The debate over transgender athletes is often framed as one between two opposing sides. One side suggests that biology is of paramount importance in sport, that the biological differences between transgender women and cisgender women provide the former group with unfair advantages, and that if women are to succeed in sport, then trans women must be banned from the women’s category. The other side suggests that trans women are women, belong in women’s sport without conditions; proclaiming that trans rights are human rights and are not up for debate. Both sides also have substantial political backing, most prominently in the U.S.
Several Republican-dominated states have bills banning trans women and girls from the female category, and the issue has become a cornerstone in the campaigns of several Republican politicians. On the other hand, the Biden administration has championed the Equality Act, which has passed in the Democrat-controlled House but stalled in the divided Senate. The most controversial section of the Equality Act states that all carveouts, including sports, for women should use gender identity to determine eligibility for the female category.
As a competitive transgender woman runner and a PhD researcher of transgender athletic performance, I would like to advocate for a third or middle way. A way that acknowledges that each side in the debate has some valid points, but that neither side has a monopoly on truth.
Let’s start with biology. It is true that there are important biological differences between trans women and cis women. Unless trans women go on puberty blockers by Tanner stage 2, they will experience male-type puberty, and this experience will result in trans women having stronger muscles and bones, greater stature, and higher hemoglobin than cis women. Gender-affirming hormone therapy (GAHT) will mitigate but not eliminate many of these advantages. Trans women will acquire female-typical levels of hemoglobin with just a few months of GAHT, which has important implications for endurance sports. Personally, I was running 12% slower after 9 months of GAHT — approximately the difference between serious male and female distance runners. Trans women will be powering their larger bodies with reduced muscle mass and aerobic capacity, which can lead to disadvantages in recovery, quickness, and endurance. Trans women have a propensity to gain weight with GAHT, which is also disadvantageous in most sports. The many social and psychological challenges affecting all trans people will also negatively affect sports performance. At this point, it is unclear how the various advantages and disadvantages play out in different sports.
However, one thing is certain: trans women remain substantially under-represented at all levels of women’s sport. So, what’s the best way to ensure more fair representation while accounting for potential advantages and disadvantages?
Given certain maintained physical advantages of trans women over cis women, it is reasonable to place restrictions on trans women in high-level sport. Requiring trans women to reduce testosterone to female-typical levels should be a necessary, although not always sufficient, requirement. In sports where trans women maintain significant advantages over cis women after GAHT, there may be additional requirements for trans women at the highest levels of sport. For instance, GAHT will not significantly reduce the height of trans women and greater stature is advantageous in many sports. One unique approach is that of the international volleyball federation (FIVB), which places a limit of one trans woman per national team.
I do not, however, believe that outright bans of trans women in sport are needed to maintain appropriate levels of fairness or safety. Consider that World Rugby, The Rugby Football League, and Rugby Football Union have all banned transgender women from the female category, citing safety concerns despite the fact that there are no data indicating that transgender women injure cisgender women at higher rates than cisgender women injure themselves and the very few transgender women in the sport. The governing body for international swimming, FINA, passed a rule preventing transgender women from competing in women’s swimming unless they undergo medical transition before the age of 12. This rule amounts to a virtual ban of trans women from the female category even though no trans woman has ever qualified for international level swimming. Moreover, British Triathlon will now require all trans women over the age of 12 to compete in an “open” category. This open category will essentially be a rebranded men’s category. The British Triathlon policy does not follow the new World Triathlon policy, which continues to allow transgender women to compete in the female category, albeit with a longer waiting period. The bans (and virtual bans) are all based on fear rather than transgender dominance of women’s sports.
Although there is some need for restrictions at elite levels of sport, recreational sport should be engaging with the transgender community to enact policies to encourage more transgender participation in sport given the psycho-social disadvantages and marginalization faced by all trans people.
Lastly, the focus on a small number of successful trans female athletes is unhealthy and unhelpful. Trans women are not males invading women’s sport, but rather human beings whose sincere and deeply felt gender identity leads to their gender transition in search of an authentic life. Some trans women also have an enduring connection to sport and participating in their identified gender category is one way to find fulfillment in their lives. Some trans women are less successful in women’s sport than they were in men’s sport for several reasons, but the world will never hear of them. The hand ringing, vitriol, legislation, and increasingly fractious debate that accompanies each new successful trans female athlete undermines the opportunity to reach a lasting compromise position between the two opposite poles. It also undermines the mental health and well-being of many trans athletes.
I urge everyone who has taken a side in this debate to take a deep breath, try to be empathetic to others, and to search your heart for some way to reach a consensus. Please.
Joanna Harper is the visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance and a PhD student at Loughborough University in England.