Trans Athletes in Sports

A new controversy has sprung up about sex-segregated sports and transgender athletes. Nondiscrimination policies and laws suggest that trans athletes should be able to participate in sports in their identified gender, for example, athletes assigned male at birth who identify as female could participate in girls and womens sports.

Some women object, noting that females are generally smaller and weaker than men, and that a trans woman would have an advantage due to a male body. They want a ban on all trans athletes. Trans advocates counter that it’s a non-problem, that the relatively few trans girls who excel in their sports are a natural exception, just like cisgender women athletes with natural athletic gifts, and want all athletes to be allowed to participate as their self-identified gender.

My take on this is that it’s not a simple yes or no question. There are many different situations that require different approaches.

The Olympics was among the first to address this issue. Countries behind the iron curtain were alleged to send men, or women taking steroids, to compete in women’s events. The committee went back and forth for years, trying hormone tests, physical examinations, and doctor’s letters. They finally decided that trans women could participate as women, but only after having been on hormones for at least two years. Female hormones eventually weaken the male muscles, eliminating any advantage of strength or speed. This appears to have solved the problem for adult athletes.

At the other end of the age spectrum, sports for children younger than puberty are usually already coeducational, because male and female bodies at that age have no sex-based advantage. A pre-pubescent trans girl should have no benefit participating in a girls sport other than her dignity.

Texas has notably allowed trans athletes to participate in sports only in their birth sex. This has resulted in Mack Beggs, a trans-male wrestler, assigned female at birth but taking testosterone since age 16, wrestling against girls and winning the state championship. He wants to wrestle boys, and clearly has the strength to compete with them, but the state puts him in with girls. Clearly, with the hormonal advantage, he should be wrestling boys.

It gets a bit more interesting between puberty and adulthood. Current medical standards require kids to reach age 16 before starting hormones. If they are allowed two years to take effect, the athlete would be unable to participate until age 18, effectively eliminating high school athletics under Olympic standards.

However, trans medicine has advanced once more, offering drugs that block puberty to kids younger than 16. This prevents an unwanted puberty and eliminates any testosterone-fueled advantage for trans girls on blockers. Once they reach 16 they can start actual hormones, and with no muscular advantage, are likely to be comparable in size and strength with their cisgender teammates and opponents.

Not all trans people take hormones, and not everyone identifies as a binary male or female. It does seem reasonable to forbid a male from claiming a female identity, undergoing no medical intervention, and participating in high school girls sports. While it is highly unlikely a male athlete would live as a girl just for an athletic advantage, the advantage could be real for a trans girl who doesn’t want hormones. Or the athlete might not have such an advantage. There are plenty of small male students who are comparable in size and strength with their female peers.

So what to do? It’s not black and white. Here is my suggestion:

  1. Trans athletes who have been on hormones long enough to have demonstrably acquired the sex characteristics of their desired gender, going in either direction, should participate in their new gender.
  2. Trans athletes who have not yet begun puberty should participate in their new gender.
  3. Trans athletes who are old enough to have started puberty should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Any decision about which sport they qualify for should take into account
    a. Their age.
    b. Their hormonal/blocker status.
    c. Whether puberty has given their bodies any advantage for the sport in question.
    d. Whether hormones or blockers have eliminated any advantage for the sport in question.