I hate to admit it because it sounds so reactionary in the 21st century, but I believe some male-to-female transgender athletes, without mitigating intervention, may have an unfair advantage in women’s sports.
I say this knowing that trans female athletes are a tiny minority in sports. But this is not about fear of hordes of trans competitors overwhelming women’s sports. No.
This is about cisgender women being unable to secure precious entry and honors in sporting competitions because they might get beat out by someone who was born and raised with an extra quota of this hormone: testosterone.
That hormone is what, during adolescence, develops boys into adults generally bigger, stronger, and faster than females. And it’s a lifelong consequence.
In my view, this hormonal difference is the crux of the matter regarding trans female athletes in sports.
I know this attitude may be controversial, even reviled, by many liberals, among whom I consider myself a fellow traveler if not a card carrier, but I believe it’s a fair, reasonable, and defensible position.
To my mind, this is a justifiable policy conundrum, not an LGBTQ attack based on bigotry.
Of course, there are lots of people who disagree, like Jenna Scaramanga, a trans woman who recently wrote about her own feelings on this divisive topic:
[F]or some reason I care what the science says about whether trans women have competitive advantages. I really want to know the truth of it. That’s really hard, because all of the publicly-available experts seem to be either trans themselves or transphobes who do an extremely poor job of hiding their hostility. I get to spend my time reading articles and Twitter threads by people who hate me, and whoever I’m reading I suspect that they are making the evidence fit a preconceived conclusion. And when I read arguments in favor of trans women’s inclusion in elite sports, I find myself worrying they aren’t rigorous enough. It all makes my stomach feel queasy.
I understand that for trans women, especially athletes, this is a terribly fraught issue. Let’s take a look at historical data, and science to explore whether trans female athletes do get a natural, testosterone-linked sporting advantage.
ON THE OTHER HAND: Curated contrary opinions
Jenna Scaramanga, I’m a transwoman exhausted by the broken conversation around sports
It’s all about fairness
Concerns about whether trans athletes enjoy baked-in competitive advantages have nothing to do with transphobia, and rather, everything to do with fairness in sports.
I fervently believe everyone has the right to proudly be whoever they inherently are, without shame, judgment, or prejudice. But if athletes have unfair advantages over their rivals, that’s a problem, whether it’s the natural testosterone-plus benefit trans female athletes might have or other competitors doping with artificial testosterone (anabolic steroids).
Level playing fields are the heart and soul of fair athletic competition, like say a 250-pound athlete wrestling a 115-pound featherweight. It’s all about fairness so that nothing untoward tips the scale of victory.
I see trans female athletes with a presumed testosterone benefit in the same vein. And while each sport is unique, a hormonal boost might have varying effects on or benefits to performance—as the International Olympic Committee acknowledged in new 2021 guidelines delegating eligibility determinations to each individual sporting body.
One could argue that if your men’s team was lucky enough to have a 7-foot center, that over-endowed player would not be prohibited from playing, although a certain inherent advantage would be clearly evident. But the equalizer is that teams have a roughly equal opportunity to find naturally tall players, or three-point aces, or lazy, stumble-bum guards.
If a relatively large male-to-female trans basketball player were to suit up, eyebrows would raise about whether, due to her biology (i.e., her historical testosterone quotient), she had an unmatchable advantage.
Bulked-up Chinese swimmers raised eyebrows in 1994
We can’t speak about this issue without addressing artificial testosterone. You might remember when China fielded Olympic teams of women swimmers in the 1990s who all looked like linebackers for the Los Angeles Raiders pro football team. In a 2012 retrospective article, the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald wrote:
The Chinese women’s swimming team came from obscurity to win 12 of 16 gold medals at the 1994 world titles in Rome, prompting suspicion among competitors, not least the Australian team.
The Chinese team was decimated by positive steroid busts at the Hiroshima Asian Games in 1994 and imploded for a second time in Perth in 1998.
At the 1994 Asian Games, the Herald wrote:
A routine customs check of a swimmer’s bag found enough human growth hormone to supply the entire women’s swimming team for the duration of the meet.
Human growth hormone (hGH), believed to increase athletes’ speed, strength, and endurance, and anabolic steroids, is a synthetic form of testosterone that promotes significant muscle and strength enhancement, and has long been the illicit go-to drugs for athletes seeking to gain an advantage because even tiny improvements in physiology can bring victories. The Chinese used both.
Such substances are illegal in organized local, national, and international athletics due to the inherent and lopsided unfairness they engender in competition.
After China’s stunning swimming dominance at 1994’s World Championships, Dennis Pursley, the U.S.’s national swim team director for both men and women, warned that due to very evident doping by the Chinese “the future of international women’s swimming could be in jeopardy” without quick mitigation, according to a New York Times article that year. Pursely told the Times:
I believe you have to be incredibly naive to ignore the circumstantial evidence. The current situation is an exact replica of the G.D.R., and it is depriving deserving athletes of the attention and success they deserve.”
East German swimming dominance in ’76 was shocking
Pursley was referring to a doping scandal at Montreal’s 1976 Olympics involving the German Democratic Republic’s—East Germany’s—athletes, particularly its swimmers. The athletes of the GDR, then a country of fewer than 17 million citizens, hauled in a trove of top medals at the games, third only to the United States and Soviet Union, whose populations then totaled hundreds of millions.
“The 1976 USA Women’s Olympic Team was right to cry foul,” contended an article this year in Swimming World magazine. “The USA team set nine American records at those Olympic Games only to see every record eclipsed by an East German swimmer riding high in the water from a systematic state-orchestrated drug program [including anabolic steroids] that claimed titles in 10 out of 11 individual races.”
But the complaining Americans were portrayed by media as sore losers.
However, three years after East Germany ceased to exist with the reunification of the Federal Republic of Germany and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1990, official GDR files were uncovered revealing that the GDR secret police, the Stasi, had supervised all-encompassing, systematic doping of East German athletes from 1971 to 1990. And in most cases, GRD athletes, including children, were unaware they were being doped, and state-funded labs were complicit by hiding and not reporting infractions of tested athletes.
Why is synthetic testosterone destabilizing in sports?
If testosterone is relatively irrelevant to success in women’s athletics—as many proponents of male-to-female trans athletes claim today—why were the Chinese and GDR so laser-focused on systematically doping their athletes with the substance? And why did they win so big with it?
Complicating matters, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2021 released its Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex variations,” which delegated rule-making for trans athletes to individual sports federations, not the IOC, under a few guiding principles. Unlike previous IOC rules, testosterone levels weren’t among the new guidelines. The IOC wrote in a news release at that time:
Through this Framework, the IOC seeks to promote a safe and welcoming environment for everyone involved in elite-level competition, consistent with the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter. The Framework also acknowledges the central role that eligibility criteria play in ensuring fairness, particularly in high-level organised sport in the women’s category.
The document is issued as part of the IOC’s commitment to respecting human rights (as expressed in Olympic Agenda 2020+5), and as part of the action taken to foster gender equality and inclusion. In issuing this Framework, the IOC recognizes that it must be within the remit of each sport and its governing body to determine how an athlete may be at a disproportionate advantage compared with their peers, taking into consideration the nature of each sport.
Of course, it’s noble for the IOC to prioritize the importance of inclusivity for trans people to participate equally in society, particularly in sports in this context. Indeed, Western societies are moving in tandem in this direction. But should inclusivity trump fairness?
How to tell if an athlete has a ‘disproportionate advantage’
Yet, prioritizing gender inclusivity or not, the overarching issue for each sport remains: how to best determine “how an athlete may be at a disproportionate advantage.” How can each sport now ensure competitive fairness regarding trans athletes?
With potentially huge personal and financial rewards available for successful elite athletes, this is not an idle question for athletes on the tantalizing cusp of dominance in their sports.
In her OnlySky piece, Scaramanga argues that,
“The main thing you need to know about the freakout over trans women in sports is that, counterintuitively, it’s not about sports. FINA’s spokesperson confirmed for Associated Press that there are no transgender swimmers currently competing.”
But it is about sports.
Concern about trans athletes should not be about bigotry
As I mentioned above, the fact that relatively few transgender athletes are competing misses the fairness point. If even one trans competitor with a “disproportionate advantage” is victorious at the expense of a non-trans athlete, that’s a travesty. As I said, it’s about fairness.
Deutsche Welle (DW), a German broadcast media firm, in a 2021 article said few studies have been done on elite trans athletes, but one study in 2020 of U.S. military personnel found that trans women “maintain an edge after one year of feminizing hormone therapy, which usually includes suppressing testosterone levels and boosting estrogen.”
Carried out by Dr. Timothy Roberts, a pediatrician and associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and his colleagues, the research also found that while trans women after a year of hormone therapy “continued to outperform non-transgender women, also known as cisgender women, the gap largely closed after two years. But even then, trans women still ran 12% faster.”
Still, the DW article pointed out:
Roberts, however, suggested the difference in running times needs additional perspective. “It was a 12% advantage after two years in run times. But to be in the top 10% of female runners, you have to be 29% faster than the average woman. And to be an elite runner, you’ve got to be 59% faster than the average cis [birth-gender] woman,” he told DW.
So, more concrete data is needed to show how or whether trans women athletes can fairly compete in sports, locally and internationally. Although trans female research is incomplete and results have been mixed, experts say data indicate a testosterone-boosted competitive advantage from adolescence exists, particularly in some sports, and that this edge can remain even after hormone suppression therapy such as that required by the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association).
It appears some workable resolution of the conundrum may eventually be possible, either a consensus hormone-reduction protocol or, as the IOC has decided, separate sport bodies will determine their own rules concerning trans female athletes. But it’s not a sure thing.
An excellent article last year in the New York Times, objectively summarizes the current impasse regarding trans female athletes and concludes that any breakthrough, even if possible, likely won’t be a slam dunk.
Quoted in the article is scientist Tommy Lundberg of the Karolinska Institute outside Stockholm, Sweden, who has studied this issue extensively.
“It is easy to sympathize with arguments made on both sides,” Lundberg told the Times regarding gender identity versus biology. But, he added, “It is going to be impossible to make everyone happy.”
The issue is a Gordian knot, admits Dr. Eric Vilain, a geneticist specializing in sexual development who has advised the N.C.A.A. and the International Olympic Committee on transgender athletes, and who was also quoted in the Ties article. Vilain says the reason for this is that sports leaders face “two almost irreconcilable positions” in setting eligibility standards—one relying on an athlete’s declared gender and the other on biological litmus tests.
So the research and hand-wringing continues.
Sports organizations are taking go-slow approach to trans policy
At the moment, though, sports bodies seem to be taking a cautionary approach. As Scaramanga wrote in her essay, FINA, the international swimming federation, has, pending further research into the issue, banned trans women from competing in women’s categories for all the sports it governs, and 18 American states now ban trans teens from competing in school sports.
Sixteen athletes on female trans competitor Lia Thomas’ University of Pennsylvania’s swim team sent a letter to the school and Ivy League officials stating that they believed Thomas’ competing on the team was unfair to other teammates. On the other hand, 23 teammates support Thomas.
“We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her life authentically,” the letter from opposing teammates states, per the Washington Post. “However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.”
The concerned teammates noted that when Thomas competed as a collegiate male, he was then ranked 462nd, while as a female she ranked No. 1.
These are fair concerns of athletes who focus all their prodigious energy on excelling in their sports and, as steroid-pumped Chinese and East German athletes once powerfully demonstrated, the hormones in our bodies naturally—or unnaturally—can unfairly tip the balance of victory. Or, on the flip side, deny the rewards of excellence.
This issue will eventually be ironed out in some fashion, probably, but until more rock-solid data is gathered, it is reasonable, and fair, to try and appropriately mitigate the natural advantages trans female athletes may enjoy—if they aren’t banned outright from competition.
The end goal is to not inadvertently disadvantage cis-gender female athletes as gender fluidity becomes more a front-and-center issue in Western societies and increasing efforts are made to include trans athletes in sports.
The goal is to ensure fairness for all athletes.