Trans folks’ participation in sports is a fiercely debated topic. Though trans people face discrimination in most arenas, sports seems to be the most difficult one, especially when folks attempt to bring—usually unsubstantiated—”scientific“ claims into the discussions.
As of March 2021, nearly half (24) of the U.S. states are proposing anti-trans sports bills, most of which target trans girls, with the aim of banning trans girls from competing in sport.
“Well, don’t biological males have advantages over biological females??”
“But testosterone gives them an advantage!”
“I’m all for trans folks but not in sports; in sports they should have their own league.”
So let’s break this down.
WHAT RULES ALREADY EXIST AT ELITE LEVELS?
We’ll begin with the regulations that are actually in place. The The IOC (International Olympic Committee)’s rules removed genital surgery as a requirement for competition in 2016 and allow transgender athletes to participate in sports with applicable hormone regulation. The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association)’s Policy for the Inclusion of Transgender Athletes mirror the IOC rules. The regulations are as follows.
- If you’re assigned female at birth:
- You can compete on either the men’s or the women’s team if you have not taken testosterone.
- You must compete on the men’s team, if you do take testosterone.
- In order to take testosterone and be eligible for competition on the men’s team, you must also receive an exemption to use testosterone for the treatment of gender dysphoria, as well as submit testosterone levels during the season to prove that testosterone levels are at or below an average male level.
- If you’re assigned male at birth:
- You must compete on the men’s team unless you have been on one documented year of testosterone suppressants.
- After this documented calendar year (or more) of testosterone suppressants, you may compete on the women’s team, while submitting labs throughout the season to show that testosterone levels are within or below an average female level.
ON THE INCLUSION OF TRANS MEN
When presented with these rules, many folks take no issue with transgender men like myself in sport. Some will argue that a trans man cannot possibly compete against cis men and therefore shouldn’t be allowed in men’s sports, to which I reply that we absolutely are capable. I beat 87% and 85% of all men in the NCAA who competed in my two best events. If you’d like to argue with my ability to compete, you’re arguing against numbers and facts, and that’s a different (you) issue.
Another argument against trans men is some form of accusation involving unfair hormone usage—”you’re doping!” This, too, is baseless. As mentioned in the regulations, levels are strictly regulated in elite competition (such as in the NCAA). My testosterone levels had to be submitted multiple times every season to prove that my testosterone levels were at or below the average male level.
Consider the flipside: although the NCAA allows random testing on all athletes, most of my teammates and most NCAA athletes are never tested for their levels. I was tested up to 3x a season.
ON THE INCLUSION OF TRANS WOMEN
This is where everyone starts to get heated. Let’s carefully explore why. I encourage you to read thoroughly and slowly. Notice if you find yourself starting to get angry, upset, or triggered. Pause. Ask yourself why. Your emotions are valid, but they do not make your feelings facts. Take your time piecing this apart and dismantling the biases (transphobic, racist, and otherwise) in which we have all been steeped.
“Trans women have higher levels of testosterone?”
The first argument against trans women in sport is usually about testosterone levels. However, as stated in the rules above, testosterone levels must be strictly regulated for trans women to compete in elite-level sports. Most folks either don’t know this or don’t understand it.
The next argument is usually as follows:
“But even if their testosterone levels are regulated, they still have gone through testosterone-driven puberty and are taller, bigger, stronger and that’s an advantage.”
Let’s put trans folks aside for a second. Let’s say we have a 6’3” cisgender (so, not transgender) woman who plays basketball. People say, “Yep, she was made for basketball!”
Okay, now let’s bring trans folks back in and say we have a 6’ (not even 6’3) trans woman. People immediately say that’s unfair. The reality is this accusation is often transphobic, sexist, and misogynist (trans women’s gender expression is often policed and accused of being “too masculine“ or “manly“). The accusation is also racist: many of the trans women who have been attacked are Black and brown trans women. There is no coincidence here. This is the repeated shaming and policing of Black and brown women’s bodies in sport.
And this is not new. Think of Serena Williams who has been repeatedly policed in sport (another article about her here.) Simone Biles was recently attacked for supposedly having an unfair advantage because she was able to complete the Yurchenko double pike which was supposedly “too dangerous” for other athletes to attempt. Read more about that here:
In other words, on a technical and cultural level, Biles, a young Black woman, is being punished and subjected to undeniably racist and sexist double standards for her greatness. After all, we’ve seen some form of this before, for other Black women athletes — Caster Semenya, a South African two-time Olympic champion runner, was literally barred from competing in women’s sports last year unless she agreed to take medication to lower her naturally higher levels of testosterone. When Black women athletes work hard and go above and beyond, they’re treated with suspicion, as if they’re somehow being dishonest, or as if their success is a detriment to others that should be punished, restricted and prevented rather than encouraged. From Semenya to Biles, they and other Black women athletes face the same, intertwined racism and misogyny.
Let’s consider another example. Michael Phelps, the winningest Olympian of all time, produces half the lactic acid levels than the typical athlete. Lactic acid is what causes muscle fatigue—it’s what makes your muscles ache when you exert yourself. Do you think this poses a genetic advantage? Of course it does! Caster Semenya, an Olympic runner, is believed to have intersex traits (though neither Caster Semenya nor the IOC have publicly confirmed this). When Michael Phelps was tested by the IOC, he was praised by the IOC as being genetically superior. When the IOC tested Caster Semenya, her medals were taken from her and she is barred from competition unless she artificially lowers her testosterone levels. Read that again. Both athletes have biological differences that could impact sport. Michael Phelps was praised. Caster Semenya was defamed and barred from competition. It is no coincidence that Michael Phelps is a cisgender, straight man, while Caster is a Black queer woman.
Many of these arguments are NOT about fairness. They are about policing women’s bodies in sport.
The reality is that biological differences (and even potential advantages) are undeniably present in sports already. That’s what sports are often based upon! Of course, bodies are different. But when trans folks aren’t involved, nobody calls these differences “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 their abilities to be better (or worse) at a physical task!
The shortest guy on my swim team was 5’6”. The tallest guy was 6’7”. That means the shortest guy was more than a FOOT shorter than that tallest guy. Is that height a biological advantage? Of course it is! But is it unfair and meriting of disqualification? Of course not! It’s just a biological difference. (It’s also worth noting that guy who was 5’6” was one of the fastest swimmers we had, and was voted team captain his senior year.)
So, yes, trans women absolutely can exhibit biological diversity… just like everyone else does! Don’t forget that cisgender women exhibit biological diversity, as well. Plenty of super tall people suck at sports. Plenty of people are short and great at sports. Having certain biology does not guarantee you’ll be a stellar athlete.
“The NCAA and IOC rules don’t apply to children, though. We need to test children, too.”
Yes, the rules stated pertain to elite-level sports as governed by organizations including the NCAA and the IOC. But many of these anti-trans bills target children—the kids who are just trying to kick a soccer ball around with their friends. These bills are NOT about elite level competition—we’ve already discussed that at elite levels, regulations mandating certain testosterone levels for trans women to compete as female are already in place. The bills proposed are mainly targeting children.
WE DO NOT NEED TO TEST CHILDREN.
Many people miss the fact that the 68+ trans athlete bills in the US are about CHILDREN. They are NOT about any elite-level sport. They are children. And there are no significant biological differences that impact sports in children, except for the presence or absence of a penis. And no one plays sports with their penis. (So genital exam are further irrelevant.) Most people get hung up on testosterone, but there are also no differences in circulating testosterone between those assigned male at birth and those assigned female before Tanner stage II of puberty — around the age of 12 or 13.
Beyond this, remember that most people are not Olympic athletes. Most folks are not elite athletes. Most people are not competing at Nationals, Regionals, or even Sectionals. Most folks are not playing sports to win. Most kids are just playing sports because they are fun. Kids should not have their bodies invasively examined in order to verify their gender assignment to play sports. And, if they get to an elite level where biological differences might be more relevant, hormonal regulations are already in place.
A lof of folks will refer to Fallon Fox, or “that wrestler who broke some girl’s skull,” when addressing trans girls in sport, which often spreads sensationalized misinformation. It’s incredibly crucial to understand that when talking about the trans athlete bans in the US, Fallon Fox is irrelevant because Fallon Fox is NOT A CHILD! THESE BILLS ARE ABOUT CHILDREN! But, for fact checking sake: Fallon Fox is not a wrestler, she is an MMA fighter and MMA fighting is dangerous. It is violent. Everyone who participates risks getting injured and consents to this risk by participating. Incidents of facial injuries are COMMON in MMA fighting [Bledsoe et al., 2006] and many cis women inflict fractures on each other. Also, the person in the viral images of a bloodied face never even fought Fallon Fox; that was made up. Fallon Fox did fight Tamikka Brents but did NOT break her skull open. Fox fractured Brents’ orbital bone, which, again, is actually common in MMA fighting because MMA fighting is dangerous and violent. Again, many cis women have also broken others’ orbital bones. Calling out Fox specifically on it is transphobic.
THIS DOES NOT ONLY AFFECT TRANS GIRLS. THIS AFFECTS ALL GIRLS.
Many who argue for the exclusion of trans women in women’s sport function do so under the guise of “protecting women’s sport.” While often asserting that they are not transphobic, that they truly just care about fairness in women’s sport, they argue that allowing “biological males” to compete with and against women will “destroy women’s sport.”
Let’s break this down.
Trans women are women. If you’re truly not transphobic, you will call trans women what they are: women. I understand there are differences between trans and cis women and we must have words to describe these differences, but we do not need to do so in a transphobic nature. If you need to discuss trans and cis women, say that: trans and cis women. If you need to talk about folks with higher levels of testosterone, say that. If you need to talk about folks with penises, say that.
In order to exclude transgender women and girls from participating in women’s sports, there must be a method of checking or verifying if someone is or is not transgender through genital exams, genotyping, and hormone evaluations. There are two ways to enforce this: 1) Check every single athlete who participates, and 2) Accusation based testing, which means that when someone is accused of being transgender, they are subject to testing. The first is logistically and financially impossible, nor would every parent consent to having their minor child’s genitals examined. And the second not only demonizes and weaponizes transness, but also endangers all girls and women. Keep reading…
Allowing the government to “check” women to see if they are transgender (through the aforementioned genital exams, genotyping, and hormone evaluations) means that ANY girl accused of being transgender can be checked. Read that again. ANY GIRL, regardless of whether or not she is actually transgender, could be checked if she is accused of being transgender.
Not only is this incredibly invasive (genital exams are wholly unnecessary—having or not having a penis has no effect on performance in sport), but such practices are degrading to women. At what point is a girl good enough that she will then be accused of being transgender? How masculine can a girl be or look before she is accused of being transgender?
This proposed gender verification not only systemically enforces the policing of ALL—cisgender, included—women’s bodies, but also does so by demonizing transness. This is unacceptable.
TRANS WOMEN ARE NOT ‘DISPLACING’ CIS WOMEN.
When a trans women competes on a women’s team, there are still NO men on that team. Trans women are not “stealing” cis women’s scholarships in college. As of 2020, not a single out trans woman has ever received an athletic scholarship in the NCAA. Because trans folks make up some 1% of the population, the fact that thousands of cis women received scholarships a year while trans women received exactly none, only further proves the discrimination against trans women. Trans women are not “stealing” spots from cis women in the Olympics. In fact, not a single out trans woman has ever qualified or competed in the Olympics, despite the IOC allowing trans women to compete. That is, trans folks are vastly underrepresented in elit level sports. In 2016, 5,059 women competed in the Olympics. Approximately 1% of the population is transgender, so if trans women were accurately represented, 50 or so trans women should have competed in the Olympics. None did.
So, when trans women compete and succeed, they are not stealing anything. They are reaping the rewards of their hard work and determination, just as any other athlete does when they succeed.
Attacking trans women is, again, not about fairness. It is about transphobia.
IF FAIRNESS IS TRULY THE CENTRAL CRUSADE, THEN LET’S FOCUS ON FAIRNESS.
In the Women’s Sports Foundation 2020 report, Chasing Equity, on barriers to sport for women, the inclusion of trans women is not mentioned once. Trans women do not threaten the fabric of women’s sports. Excluding and attacking trans women does.
So many folks don’t care about sports or fairness until a trans woman wants to play. And then, suddenly, they are massive sports fans. If folks truly want to bring fairness to the forefront, then they’d fight against the main barrier to access for sports: socioeconomic disparity, often intertwined with systemic oppression such as racism.
For example, 64% of Black children don’t know how to swim, compared to 40% of white children who can’t swim. Why is this the case? Contrary to popular (racist) stereotype, this isn’t because Black people cannot swim by nature. It’s because of that thing called SEGREGATION. Black folks didn’t have access to pools, much less lessons or classes to learn how to swim. Up until the 1960s and 1970s, pools were still segregated into WHITE ONLY and COLORED. (Learn more in the further learning section below.)
If we want to talk about fairness, let’s talk about access to sports. If you truly cared about equity and justice in sports, you’d focus on uplifting marginalized groups, not on attacking them.