Transgender Athletes in Sport – Let the Best Athlete Win

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?



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?



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?



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.

  • References

  • 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   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

  • Jackson-Gibson, A. (2017). Do trans athletes have an unfair advantage in sports? Retrieved from    

  • 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 medicine47, 701-716.

  • Jones, B. (n.d.). Transgender people in sport: Is the perceived athletic advantage real? Retrieved from

  • 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

  • Reeser, J. C. (2005). Gender Identity and Sport: Is the Playing Field Level? Br J Sports Med, 39, 695-699.

New Year – New Sex Research Studies!

If you read last month’s blog, you will know that “sex research” isn’t just one thing; there are limitless topics to explore, and many different methods and research designs that we can use to start investigating them. Can you believe that this winter alone we are launching close to ten new in-lab and online studies?! See below and here for more information!

In this month’s blog, we will highlight three of our ongoing studies conducted by our fantastic undergraduate students, who work under the supervision of grad students and Dr. Pukall. The first two focus on sexual well-being in bisexual individuals and on genital arousal via online surveys, and the last one investigates blood flow in the internal clitoral structure in an imaging study. And two of these studies involves watching sexually explicit material (yes, porn)! Read on for more information!

Sexual Well-Being in Self-Identified Bisexual Individuals  

Sexual issues are common, with 19% to 52% of individuals experiencing issues ranging from orgasm concerns to partner dissatisfaction. Sexual issues are in fact a public health concern because they are highly related to poor emotional health, physical health, and overall well-being.

To better inform healthcare practice, numerous investigations have focused on understanding how partners navigate sexual issues. Unfortunately, bisexual individuals have not been included in these studies. So, it is unclear whether models of navigating sexual issues apply to bisexual individuals—and that is one of the main questions we want to explore in this study. We also do not understand how things like sexual script flexibility (having an adaptable approach to sexual issues) are influenced by partner gender. Because bisexual individuals may have partners of all genders, this question can only be answered when we study this population (as well as other people who have partners of all genders and who adopt other labels)!

And a pretty cool fact: This study is funded by the American Institute of Bisexuality—yes, there is a whole institute, see here for more information.

What we hope to see from this study includes the very important representation of bisexual individuals in the literature, as well as information that can help us understand how people with diverse sexualities navigate sexual issues (I’m sure we have a lot to learn) and how partner gender may influence this navigation process. We also hope to correct misinformation about sexual stereotypes and inform inclusive healthcare practice, including sex and couples therapy.

To participate in the study, please visit our website or click on this link to directly access the survey. The survey should take about 20-25 minutes and prize draws are available!

ONYX Study: Factors Influencing Genital Arousal Sensations and Perceptions

Sexual arousal is often divided into physiological (genital sensations and responses like erection and vaginal lubrication, for example) and subjective (the desire to engage sexually, for example) components. It is an important element of overall sexual response, and although sexual arousal may seem simple (you get “turned on”— feels good, right?), it isn’t. Sometimes the two components mentioned above don’t always work together: some people may feel lots of desire to engage sexually but their bodies don’t respond for whatever reason, and some people may have genital response but no desire to engage sexually. Even further, some people may not perceive their feelings of arousal (whether in their bodies or minds, or both) to be pleasurable.

How we perceive our arousal can influence the experience of sexual arousal to our benefit or distress, depending on the situation. How one experiences sexual arousal can be influenced by your perceptions or preconceived notions about arousal, how you feel or experience arousal intensity, and even your own desire for arousal (high or low) as well as your opinions about arousal (positive or negative) (Carvalho, Veríssimo, & Nobre, 2013).

The ONYX study hopes to further our understanding of what cognitive factors influence genital arousal sensations and perceptions. By completing our brief 20-30-minute online study, you can help us investigate potential cognitive interventions for arousal disorders. Our study is comprised of several questionnaires and two videos (one of which contains sexual material). Interested participants must be 18+. To participate in the study, please visit our website or click on this link to directly access the survey.

The Investigation of Clitoral Changes During Sexual Arousal.

It was not so long ago that the full extent of the clitoral complex was discovered. Before this discovery, people assumed that the extent of the clitoris was obvious – it was limited to what we could see (if we bothered to look): the tiny and highly sensitive nub on the vulva that sometimes played shy and hid behind a hood. But the clitoris is much, much more than this tiny area. It is a complex structure that is mostly internal—that’s right!—the nub is simply the “tip of the iceberg”, see here.

Now that the structure of the entire clitoral complex has been revealed, we decided to tackle the next step: how does it work? We are investigating how clitoral blood flow changes over time during sexual arousal. Where does it start? Where does it go? How long does it take to start?

So, how exactly are we doing this study focusing on the internal clitoral structure?

We are using functional magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is specifically used to look inside bodies for all sorts of reasons, medically-sanctioned and research-related. Why not use this for sex research? In our lab, we have used fMRI  to look at how brains and brainstems respond to painful stimulation in people with vulvodynia, why not just move the focus from the brain to the pelvic area and hone in on the clitoral structure?

This study will help in gaining a greater understanding of female genital responses during sexual arousal.

Interested? After an eligibility screening process, healthy female participants are invited to lie (privately and fully clothed) in an MRI machine and watch a 20-minute erotic film. During this time, the machine will take scans of the pelvic area.


Thanks for learning about some of the studies that fall into the realm of sex research. We are particularly proud of our hard-working and stellar undergraduate students who are running these studies. What an awesome contribution! You can also contribute to research by participating!

Email us or call us 613-533-3276 or PARTICIPATE NOW!

Sofia Melendez, Morgan Sterling, Anne Pattison, Shannon Coyle, & Caroline Pukall


Works Cited:

Basson, R. (2002). A model of women's sexual arousal. Journal of Sex &Marital Therapy28(1), 1-10.

Both, S., Laan, E., & Everaerd, W. (2011). Focusing “hot” or focusing “cool”: Attentional mechanisms in sexual arousal in men and women. The journal of sexual medicine8(1), 167-179.

Brotto, L. A., Basson, R., & Luria, M. (2008). A mindfulness-based group psychoeducational intervention targeting sexual arousal disorder in women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine5(7), 1646-1659.

Carvalho, J., Veríssimo, A., & Nobre, P. J. (2013). Cognitive and emotional determinants characterizing women with persistent genital arousal disorder. The journal of sexual medicine10(6), 1549-1558.

Simons, J. S., & Carey, M. P. (2001). Prevalence of sexual dysfunctions: results from a decade of research. Archives of sexual behavior30(2), 177-219.