Person at a protest holding up a sign with the transgender pride colors, pink, blue, and white, with the words on the sign stating, “support you sisters, not just your cis-ters.”

Diving Into the Recent Debate about Trans Women in Sports: The Skeptics and Supporters

Diving Into the Recent Debate about Trans Women in Sports: The Skeptics and Supporters

“Being transgender is not a choice. It is not voluntary and the implication that her eligibility is unfair invalidates her gender and the gender of all trans people.” Griffin Maxwell Brooks, a diver at Princeton University, made this statement on their TikTok account on the first day of the women’s swimming and diving Ivy League Championships. 

From the high school level to the Olympic level, transgender athletes have been under a harsh microscope, unlike their fellow cisgender athletes. The Olympics have allowed transgender athletes to compete since 2004 but the 2016 Rio Olympics was the first to allow transgender athletes without gender reassignment surgery to play in the games. In the U.S., it has become more complicated because the government laws differ from state to state, and rules differ from university to university. Athletes like Lia Thomas, a swimmer for The University of Pennsylvania, Quinn, an Olympic soccer player for Canada, and Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter from New Zealand, have all been added to the longstanding debate over trans women athletes competing in sports that align with their gender identity.

This debate has been complicated by personal beliefs, opinions, competition, and science. To get started, let’s dive into the science behind transgender athletes. 

Testosterone. One of the biggest conductors behind this debate, testosterone has been used to support transgender athletes and hate on the participation of transgender athletes in sports competitions. Testosterone regulates bone mass, fat distribution, muscle mass and strength, the production of red blood cells, and much more depending on a person’s assigned sex at birth. Visually, in cisgender men, testosterone can look like facial hair, more height, bigger body build, deeper voice, etc. In cisgender women, smaller levels of testosterone and estrogen can visually look like having a curvier body, not as deep of a voice, breasts, etc. Some, not all transgender people, choose to undergo hormone therapy to attain these visual differences in sex to help with their gender identity. In the world of sports, hormone therapy is now being used as a way for transgender athletes to be allowed to compete in elite sports. 

One supporter of trans women being able to play in sports is Joanna Harper, Ph.D., a trans woman, former athlete, and doctor in the middle of this technical conversation about the impact of hormones. From conducting deep research into testosterone, Harper has found that it has a significant impact on athletic performance. Harper said through hormone therapy, the playing field for cisgender women and transgender women could be more equal. Harper evaluated the race times of trans women athletes who went through hormone therapy over seven years and found that “collectively, the eight runners had much slower race times in the female gender than as males.” In the study, after four months of hormone therapy, trans women had similar levels of hemoglobin, “a blood molecule that carries oxygen through the body” and feeds endurance, to cisgender women; after one year, trans women had a decrease in muscle mass. Due to the hormone therapy that reduces the levels of hemoglobin, the athletes were 10% slower than before hormone therapy. Harper said this 10% is “the difference between serious male distance runners and serious female distance runners– [the] 10– to –12% sort of range.” Harper herself was 12% slower after she started hormone therapy. Harper added that it’s complicated to apply this science to teens because everyone reaches puberty at a different age. Because of slight differences in athletic performance believe to be caused by hormones, Harper researched the topic and found that blocking testosterone production decreased a person’s running time by 10% compared to not blocking testosterone. 10% is also the difference between cis-men and cis-women’s running times. This means that through blocking testosterone, a form of hormone therapy, trans women have about the same running times as cis women. 

Looking at another expert supporting trans women athletes, Dr. Paul, a Texas Children’s Hospital endocrinologist, said “that if someone is taking enough testosterone to be within the post-puberty male range, even if he was born biologically female, he should be competing against males. And to have balanced competition, people who are transitioning from male to female should have to have their testosterone levels within the female range in order to compete against women.” (The New York time 2017) This means that a trans man, who takes testosterone and takes estrogen blockers, should compete with cis-men because their hormone levels are the same. Trans people undergo hormone therapy for several reasons, but on an athletic level, hormone therapy is intended to regulate trans people’s hormone levels so that they align with their cisgender counterparts. Dr. Paul even added that testosterone has been “scientifically proven to increase athletic performance and that’s part of the reason adolescent boys have higher high jump records and faster 100 meter times than adolescent girls.” Testosterone impacts the athletic performance of a person no matter what sex. It is normal for men to have different levels than other men and it is normal for women to have different levels than other women. With that being said, cis-men tend to have higher testosterone levels than cis-women. Dr. Paul explains that testosterone is the reason we see these differences in performance in cisgender boys and cisgender girls. Hormones are not the sole determinant of how well an athlete plays, but they do impact some sports and some people differently. 

Now looking to the other side of the conversation, we see a mix of science and personal beliefs. Many think trans women are transitioning solely to win metals, disadvantage cis-women, and take “the college scholarships that rightfully belong to athletes who were assigned female at birth,” to then transition back to their original sex. Others simply don’t acknowledge that trans women are women. Some opponents feel that physical changes, like height, muscle mass, larger feet, or hands during puberty cannot be undone by hormone therapy and don't want transgender women to play in women’s divisions regardless of their testosterone levels. Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Maker stated, “If a cis woman gets caught taking testosterone twice, she’s banned for life, whereas Lia has had 10 years of testosterone.” Biologist Emma Hilton said that supporters saying that the trans women who do win competitions are just better is “an attempt to shut down conversations and stop people from asking questions.” Hilton also used data such as testosterone blockers not being able to make an equal playing field for trans women and cis-women to support her opinion that trans women shouldn’t compete with other women. Hilton added, “A male could be 40% stronger than a female on his legs,” and “Things like shoulder width don’t change when transgender women suppress testosterone. They don’t get shorter. Their hearts don’t get smaller. They’ve still got big lungs. The performance gap in weightlifting is over 30% … throwing a baseball over 50% … when a male punches, 160%.” 

While this data may be true, everyone is made differently. Even if a person is of the same sex as someone else, this does not mean they have both have the same abilities. Some people are simply naturally advantaged or disadvantaged. Look at Michael Phelps, an Olympic swimmer, who recovers easier because he produces less lactic acid than the average man, has a larger wingspan, and has a longer torso to leg ratio, which makes the drag force (water resistance) smaller than for someone who has longer legs. Phelps was able to compete and has even won 23 gold medals. 

However, one thing to note is the lack of these conversations with female-to-male transitions: Do people not see people assigned female at birth as athletically advantaged? The answer seems to be yes. The New York Times mentioned a 2014 study, funded by the I.O.C. and the World Anti-Doping Agency, that reviewed the testosterone levels in about 700 athletes from 15 different sports. “The researchers found that 16.5 percent of men had low testosterone levels and 13.7 percent of women had high testosterone levels, with considerable overlap between the two groups.” There aren’t any politicians or sports committees pushing for equality within the realm of cisgender athletes playing against other cisgender athletes. An additional form of inequality is the “sex tests” cis-women who have more testosterone than the “average” women have to go through. These sex tests include undergoing physical and mental tests by doctors of different specialties. If it is found they have more testosterone than what a woman “should have,” then they are given the option to take medication to reduce the testosterone or not compete. The importance of this conversation is that every single person in the world is born with different amounts of hormones, body shapes, arm length, height, etc. Having advantages and disadvantages in a variety of forms is how the world works. A person’s assigned sex at birth does not determine the sport they would be the best in. 

What fails to be mentioned in this crossfire of opinions is the mental health of these transgender women. Their gender identity is being disregarded in the debate. A UCLA study found that out of the 27,715 participants with a median age of 26 years, 39.9% had attempted suicide. This study, government laws, sports rules, and news articles don’t mention the tremendous amount of bullying and abuse that happens at school, at home, and in public. With this in mind, excluding trans women from sports could harm their mental health even further. When looking at this data, which remains incomplete on both sides, take into account the resilience that trans women show. The media may not make it seem like it but trans women need support from other women. It’s important to show up for women of all backgrounds. 

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