Trans People in Sport

Trans weightlifter Laurel Hubbard has met the strict eligibility standards set by the International Olympic Committee and the New Zealand Olympic Committee, and was selected to compete at the upcoming Olympics. This created an international debate on whether trans people, particularly women, hold an unfair advantage. Science shows that this advantage does not exist. We will try to explain why.

A familiar topic

What we are seeing around us mirrors what happened decades ago. Rooted in racism, everyone was fed the belief that white people were intellectually superior, and black people (with all the different ethnicities that fall under it) had an athletic advantage. A self fulfilling prophecy that was created not because black people in general had a genetic advantage, but brought about due to the limited opportunities that such communities had. Throughout the years, even up to this day, people have justified the success of black people in certain sports disciplines by saying that they have a biological advantage. The socioeconomic situation that led to that success is ignored. And as happened in the past, nowadays we see that any success enjoyed by a trans woman athlete is attributed solely to their supposed genetic advantage.

In the meantime, the International Olympic Committee set its first guidelines for trans athletes back in 2003. Between 2003 and now, there were minor changes, the last being in 2015. It took eighteen years for a trans athlete to both meet the criteria and qualify. This is an indication that the argument might be much smaller than it seems.

DNA and XX/XY chromosomes

All these things determine the sex that you’re born as, but they don’t really do much else. They have no effect on our everyday life, because biological processes are mostly determined by the endocrine (and nervous) system. And these hormones released by the endocrine glands can generally be ‘controlled’.

Sex hormones

Referring to a trans woman’s body as a male body is incorrect. Uninformed people vastly underestimate how significant these hormones are. Biologically, a trans woman’s body (who undergoes medical transition) functions as a female body. In trans women, if testosterone is properly suppressed, attributes that are generally associated with male strength are very quickly lost, and other things like fat percentage increase in line with female values. Within a few months, bodybuilders can look like they barely ever stepped inside a gym, even if they maintain a certain level of training. And that muscle mass isn’t getting rebuilt as long as hormone levels are maintained. However, in some people it can take longer for muscle mass to significantly diminish, and this is where it might be fair to examine whether the current IOC guidelines should be amended. At the moment, with our limited level of research in this field, it seems like the current framework is correct, as the athletic ability of trans women is far closer to that of cis women than cis men.

Bone structure and other things that do not change with the suppression of testosterone

Firstly, women (and people in general) come in all shapes and sizes. There are cis women with narrow hips, wide shoulders, tall women, short women, and the list goes on. Do we exclude certain cis women from sports because of their shape? Bone density is higher in trans women who have had the effects of testosterone, but those bones need muscle to move, muscle which is diminished through a lack of testosterone. Not only is this not an advantage for trans woman, but it could potentially be a disadvantage when compared to cis women. Hating on a trans woman because they have a deep voice, body hair, and look more masculine (permanent effects of exposure to testosterone) only shows that people are afraid of anyone who doesn’t fit their gender stereotypes.

But VO2 max and lactate threshold and…

Back to our historical context. All of these little arguments was made about black people so you are likely falling in the same trap. We all know that was not right now. or so we hope.

Being trans is unnatural

Instead of producing sex hormones themselves, trans people have to get theirs from an external source. The food we eat, medicines we take, and pretty much everything we do in life is unnatural. Trans people are just as natural and biological as everyone else, and claiming otherwise is dehumanising.

Place trans people in a different category

Sports have never been fair. This is a ridiculous suggestion as human physiological and morphological variance has always been an accepted part of sport. No two people are the same, so should we have categories for age, height, weight, limb length, and whatever else people want to categorise? That’s how you can eliminate unfairness in sport, and it’s also how you end up with no competition as every single person will fall under a different category. Or do we only want to exclude an already marginalised and misunderstood population because we dislike anyone who’s different?

Enough with the hypotheticals

Stop reading (and sharing) disingenous articles about trans athletes who’s main purpose is to create an unfounded fear of trans people. Stop cherry-picking research that you didn’t even read (or understand). Stop claiming that trans women are or will be dominating women’s sports. Where do you see this happening? Trans people have been around and allowed to compete (following certain rules) for many years now. Every few years, whenever a trans athlete makes the headlines (because we only care about trans people when they win something), everyone starts heralding the apocalypse, and yet, we’ve never seen a trans woman be the best in any sport, let alone dominating enough that no other woman has a chance at competing. Men do have a significant advantage over women in pretty much every sport. Trans women, however, do not.

Trans men

Trans male athletes exist, but we hear less about them for various reasons. Firstly, society and media is obsessed with women and their bodies. Trans women have always received much more attention because we still live in a misogynistic society where being male is superior. Secondly, environmental effects, wherein trans men who grew up as girls are less likely to take sport seriously because of gender stereotypes. Thirdly, nowadays most people transition in their 20s, and then they have to wait for the effects of testosterone, train, and bulk up, always playing catchup with cis men, so they don’t win (also because men’s sports are much more saturated). Comparatively, trans women are ‘going backwards’ in athletic ability, which is easier.

Fear and prejudice

For the vast majority of people, when they think of a trans athlete, they think of a hulking testosterone filled man who one day just decides to compete against women because it’s easy. Whenever anyone does that, all they’re doing is showing how uninformed and hateful they are, because to them, a trans person will never be anything but their assigned gender. This is an issue that goes beyond sport, and the topic of trans athletes is used to disguise general transphobia.

Different opinions

Having different opinions about this topic and discussing the research related to it is good. However, most people I’ve seen commenting about it are unable to do so without resorting to insults and misgendering of trans people.

Remember that typically, trans women use the female pronouns She/Her, whilst trans men use the pronouns He/Him.

Whether you like it or not, trans people are here to stay, in sport and every other aspect of society.