Pat Manuel made history in 2018 as the first transgender male to fight as a professional boxer in the U.S. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
La Cañada High School

Opinion: Transgender athletes challenge our understanding of competitive sports

As long as transgender and intersex athletes have been around, they have received pushback from others who claim that they should not be able to compete with their gender due to biological differences caused by their sex. In acknowledgment of the biological differences between men and women, many suspect that transgender women retain a biological advantage over their cisgender competitors even after transitioning. 

Skeptics such as athletes Martina Navratilova and Paula Radcliffe have voiced the opposition to transgender women competing in women’s sports, according to the Guardian. Navratilova and Radcliffe believe that a man might pretend to be a transgender woman, win competitions in the women’s division, then go back to living as a man. 

Although it would be theoretically possible for a man to fake being transgender, actually going through with it would be much more difficult than one might think. First, an athlete would have to make an appointment with a mental health professional, who usually is required to diagnose you with gender dysphoria. It then takes around six months of hormone suppression to get below the limit of 10 nanomoles of testosterone per liter of blood, and 10 to 12 months more documenting you maintain that level, according to Business Insider

If at any time during this process physicians or officials sense fraud, athletes are banned before they can even compete in events. 

And this is all before considering the permanent effects of testosterone suppression. Namely, even if an athlete decided to detransition, they’d have to deal with the consequences of altering their body.

“When [they] go back to being a man, [they] will now have breasts,” transgender athlete Rachel McKinnon said to Business Insider. “The idea that anyone would do this, fine, it may be theoretically possible, but it’s never happened.”

JayCee Cooper, a transgender powerlifter, requested for a medical exemption for transition-related drugs from USA Powerlifting late last year, according to Vice. However, her request was denied, with a representative from the organization stating that male-to-female transgender people “are not allowed to compete as females in our static strength sport, as it is a direct competitive advantage,” Vice reported.

The organization cited that transgender women have a “higher bone density,” than their cisgender counterparts that “even with reduced levels of testosterone, do not go away.” 

However, people have criticized this argument, believing that these differences are inconsistent or irrelevant. For example, Fallon Fox, the first openly trans MMA fighter, has pointed out that there are bone density differences across race, as black women on average have the same bone density as white men, while Asian women have the lowest bone density across racial or ethnic groups. And yet, this variation does not usually come up in discussions of fairness.

Chris Mosier, the first known out trans athlete to join a U.S. national team different from his sex at birth, has his own take on the issue, according to The Washington Post.

“People come in all shapes and sizes,” he told the Post. “We don’t disqualify Michael Phelps for having super long arms; that’s just a competitive advantage he has in his sport. We don’t regulate height in the WNBA or NBA; being tall is just an advantage for a center. For as long as sports have been around, there have been people who have had advantages over others. A universal level playing field does not exist.”

Conversely, instances where transgender men were forced to compete amongst women, have met similar protests. For example, Mack Beggs, a transgender wrestler from Euless Trinity High School near Dallas, was unable to compete in the boys’ division as Texas public high schools require athletes to compete under the gender on their birth certificate, according to The Guardian. After entering the 2018 state tournament with a 32-0 record, he won for the championship for the second year in a row, sparking debate once again, The Guardian reported. 

Many are upset by the idea of transgender athletes using hormone therapy, viewing it as equivalent to doping. At its core, the controversy is centered around a single question: What exactly are athletic competitions meant to measure? 

If we are judging solely upon “natural” characteristics without the aid of hormone therapy or suppression, then perhaps there would be an argument for excluding transgender athletes, seeing it as inadvertently equivalent to doping. However, if this was the case, there would seem to be no reason to have a cap on testosterone limits. Indeed, if this were the standard being measured, all transgender people would be barred from athletics entirely. 

But the case of Caster Semenya showed that there is much more of a social construction at play. Caster Semenya first gained attention when she finished well ahead of the pack in the 800 meters at the World Championships with a time of 1:55:45, according to The Guardian. Following her success, questions about her sex were raised, so her testosterone levels were tested and found to be at elevated levels in an intersex condition termed hyperandrogenisim, The Guardian reported. 

In April 2011, the IAAF adopted an upper limit of 10 nanomoles per liter of blood for female athletes, which means that Semenya would be forced to take medication to lower her testosterone levels, according to The Guardian.

In response, Semenya refused and appealed the decision in both the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, but both were denied, according to the New York Times. Nonetheless, according to The Guardian, Semenya stands by her refusal to take testosterone-lowering drugs,  causing her to miss the 2019 World Athletics Championships in October while she continues her appeal. 

So in contrast to previous cases, wherein transgender people have faced controversy for changing their biology (or perhaps not changing it enough), this new rule seems to force to Semenya to do so in order to continue to compete with others of her gender. This seems to directly counter the purpose of sports if it is truly meant to measure “natural” talents people are born with (plus skill gained by training, of course). 

But if that is not the factor being measured here, then what is? What exactly counts as fair? To what extent should we be able to change our biology while maintaining the integrity of the sport? 

Unsurprisingly, there is very little data on the effects of lowering testosterone in athletes. After all, the sample size of elite transgender athletes is extremely small. According to NPR, there are an estimated 1.4 million people in the US, or around 0.6%, identify as transgender, and, there has never been an openly transgender athlete at the Olympics. As a result, it is unclear how changes in hormones affect athletic performance. 

This creates confusion as to how we categorize people who go against our traditional notions of male and female. Put them in separate competitions? This seems exclusionary at best, discriminatory at worst. Use hormone testing? But hormones may not be as clear-cut a determining factor as one might think. This is because although testosterone has a demonstrated physiological impact, its levels are not particularly useful in distinguishing between different sexes. This is because, according to Vice, “elite athletes, male and female, sometimes produce the same amount of testosterone.”

Even if we could find some significant hormone to measure, any cutoff level would seem rather arbitrary, and it would inevitably force some to compete with people of a different gender than they identify with. 

This issue is obviously extremely complex as there is a host of medical, social, legal, and political factors at play. The continuous redefinition of our ideas about sex in athletics will only proceed to shape what we count as fair play.