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. 

Track star CeCé Telfer in the center.ia

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?



We need to be able to talk about trans athletes and women’s sports

A transgender college swimmer is shattering records, sparking a debate over fairness

Trans Athletes Are Posting Victories and Shaking Up Sports

Trans women retain athletic edge after a year of hormone therapy, study finds

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 18, 2022, in LGBTQ+ and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 46 Comments.

  1. Kimberly Clark

    After reading the post on Sex and Gender in sports by Broadblogs, I realized I learned a new term — ‘Cisgender’. From my understanding, Cisgender describes a stand or position taken by said transgender persons who identify with a ‘chosen’ sex. This of course, is in spite of the gender at the time of birth, the stance of medical professionals, scientist, and the general populous.
    When trying to think of what would be fair to transgenders like Cece Telfer who want to compete on a professional level, in this case, womens sports, I can only pull from the behaviors of other sports categories such as boxing. For example, the weight class is decided by ‘like’ physical characteristics of the boxer so that each competitor will have a fair advantage.
    If the category rules shift, or goes outside of the similarities of a comparable weight class, then a new weight class is created. I think the same rules should should be applied to transgender competitors due to the obvious advantage of the physical makeup, dna, as well as the abundance of testosterone vs estrogen which commonly affords and individual ‘natural’, higher levels of strength.
    I see the transgender pushing a line in women’s sports, wondering how well it will go in the sport of football or soccer…hmm.

  2. Classifying a woman by the hormonal range she has is problematic and it does not just effect trans women athletes. Cis women also have high testosterone ranges as well- so maybe we can just categorize people on their hormonal ranges and muscles density rather than gender to make it truly “fair”. But that sounds a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? I myself am a cis woman who has been diagnosed with PCOS, so I have high testosterone ranges compared to the average woman. But I don’t have any athletic ability whatsoever- I can hardly even run a couple miles without giving in. So I don’t think that interrogating trans women on their hormonal levels are really going to be an effective strategy for classifying if they are woman enough to participate in sports.

  3. I really struggle with talking about this issue because I don’t know that much (or even keep up with) sports. However, I really do believe that transwomen do belong in sports. While I understand that there is a worry that they carry an advantage due to the gender they were assigned at birth–I trust that the hormone treatments work and that the protocols in place keep a fair competitive edge for all athletes. After reading this article, I ended up talking to a couple of people around me about their thoughts about trans people in sports and doing some of my own research. Competitive athletics are an incredibly binary and regulated organization, the nonbinary athletes I’ve researched–themselves seem to usually play on women’s teams even though they do not identify as women. I feel like there’s still a lot of work to do in order to include the people around us and to keep the competition fair for everyone.

  4. This is a challenging subject to address because trans and cis women are affected in many different ways. Because trans women identify as women, they should be allowed to engage in women’s sports. It would be incorrect to imply that because they are a trans woman, they aren’t a real woman. Women and men have different levels of hormones, with men having testosterone, which helps them build muscle and grow more body hair, and women having estrogen, which can make them curvier and more flexible, which some argue is why trans athletes should not be allowed to compete because they have an advantage. Trans athletes, on the other hand, are given hormone suppressors. I believe that at the national or higher levels, it is more about hard work and practice than hormonal benefits. As a national-level swimmer, I can say that after swimming with trans athletes, I have never felt that they had an advantage or that my race was unfair. So, yes, I believe trans athletes should be allowed to compete in their current gender rather than the one they were assigned at birth. When we see more trans athletes, I agree with Ms. Platts that nonbinary events should be added.

  5. Like many said above, it should be discussed because this is a complex topic. In my opinion, this is a complex issue with no “correct” answer. At the end of the day, someone will be disadvantaged. Because of the social construct that gender is and how long it has been institutionalized in all societies, there will be no true resolution when trying to compare it to the biological functions of the human body. Based on personal morals and my understanding of the transformation/hormone intake written in NAACP rules, transgender athletes should be able to compete. But from a scientific standpoint, because of the biological advantages men and women have, it would be easier to create more of a non-binary category/specific category for transgender athletes to compete in.

  6. I myself think that since it is an uncomfortable question, it should be talked about. I think a great part about this is inclusion, on the other hand I can see how cis women might find it unfair. I feel that the only solution here would be categorizing trans into separate competitive sports. It would be beneficial towards not only for cis women but for trans people as well, as they would be competing with people who have undergone the same hormonal changes and stress that comes along with it. They would also have competition that is at their level and make them better athletes instead of dominating a cis women sport.

  7. I myself have been hearing a lot about this issue in passing and I’m still mulling over my view. I understand that trans women could potentially have a physical advantage based on their physical transition, but instead of the solution being barring their participation, we should be moving toward establishing a non-binary category of competition. A league of their own. But I do think this could become controversial in who is ‘eligible’ for this kind of category (based on transition status? size?). For now, we should allow trans women to compete with cis women. It is not like people transition for the sake of the competitive advantage, people transition because of identity crises, uncomfortability in one’s own skin. And this alternative is better than say making a trans woman compete with cis men, I believe doing this would undermine the trans woman’s personal sense of identity and dignity.

  8. It is incredibly empowering that cis women and trans women are competing together in the same category. However, I do not believe trans women should be able to compete in women’s sports despite the changes in their body or their pronouns. Male gender contains X and Y chromosomes which enables for growth to be at a higher rate compared to female gender who contain XX chromosomes. Therefore, that is already a disadvantage to female gender, especially to a sport where every inch is an advantage. However, age makes a huge difference on the time of the transition which could have resulted to a slower or limited rate of growth for a trans women.

  9. Cis and trans women should be able to compete with each other, people believe that trans women have an advantage and can be difficult for cis women to compete with. The advantages trans women can have are big lungs, muscle strength, and more. Tallness I don’t think is an advantage because women can be tall as well, but I can see why this thing can be seen as an advantage there are places where women can play with men or girls with boys and both genders work hard to achieve what they are weak in that the other gender is better at and there are no this is not fair.

  10. This topic is a complicated one. It’s great trans women are allow to compete alongside cis women which puts them in the category in which they identify as. However, in terms of fairness, biologically speaking, trans women are males at birth and by identifying as a woman at a later point doesn’t essentially change their biological make up. Men tend to have more muscle that women and have a higher chance at being better at athletics than women. Putting a trans woman (having a male biological make up) with a cis woman (having a female biological make up) seems unfair to me. Why? If equal effort were put by both a cis woman and a trans woman into sports practice, the trans woman would be better eventually because of her biological make up. This could lead to some frustration among cis women.

  11. In my opinion I feel like it’s fair that trans women play sports with other women because they are now identifying as a woman. It’s only fair to make it as equal or even in sports some women want to even play men sports which makes sense because it should be fair for everyone. It makes sense why they let them play and they necessarily don’t have an advantage in my opinion because they train as hard as everyone else. Maybe even harder to prove themselves sometimes.

  12. This is such a good read because I’ve stumbled into some conversations about this where people got a bit furious about my point-of-view and said I was discriminating against trans-gender people. I was stumped then, and I am still stumped. It is wonderful if someone chooses to be transgender, but using my logic and opinion it should not allow them to compete in the sport of their new gender. In the case of the transgender swimmer competing against CIS women, it is about fairness ~ but it is nice to hear these different views so I can learn a bit more too.

  13. Hi Georgia. Long time.

    My view is that this is definitely a problem. Transwomen athletes definitely seem to have an advantage over typical women athletes.

    The issue is that we want to make competition as fair as possible, which I completely support.

    The trouble is that it’s impossible to draw the line completely fairly between “male” and “female” athletes. Various attempts have been made over the years. That’s because humans do not fall into two groups, male and female; not genetically, not hormonally.

    That means, however you draw the line, you’re going to disadvantage someone. If you draw it using hormones, you are going to disadvantage women like Caster Semenya, a natural woman with naturally high levels of testosterone (higher than many men).

    When you analyse the hormonal profile of people who are unequivocally “male” or “female”, you get a normal range for both—but those normal ranges overlap! And testosterone isn’t everything, otherwise Semenya would be able to run a four-minute mile, which she cannot (and which no female athlete has ever achieved).

    If you draw that line using chromosomes, you are going to disadvantage women like Maria Jose Martinez-Patino, whose karyotype is male, although she has androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) which means she is indistinguishable from a typical woman anatomically, with the single exception of being infertile.

    Neither Semenya nor Martinez-Patino was cheating: they are both women who are using their natural bodies to their full advantage. To imply (as some have done) that Semenya should have surgery or medication to force her testosterone into the “normal” range seems about as sensible as suggesting that Usain Bolt should have surgery or treatment to make his legs shorter.

    Various athletic professional bodies (including the International Olympic Committee) have empirically drawn the line based on hormone levels, but this could be considered to be simultaneously unfair to some typical female athletes (in that it allows transwomen to compete as women) AND to athletes like Caster Semenya (in that it defines her as a male for the purposes of competition)!

    I put all the science into an article on my blog here:

    • Good hearing from you, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

      My concern is if we get into a pattern where trans women almost always beat cis women and there goes women’s sports. I’m not sure whether there are enough trans athletes to find a clear pattern yet. Thoughts?

      • Ultimately, though it’s going to be unpopular with many, I think that transwomen should not be allowed to compete against typical female athletes in competition where strength and endurance matter. This is my viewpoint, in the interests of the greatest good to the greatest number.

        I think this is going to disadvantage transwomen athletes, but I think it’s going to make the playing field (literally) more level for typical female athletes, which I think is in the interests of fairness. For the moment, transwomen athletes are few, but they are disproportionately successful in their various sports. Therefore excluding them is excluding only a small proportion of potential competitors.

        In some sports, such as sharpshooting, golf and chess, where there is much less reliance on physical strength, I think any athletes should be permitted to compete against one another.

        In any sports, I think that transmen should be allowed to compete against typical male athletes.

        It would be lovely to think that, on some shining future day, we will figure out a way to make competitions completely fair, but I don’t think this will ever be possible. I do not think it would be possible to design a test which would exclude a transwoman with a potentially unfair advantage, but INclude athletes like Caster Semenya, who are using their own bodies to their greatest potential.

      • Thanks for your thoughts on this.

        I’m still mulling the issue over. I’m thinking that in the long term more people could come out as transgender which would enable a nonbinary category. Plus, as with gays and lesbians, the more people who come out and are recognized as friends and family, the less prejudice there is. So the category wouldn’t need to be stigmatized in the long term.

        In the short term I think of trans men athletes who simply choose to transition after their sports careers, which are short. Maybe the physical transition can wait a short time. Perhaps what’s most important is the soul, not the body.

  14. Actually I would say that whom it is most unfair to would be the spectators. What could be more boring than watching a tennis match between a woman and a man in their prime where the man happens to have an unusual gender self conception? The male consistently wins because of his advantage in muscle mass, size, and speed in this sport. How the genitals have been altered or not seems to have little relevance to it.

    • When the outcome seems a foregone conclusion competition can seem a bit dull. While a trans identity is not the norm it is growing more common and perhaps eventually we could see a non-binary category which would solve this problem. The competing athletes do more than have genitals altered, they also undergo hormone therapy, but it doesn’t make up for biological sex differences in height, heart size, lung capacity and ability to build muscle.

      Likewise, biological females have advantages in sports that require small size, balance and flexibility and endurance. They also survive better.

  15. I think the question of if transgender people can compete as the gender they identify with is highly nuanced. There are so many genetic advantages in sports that can affect one’s ability. From my knowledge, I believe that transgender women should be permitted to compete in the women’s category. They undergo hormone level testing to ensure they don’t have an advantage from testosterone. This question has also been brought up in high school sports. I do not believe children’s hormone levels and gender assigned at birth should matter for this specific situation.

  16. Athletic competitions are not allowed to use anabolic steroids because it is considered cheating. Anabolic steroids make you stronger and stimulate muscle mass, which is why many athletes are tempted to get them. If a woman used anabolic steroids, she would not be able to enter competitions. However, transgender women tend to achieve more muscle mass stronger lungs, among other qualities. We could say that it is the same as a competitor using anabolic steroids. It should be judged in the same way because both a transgender competitor and a competitor who uses anabolic steroids tend to have greater muscle mass than a competitor who is not transgender and does not use steroids.

  17. Although I can understand why this might cause confusion to some, I think something people fail to realize is that trans women are not a threat to women’s sports because trans women ARE women. I don’t think that starting a new category for trans people is the right thing to do because it might make trans people feel outcasted. Trans women also don’t have as big of an advantage as some might think because trans athletes are required to undergo hormone therapy which causes loss of muscle, strength, and endurance.

    • The only problem is that while trans women are women in their gender, minds and spirit, their biology is still different. Because of pubescent testosterone they are taller, have larger hearts, larger lungs and more easily develop muscle mass, even after hormone therapy.

      If our society came to value non-binary as much as cis then a non-binary category would not be a problem. That will take some time, as will having enough non-binary for competition. Perhaps this will work itself out in the long run but for now the issue remains a bit of a conundrum.

  18. With trans individuals, it is easy to just put them into the category that they are transitioning to, but the solution isn’t that simple. It is safe to say that although somebody has transitioned their gender, it does not change their biological structure. It does give un unfair advantage to them against a cis gender competing in the same sport because it improves their performance in certain areas. I think with time, as more trans come out, there will be enough to create a category of their own so that it is as fair as can possibly be. In the meantime though, it is a tricky situation to get around because of the controversy surrounding it.

  19. I don’t really know what to think. Trans athletes should have the same opportunities as everyone else and for trans women, that means competing with cis women. On the other hand I can empathize with cis women who resent being put at a competitive disadvantage.

  20. Why no concern for the trans-men who can’t compete against the cis men?

    • Because so far there haven’t been any complaints about trans men having an advantage in sports. Women have advantages on sports like balance beam but men don’t compete in that category and there have been no complaints yet they need to and that trans men should compete there. Perhaps there isn’t enough competition in marathon swimming and 24 hour running for trans men to be an issue. Or perhaps trans men are competing yet in these sports. Where there are no complaints there is no controversy.

      • I said trans men losing. Nobody wants to hear about the trans-men losers who never ever win, because nobody thinks losers are worthy to listen to. If it’s such a human right to compete in sport with the hope or possibility of winning, then transmen have no such right because they can never win. Therefore if it’s not a human right to compete, then transwomen should get out of female sports.

      • Right, you are going to hear about losers because it’s kind of irrelevant. They don’t make anyone feel like they are at an unfair advantage.

        I do know of some transmen who compete, but they compete on the women’s teams. And that’s fine because they have no physiological advantage.

        I don’t really feel like there is a natural right to compete. I personally don’t think sports are that big of a deal. And I don’t see a problem with trans competing until you get to the elite level. But at that point you have to weigh different people’s rights. And it shouldn’t be weighted so that only the trans are listened to or only the women are listened to. We need some sort of system that creates balance. Working to create a system that accommodates everyone in some way could be a growing experience.

  21. This topic I find very interesting because I do believe that there are different factors we cannot ignore when it comes to biological advantages and disadvantages in sports. It is difficult to pin point exactly where I stand on the discussion because on one hand, I support being allowed to compete in the sex you associate with but I also understand the concerns of cis individuals. I have seen Olympic level videos track and field mixed relays and announcers also point out how much of a difference in times runners have due to sex. One of them stated on average men run about 5 seconds faster, at least in the 4×4 relay. At an elite level I those advantages should not be completely ignored. Unfortunately, I believe the discussion on trans and cis sports will always be up for debate.

  22. Having trans athletes compete is a very complex situation. On one hand, it is unfair to say that trans-women should not be able to compete. For change to occur, inclusion is the first step. On the other hand, having a trans-women come into the sport and dominate almost be littles the hard work and dedication from cis-gendered athletes. I feel as if there is no one solution that could satisfy either side. Even an all trans-gendered sporting league would not be inclusive and would make transgendered athletes feel segregated.

  23. Competing in sports… especially at an elite level, is not a human right. If you think it is, then I demand a sports category for lethargic and lazy people, which I identify as… I could definitely compete at an olympic level in lethargy, if only the bigots would recognise my self identity as such.

  24. It seems like the complexity of the problem, can only result in a complex solution, that can never be agreeable to all concerned.

  25. Many thanks for an informative post on a topical issue that is mostly brushed off as one of those social pinpricks. The count of trans persons is steadily increasing and where their numbers are viable, it may be desirable to categorise them separately for competitive sports and games rather than continuing with the ongoing compromise of treating them on par with cisgenders. Where their numbers do not constitute a critical mass, the respective cisgenders may be given extra consideration: for example if a trans and cis end up in first and second positions respectively in a running race, both are to be declared as joint winners. In a situation where the trans and cis end up respectively in the second and third places, there will be two claimants for the second place.

  26. As an old white guy I hesitate to chime in. I saw a report that said the best cis woman would rank about 540th in competition with cis male swimmers. Given that, I don’t think it’s fair to cis women to compete with trans women in swimming competitions.

  27. I personally advocate for transhumanism and doing super-advanced research to use gene therapy and address the issues before puberty. If they were fortunate to transition before their natural puberty set in, trans-women could ideally compete as well as cis-women.
    We need to push science to address things like stem cell research, nanomedicine, and possibly replacement cloning and brain transplantation.

    • Wow. A lot of ideas going on there.

    • Your bone structure and more are already different before puberty… actually since you are in the womb. And do we really want to be doing radical body modification on children? Is that where we are as a society? You can’t drink or vote, but you can completely change your body?

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