Throughout the U.S., roughly 35 bills have been introduced by state legislators that would limit or prohibit transgender women from competing in women's athletics. That's up from only two in 2019. What’s this sudden discourse all about?
Before delving into the specifics, let’s understand some terms first. Most people use the words ‘biological male’ to define a transwoman. Using the words ‘biological male’ is problematic on two grounds: One, it is inaccurate (because biology is much more complex than that) and two, it’s immoral to disregard someone’s identity like that. So hereon, I’ll use the words ‘cis woman’ and ‘trans woman’ to point out the distinctions I intend to. For context, a cisgender person is a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth and a transgender person is a person whose gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth. Now that the terminology is clear, let’s understand the issue at hand.
The Issue at Hand
The participation of transgenders in competitive sports (notably transwomen competing with cis women) is a widely debated issue worldwide, with an audience deeply divided into two radical, yet valid schools of thought. Let’s try to view the issue from both perspectives.
POV: Those who regard the competition to be ‘unfair’
To understand this side of the argument, let’s understand why the need to differentiate sports for men and women arose in the first place. In sports, the average performance gap between elite males and elite females is 10-12%. When we translate these statistics into real-world results, we see that on average, non-elite schoolboys beat elite cis women in some domains of sports rather effortlessly:
Just in the single year of 2017, Olympic, World and US Champion Tori Bowie's 100 meters lifetime best of 10.78 seconds was beaten 15,000 times by non-elite men and boys. The same is true of the Olympics, World, and US Champion Allyson Felix’s 400 meters lifetime best of 49.26 seconds. This differential isn’t the result of boys and men having a male identity, more resources, or better training/motivation - it’s because they have an androgenised body.
Prior to puberty, there is no remarkable sex difference in circulating testosterone concentrations or athletic performance, but from puberty onwards, a clear sex difference in athletic performance emerges (with circulating testosterone in men exceeding 15-fold that of women at any age). The sex difference in circulating testosterone of adults explains most, if not all, of the sex differences in sporting performance (like increased muscle mass and strength, bone size and strength (density), and circulating haemoglobin, each of which individually increases athletic capacity). And this is precisely why competition has to be divided into male and female categories.
So if testosterone-driven puberty gives transwomen a surmountable edge over cis women, what’s the way out? Some trans women identify their gender early into their lives and use hormone-blockers, as a result of which, they never experience testosterone-driven puberty, which solves the problem partially. But what about the other trans women?
One solution is hormone therapy/testosterone suppression treatment. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recommends that schools require transgender athletes to complete one year of hormone treatment before competing on a female team. Similarly, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) guidelines require transgender athletes competing on a female team to demonstrate testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per litre for one year.
But the problem is, these guidelines are far from perfect. A recent study found that a year of hormone therapy decreased muscle mass in transgender women only modestly (around 5%). (Source) Even when trans athletes take cross-sex hormones, some advantages, such as their bigger bone structure, greater lung capacity, and larger heart size remain, which would forever continue to provide them an athletic edge over cis women.
One might contend that some regulation is better than no regulation, which is true. But bear in mind that the regulation we’re talking about is only present in higher level, centralised sports authorities. What about the institutions outside their purview or the local level authorities?
Connecticut’s state athletic conference is one of the 19 such conferences that allow athletes to compete based solely on their expressed gender identity (that is, without hormone treatments). Since Connecticut’s athletic conference enacted its liberal gender-identity policy, two male-to-female transgenders (who went through testosterone-driven puberty, and did not undergo hormone treatment) have won 15 women’s state championships - titles that were held by 10 different Connecticut cis girls the previous year. Within just three years, girls across the state were denied over 85 chances to compete in elite athletic competitions.
Now consider this: while the two trans athletes in question won the Girls’ state championship, their times were not good enough to even qualify for the Boys’ state championship. This transforms the debate into a question of equity, instead of equality.
The ramifications of such competition aren’t that easy to decode, they amplify especially in track and field, which might manifest into the erasure of records set by cis women after years of toil, detracting a level playing field, and loss of motivation for cis women to compete. For now, let’s put this on hold and try to understand the issue from another lens.
POV: Those who regard the competition to be ‘fair’
To argue requires us to understand the history of transgenders in sports. The alienation from their body felt by the trans community is often temporarily mitigated when they participate in sports. Their historical under-representation in sports makes their exclusion unscrupulous. Before calling them a ‘threat’ or discrediting their success, it is also important to note that transgenders suffer from higher rates of bullying, anxiety and depression, and even stand at a greater risk for suicide - all of which makes it all the more difficult for them to train and compete.
A lot of proponents of trans inclusivity in sports assert that the science of whether testosterone actually provides an advantage in competitions is not clearly established.
However, if we still choose to talk about a level playing field by enforcing sex-verification exams or transgender conversion therapy/treatment, there arises another issue: the trauma associated with it. One must note that transgenders, under no circumstance, need conversion therapy/treatment to be considered valid. And while undergoing conversion is absolutely the discretion of the person in question, it becomes essential and mandatory in sports governed by authorities like IOC and NCAA, as mentioned earlier.
Moreover, many argue that even after treatment, differences persist, which makes one question if a ‘level playing field’ exists at all. When we talk about gender differentials in percentages, it’s important to recognize that sometimes, the average difference between men and women could be more or less the same as that between the weakest and strongest woman, or the shortest and tallest woman. After all, sports is all about diversity.
And then a lot also depends on the sport. For sports like cycling (especially uphill), a lighter body might be more helpful than a large, heavy skeleton. In sports like boxing, wrestling and weightlifting, separate weight categories exist, enabling athletes to compete against competitors of their size. Besides, higher levels of testosterone have empirically led to better performance only in a very small number of athletic disciplines: 400 meters, 800 meters, hammer throw, pole vault, which means other sports don’t require one to be ‘male’ to have an edge.
These arguments make one feel relieved, since they may point towards hormone therapy as the ultimate equilibrium we seek to achieve. But unfortunately, the story doesn't end here. Currently, only a few sport-governing organisations have adopted trans-inclusive policies, the rest remain indifferent or even discriminatory. For instance, Idaho is the first state in the US to ban transgender girls from participating in girls’ and women’s sports. The law also includes a provision that allows for anyone to file a claim questioning the sex of an athlete, which could ultimately lead to sex testing (genital exams, genetic testing and hormone testing). Most anti-trans participation bills propose such invasive, accusation-based testing, which is deeply problematic since it not only weaponises transness but also endangers all women and girls.
This raises another question, how athletically outstanding can a girl or woman be before we see her as transgender?
One thing off the table, rather conspicuously, is banning transgenders from competing, since that is outright discriminatory and unfair. A possible approach toward inclusivity could be to create a third category for people who don’t fit neatly into the male/female dichotomy. But that requires answering a lot of unresolved questions.
For starters, it would only strengthen the temptation to draw a hard biological line against the limits of what science can offer, which means scientific identification of Transgenders, DSDs (explained later) and other people whose gender and sex fall beyond the precincts of male and female. Also, in such a scenario, who draws the line between transgenders who have undergone conversion and those who haven't, transgenders who have identified their gender before puberty and those after puberty? Secondly, should the distinction start right from elementary/junior high school or when puberty actually starts to give an athletic edge, i.e. high school, college? Thirdly, what if there are not enough transgenders to fill out a team or offer proper competition? Is that a healthy sport? Lastly, adding categories needs to be well-thought-out to ensure equal and fair access to benefits, like scholarships. Otherwise, it would create a category of second class citizens, which is certainly not the agenda.
Another approach (and the most feasible one yet) is keeping the two categories intact, but allowing people to compete in girls’ and women’s events only if they identify as such, and they transition their testosterone levels to within the female (ovarian) range. The only moral question here is, would it be acceptable for sports authorities to require a transwoman first to transition physically, at least her testosterone levels, so that - although she would still be competing with a lot of developed male traits useful for athletics - all competitors would compete on equal footing in terms of testosterone levels?
Lastly, one ideal yet far-fetched approach is erasing the categories divided by “male” and “female” altogether and instead defining them based on different physiological parameters such as testosterone, haemoglobin levels, height, and endurance capacity, as well as social factors like gender identity and socioeconomic status. Athletes would be placed in a category that best mitigates unfair physical and social advantage. The algorithm would require to be sport-specific, and thus, producing it would be a cumbersome task.
If none of these options strikes the right balance between the two important stakeholders, is there another option that does? Even if there is, there are yet a lot of unaddressed questions.
Questions still unsolved
To begin with, why are sports scandalous only when male-to-female transgenders are involved? What about female-to-male transgenders?
Trans boys and men are not perceived as a threat when it comes to sports, which keeps them away from media and controversy. However, they can become an afterthought when talking about inclusion. At the school level, especially in team sports, transboys are denied opportunities of competing in sports because apparently, they are absolutely not at an advantage against cisgender boys who have gone through masculinising puberty. Some are even persuaded to stay in the girls’ team in order to win, which is disheartening, given that they had just asked their entire community to view them as male, to use he/him pronouns and yet have to bear the weight of still being identified as something they chose to give up long ago.
Moving on, what about Intersex people?
Intersex, (now referred to as disorders (or differences) of sex development aka DSDs) is a general term used for situations in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the boxes of “female” or “male.” Some may have 3 chromosomes instead of the usual 2, some may have reproductive organs that don’t correspond with their sex chromosomes and some may even have both male and female reproductive organs.
Sometimes a person is identified as ‘intersex’ at birth, sometimes at puberty and sometimes they can live their whole life without ever discovering that they’re intersex.
To sum up, DSDs are a hugely complex group of conditions and the controversy on how to ‘test’ for DSD still remains. It seems far more likely that female athletes with DSD are doing their best to compete as the sex chosen for them at birth rather than attempting to attain an unfair advantage through masquerading their gender. In such a scenario, compulsory gender verification seems unfair and humiliating in the majority of situations. Long story short, there is still a long way to go about fairness in this arena as well.
Where to draw the line between inclusivity for transgender athletes and fairness for cis ones is an ethical question that is so subjective, that even an eternity of discourse couldn’t produce a concrete answer. To think that trans women threaten the fabric of women's sports would repudiate all the inclusivity they’ve achieved so far. Besides, so many of us don't care about sports or fairness until a trans woman wants to play. If we truly want to play ‘fair’, we can start by combating the main barrier to access for sports: socioeconomic disparity, often intertwined with systemic oppression such as racism, and leave the opinions to those who are actually affected by it: sportspersons.
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