Sport

There’s no good reason to ban trans women from sports, according to science and experts

Josh Milton April 7, 2022
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A person holds up a sign reading "We support trans/queer athletes" during a counter-protest

Counter-protestors gather to support trans swimmer Lia Thomas at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on 17 March 2022. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty)

If there’s one thing that’s certain in this chaotic world, it’s that scientists know there’s simply no real reason to blanket ban trans athletes from sports.

Dozens of American states have sought this year to ban trans women from sports while British prime minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday (6 April) said “biological males” shouldn’t compete against cisgender women.

The vexing debate over trans people kicking a ball or running for a few seconds has increasingly engulfed the minds of lawmakers and pundits.

Yet while research is still scant on the area, advocacy groups and many sports governing bodies generally agree that trans people playing sports is a non-issue.

After all, sport is unfair. Some athletes have natural advantages, such as height, while others have access to better coaching and resources.

Anti-trans bans invite ‘gender policing’, say activists

For the most part, trans women need to undergo hormone therapy for at least one year to complete. Even then, testosterone, long associated with strength, isn’t even the reason for some performance differences in the first place, studies have suggested.

Last year, for example, the International Olympic Committee released new guidelines that said there is no need for trans women to lower their testosterone to compete against cisgender women.

The framework also applies to women with differences in sex development, such as Caster Semenya, the 800-metre runner told by World Athletics she can only compete if she alters her natural hormones.

No wonder Semenya’s career took a hit, Mermaids, a British charity that supports trans youth, told PinkNews.

“Trans women do not have an unfair advantage in sports and their participation does not harm trans women,” a spokesperson said.

“To even be considered eligible to compete at an elite level, female trans athletes must undergo hormone therapy and rigorous testing for at least a year prior to training and competing.

“As we’ve seen with athletes such as Lia Thomas and Laurel Hubbard, who’ve both been beaten by cis-female athletes in their respective sports, being trans does not guarantee a win.”

South African 800 metre Olympic champion Caster Semenya. (PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)
South African 800 metre Olympic champion Caster Semenya. (PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty)

The effects of this can already be seen. According to the US Trans Survey, 22 per cent of trans women who were perceived as trans in school were abused so badly they had to leave school because of it.

The American Civil Liberties Union say that most efforts, whether it be by some sporting regulators or lawmakers, to ban trans women from sports are overwhelmingly based on “harmful” myths.

“The policing of women’s bodies and what they need to look like and what they can do needs to stop,” Mermaids continued.

While research suggests that some trans women have residual physiological advantages, the few trans athletes who compete in top sports tell a different story.

An analysis by The Independent found that Lia Thomas, whose very existence has become a culture war as a college swimmer, doesn’t have an unfair advantage over cis women.

She hasn’t broken as many records as pundits may want you to think, the analysis found, and her times are often on par with cis women – and way below those of cis men.

In American women’s college sports, there are around 200,000 athletes competing. Of them, one researcher estimated, there are about 50 trans people.

Caster Semenya: Sports bodies that exclude trans women are ‘on the wrong side of history’

Doctors, academics, and sports psychologists, meanwhile, told ALCU that such bans balloon an apparent problem that doesn’t exist and, in doing so, foster division within sports.

They stress that sex can greatly vary women person to person – there is no one way a women’s body can be.

Many who rally to ban trans athletes shout that gender is defined by biological sex. But scientists have long said that biological sex isn’t so straightforward and there is no single biological factor that defines a person’s sex.

“A person’s genetic make-up and internal and external reproductive anatomy are not useful indicators of athletic performance,” said Dr Joshua Safer.

“There is no inherent reason why her physiological characteristics related to athletic performance should be treated differently from the physiological characteristics of a non-transgender woman.”

Even when the so-called advantages trans athletes hold are trumpeted by critics, when it comes to elite sports, it’s almost inevitable that a top athlete holds an edge over their peers.

Michael Phelps is a textbook example of this, researchers say. The towering swimmer has a 6’7″ wingspan, flipper-grade size 14 feet and produces half the lactic acid of his competitors, giving him almost superhuman stamina.

“Cis athletes like Michael Phelps are celebrated for their genetic differences but as soon as the trans conversation happens in sports this is not the same,” Mermaids added.

Headshot of Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps. (Emma McIntyre/KCASports2017/Getty Images for Nickelodeon)

“Trans men are also left out of this conversation as they are seen as assigned female at birth so, therefore, not able to compete in any advantage.”

There aren’t really any uniform guidelines on the eligibility of trans women in sports – some governing bodies even have conflicting advice.

Many governing bodies require trans athletes to undergo some form of hormone suppression for a certain number of years. But this is a demand that the United Nations see as “unnecessary, humiliating and harmful”.

The council warned sporting officials “to refrain from developing and enforcing policies and practices that force, coerce or otherwise pressure women and girl athletes into undergoing unnecessary, humiliating and harmful medical procedures in order to participate in women’s events in competitive sports”.

Stonewall recommended to PinkNews that sports embrace a “case-by-case” approach to regulating trans people taking part in sports.

The International Federation of Sports Medicine, which represents 125,000 physicians in 117 countries, agrees.

Given that there is little data on the apparent advantages trans women have, the commission suggested last year that each sport regulate itself rather than blanket banning trans women from the competitive sport altogether.

“Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history,” Semenya said in 2020 as she took her exclusion to the European Court of Human Rights.

“I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born.

“I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.”

More: trans athletes, transphobia

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