odds vary among sports, but here is a sample of the chances US high school athletes of either gender have of being Summer Olympians:
1 in 45,000 basketball players
1 in 20,000 soccer players
1 in 6,000 and 9,000 for swimming and track and field (athletics), respectively.
Although the figures might be a bit dated now and statistics can be misleading, it nonetheless seems obvious to me that although a trans athlete might be able to go right to the top of a sport or be one of the lucky ‘one in 9,000’, it stretches credibility to argue that trans women athletes can ever push women en masse off teams or dominate their sports. The demographics simply don’t support the argument.
Infographic Journal. What Are Your Chances of Becoming a Summer Olympic Athlete? Irma Wallace, August 9, 2012. infographicjournal.com
This concludes Part One and the focus on biology and physiological factors in the discussion. Please go to the separate entry in Medium for Part Two where the perspective shifts to core social and political issues :
- Sports: What do we value? What are our priorities? Should we rethink our attitudes?
- What is the true nature of efforts to exclude transgender adults and youth from sport?
1. How Much Does Testosterone Really Affect Performance?
Katratina Karzakis comments and other research.
Trans Girls Belong on Girls; Sports Teams
In February 2020, the families of three cisgender girls filed a federal lawsuit against the Connecticut Association of…
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge several other writers on Medium I didn’t mention by name but whose works provided me with invaluable background knowledge and perspectives in my research for this paper. In particular, special thanks to G.L Balend, David Valdez, Sage H., Luci Turner, Bitter Gertrude and Phaylen Williams.