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Transgender athletes: Solution balances fairness, inclusion

Perhaps the most controversial issue in sport today is that of the inclusion or exclusion of transgender athletes. Transgender athletes are not new. One of the earliest high-profile transgender athletes was Renee Richards, a promising young male tennis player who underwent gender reassignment therapy in 1975 and played in women’s tournaments a year later.

Jim Cross

The recent record-breaking success of University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer Lia Thomas has again brought the debate to the forefront. In 2021, anti-transgender athletics bills were introduced in 36 states. These bills require that all students be on sports teams and compete in sports competitions based on their gender assigned at birth.

These efforts assume that transgender girls and women hold biological advantages in girls’ and women’s sports, effectively undermining fairness. Some would point out that sport is not necessarily fair as is, due to genetic advantages that individuals have at birth that simply occur naturally - e.g., height, limb length, muscle fiber type, etc. Sport is not fair but that doesn’t mean it should not strive for fairness, which it constantly does.

There is great variety in how states are handling this issue, ranging from full inclusion of transgender athletes to full exclusion, to adopting a policy similar to the NCAA’s, which allows girls and women to compete after taking gender-affirming hormones for a year. This treatment blocks testosterone and increases estrogen. Currently, transgender men can compete in men’s events without any restrictions.

President Biden’s executive order mandates blanket inclusion for all transgender female athletes. States that do not follow the mandate may risk their federal funding. However, a group of women’s sports leaders, including tennis legend Martina Navratilova, several Olympic gold medalists, several transgender athletes and five former presidents of the Women’s Sports Foundation has asked the Biden administration to limit the participation of transgender girls and women who “have experienced all or part of male puberty (which is the scientific justification for separate sex sport).”

The difference in athleticism between girls and boys before puberty is almost inconsequential, with girls sometimes having an edge. A new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has found that transgender women maintain an athletic advantage over their cisgender peers even after a year in hormone therapy. This advantage (approximately 10%) is due mainly to higher testosterone levels.

Disagreement is currently the norm, and it seems like the differing positions are almost irreconcilable. It is particularly telling that women disagree in this, the 50th year anniversary of the enactment of Title IX, which has produced more gains for women in sport than any other legislation.

We need to come up with a solution that balances the fairness vs. inclusion issue. And we need to accomplish it without knee-jerk labeling those opposed to transgender athlete inclusion as transphobic. Many people wholeheartedly support the rights of transgender people, just not in sport. Perhaps, for now, we should consider each athlete and sport on a case-by-case basis. The NCAA has recently passed the buck to each individual sport governing body to make its own regulations. The IOC (International Olympic Committee) has issued new guidelines that no longer require athletes to undergo hormone treatments to compete; however, they still enforce testosterone levels and ban high-testosterone females from running in events from the 400 meters to the mile.

Once again, science has not yet given us a definitive answer to a thorny problem, though it currently points to testosterone levels being a large enough factor to create an unfair advantage for transgender women in competition with cisgender women in sport. Transgender athletes comprise less than 1% of those in competition. Do we simply allow that small number of athletes to compete, or do we apply the wisdom of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock? “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”