Transgender athletics

Competitive women’s tennis died forty years ago.  At least, it was supposed to have.  Mere months after (then) Bruce Jenner set world records in the 1976 Olympic decathlon, a 42-year old ophthalmologist and semi-pro tennis player named Renée Richards applied to play in the US Open Women’s tournament.  The wrinkle was that she was transsexual and refused to be subjected to chromosome testing.  No helpful precedent existed.  Athletes, officials and the sports media all expressed fears of unfair advantage.  Her application was denied, and she sued the US Tennis Association, ultimately winning her case in the New York Superior Court.  In 1977, she reapplied and was accepted to play in the Open, where she lost  to Virginia Wade in the first round.  She lingered in pro tennis for a few years, but left a substantially larger mark on the culture than she ever did in the record books.

The conversation that Dr. Richards started has, if anything, intensified over the last ten years.  The carnival came to my neck of the woods last year when the Minnesota State High School League debated what rules ought to apply to transgender athletes.  The above picture was part of an advertising blitz by “family” groups to block transgender participation in high school athletics.  The MSHSL ultimately decided to adopt rules similar to those laid out by the International Association of Athletics Federations, which I will summarize below.  First, however, I would like to lay out the arguments for and against allowing transgender athletes to compete.

I assume that the answer to the question, “Why would a transgender person want to engage in sport?” is pretty much the same as the answer to, “Why does he listen to punk music?”, or “Why would she want to drive a car?”  There is likely a mixture of whim and utility intermingled in the answer, but the most striking thing about the question is its silliness.  Trans people read, drive and compete for reasons similar to the general population.  Regarding athletics specifically, some seek the health benefits.  Others thrive on competition or are driven by the vicariously fantasies of parents.  A gifted few might have the further enticement of financial renumeration, whether through scholarships or professional status.  Nevertheless, most of us do whatever we do because we simply like to do so.

The most compelling argument against allowing transgender athletes is one of fairness, which I think most will readily affirm as a positive value.  Specifically, the MTF athlete 1 might possess strength, agility and/or endurance above and beyond that of her peers which result in competitive advantage.  To the extent that is the case, perhaps it makes more sense to segregate by birth sex, which, after all, is easier to establish than psychosocial identity.

The devil is in the details.  One could graph out a range for normal strength, stamina, etc. for males and females and demonstrate that they are different, but they overlap.  The proponents of this argument are not really looking for a measurable talent cutoff.  Their preferred segregation is between the sexes, not between strength and size categories.  Secondly, I have no doubt that Usain Bolt and Carli Lloyd work hard at their sports, but to what extent can we say that they do not enjoy some degree of innate physical advantage?  If we truly want a level playing field, we will have to select more random activities–competitive coin flipping, perhaps.

Muddying the waters even further, what really persists after transition?  It turns out that it largely depends on when the person started hormones.  Male and female body structure is quite similar until puberty.  At that point, the bodies start to become sculpted by estrogen or testosterone.  Estrogen closes the growth plates in bone earlier than testosterone, resulting in lower female stature, and muscle type/mass is significantly increased by testosterone.  One of these differences, you will have guessed, is permanent.  Those MTF’s who start hormones post puberty will likely have increased height and bone density, whereas those who started earlier will be more comparable to natal females.  However, it appears that estrogen therapy brings muscle mass fairly quickly into the female range.  Again, no one is actually arguing for segregation by precise physical measurements when it comes right down to it.  Most transwomen will be somewhat taller, but not necessarily stronger than their co-competitors.  Interestingly, athletes post-transition tend to be as, but not more competitive, than they were pre-transition.2  The world being what it is, maybe there is someone out there just crazy enough to undergo gender transition for the sake of athletic advantage, but there is no evidence whatsoever that it would work.

As I mentioned, the IAAF has established rules that determine eligibility of the trans athlete.  The athlete must report her transition.  She must have legally AND medically transitioned, with the latter being defined as a minimum of one year on testosterone blockade/estrogen therapy.  Hormone levels are to be checked, and the final decision is made by a panel of medical experts.  The process is rigorous, well-defined, and frankly puts a very high burden on the post-transition athlete in terms of extra verifications and concession of privacy.  Parenthetically, transwomen will almost always end up with much lower levels of testosterone–typically zero for transwomen vs. 20-60 ng/mL for natal females.

Once you get past the fairness discussion, the arguments against letting transgender women degenerate rather quickly.  Most of them you can read in the advertisement above.  Transwomen are really men.  Predators.  Imposters looking for easier competition.  Thieves, taking scholarships from “real women”.  Each one of these is a version of You Don’t Count.  This affront, and not hope of personal gain, is what drove the otherwise shy Renée Richards to let herself be cast as “an extraordinary spectacle”3 in the summer of 1976.  She wanted to play, and she didn’t like being told that she could not.

Women’s tennis did not die in 1977.  Richards went on to coach Martina Navratilova to a pair of championships at Wimbledon, where she herself was never allow to play.  She returned to her ophthalmology practice, and apparently still pops back into the office a couple of days per week.  In 2014, two days after her 80th birthday, another quirky fairly late-transitioning forty-something transgender physician stood up in Scott County District Court and testified that she too, would like to be called Renae, reborn.  It was so ordered.

  1. If there has been any substantial pushback against FTM athletes competing in men’s sports, I am unaware of it.
  2.  The study author also wrote an excellent piece for WaPo on the myth of transsexual advantage in sport.  I recommend it.
  3. Per Sports Illustrated

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