Transgender Athletes Update: Where Are We? Where Are We Headed?
By Amby Burfoot
March 24, 2021
The question of transgender women competing in women’s sports has pushed to the precipice. Everyone’s talking and writing about it, but no one has an easy solution.
The Olympics loom, and there’s a new administration in Washington, D.C., a court case in Connecticut, agitation in many state legislatures, and Senate debate over the Equality Act. If passed, the EA will apparently make gender choice, and not birth sex, the passport to women’s sports in the U.S. It will become the law of the land, regulating high school sports, the NCAA, and the Olympic Trials.
On March 17, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a nearly four-hour meeting to discuss, among other things, the potential impact of the Equality Act on sports. From various reports, 16-year-old trans woman and Democratic witness Stella Keating of Tacoma, Wash., was an exceptional witness (via video conference.) The Washington Post marvelled at how “confident” she was, and Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin called her “the star of this hearing.”(Full hearing transcript of 29,000 words here).
However, Keating had nothing to say about sports, admitting “I honestly am not a very sporty person.” She did once consider joining a bowling league.
Republican witness Abigail Shrier didn’t mince words. The Wall Street Journal writer and author of the 2020 book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, said: “Members of the committee, if your daughter or granddaughter was the top high school tennis player in her state, and then five biological boys suddenly decided at the age of 17 to identify as female, should she drop overnight to number six? Should she lose her college scholarship?”
The three cisgender girls who have filed suit in Connecticut were not allowed to provide video testimony, though their written statements were accepted into the record, which senators will likely never review. You can read their testimony here. The statements are short, personal, and powerful.
So, where are we now, how did we get here, and where are we heading? Here’s a mostly factual update.
All clear-thinking individuals believe that transgender women and men should receive the same social, cultural, educational, financial, etc, rights as others. Not all agree about athletic rights.
Trans advocates are correct that there is no current, pressing problem, as there is no tidal wave of transgender athletes snatching victory from others. Races have been won by transgender women at the NCAA level, and at the state championship level in high school. More will likely follow, but it will be a trickle.
Trans advocates are also correct, in the strictest sense, when they note that there is no “science” in this area. How could there be? Science takes years and decades to establish verified findings. Until the last several years, no one considered it important to investigate trans athletes. How many elite trans athletes do you think have been tested before, during, and after their gender transition? The answer is zero.
That said, there’s plenty of science, event history, and barroom understanding that men are significantly stronger and faster than women. If trans advocates want to make the “science” argument, they should present evidence that trans women are no stronger or faster than cisgender women.
Males and females have long competed in different sports categories, because everyone acknowledges that males have a big advantage. Title IX, passed in 1972, boosted female sports, and led to the growth and achievements we have since witnessed.
Historic efforts by the Olympics and others to protect women’s sports from male intrusion have not always treated women well. Some women were banned on the basis of faulty testing, others were forced to parade semi-nude in front of sex judges. Currently there is no sex testing as such at the Olympics because no one can figure out exactly how to do it.
However, Olympic regulations now decree that high-testosterone women with Differences of Sexual Development (ie, Caster Semenya, who is not transgender) may not participate in a few specific events, and transgender women must pass a testosterone test (for track & field athletes, serum testosterone level must be below 5 nmol/L). Note: No transgender woman has ever appeared at the Olympic Games, but several are expected in Tokyo.
There is no evidence that trans athletes change gender to win at sports. They change because they experience gender dysphoria. There is no known case of any individual declaring a gender change to chase athletic glory.
The Caster Semenya case is another story of a woman badly treated by athletics organizations and the media. No doubt she suffered psychological and emotional harm. She also made a lot of money.
Some of the women who finished behind Semenya in important track meets may likewise have suffered psychological harm. And they did not make as much money.
The question of transgender men is mostly a non-issue, although some observers point out that these individuals are allowed to take testosterone where other athletes are not.
This issue is not going away, and society and sports organizations cannot outrun it. Eventually, someone will have to decide something.
In Connecticut, three cisgender high school runners have filed suit to overturn recent results of transgender women runners, and to prevent trans women from competing in the female division. A decision is expected soon; it is not expected to favor the cisgender plaintiffs. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference says it is following state guidance by allowing gender choice in sports.
It is true that one of the cisgender girls subsequently defeated the trans athletes. It is also true that the trans runners beat her and every other Connecticut girl on many other occasions over three years.
Lack of science is not lack of evidence, and the science will come…slowly, after years and decades. Joanna Harper, a trans athlete herself, recently quit her medical position in Oregon to pursue a PhD in exercise science in England. There she has begun to contact transitioning athletes and to test them in the lab. Other researchers are surely doing the same, in small numbers and quietly.
In the meantime, the U.S. Air Force has the best published, scientific information about the fitness performance of transitioned individuals. They were not athletes, but 75 Air Force personnel (29 trans men, 46 trans women) who had an average age of 26 at the time of their transition with gender-affirming hormones. The Air Force measured their sit-ups, push-ups, and 1.5-mile run times for more than two years after transition, and compared the outcomes with “the average performance of all men and women” under age 30 in the Air Force. Result: the trans women remained stronger than the control females for 1-2 years after transition. This strength difference seemed to disappear at 2+ years. The trans runners were 12 percent faster than the control females at 1-2 years, and this gap continued beyond 2 years.
This is precisely why there have always been discrete men’s and women’s categories. Without them, women can’t win. This situation is very different from the argument that basketball favors tall individuals, the marathon tiny ones, and Nordic skiing those from the snowy northlands. Yes, participants vary in many ways, and that’s one reason why some win, and some lose. But these differences have never been deemed a reason to establish separate categories such as those we have for men and women. We could make a course correction now, and establish new categories, but this would be a radical, history-denying process.
The timing of a gender transition makes a huge difference. If a pre-teen or early-teen begins the hormone-transition process, that’s a world apart from a 19-year-old. This adds another level of complexity to the discussion.
We are stuck in a hard place: There’s no apparent win-win outcome. You can’t protect both trans athletes and cisgender athletes when they race for the podium. It’s a Sophie’s Choice.
The big decisions will probably be made, at least at first, by politicians more concerned with cultural tailwinds/headwinds than about biology or sport’s history and future. Then we’ll have to see how it goes, and if there is ever a time and place for more nuance.
The Equality Act passed the House on February 25 by a vote of 224-206, with support from three Republicans. It may or may not come up for vote in the Senate, where it has been defeated previously in a different political climate. President Biden and VP Kamala Harris have expressed strong support for the EA, but they have plenty of other issues confronting them.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that transgender female athletes must keep their serum testosterone level below 10 nmol/L in order to compete at the Olympics. That was under the previous IOC guidelines. But the IOC withdrew those guidelines, leaving each international sport federation to set its own guidelines; for World Athletics, the level is 5 nmol/L.