It’s pride month and there seems to be no better time to be engaging in conversations around transgender athletes. I know that this is a politically charged topic and one which can be difficult to have, but nothing can be quite as difficult as living as a trans person in this world. So without further ado, let’s get on with what you need to know.
Transgender athletes are human beings
This fundamental truth is not up for debate. Transgender people are human beings, worthy of love and respect in this world.
Research does not demonstrate that transgender athletes have a distinct competitive advantage
I imagine this one is hard for many people to believe, but at the moment, the literature and body of evidence we currently have on transgender people, does not appear to demonstrate that they have a clear and distinct competitive advantage in sport (Jones et al. 2017).
The reality is that this remains to be answered and continues to be ambiguous in nature (Reeser 2005).
When you consider the entirety of our world population, the number of transgender people who make it to the sporting level is actually quite low, in part because sport governing bodies are still at odds with how to be inclusive.
Since the implementation of Title IX, girls sports participation has jumped from 295,000 to nearly 3.2 million in 2011 (and that was 8 years ago). I could not find the number of transgender athlete participation, but I’ll share this, the number of more ‘well-known’ transgender female athletes (MTF) is 28 total athletes worldwide. I’ll say it again, 28 transgender athletes worldwide that are more ‘well-known.’ And this is across a range of different sports from powerlifting, to cricket, to roller-derby, to Thai boxing, to darts.
The media draws some attention towards transgender athletes at the high school level, in part because we still don’t have clear solutions to making things “fair.” High school is frequently when these individuals are figuring out their identities and potentially starting to consider how to transition.
But fairness in sport has actually never been a thing. Is it fair that Michael Phelp’s was born with bigger lungs than most normal people? Probably not, but you don’t see sport governing bodies regulating his body so that it’s “fair” for other male athletes.
The majority of transgender individuals have a negative experience in sport and transgender athletes are not consistently and reliably winning.
As a female athlete who can relate to access issues, motivational issues in sport and negative experiences overall ranging from discouragement to unwanted comments about my body, I can say that these negative experiences impact performance, as well as participation to a great degree.
Caster Semenya is not a transgender athlete
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the controversy surrounding this particular female athlete, Caster Semenya, I encourage you to read up on it here.
For those of you that are somewhat familiar, I want to make it clear that Caster Semenya is NOT a transgender female athlete. Semenya was born a female, and was assigned female at birth. Semenya was born with differences of sex development (DSD) and has naturally higher levels of testosterone as a result of hyperandrogenism and XY chromosomes. She simply highlights the nuances of clear sex definitions and how difficult it can be when an athlete has DSD.
The hormone, testosterone, has largely been labeled as the “male hormone,” but the truth here is that female athletes have varying levels of testosterone as well (Tannenbaum and Bekker 2019).
Testosterone levels are thought to be the sole reason for performance or competitive advantage in sport. If this is the case, one might argue that regulating it in male athletes would be necessary to ensure a “fair” playing field.
The regulation of female athlete bodies has been a problem since the 1940s, when female athletes were, at times, required to have surgical interventions to their sex organs and traits to fit gendered norms and biases (Karkazis and Jordan-Young 2018). These discriminatory practices and policies persist today and impact not only the athletes these policies are directed towards, but female athletes as a whole (Karkazis and Carpenter 2018).
This sets the precedent for continuing to normalize the regulation of female bodies and it’s not ok.
Transgender athletes are not primed to be successful in sport
From discriminatory policies, to outright bans, to violence against transgender people, to social outcasting, these athletes are not put in the best position to succeed. At the highest levels of sporting participation, these athletes are being regulated and banned.
It’s important to consider that as a female athlete, incentives and access to continue to play at high levels are slim. In soccer we see gross differences in male to female athlete pay, in professional running, we see sponsors like Nike unwilling to continue an athlete’s contract if she gets pregnant.
Being a high level athlete as a female is HARD. Aside from the physical characteristics it takes to succeed, it takes a certain level of grit, commitment, and drive. Characteristics that are hard to come by in any level of sport. Incentives for transgender athletes to continue to participate in sport are even more slim. The likelihood that a transgender person makes it to these levels is poor at best.
Discriminatory sporting policies are rooted in misogyny and racism
The unfortunate reality is that these policies impact women of color disproportionately (Cooky and Dworkin 2013; Erikäinen 2017). They are based on the idea that the male athlete is superior and the female athlete is inferior.
The systems of oppression in sport are real and they impact all of us on some level, but there has been no people more impacted by these policies than women of color.
Resources & References
Jones, Bethany Alice, Jon Arcelus, Walter Pierre Bouman, and Emma Haycraft. 2017. “Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies.” Sports Medicine 47 (4): 701–16.
Karkazis, Katrina, and Rebecca M. Jordan-Young. 2018. “The Powers of Testosterone: Obscuring Race and Regional Bias in the Regulation of Women Athletes.” Feminist Formations. https://doi.org/10.1353/ff.2018.0017.