Sex and Gender in Cis and Trans Sports
Trans woman Lia Thomas speeds past her college swimming competitors, shattering school records and making it all look effortless. She’s not alone, as other trans women athletes like track star CeCé Telfer and weightlifter Laurel Hubbard easily triumph over their cisgender competitors. (Transgender don’t identify with the sex assigned at birth. Cis do.) This has sparked debate about fairness.
But fair for whom? Cis women? Trans women? It’s not so easy to unravel.
Tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, along with Olympian Erika Brown worry that trans women may end up dominating women’s sports, leaving cis women with no chance. Yet Billie Jean King and Megan Rapinoe support trans women and girls competing in women’s sports.
Champion Women head Nancy Hogshead-Makar says those with concerns aren’t transphobic. Rather, “This topic is very uncomfortable for people. They don’t understand it, and so they (take) the lazy way out … saying, ‘Put them in the women’s category’ … (which) makes the women’s category meaningless.”
Sex is biologically determined by genes with xx for females and xy for males, accompanied by higher estrogen levels for females but more testosterone for males. Intersexed people have gene combinations like xxy and chromosome levels that differ from xx and xy people.
While sex is biological, gender is a social construction with different societies devising differing notions about what biological sex means. Do men wear skirts? Depends on the culture. Gender also shows up in people who feel their biology doesn’t match their minds or spirits.
Biological sex differences affect both sports and longevity. Females survive better than males. And due to biological makeup, males and females have advantages in different types of sports.
The male pubescent testosterone surge makes them taller with larger muscles, bigger bones, greater lung capacity, larger hearts and more hemoglobin to carry oxygen in the body. As the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle points out, “for cisgender men, this translates to roughly a 6-10% advantage over biological women in sports such as (short distance) running and swimming, though the gap can be larger in other domains, and in a few sports female biology actually conveys some advantage.” Women are shorter and have better endurance, flexibility and balance, for instance, which aids in many gymnastics events and long distance swimming and running. In sports that favor men McArdles adds that, “at the elite level, where 1% to 2% differences can easily make the margin of victory, (the male advantage is) overwhelming.”
In reaction to sex differences the NCAA’s transgender athlete policy says trans women can compete in women’s sports after one year of testosterone suppression. So what happens when hormone levels are adjusted?
After three years swimming for the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team Lia Thomas underwent spironolactone treatment to help her body conform to her gender identity and she joined the women’s swim team. Thirty months later she says she has less strength and speed, which has been confirmed by researchers from Duke University, Marquette University and the Mayo Clinic, who say her times are 5% slower than before transitioning. But her times are still much better than most other women. For instance, in freestyle she is faster than even Olympian Torri Huske.
So far, the data indicate that testosterone suppression doesn’t level the playing field between cis and trans women. Importantly, testosterone suppression will not make men any shorter or decrease the size of their hearts or lungs. And because testosterone permanently increases the number of muscle nuclei, xy individuals have greater “muscle memory” which aids in regaining strength. So trans women can more easily build strength even after transitioning.
So what’s fair?
On the one hand, sports is core to the identity of many trans women so they should participate. On the other hand, it’s also a core identity of many cis women who may come to feel that they can no longer compete to win.
At this point in time the problem affects only a few athletes, so maybe it’s no big deal? But still, which side should be favored?
Now, if more athletes transition perhaps there will be enough for a new, non-binary competitive category. The biggest problem would arise if there weren’t enough trans women to justify a separate category yet so many that they dominate women sports, rendering “women’s sports” non-functional for cis women.
Some transgender athletes simply choose to undergo physical transitioning after they’ve ended their competitive careers (which are short), like Yale’s Izzi Henig who is a transgender male but swims for the women’s team.
Complicated classifications have long been an issue, whether due to disability or nationality, for instance. Roger Pielke Jr. directs the University of Colorado’s Sports Governance Center and he points out that athletes can’t compete for one country and then change nationalities to compete for another. So the same rule could apply in terms of gender, he suggests.
Or perhaps we could create an algorithm to account for various parameters including testosterone, height, endurance, gender identity and social economic status (since rich people can afford better training). That would level the playing field but could also be difficult to produce.
These are a few options that have been banded about. Many people wish we didn’t have to deal with this uncomfortable question. But what do you think?