Updated March 21, 2022.
Trans folks’ participation in sports is a fiercely debated topic. Though trans people face discrimination in most arenas, sports seems to be the most difficult one, especially when folks attempt to bring—usually unsubstantiated—”scientific“ claims into the discussions.
In 2021, at least 70 anti-trans sports bills were proposed in more than half (30) of the U.S. states. Most of the bills targeted trans girls, with the aim of banning trans girls from competing in girls’ sport.
“Well, don’t biological males have advantages over biological females??”
“But testosterone gives them an advantage!”
“I’m all for trans folks but not in sports; in sports they should have their own league.”
So let’s break this down.
WHAT RULES ALREADY EXIST AT ELITE LEVELS?The IOC (International Olympic Committee) is centers non-discrimination and the wellbeing of transgender and intersex athletes. IOC rules removed genital surgery as a requirement for competition in 2016. This was coupled with hormone regulation guidelines.
In November of 2021, the IOC released a new framework in a 6-page document, IOC Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations, removing the explicit hormone regulations on transgender athletes and centering non-discrimination, the wellbeing (both physical and mental), and privacy of athletes who are transgender or have sex variations.
The first principle of the Framework is "Inclusion," and 1.1 reads:
"Everyone, regardless of gender identity, expression and/or sex variations should be able to participate in sport safely and without prejudice."
Principle 5 of the Framework declares that no athlete should excluded based on assumed advantage without proof through an evidence-based approach:
"No athlete should be precluded from competing or excluded from competition on the exclusive ground of an unverified, alleged, or perceived unfair competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status."
A committee must then prove (through the IOC’s outlined evidence-based approach) that the supposed advantage is truly an advantage, and then provide and instate appropriate measures to mitigate said advantages.
The Framework’s principles include: Inclusion, Prevention of Harm, Non-Discrimination, Fairness, No Presumption of Advantage, Evidence-Based Approach, Primacy of Health and Bodily Autonomy, Stake-Holder Centred Approach, Right to Privacy, and Periodic Reviews. Read the entire Framework here.
From more than a decade (2011 through January 19, 2022) the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association)’s Policy for the Inclusion of Transgender Athletes regulations were inclusive of transgender individuals competing on teams aligned with their gender identity with hormone restrictions as follows:
The athlete can compete on either the men’s or the women’s team if they have not taken testosterone.
The athlete must compete on the men’s team, if they do take testosterone.
In order to take testosterone and be eligible for competition on the men’s team, the athlete must also receive an exemption to use testosterone for the treatment of gender dysphoria, as well as submit testosterone levels during the season to prove that testosterone levels are at or below an average male level.
2. If assigned male at birth:
The athlete must compete on the men’s team unless they have been on one documented year of testosterone suppressants.
After this documented calendar year (or more) of testosterone suppressants, the athlete may compete on the women’s team, while submitting labs throughout the season to show that testosterone levels are within or below an average female level.
These rules were widely regarded as inclusive and fair by transgender athlete activists and others.
On January 19, 2022, the NCAA released updated guidelines, supposedly mirroring the IOC’s newest guidelines (outlined above); however, the NCAA guidelines deviate in a few potentially dangerous ways:
It's important to note that while 80% of Olympians may have been NCAA athletes, but only 2% of NCAA athletes will become Olympians. That is, 98% of NCAA athletes will NOT be Olympians. As Athlete Ally Director of Policy & Programs for Athlete Ally, Anne Lieberman, said: “Despite [NCAA] President Emmert’s statement that approximately 80% of U.S. Olympians are current or former college athletes, 98% of NCAA athletes do not make it to the Olympic level . If the NCAA is serious about balancing fairness and inclusion, the latest guidelines on trans inclusion should consider all of the athletes who participate within the NCAA, not just those who might potentially become Olympians. What works on an Olympic level does not automatically translate to college athletics; particularly, applying aspects of the IOC guidelines while omitting critical focuses on inclusion and non-discrimination is especially problematic.”
ON THE INCLUSION OF TRANS MEN
Most folks seem not to care about transgender men, like myself, competing in the boys or mens category. Some will argue that a trans man cannot possibly compete against cis men and therefore shouldn’t be allowed in men’s sports, to which I reply that we absolutely are capable. I beat 87% and 85% of all men in the NCAA who competed in my two best events. If you’d like to argue with my ability to compete, you’re arguing against numbers and facts, and that’s a different (you) issue.
Another argument against trans men is some form of accusation involving unfair hormone usage—”you’re doping!” This, too, is baseless. In the NCAA (where I competed), my levels were strictly regulated, with my labs submitted multiple times every season to prove that my testosterone levels were at or below the average male level.
Consider the flipside: although the NCAA allows random testing on all athletes, most of my teammates and most NCAA athletes are never tested for their levels. I was tested up to 3x a season.
ON THE INCLUSION OF TRANS WOMEN
This is where everyone starts to get heated. Let’s carefully explore why. I encourage you to read thoroughly and slowly. Notice if you find yourself starting to get angry, upset, or triggered. Pause. Ask yourself why. Your emotions are valid, but they do not make your feelings facts. Take your time piecing this apart and dismantling the biases (transphobic, racist, and otherwise) in which we have all been steeped.
“Trans women have higher levels of testosterone?”
The first argument against trans women in sport is usually about testosterone levels. However, in most elite level sports, testosterone levels are regulated when trans women compete. However, testosterone is not the only factor that impacts one’s ability to play sports. Testosterone is only one of many factors and testosterone alone will not make anyone a champion athlete. In fact, various studies have suggested that testosterone is not always a crucial factor in speed or athletic ability.
The next argument is usually as follows:
“Even if testosterone levels are regulated, they still have gone through testosterone-driven puberty and are taller, bigger, stronger and that’s an advantage.”
Let’s put trans folks aside for a second. Let’s say we have a 6’3” cisgender (so, not transgender) woman who plays basketball. People say, “Yep, she was made for basketball! Look how tall she is, look how big her hands are… she’s made for basketball!”
Okay, now let’s bring trans folks back in. Say we have a 6’ (not even 6’3) trans woman. People immediately say that’s unfair. The reality is this accusation is often transphobic, sexist, and misogynist (trans women’s gender expression is often policed and accused of being “too masculine“ or “manly“). The accusation is also racist: many of the trans women who have been attacked are Black and brown trans women. There is no coincidence here. This is the repeated policing of Black and brown women’s bodies in sport.
And this is not new. Think of Serena Williams who has been repeatedly policed in sport (another article about her here.) Simone Biles was recently attacked for supposedly having an unfair advantage because she was able to complete the Yurchenko double pike which was supposedly “too dangerous” for other athletes to attempt. Read more about that here:
In other words, on a technical and cultural level, Biles, a young Black woman, is being punished and subjected to undeniably racist and sexist double standards for her greatness. After all, we’ve seen some form of this before, for other Black women athletes — Caster Semenya, a South African two-time Olympic champion runner, was literally barred from competing in women’s sports last year unless she agreed to take medication to lower her naturally higher levels of testosterone. When Black women athletes work hard and go above and beyond, they’re treated with suspicion, as if they’re somehow being dishonest, or as if their success is a detriment to others that should be punished, restricted and prevented rather than encouraged. From Semenya to Biles, they and other Black women athletes face the same, intertwined racism and misogyny.
Let’s consider another example. Michael Phelps, the winningest Olympian of all time, has several biological features that provide unique advantages in swimming. His torso is abnormally long and his legs short, his wingspan is four inches longer than his height, his lung capacity is TWICE the average, and his body produces HALF the levels of lactic acid the average athlete does. (Read more about Phelps’ biological advantages here.) Remember that lactic acid is what causes muscle fatigue—it’s what makes your muscles ache when you exert yourself. Lower levels of lactic acid production means shorter recovery periods and therefore a higher capacity for athletic labor. Do you think these differences pose a genetic & biological advantage for Phelps? Of course they do!
On the other hand, Caster Semenya, an Olympic runner, is an intersex cisgender woman (she has intersex traits, was assigned female at birth, and identifies as female) who won the 800m in the 2016 Olympics. When Michael Phelps’ lactic acid levels were tested by the IOC, he was praised as genetically superior. When Caster Semenya was tested, her medals were taken from her and she was barred from competition unless she artificially lowered her testosterone levels. Read that again. Both athletes have biological differences based in genetics that could (positively) impact sport. Michael Phelps was praised. Caster Semenya was defamed and barred from competition.
It is no coincidence that Michael Phelps is a cisgender, straight man, while Caster is a Black queer intersex woman. And, unfortunately, Caster is not the only Black intersex woman to have been excluded based on sex variations. 2016 Olympic silver medalist Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and bronze medalist Margaret Wambui of Kenya were both barred from competing the the Tokyo 2020 Games due to hyperandrogenism (higher levels of testosterone.)
Many of these arguments are NOT about fairness. They are about policing women’s bodies in sport. They are about enforcing the cisheteropatriarchy. They are about white supremacy. Keep reading.
The reality is that biological differences (and even potential advantages) are undeniably present in sports already. That’s what sports are often based upon! Bodies are, of course, different. All bodies are! But when trans folks aren’t involved, people rarely call these differences “unfair.” They usually say, as they do about Michael Phelps, that he was “made for [the sport].”
That is, we don’t have sports competitions because everyone’s bodies are exactly the same. We have sports competitions because people’s bodies are different, and because people are able to use their abilities to be better (or worse) at a physical task!
Here’s another example: the shortest guy on my swim team was 5’6”. The tallest guy was 6’7”. That means the shortest guy was more than a FOOT shorter than that tallest guy. Is that height a biological advantage? Of course it is! But is it unfair and meriting of disqualification? Of course not! It’s just a biological difference. (It’s also worth noting that guy who was 5’6” was one of the fastest swimmers we had, and was voted team captain his senior year.)
So, yes, trans women absolutely can exhibit biological diversity… just like everyone else can! Don’t forget that cisgender women exhibit biological diversity, as well. Plenty of super tall people suck at sports. Plenty of people are short and great at sports. Having certain biology does not guarantee you’ll be a stellar athlete.
“We need rules for children, too; we need to protect young girls. The NCAA and IOC rules don’t apply to children.”
Yes, the rules stated pertain to elite-level sports as governed by organizations including the NCAA and the IOC and do not govern children’s sports that are not elite.
I’ll also remind you that protecting children means protecting ALL children. Which includes trans children. Trans girls are girls. Protecting young girls means protecting all girls which means protecting trans girls, too.
The 70+ anti-trans bills that 2021 saw in the US target children—the kids who are just trying to kick a soccer ball around with their friends. These bills are NOT about elite level competition.
WE DO NOT NEED TO TEST CHILDREN.
Many people miss the fact that the 70+ trans athlete bills in the US are about CHILDREN. They are NOT about any elite-level sport. They are children. And there are no significant biological differences that impact sports in children, except for the presence or absence of a penis. And no one plays sports with their penis. (So genital exam are further irrelevant.) Most people get hung up on testosterone, and besides the fact that testosterone is still only one factor that can contribute to athletic ability, there are also no differences in circulating testosterone between those assigned male at birth and those assigned female before Tanner stage II of puberty — around the age of 12 or 13.
Beyond this, remember that most people are not Olympic athletes. Most folks are not elite athletes. Most people are not competing at Nationals, Regionals, or even Sectionals. Most folks are NOT playing sports to win. Most people playing sports don’t win. Because they can’t — that’s not how sports work. There is only one winner.
That is, most kids are just playing sports because they are fun. Kids should not have their bodies invasively examined in order to verify their gender assignment to play sports. And, if they get to an elite level where biological differences might be more relevant, other regulations will govern that.
“Okay but what about that fighter/wrestler that broke that girl’s skull??”
Whenever I talk about trans athletes, someone (or many ones) will unfailingly refer to Fallon Fox, or “that wrestler who broke some girl’s skull,” which often spreads sensationalized misinformation.
It’s incredibly crucial to understand that when talking about the trans athlete bans in the US, Fallon Fox is irrelevant because Fallon Fox is NOT A CHILD! THESE BILLS ARE ABOUT CHILDREN!
But, for fact checking sake: Fallon Fox is not a wrestler, she is an MMA fighter and MMA fighting is dangerous. It is violent. Everyone who participates risks getting injured and consents to this risk by participating. Incidents of facial injuries are common in MMA fighting [Bledsoe et al., 2006] and many cis women inflict fractures on each other. Also, the person in the viral images of a bloodied face never even fought Fallon Fox; that was made up and used as a prop in transphobic arguments. Fallon Fox did fight Tamikka Brents, but did NOT break her skull open. Fox fractured Brents’ orbital bone, which, again, is actually quite common in MMA fighting because MMA fighting is dangerous and violent. Again, many cis women have also broken others’ orbital bones. Calling out Fox, specifically, is just transphobic.
TRANS ATHLETE BANS DO NOT ONLY AFFECT TRANS GIRLS. THEY AFFECTS ALL GIRLS.
Many who argue for the exclusion of trans women in women’s sport function do so under the guise of “protecting women’s sport.” While often asserting that they are not transphobic, that they truly just care about fairness in women’s sport, they argue that allowing “biological males” to compete with and against women will “destroy women’s sport.”
Let’s break this down.
Trans women are women. If you’re truly not transphobic, you will call trans women what they are: women. I understand there are differences between trans and cis women and we must have words to describe these differences, but we do not need to do so in a transphobic nature. If you need to discuss trans and cis women, say that: trans and cis women. If you need to talk about folks with higher levels of testosterone, say that. If you need to talk about folks with penises, say that.
In order to exclude transgender women and girls from participating in women’s sports, there must be a method of checking or verifying if someone is or is not transgender through genital exams, genotyping, and hormone evaluations. There are two ways to enforce this: 1) Check every single athlete who participates, and 2) Accusation based testing, which means that when someone is accused of being transgender, they are subject to testing. The first is logistically and financially impossible, nor would every parent consent to having their minor child’s genitals examined. And the second not only demonizes and weaponizes transness, but also endangers all girls and women. Keep reading…
Allowing the government to “check” women to see if they are transgender (through the aforementioned genital exams, genotyping, and hormone evaluations) means that ANY girl accused of being transgender can be checked. Read that again. ANY GIRL, regardless of whether or not she is actually transgender, could be checked if she is accused of being transgender.
Not only is this incredibly invasive (genital exams are wholly unnecessary—having or not having a penis has no effect on performance in sport), but such practices are degrading to women. At what point is a girl good enough that she will then be accused of being transgender? How masculine can a girl be or look before she is accused of being transgender?
This proposed gender verification not only systemically enforces the policing of ALL—cisgender, included—women’s bodies, but also does so by demonizing transness. This is unacceptable.
TRANS WOMEN ARE NOT ‘DISPLACING’ CIS WOMEN.
When a trans women competes on a women’s team, there are still NO men on that team. Trans women are not “stealing” cis women’s scholarships in college. As of 2020, not a single out trans woman has ever received an athletic scholarship in the NCAA. Because trans folks make up some 1% of the population, the fact that thousands of cis women received scholarships a year while trans women received exactly none, only further proves the discrimination against trans women. Trans women are not “stealing” spots from cis women in the Olympics. In fact, not a single out trans woman has ever qualified or competed in the Olympics, despite the IOC allowing trans women to compete. That is, trans folks are vastly underrepresented in elite level sports. In 2016, 5,059 women competed in the Olympics. Approximately 1% of the population is transgender, so if trans women were accurately represented, 50 or so trans women should have competed in the Olympics. None did.
So, when trans women compete and succeed, they are not stealing anything. They are reaping the rewards of their hard work and determination, just as any other athlete does when they succeed.
Attacking trans women is, again, not about fairness. It is about transphobia.
IF FAIRNESS IS TRULY THE CENTRAL CRUSADE, THEN LET’S FOCUS ON FAIRNESS.
In the Women’s Sports Foundation 2020 report, Chasing Equity, on barriers to sport for women, the inclusion of trans women is not mentioned once. Trans women do not threaten the fabric of women’s sports. Excluding and attacking trans women does.
So many folks don’t care about sports or fairness until a trans woman wants to play. And then, suddenly, they are massive sports fans. If folks truly want to bring fairness to the forefront, then they’d fight against the main barrier to access for sports: socioeconomic disparity, often intertwined with systemic oppression such as racism.
For example, 64% of Black children don’t know how to swim, compared to 40% of white children who can’t swim. Why is this the case? Contrary to popular (racist) stereotype, this isn’t because Black people cannot swim by nature. In fact, many indigenous African societies revolved around water. Black folks in the United States are less likely to be able to swim due to the country's history of segregation and enslavement. Even when my parents were children in the 60s, there were still "WHITE ONLY" pools, When de-segregation began, white people filled pools with concrete rather than integrate - and in other cases, they poured acid into pools when Black folks swam, attempting to scare and injure them. Enslavement and segregation's legacy is long-lived: today, Black folks still didn’t have access to pools, much less lessons or classes to learn how to swim. Up until the 1960s and 1970s, pools were still segregated into WHITE ONLY and COLORED. (Learn more in the further learning section below.)
If we want to talk about fairness, let’s talk about access to sports. If you truly cared about equity and justice in sports, you’d focus on uplifting marginalized groups, not on attacking them.