Transgender people in sports: The data doesn’t match the claims

Transgender flag with transgender symbol on top

It seems that one can’t even go a single week without seeing a story in the news regarding transgender people in sport. While thanks to the ability to reach larger audiences through the internet has helped the spread of awareness of transgender people in sports, this arguments one sees over and over in the articles aren’t new. There have been discussions about potential unfair advantages and even the possibility of cisgender men pretending to be cisgender women in order to gain an unfair advantage in sex segregated sports for decades. It’s something that has even become so common that TV shows and cartoons such as Futurama and South Park have created episodes where an obvious man or male aligned character chooses to compete against women to win. The problem with these episodes as well as the numerous news articles, such as The Washington Times article, “Most Americans oppose transgender athletes in women’s sports, poll finds” (Richardson, 2019) base their claims on myths and sometimes outright falsehoods. Despite the pervasive narrative that transgender people, specifically transgender women, have an unfair advantage and thus shouldn’t be allowed to compete in competitive sport, the history and scientific data show that the narratives are either not backed up by evidence or are simply falsehoods shared to create fear. While transgender people have been competing openly in sports for the past few decades, we have yet to see the so-called take over of sport that numerous articles and organizations claim will happen if we allow transgender people to compete in their gender category.

I would like to take this time to state that my biases within this paper stem from being not only a transgender man, but an athlete who has competed as both a man and a woman within the sport of powerlifting. The subject of transgender people being able to compete in sports is one that I am unable to fully examine from a detached and completely neutral point as the laws and regulations effect my very ability to do what I enjoy. I have written two articles on this topic, one titled, “Trans people in sports: Yes, it’s fair” which discusses the concepts of fairness and possible solutions to the debate regarding the integration of transgender people in sport, and “Trans athletes: The hyperfixation on trans women and the invisibility of trans men” which focuses on the concept of masculinity and the perception of transgender women being a much larger threat due to the idea that due to their genitals at birth they are more dangerous than a transgender man when dealing with sports.

The segregation of sex in sports was one that had existed in areas such as the Olympics and the Paris Games since 1900 (IOC, 2019) however I have been unable to find an exact date for the beginning of sex segregated sports in non-professional leagues. The underlying thought behind segregating sports by sex comes from the idea that it would be unfair for women to compete against men due to men’s overpowering advantage against women in sport (Ingram, 2019, p. 240). There were also claims that the testing done to verify who was and wasn’t a woman and thus allowed to compete in women’s sports had to do with protecting women from men who might attempt to masquerade as women in order to utilize their sex based advantages over women to win their competitions (Fischer, 2019, p. 150). This idea of fairness and of protecting women from the dastardly and evil men who would seek to enter these competitions is at best paternalistic and at face value outright sexist. Despite the fact that there have been no cases of men disguising themselves as women to compete in professional sport since the beginning of sex segregated sports (Ingram, 2019, p. 240) this idea continues to persist throughout the debates as to how one should decide who is and isn’t a woman and thus able to compete.

“The myth of the “level playing field” in sports” credit Dr. Veronica Ivy for graphic

Under the guise of fairness in sports, organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Athletics (WA), formerly the International Amateur Athletic Federation and International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), have sought over the years to find a way to best determine who can compete in which category of sport since the late 1940s (Ingram, 2019, p. 240). Ranging from medical certificates, to the Barr body test, to genetic testing, and later hormone levels these governing bodies have discovered over and over that there is no one way to accurately label someone as either a man or a woman (Singh, 2010, p. 86). Athletes such as Erica Schinegger, Maria Martinez-Patino, and Castor Semenya have found themselves under scrutiny due to the current forms of testing provided by the IOC and WA because their hormone levels or other determining factors fall outside of the supposedly acceptable ranges provided by the governing bodies (Ingram, 2019, p. 240). While attempting to prevent impostors from competing in the women’s division, these policies have instead brought awareness to just how varied and expansive the categories really are as opposed to the previously assumed chromosomal or hormonal markers that would determine who could compete in which category.

While it is not entirely clear when the first transgender people were able to compete in competitive sport, one of the first and most publicized cases was that of Renée Richards. Richards was a transgender woman who had previously competed as a man, who had left the sport to transition before returning to compete in the US Open (Pieper, 2012, p. 675). Even though her story is one of the so-called firsts in professional sport, it wasn’t until 2004 that the IOC created guidelines that would allow for transgender people to compete in the Olympics under their proper gender (Gray, 2018, p. 47) with other organizations following suit in the following years. Some organizations would go the other way, such as USA Powerlifting which has completely banned transgender athletes through the citation of unsourced and unproven claims surrounding androgens and the myth of fairness in sport (USAPL, 2019).

While the arguments regarding the fairness in sport continue to go back and forth, the media plays a role in how people perceive transgender people in sports. Articles such as “Aussie women forced to compete against men at Tokyo Olympics” from the right leaning site Advance Australia seek to make the claim that transgender women will always have unfair advantages and are in fact actually men who simply take estrogen to pretend to be women (2020). Despite the fact that transgender women seeking to compete in the Olympics must undergo at least two years of hormone therapy as well as meet strict ranges for testosterone and estrogen in their bloodstreams (IOC, 2019), the media continues to focus on the narrative that transgender women are in fact just men who one day walked in to the competition, claimed they were women, and are then allowed to compete as women (Richardson, 2019). As with the USAPL ruling on transgender lifters, many sports reporters and even lay people believe that once a transgender woman has gone through “male puberty” she will forever have advantages over cisgender women, while a transgender man will always have disadvantages if he goes through “female puberty” and then transitions to a man (Fischer, 2019, p. 149). This is a discussion I have personally had numerous times with the cisgender men I lift with, where they bring up how the only reason I can even come close to their levels in lifting is due to me “doping” (taking testosterone or another illicit controlled substance) to give me an advantage.

An example of the narrative surrounding transgender women can be seen in the story of New Zealand lifter Lorel Hubbard. Numerous articles covered her wins in the Gold Coast Games during 2018, with many articles focusing not on her win, but on her identity as a transgender woman (Lucas, 2018, p. 103) and the speculation of whether or not her time as a man gave her an unfair advantage over the other women she competed against. It didn’t matter how much she lifted, how close the competition had been, or that there were cisgender women in her weight and age categories who lifted at much higher weights, the focus was on the fact that she was transgender and therefore had an unfair advantage in the competition.

Laurel Hubbard

Studies have been done looking at the various terms and phrases used when discussing transgender athletes in sports media, with one study finding that “considerable coverage [was] not of athletes, but of issues associated with the participation of trans athletes” (Lucas, 2018. p. 103). This meant that unlike in other reports regarding cisgender competitors, the focus had shifted from what the athlete had accomplished to essentially what was or wasn’t in their pants at any given time. This is seen even in cases where the transgender athlete transitioned years before attempting to compete under their proper gender, as with the cases such as Hubbard, Fallon Fox, Michelle Dumaresq, and Mainne Bagger, all of whom fell under intense scrutiny when it came out that they were transgender (Lucas, 2018, p. 115) Problems with transgender competitors and reporting can also arise due to the fact that “gender (re)classification policies vary drastically from national, state, and local levels” (Fischer, 2019, p. 151) meaning that while there is an overall set of guidelines for events such as the Olympics, it is up to each organization and federation to decide where the line is drawn as to who is and isn’t a woman within sports.

The focus almost always seems to be on transgender women in regards to sports, drawing back to the paternalistic and sexist beliefs of how best to go about ensuring fairness in sports deemed acceptable for women. Athletes such as Chris Mosier, Keelin Godsey, and Kye Allums are all transgender men, yet they receive little to no press within the media compared to their counterparts Klein, 2017, p. 626). Despite the fact that Mosier is one of if not the first transgender athlete to qualify for Olympic trials, the Advance Australia and Washington Times articles focus instead on the idea that transgender women will somehow overtake the women’s competitions and force women out of their own category.

Sometimes state legislature, driven by stories in the media wind up drafting laws which wind up forcing transgender athletes to compete in what could best be considered the “wrong” gender category. In the case of Mack Beggs, a transgender man, the state law in Texas required that he compete against cisgender women as his assigned sex at birth was female (Associated Press, 2018). This led to numerous articles and complaints about how unfair it was that a man was allowed to win against women, with some articles accusing Beggs of being a transgender woman, something I too have dealt with as I have transitioned. The idea that a transgender man was caught up in the laws meant to protect women shows how unbalanced the narrative is in regards to transgender people in sports.

Image of Mack Beggs used in the Washington Times article

In fact, the article by Valerie Richardson in the Washington Times uses Mack’s image under the title, “Most Americans oppose transgender athletes in women’s sports, poll find” with the entirety of the article discussing the inclusion of transgender women in sport (2019). The poll cited in the article is from a right wing think tank known as Rasmussen Reports, and despite the claims of the article and Rasmussen’s own website, the poll in no way can be considered statistically significant. The poll was conducted among 1,000 people, and included only two questions:

1* Do you favor or oppose allowing transgender students to participate on the sports teams of the gender they identify with, letting biological males, for example, play girls’ sports?

2* Transgender athletes who are biological males are winning at all levels of girls’ and women’s sports these days. Is the addition of biological males to girls’ and women’s sports likely to change those sports for the better or the worse? Or will it have no impact? (Rasmussen, 2019)

As I will discuss in the section titled, “What does the science tell us?” these questions could not be further from the truth as to what is happening in sports, yet due to this and other polls like it, people are forming opinions that transgender women are somehow dominating in sport and forcing cisgender women from competition, even when the data shows otherwise.

One might assume with the level of coverage of transgender people in sports there would be an equally high level of studies focused on whether or not they could compete within their proper gender categories. Despite the strict and in some places outright exclusionary policies being put in place by athletic organizations, a study published in Sports Medicine discovered that not only are there very few studies that have been published, but that there has been no systematic review of the literature to their knowledge pertaining to the policies and the justification behind them (Jones, 2016, p. 701). Of the eight studies they were able to find that met the requirements for their review, only two of them explored “sport-related physical activities” (Jones, 2016, p. 706) leading to wondering what sports organizations and federations were using to justify their guidelines in regards to transgender athletes.

Of the studies I was able to find which discussed the various justifications behind the guidelines, few if any were able to cite studies focusing on statistically significant sample sizes or were based on ideas and concepts not supported by scientific evidence. Ideas such as transgender women having larger hands, “male” bone structure, higher hemoglobin levels, bigger lung capacity, and specific areas with higher levels of muscle mass than cisgender women were not based on studies of transgender women versus cisgender women, but of cisgender men versus cisgender women (Fischer, 2019, p. 152–154). This means that the data being used to justify the so-called fairness in sport policies weren’t being based on accurate information, but on assumptions where a transgender woman would see no changes upon hormone replacement therapy or through surgical procedures. These policies then go on to critique any woman who does not fit within the expectations of what a woman should be in sport, causing some women to be inaccurately labeled as men or as transgender women, such as Erica Schinegger, Maria Martinez-Patino, and Castor Semenya (Ingram, 2019, p. 240).

It should also be noted that so far there is only really one peer reviewed study which focuses on the performance changes of transgender women before and after transitioning, specifically of those in the sport of running, and this study appears to be in a journal which could be deemed as predatory due to it offering publication so long as one pays the registration fee for the publisher’s annual conference (Teetzel, 2017, p. 165). This means that of the studies available, only one focuses on the before and after for a transgender woman, and it is in a journal considered to be of dubious validity as to it’s peer review status. So in many ways, there are no studies that pass the peer review requirements where the focus is on transgender women and the effects of their transition on their abilities, or even of transgender women versus cisgender women when looking at potential advantage and disadvantages. Fischer goes so far as to claim that the various rules and regulations that become policy are nothing more than “pseudoscientific arguments [that] not only reflect dominant, essentialist understandings of sex and gender, but they are also explicitly entangled with the radicalization of Black and Brown Bodies” (Fischer, 2018, p. 153) due to the fact that Black and Brown bodies are policed far more in sport than those of white or white passing athletes. Look again to the athletes who were caught up due to the policies dictating where the line between woman and man was drawn. Outside of Erica (now Erik) Schinegger who was discovered to be intersex, the other two women are women of color. I personally remember listening to discussion after discussion while at the gym over how masculine Castor Semenya was and how that meant she must be a man in disguise, while a white woman such as Ronda Rousey was viewed as perfectly fine.

The other argument used to determine who is and isn’t a woman is based around testosterone in the bloodstream and the body as a whole, which is used by the IOC and WA in determining the ranges for competitors as well as to attempt to test whether or not an athlete is taking performance enhancing drugs. Yet even this doesn’t accurately differentiate between who is a man and who is a woman, as it is forced to focus on a range based on averages which only focus on dyadic or non-intersex people (Handelsman, 2018, p. 806). Testosterone is a hormone that circulates in every human body to some extent, yet it is viewed as the “male” hormone by many organizations, thus justifying its use to decide who is and who isn’t allowed to compete in the women’s category in sports. As Fischer states, the various associations and authoritative bodies “rely on dominant scientific and cultural discourses of male athletic superiority to code testosterone as inherently male and to justify the medicalization of trans athletes in the name of “protecting” cis women (2018, p. 153).

One of the suggestions made by a fellow lifter during one of our workouts was to form federations and leagues of just transgender athletes, yet as has been shown numerous times before, the idea of separate but equal does not work, especially when it comes to sports (Sharrow, 2010, p. 7). There are already numerous issues with the separate but equal view of sex segregated sports, and adding in leagues where only transgender athletes could compete would mean that these leagues either would not have enough competitors, as transgender people make up a small portion of the world population, or in some cases, there wouldn’t be anyone to compete against (Harper, 2018, p. 470). This would be the case for myself if I attempted to compete in a transgender only lifting competition as I am the only transgender man in my weight and age category in my area. The discussion then turns to how can organizations and federations work to become inclusive of transgender athletes.

There are currently numerous organizations and federations with regulations dealing with transgender athletes, however as I stated before, these regulations can vary from state to state or even sport to sport. The lack of scientific evidence to back up many of the regulations also causes issues when trying to figure out how best to serve the needs of all athletes. We can’t simply go the route of the USAPL and ban all transgender athletes, as that would lead the way to discrimination lawsuits and ever larger fights within the courts such as with Title IX arguments in the USA. For younger transgender athletes, there’s even fewer guidelines, meaning that high school and younger athletes are at the whim of their states, organizations, and sometimes their schools (Morris, 2016, p. 125–126). This means that if a transgender student changes schools there is the very real possibility that the rules surrounding their ability to participate in sports can change.

Credit TransAthlete.com

The third potential solution is one that I have personally discussed in my article discussing the fairness of transgender people in sports, that being instead of attempting to focus on arbitrary qualities to determine who is and isn’t a man or a woman we should focus on looking to other categories such as weight, height, muscle mass, and age (Bonilla, 2019). This can be seen already in use in places such as the Paralympics, where there is an “algorithmic classification system based on function or the ‘degree of activity limitation’….rather than athlete’s medical condition” (Anderson, 2019, p. 761). By shifting from a focus on a gender binary that currently has no easily discernible barriers to an algorithm that is able to take into account varying factors to accurately depict skill level, it is possible that the whole need for sex segregated sports (at least in some areas) could be done away with all together.

Though there currently is no way to accurately and effectively determine how best to deal with transgender athletes, there are numerous areas where there needs to be marked improvement. There needs to be more studies performed with a focus on transgender athletes prior to transition and after, as well as a shift to transgender women being tested against cisgender women and transgender men being tested against cisgender men. The focus on transgender athletes needs to be like the focus on cisgender athletes in the media, specifically with the focus being on their sporting ability and not on speculations of their gender and body parts. The media plays a much larger role in how people view transgender athletes than many assume, and when paired with the lack of reliable and scientifically accurate studies, this brings about laws and regulations that wind up hurting the very people the laws claim to protect. Most of all, the myriad of claims made about transgender athletes just do not hold up to scrutiny, and the scientific evidence that is available actually disproves many of the claims made when seeking to exclude transgender athletes from participating in sport.

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Queer|Pronouns he/they. Owner of Illuminatus Design. Degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies (GSWS, Psychology, English) & Theology (M:Div)

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