Transgender individuals – people who experience incongruence between the gender with which they were assigned at birth and their gender identity (Jones, n.d.) – experience stigma, transphobia, prejudice, discrimination and violence as a consequence of their gender identity, not only in everyday life, but in sports as well (Jones et al., 2016). The binary categorization of sex assumes that females and males are categorically different and that individuals are either male or female, leaving gender diverse individuals prone to social repercussions and discrimination in sport (Lucas-Carr & Krane, 2011). In the world of sport today, many people are wondering whether transgender individuals should even be allowed to compete in the gender category by which they identify.
To get the ball rolling on including transgender athletes in sport, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) adopted a policy in 2003 stating that transgender athletes can participate in all future games only if they have (a) undergone sex reassignment surgery, (b) endured hormone treatments for at least 2 years, and (c) received legal recognition of their transitioned sex (Buzuvis, 2012; Jones et al., 2016). Under the 2016 IOC policy, transgender men – women who have transitioned to men – don’t have to undergo hormone therapy to compete as male athletes. For transgender women – men who have transitioned to women – sex reassignment surgery is no longer a requirement and the requirement for the duration of hormone therapy has decreased: transgender women must undergo at least one year of testosterone suppression/hormone deprivation therapy in order to compete in a female division (Jackson-Gibson, 2017).
The change in competition requirements derives from a controversy regarding whether transgender women actually have an advantage over cisgender (i.e., individuals whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth) women. Currently, there’s no research that has directly and reliably found that transgender individuals have or don’t have an athletic advantage in sport (Jones, n.d.). So, the debate continues…should transgender women be able to compete in the female division?
NO, THEY SHOULDN’T
The consensus amongst many experts and cisgender athletes is that transgender women have an advantage over cisgender women when competing in sport. It is thought that most people exposed to testosterone from puberty and beyond will develop physical and/or physiological attributes that provide a distinct performance advantage in sport over cisgender women (Reeser, 2012). This issue becomes a topic of interest when discussing attributes that cannot be reversed when transitioning which are seen as assets in certain sports, such as height and bone structure (Reeser, 2012). Dr. Ramona Krutzik, an endocrinologist with 19 years of experience studying human hormones, highlights that one year of hormone therapy is not enough to reverse the “advantageous” effects that transgender women athletes have after undergoing male puberty. Additionally, she emphasizes that athletes who grow up as male have already experienced the ability to build stronger muscles and bone mass over the developing years, which accounts for the endurance and strength differences between biological men and women (Jackson-Gibson, 2017). Similarly, Alison Heather, a physiology professor at Otago University who has dedicated her time to researching the changes within transgender individuals in top level sport, believes that there is a potential muscle memory effect for transgender athletes who have previously competed as a man (Caldwell, 2017). She stresses that the increased numbers of myonuclei present in a biologically born male could potentially allow the muscles to train better (Caldwell, 2017). So, are these findings enough evidence to restrict transgender women from competing in the women’s division?
YES, THEY SHOULD
While many people are concerned with equality and fairness of play when it comes to transgender women in sport, several physicians and specialists actually believe that trans women athletes have less of an edge than expected (Jackson-Gibson, 2017). To date, there is no concrete evidence proving testosterone as a reliable predictor of competitive advantage (Harewood, 2017). Some research has shown that androgen deprivation and hormone treatment in transgender women actually reduces muscle mass (Molloy, 2018). With that being said, after approximately one year of hormone therapy, pretty much any advantages that a trans woman athlete might have over a cis woman athlete will have been wiped away (Molloy, 2018). Joanna Harper, a transgender woman and medical physicist, paints a good picture by comparing transgender women to large cars with engines that are too small, she says “the small car with the small engine [a biological woman] can, in many ways, outrun the large car with the small engine” (Jackson-Gibson, 2017). So, contrary to what people may think, transgender women could surprisingly be at a lesser advantage than cisgender women, depending on the sport.
In addition, physical activity is an important asset in anybody’s life, whether you’re transgender or not. Being physically active promotes good physical health and helps manage mental health issues (Jones, n.d.). Transgender individuals often possess high levels of anxiety and depression in comparison to the general population (Jones et al., 2016) so, engaging in physical activity and sport could significantly improve their overall quality of life.
Although higher testosterone levels are still regarded as a “gray area” in sport, they don’t explain why Olympic softball player Jennie Finch can strike out some of MLB’s best hitters, nor do they explain how five-time gold medalist Katie Ledecky beat the men’s qualifying times at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trial (Jackson-Gibson, 2017). Each person (and athlete) has their own strengths and weaknesses when comparing themselves to a competitor standing across from them, so, does it really matter whether they’re transgender or not?
WHAT’S NEXT FOR TRANSGENDER ATHLETES
Transgender athletes fight stereotypes every single day in order to compete in the gender category by which they identify. The majority of transgender athletes endure negative experiences when engaging in competitive sports due to the lack of knowledge regarding the impact of their participation, however, this is only the beginning for the inclusion of transgender athletes in sport. At this point in time, the research which suggests that transgender female athletes have an athletic advantage in sport is not reliable or consistent, therefore it is challenging to know whether their inclusion in sport truly does makes a difference. There are several avenues of future research required in order to considerably improve our knowledge of transgender people’s experiences in sport, inform the development of more inclusive sport policies, and most importantly, enhance the lives of transgender people, both physically and psychosocially (Jones et al., 2016). Transgender athletes DO exist and competing on sports teams could open up a whole new dimension to a welcoming and accepting world of sport. There are a lot of transgender athletes, along with cisgender athletes, who just want to play their sport so… let them play ball!
Mikela Lehan, Biology-Psychology, Queen’s University, Class of 2019.
Buzuvis, E. E. (2012). Including Transgender Athletes in Sex-Segregated Sport, in Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Sport: Essays from Activists, Coaches, and Scholars 23.
Caldwell, O. (2017). Professor of physiology says transgender athletes have advantage in speed, power. Retrieved from https://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/other-sports/99434993/professor-of- physiology-says-trans-athlete-has-advantage-in-speed-and-power.
Harewood, A. (2017). Trans athletes should be able to compete in gender they identify with: centre for ethics in sport. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/trans-athletes-competition-study-1.4240036.
Jackson-Gibson, A. (2017). Do trans athletes have an unfair advantage in sports? Retrieved from http://www.excellesports.com/news/trans-athletes-unfair-advantage-sports/.
Jones, B. A., Arcelus, J., Bouman, W. P., & Haycraft, E. (2016). Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies. Sports medicine, 47, 701-716.
Jones, B. (n.d.). Transgender people in sport: Is the perceived athletic advantage real? Retrieved from https://www.lboro.ac.uk/research/spotlights/transgender-in-sport/.
Lucas-Carr, C. B., & Krane, V. (2011). What is the T in LGBT? Supporting Transgender Athletes Through Sport Psychology. The Sport Psychologist, 25, 532-548.
Molloy, P. (2018). The next time someone says trans people shouldn’t get to play sports, send them this. Retrieved from https://www.upworthy.com/the-next-time-someone-says-trans-people-shouldn-t-get-to-play-sports-send-them-this.
Reeser, J. C. (2005). Gender Identity and Sport: Is the Playing Field Level? Br J Sports Med, 39, 695-699.