Please note that while I have done a good amount of research about testosterone and its effects physiologically, I am not a doctor or a biologist by degree. And, while I do understand the NCAA’s policy on trans athletes having swam as a transgender man on a D1 team, I do not speak for the NCAA. These comments are my interpretations.
“But… you’re taking testosterone… and you’re allowed to compete??? Doesn’t that give you an advantage??”
“Wait, but aren’t female athletes, like… not as good as male athletes? Aren’t you way slower than all the other guys? Or are you just crazy fast?”
Let’s begin with rules and regulations. I am competed for Harvard Men’s Swimming and Diving team in the NCAA Division 1 where the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is the governing body and sets the guildines. The NCAA has a policy for transgender athletes titled the “NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes” published in 2011 shortly after Kye Allums, the first openly transgender collegiate athlete in the NCAA, came out in 2010. (Kye Allums competed for GW’s women’s basketball team as an openly trans man.) The NCAA policy has two parts: one for folks assigned female at birth (trans masculine, like me) and folks assigned male at birth (trans feminine.) (See my page regarding trans terminology.) As of 2015, the NCAA policy is currently mirrored by the IOC – the International Olympic Committee. This means that the Olympics follow these rules as well. Neither have any surgery requirement of any kind.
The NCAA and IOC rules are as follows—
If you are assigned female at birth:
- If you do not take hormones, you can compete as either male or female, as you hold no physiological advantage over women or men.
- If you decide to take hormones (testosterone), you must compete on the men’s team and you must submit labs before, during, and after the season to prove that your testosterone levels are at an average male level. (This is what I did.) You may NOT take testosterone and compete as a woman. (See later discussion for reasoning.) Common arguments in response to transmasculine folks taking testosterone is that it will unfair because we are “doping.” But the reality is, because our testosterone levels are monitored to be at an average male level, there is no possibility for doping above the average male athlete. If anything, trans masculine athletes will have lower testosterone levels as the average male athlete has testosterone levels higher than the average male in the general population.
If you are assigned male at birth:
- You may compete as male on the men’s team and take whatever transitional treatments you wish to take (for trans women, hormones do not include testosterone), or
- You may only compete as female after undergoing at least one year of documented hormone (testosterone) suppressants to prove that your testosterone levels are at an average female level. You may NOT compete as female without undergoing at least one year of this testosterone suppression therapy and proving that your testosterone levels are at or below an average female’s. This testosterone suppression eliminates any testosterone-based advantage a trans woman might have over a cisgender woman — as her testosterone levels are the same or lower than an average cisgender woman. (the average female athlete also has higher levels of testosterone than the average female in the general population; so, if anything, a trans woman will have lower levels of testosterone than the average female athlete.) Many people believe that trans women still might hold an unfair “biological advantage” because she might have gone through male puberty, so perhaps she is taller, bigger, has a wider wingspan, etc. And reality is, absolutely, she may very well be tall, have long arms, be bigger. But cisgender women exhibit these things, too (why? because of their genetics – their biology!) and often, cisgender women are good at sports because of it! We see a 6’3 cisgender female basketball player and we say, “Damn, she was made for basketball!” We don’t call it unfair. We don’t have sports competitions because everyone’s bodies are exactly the same. We have sports competitions because people’s bodies are different, and because people are able to use them differently to be better or worse at a physical task. So, yes, trans women absolutely can exhibit biological diversity – but that is all part of the natural expression of human biological difference, and cisgender women exhibit this biological diversity, as well. (Another way to think about this: plenty of people are super tall and big and strong. And they suck at sports. It’s really important to note that just having a certain biological makeup that might predispose you to be better at a sport doesn’t mean you’ll actually be good at it.)
Here is a little more about testosterone and its biophysiological role in athletics:
- Testosterone increases your red blood cell count; theoretically increasing oxygen capacity and therefore stamina/endurance.
- Testosterone increases the speed of muscle repair. There is a huge misconception that taking testosterone simply creates muscle on its own; THIS IS FALSE. You must exercise the muscles to build them. When you exercise, you create small micro-tears in your tissue. When these rebuild, they rebuild stronger/in larger volume. That is muscle growth. Testosterone aids in that repaid/rebuilding – it doesn’t create muscle out of nothing. Many people also believe it will cause one to lose weight. This is also FALSE. On its own, testosterone will actually greatly facilitate weight gain.
For more about testosterone, visit my page on testosterone.
For more on trans folks competing in sport, check out this post:
A few more relevant posts: