Trans* athletes in competition
By Natalie Serafini, Editor-in-Chief
The acceptance of trans* athletes in sports has long been contentious, and a recent race brought this debate back to the forefront in Canada: a pair of transgender athletes, Enza Anderson and Savannah Burton, took part in a rowing competition on the Ottawa River, and organizers of the race have noted that the two are the first openly trans* athletes to row in a Canadian competition. With this step forward for Canadian trans* athletes, and the ensuing discussions that have arisen, it begs the question why some continue to resist the inclusion of trans* athletes.
Assertions of an “unfair advantage” generally centre around the supposedly inescapable differences between, as is most commonly argued, trans* women and biological women. In Salon.com, Heather Hargreaves details how trans* athlete Fallon Fox’s career has been peppered with accusations of physical inequality, and statements that she “is a man beating up other females” in mixed martial arts.
Not only are these accusations insulting to athletes, Hargreaves also discusses how they’re factually inaccurate. Many who argue against acceptance of trans* athletes assert that male-to-female (MTF) trans* athletes have more testosterone than biological women do, and this increases their muscle mass; in fact, studies have shown that cis-female athletes have higher testosterone levels than trans* female athletes. Consequently, trans* female athletes actually face more difficulty in reaching the same muscle mass as their cis-gender opponents.
Bone density is another go-to argument, but bone density varies a great deal based on different factors, including nutrition, sex, age, race, and genetics. As Hargreaves states, “there is simply too much variation to exclude someone solely on the basis of that measurement. Not only is there an extreme amount of variation that overlaps between sexes, but bone density and bone structure is irrelevant to determining athletic performance.”
These arguments against trans* athletes also disregard the physical variation amongst cis-athletes. There will always be some people who naturally have a physical advantage over their opponents; yet I’ve never heard of a basketball player being kept from playing because they’re “too tall,” or Michael Phelps being told he couldn’t compete because his long arms gave him an unfair advantage in swimming. On top of which, clearly the arguments against trans* athletes aren’t entirely based in science.
Your body changes a great deal when you transition and go through hormone therapy. Nong Thoom—the famous trans* woman who began her muay thai boxing career as a male fighter and transitioned under intense public scrutiny—had to deal with the physical changes as she took hormone therapies and continued to fight cis-male muay thai boxers. Granted, Thoom was and is an incredible muay thai boxer, so she can hold her own against any opponent; nonetheless, it’s ludicrous to pit a trans* female undergoing hormone therapies against a cis-male opponent, in every fight, simply because of a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge a trans* woman as a woman.
Some have proposed reserving leagues for trans*-only athletes, but this is potentially problematic—although I do see the value in fostering a place and community for trans* athletes. First of all, I worry that having separate, segregated leagues for men, women, and trans* athletes sets trans* athletes apart as “other” to the supposedly regular leagues. Additionally, there’s already a great deal of inattention paid to women’s leagues and competitions; would a league for trans* athletes keep those athletes on the fringe of competitions, and prevent them from being recognized as elite athletes?
The Olympics represent a perfect example: few will deny that they mark the pinnacle of competition in athletics. What happens when you’re an athlete who isn’t allowed to compete with the world’s cis-gender elite, or are given a consolation prize of “separate but equal” competitions? While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was the first to adopt more inclusive policies, the Huffington Post reported in February that no openly transgender athletes have competed in the Olympics; additionally, the IOC’s policies require that competitors have expensive sex-reassignment surgeries, take hormone therapies for at least two years, and receive legal recognition of their transition. These policies, while more inclusive than what has previously been the case, haven’t been updated since they were enacted over 10 years ago, and they prevent countless athletes who can’t afford the stipulations from competing. As angry as the global community was over the Winter Olympics being held in homophobic Russia, there was another group that has been and continues to be excluded.