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Fact vs. Myth: Transgender Athletes In Sports

Written By: Alekhya Mangharam

Edited By: Kadidja Dajombana

Photo Credit: Dan Mullan/Getty; Ian MacNicol/Getty

“It’s completely unfair, '' one user writes. “They should compete in their own transgender category” another user responds. A debate of comments floods a Facebook stream regarding the presence of transgender individuals in sport.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is a special one for many reasons. The ongoing covid pandemic, causing the events to have no live audience, in the 20 billion dollar Tokyo Village. But what makes it truly special is that the Tokyo Olympics has been the first Olympics to have openly transgender athletes compete. Transgender by definition is an umbrella term that describes people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth, whereas people who label themselves as cisgender identify their gender identity correspondingly with their biological sex. With recent advocacy becoming more prevalent, there have been changes to correct inequalities present within the current regulations.

The International Olympic Committee, known as the IOC has recently adjusted guidelines to grant female-to-male transgender athletes eligibility to take part in men’s competitions “without restriction”, however male to female transgender athletes must have testosterone levels cut off below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least a year prior to competing. The 2004 Athens Olympics were the first games where the IOC had approved the participation of transgender athletes. Individuals were required to have reassignment surgery alongside at least two years of hormone therapy, challenging the level of inclusivity this new policy has truly instilled. Now, although no longer needing reassignment surgery to be eligible to compete, many may argue that surgery should be required. The IOC, taking an opposing view, strongly states that “to require surgical anatomical changes as a precondition to participation is not necessary to preserve fair competition and may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights.” With strict regulations to avoid unfair advantages, it seems that there would be no issues with transgender participation. Unfortunately, transphobia and the misconceptions behind trans athletes persist and the science behind the regulations are disregarded.

“It’s ridiculous and unfair. We all know that!” one user writes regarding Laurel Hubbard, New Zealand’s transgender woman weightlifter. Laurel’s inclusion in the Tokyo Olympics received backlash due to the argument that her participation comes at the expense of other athletes. Despite Hubbard not meddling, and being the only female amongst the 10 other women to not finish her weight repetition, the backlash on her presence persists. The myth that trans athletes’ physiological characteristics provide an unfair advantage over cis athletes is one that has been proven false through numerous scientific studies. According to Dr. Joshua D. Safer, the ​​ president of the United States Professional Association for Transgender Health (USPATH) “A person’s genetic make-up and internal and external reproductive anatomy are not useful indicators of athletic performance.” Instead, factors such as nutrition, coaching, competition, access to training are those that may influence performance. Additionally, Dr. Safer states “there is no inherent reason why her physiological characteristics related to athletic performance should be treated differently from the physiological characteristics of a non-transgender woman.”

if the presence of transwomen was unfair wouldn’t they always beat a woman who was born female? Scientific evidence disproves the socially constructed binary model of gender. Traditionally, society has only recognized two sexes, male and female, but recent science has shown there is a range of possible chromosome combinations. Research conducted by Dr. Timothy Roberts, a pediatrician and associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has investigated the effects of hormonal therapy on athletic performance. Transgender females prior to hormonal therapy were able to do 31% more pushups in one minute compared to cisgender women, however, after the two years, there was no more advantage. Similarly, the Transgender females prior to hormonal therapy were able to do 15% more sit-ups in one minute, whereas the individual had no advantage after two years of hormonal therapy, concluding that hormone therapy for female transgender athletes does not catalyze athletic advantages over extended periods of time.

“They have testosterone. No sense. Not Fair!”

The reality is that a transitioned transgender woman generates no hormones and then goes into a menopausal state. Thus, the level of synthetic hormones they are allowed to take under the IOC regulations is significantly lower than those of cisgender women, reducing the physical capabilities of the human body making it harder to play competitively. According to “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 12% of cisgender women in the US have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which can produce testosterone levels higher than the "female" average.”

A major factor for athletes is their hemoglobin levels. Hemoglobin in red blood cells transports oxygen through the human body and is key for muscle movements. Hemoglobin levels are similar to testosterone levels, suggesting that nontransgender men tend to have higher hemoglobin when compared to cisgender women. However, the results from Harper’s study titled “How does hormone transition in transgender women change body composition, muscle strength, and hemoglobin?” found that testosterone suppressants reduced hemoglobin levels in trans women to that of cisgender women, thus eliminating the advantage.

The differences between “Biological sex” are not as distinguishable as often believed. Testosterone alongside bone density varies significantly across athletes and intersex individuals. The 2020 Olympics banned several top women athletes from competing in Tokyo, due to their naturally high testosterone levels. Despite not being transgender the individuals had to take medication or have surgery to reduce them. To force ciswomen to take medication reducing their natural hormone levels in order to compete is unethical and unreasonable as testosterone levels may range regardless of if the individual is transgender, cisgender, or intersexual.

“You can rebalance hormone levels, but what about everything else”

Society has constructed its own views on the ways women need to look, but just like men women range in shapes and sizes. The idea that transgender women will always be bigger and therefore stronger is incorrect but rather based on our socially constructed view that women are smaller and weaker. Categories are not created based on body shape. Nobody would create a category for 6’ tall basketball players so they don’t play with significantly taller 7’ basketball players, just as nobody says Usain Bolt should not compete due to his legs being significantly longer than those of his rivals. The body size and shape of transgender individuals should not be a determinating factor in their participation.

“Need another category!” “Different Category!” To create another category for trans-athletes would be discriminatory. Trans women are women, and excluding trans people from events or places is harmful to their physical and emotional health. According to Dr. Adkins, “When a school or athletic organization denies transgender students the ability to participate equally in athletics because they are transgender, that condones, reinforces, and affirms the transgender students’ social status as outsiders or misfits who deserve the hostility they experience from peers”

“It is against the principle and spirit of the Olympic Games!” The Olympics prioritize inclusion and have stated on their website that “It is necessary to ensure insofar as possible that trans athletes are not excluded from the opportunity to participate in sporting competition.” The Olympic committee continues to ensure that the overriding sporting objective is and remains the guarantee of fair competition and that the presence of transgender individuals does not affect the fairness of the game.

Transwomen are women, and trans males are males. Denying transpeople the right to participate in an event despite no athletic advantage is discrimination. Creating a new category, would exclude and could harm the mental as well as the physical well-being of the individual. Believing and perpetuating myths and misconceptions about the presence of transathles is harmful, not only to the athletes themselves but those who are striving for equality.

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