What’s Fair? Trans Women’s Inclusion in Sports
Transgender inclusion in sports has one of the many fighting grounds of the conservativism. It seems that never have so many people cared about women’s sports as when there’s a discussion around cis women’s safety and fairness in competition at the expense of trans women’s humanity.
Anecdotally, I knew something was off back in when Joe Rogan used his platform to lambast pro MMA fighter Fallon Fox for not staying in her lane as a trans women and self-selecting out of professional sports. There was also talk of having a separate category for trans people to fight in without acknowledging what that actually means. As touched as I was by all these cis men wanting to protect me and women’s sports – something felt particularly like a dogwhistle when outraged men brought this up in conversation and wouldn’t listen to me as someone assigned female at birth who had been in combat sports my whole life.
Since then, it’s been women’s sports of all kinds – divisions at collegiate, professional, and Olympic levels of swimming, track and field, cycling, weightlifting – and most recently, powerlifting, that have come up for “debate”.
Critics of trans women’s inclusion in sports typically cite male puberty, bone density and mass, muscle fibres, and natural strength, purporting that these unfair biological advantages erode women’s sports. This isn’t just coming from cis men, per my anecdote above, but also a small minority of vocal cis women athletes who are calling for trans women’s exclusion as well.
These athletes are being paraded by far right conservative media as evidence of their intent – just to protect women and sporting culture. Piers Morgan and Tucker Carlson, suddenly care an awful lot about Canadian women’s powerlifting – apparently having nothing to do with the increasing rise of transphobic hate.
Unremarkably, none of the cis women criticizing trans inclusion in sports are advocating for better access to trans health care for youth. Nor are they challenging the damaging parts of sex segregation in sports, especially for youth, that lead to the undervaluing and underfunding of athletics for girls and women.
It’s not to say that trans inclusion policies aren’t complicated. They are. There are many factors that need to go in to sport-specific considerations of competition classes for all genders – cis and trans alike. However, these public debates have not been nuanced and have mostly happened at the expense of trans identity.
What are the biomedical considerations of trans women’s inclusion in sports?
The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) – the body which is primary responsible for anti-doping programs in elite Canadian sports – published a scientific review of all English-language studies on trans athletics conducted between 2011 and 2021. It summarized that all available evidence indicates trans women who have undergone testosterone suppression have no clear biological advantages over cis women in elite sport. This isn’t about a woke or anti-woke inclusion at the expense of sporting competition, but the scientific evidence that has been produced.
The CCES notes that cis men do see standard biological advantages in certain sports because of higher red blood cell count levels, high lean body mass, higher cross section area, and more strength. But these are advantages not found in trans women after 12 months of medical transition. Trans women were found to retain statistically higher levels than cis women on average in these areas, but within the normal standard distribution. Not all cis women have the same physiology either.
Professional sporting regulatory bodies have approached policies on transgender athletes in uneven ways, often based on cherrypicked evidence. Motivations of trans panic are even more obvious when looking at occurrences like the International Chess Federation’s decision to ban trans women from competition. Sex segregation in chess is one of the clearest examples of the social impacts of the underrepresentation of women and in no way reflects any biological advantages in competition. So, banning trans women is transphobia on face value without any arguments to shroud it that we see in other competitive arenas.
The perception of biophysical unfairness of trans women’s bodies is rooted in deep transphobia, transmisogyny and sexism.
Policing Women’s Bodies
When South African runner Caster Semenya, a cis woman, was found to have elevated levels of testosterone, she was initially banned from international competition and forced to take hormone-blocking therapy due to the “unfairness” of her “biological advantages” over other cis women athletes.
Do you know what is a real biological advantage in many elite sports with indisputable scientific evidence? Height and lean body mass. However, only certain biological advantages are policed under the moniker of fairness.
The very nature of competitive sport at elite levels is to celebrate meaningful performance inequalities. So, it becomes a matter of establishing physiological comparability in order to create “fair” competition between unequal competitors. If all bodies and conditions were exactly the same, there wouldn’t be any winners or losers.
Ultimately, women’s sports are less valued than men’s. This is seen through the allocation of resources, coaches, access to equipment and spaces, options for teams, and the discrimination women face, including from queerphobia, racism, classism, and experiences of sexual violence.
The histories of misogyny, anti-Blackness, and the colonial foundations of sports are on full display with the continued policing of women’s bodies that is only extended in discussions of trans women.
So, where does that leave us?
The overreliance on biomedical arguments for trans women’s inclusion in sports is thinly veiled transphobia. When cis women athletes speak out against inclusion, they often replicate the general social panic of the existence of trans women generally, reinforcing the sanctioned violence trans people face in all public spaces.
Women’s sports are undervalued and women athletes face considerable discrimination even at elite levels. This discrimination is compounded by racism, ableism, and classism – the latter being the biggest sociological indicator of achievement in sport. But rather than challenging this application of patriarchy, discussions of trans women become wrought with language of protection and worries of eroding the small space cis women have carved for themselves in athletics.
Ultimately, there hasn’t been enough scientific research done but the existing evidence shows that trans women don’t have significant advantages over trans women in most biophysical markers.
There do need to be sport-specific policies on trans inclusion because the current regimes of sports do have measures of competitive fairness. However, we need to examine what these markers and how challenging our normative assumptions improves the sporting lives of all women – trans and cis alike.