At the Olympic Games held in Tokyo this year, approximately 11,000 athletes competed. Of those 11,000, only four were openly transgender: Quinn with the Canadian women’s soccer team, New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard who competed in women’s weightlifting, Alana Smith with the U.S. women’s skateboarding team, and the U.S.’s Chelsea Wolfe with the BMX Freestyling team. Some of these athletes faced backlash for competing, with critics arguing they shouldn’t even have been allowed to compete in women’s sports.
But competing is their job as athletes, and any backlash and online abuse they face for doing their job hampers their personal and professional growth. In the case of an athlete’s professional growth, being discriminated against for being transgender could lead to financial losses in the form of sponsorships and being banned from competitions.
The most common argument against allowing trans athletes to compete centers around fairness and the belief that trans athletes, especially trans women, pose an unfair advantage over cis athletes. While there are undeniable differences between male and female physiology, transgender men and women undergo significant transformations in their transitions.
According to some experts, there also is very little conclusive research that the differences create significant advantages (or disadvantages) in sports. In fact, researchers at the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University in the UK reviewed 31 national and international transgender sporting policies and determined that they unfairly discriminated against transgender athletes, especially trans women, on the basis of unsubstantiated beliefs that testosterone improved performance.
A highly publicized lawsuit in Connecticut filed in 2020 aimed to block transgender girls from competing on girls’ teams on the grounds that cisgender girls could not beat the trans athletes, thus depriving them of benefits like scholarships. Two days after the suit was filed, one of the cis girls whose family was a party to the suit defeated a trans athlete named in the suit in two events.
“Studies of testosterone levels in athletes do not show any clear, consistent relationship between testosterone and athletic performance. Sometimes testosterone is associated with better performance, but other studies show weak links or no links. And yet others show testosterone is associated with worse performance.”
Trans athletes have varying athletic abilities just like cisgender athletes. Andraya Yearwood, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) client and one of the student track athletes named in the Connecticut suit, notes that one high jumper could be taller and have longer legs than another, for example, or one athlete could have parents who spend a lot of money on personal training, which would cause that child to be a better athlete. We don’t exclude them from competition.
Even intersex/DSD (differences of sexual development) athletes like Caster Semenya are discriminated against and grouped in with transgender athletes. Female athletes already face lack of equity and pay, and not being allowed to compete only widens this gap. Semenya, a South African runner and Olympic champion with DSD, has been subjected to a 2018 World Athletics ruling that forbids women with DSD and similar conditions to compete between 400m and one-mile races unless they reduce and maintain their testosterone levels. Semenya declined, appealed, and lost her appeal, which kept her from competing in the 800m and 400m competitions in the Tokyo Games. The ruling states she is not allowed to compete in any top women’s competitions in distances ranging from 400m to the mile unless she medically reduces her testosterone levels. In a 2019 Vox article, Pidgeon Pagonis, an intersex activist and the cofounder of the Intersex Justice Project, noted: “Being intersex is not the same as being trans, but society at large tends to conflate the two, and a lot of people hate trans people.”
This treatment towards trans athletes causes numerous negative effects, especially with trans youth in sports. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, research shows that high school and college student-athletes may be at lower risk for anxiety and depression, suicide attempts, and tobacco and illegal drug use. Playing sports has also related to increased self-esteem and self-confidence, improved academic performance, stronger feelings of school connectedness, and school-based social support and community connectedness. Sports also lead to lifelong friendships with teammates and promote feelings of belonging. Furthermore, sports participation can also help kids who go through adverse childhood events including poverty, family deaths, learning and behavioral problems, and disruption in family structure, as sports can be a source of empowerment and help protect kids against short- and long-term negative impacts to mental health and wellbeing.
For transgender youth, all these benefits are crucial, since they’re at increased risk for family and peer rejection, victimization, and discrimination, which can have life-threatening consequences. In 2020, the Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that in the past 12 months, 60% of trans and nonbinary youth engaged in self harm, and more than half said they strongly considered suicide. If we’re taking away sports from trans youth and making them feel like outsiders, we are taking away that safe space where so many feel safe and connected.
While there is lots of work to be done, many groups are taking action for trans athletes. Just this year, numerous WNBA and NCAA coaches and players spoke out against anti-trans bills in more than 30 states across the U.S., and more than 500 student-athletes sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert and the NCAA Board of Governors calling for the institution to uphold its nondiscrimination policy and refuse to host championships in states with bans against trans athletes.
In order to end the discrimination, it’s important that we not only allow trans athletes to compete, but also that we understand the mutual benefit of trans inclusion. One argument is that including trans athletes hurts cis women. According to the ACLU, “excluding women who are trans hurts all women” and “invites gender policing that could subject any woman to invasive tests or accusations of being ‘too masculine’ or ‘too good’ at their sport to be a ‘real’ woman.” Trans inclusion helps promote nondiscrimination and inclusion among all student athletes.
Some of the alternatives suggested to balance inclusion with fairness on the playing field include testosterone-based handicapping and replacing gender divisions with ability-level divisions, but these have their drawbacks as well. Testosterone levels don’t indicate athletic skill, and ability-level divisions might exclude women athletes and erase years of progress in creating opportunity for women athletes. An interesting option, suggested in a recent article on The Conversation.com, is to eliminate the men’s divisions in sports, replacing them with “open” divisions. Transgender athletes would be assigned to “open” or “women’s” based on ability. Says author Professor Chris Suprenant of the University of New Orleans:
“For trans women athletes, at issue is their athletic ability, not their womanhood. If a tournament organizer determines that a trans woman athlete is too good to compete against other women because of her biological advantage, requiring her to compete in an “open” division does not undermine her humanity.”
There is no doubt, however, that if we don’t allow trans athletes to compete with their gender, many will drop out completely, depriving them of the benefits of participation and fans of their athletic achievements.
Chris Mosier, a transgender, hall of fame triathlete, gives some insightful tips for allies of transgender people: Respect transgender people’s names, pronouns, and privacy; protect the privacy of transgender student athletes; allow trans people to control who they tell about their identity and be supportive; understand that every trans journey is different; and educate yourself on trans topics. Taking these steps will help you become a better ally and will help trans athletes feel welcome and accepted.