The goal of this article is to explore the idea of transgender women competing with cisgender women in sports.
This is a topic that tends to ignite passion on both sides of the aisle. My hope is to be able to write about this in a scientific and non-polarizing way. Some of the terms involved in this discussion change over time, and it is possible they will continue to change in the future. My goal is to use the most up-to-date and proper terms available. I apologize in advance if I am using a term inappropriately. Allow me to outline the operational definitions of the terms I am using in this article:
Sex – the biological classification determined at birth by medical personnel
Gender – the male/female classification which a person identifies with
Transgender – a person who is born as one biological sex but identifies as another
Cisgender – a person who is born as one biological sex and identifies as that same sex
Pronouns – I believe the proper pronouns to use are of the gender which the person identifies with
Transitioning – the medical procedure one would undergo to have their biological sex match the gender the individual most identifies with. One can be in various stages of transitioning, and one might not choose to transition at all.
First, before any data or evidence or statistics are looked at, we must ask ourselves: is this a human/civil rights question? I believe civil rights to be one of the most important issues of our time. History looks very harshly at those who stand on the wrong side of key civil rights issues. Look back at the arguments for why African Americans and Caucasians should be separated; why women shouldn’t be allowed to vote; why one person shouldn’t be allowed to marry another person of their choice. With the benefit of a bit of perspective and greater wisdom those arguments have no legs to stand on and to make those same statements today would classify one – correctly so in my opinion – as a dinosaur.
If our question was: Should a transgender person be allowed to compete in sports; I would argue that is a human rights question. To deny transgender people access to competitive sports would not be fair and would not offer those individuals the equal rights and opportunities that others experience. However, the question of simply competing in sports was not the question asked. The issue being examined here is should transgender women (individuals classified as male sex at birth and who later transition to the female gender) compete with cisgender women?
To me this is not a civil rights issue; this is a sporting issue – and the challenge becomes which division is the most appropriate and fair to place these athletes in. The goal of sports as I see it is to provide a fair and objective arena for various athletes to test and compare themselves.
In order to arrive at a reasonable conclusion on this issue, I believe we need to ask four important questions:
- Do men and women have different physical characteristics?
- Are those differences large enough to warrant separate divisions in sports?
- Are those differences explained by hormone levels?
- After transitioning, is a transgender athlete on a physiologically even playing field as cis-gendered athletes?
Let’s explore each one of these four key points in more detail.
1) Do Men and Women have Different Physical Characteristics?
In some species, there aren’t any notable physical differences between sexes. In other species, the differences are very apparent. The concept that describes differences between the sexes is called sexual dimorphism (3). The question is – do humans express sexual dimorphism?
The answer is yes, humans do demonstrate sexual dimorphism. Listed below are some of the notable physical differences – apart from basic anatomy – that are well established between men and women (for simplicity sake I’ll examine data primarily for those living in the US unless otherwise noted).
Chart 1 – Differences in male and female physiological characteristics
|Height||5’9.5” (average, + 3” STD) (1)||5’4” (average, + 3” STD) (2)|
|Weight||154 lbs (ideal average) 198 lbs (actual average)||128 lbs (ideal average) (5) 170 lbs (actual average) (4)|
|Muscle mass||28 kg or 40% of bodyweight in ideal average||17 kg or 29% of bodyweight in ideal average (5)|
|Skeletal Size||Greater (~14% of bodyweight)||Lower (~10% of bodyweight) (6)|
|Tendon and Ligament Strength||Higher||Lower (7)|
|Skull shape||Wider, larger, squarer; more prominent brow||Narrower, smaller; heart shaped (8)|
|Thyroid cartilage (Adam’s apple)||Larger, more pronounced||Smaller, less pronounced (8)|
|Testosterone||More (10-20x amount)||Less (9)|
|Adipose Tissue (bodyfat)||15 kg or 21% in ideal average||19 kg or 33% in ideal average (5)|
|Heart||Larger (.33 kg in ideal average)||Smaller (.24 kg in ideal average) (5)|
|Lungs||Greater Volume (6L)||Lower volume (4L) (11)|
|Metabolic Rate||Faster (about 10% faster)||Slower (about 10% slower) (12)|
|Waist Hip Ratio||Larger Waist (greater ratio)||Larger Hips (smaller ratio) (7)|
|Pelvis||Taller, Narrower||Lower, Wider (7)|
The above chart, and simple observation, should make it readily apparent that humans do display sexual dimorphism. The question now becomes – are those differences notable enough to warrant separate divisions in sports. In other words, should there be a separate division for males and females?
2) Are the Physical Differences in Humans Notable Enough to Warrant Separate Divisions in Sports?
In looking at the above chart, it should be apparent that there are reasonably large differences in the physical characteristics on average between men and women. If there were differences but they were very small, for example if men tended to weight only 2-3 more pounds than females and were perhaps on average 1% stronger, it might not be necessary to have separate divisions based on sex. However, men tend to be noticeably heavier, with greater amounts of muscle mass, larger skeletons, stronger tendons/ligaments, and a more powerful cardiovascular system. One would predict that those differences in male and female physiology would affect how one might perform on the various components of fitness, which is what sports typically contest. To illustrate that point, refer to the chart below:
Chart 2 – Predicted Difference in the Components of Fitness based on Sexual Dimorphism in Humans
|Component of Fitness||Male||Female|
|Strength||Higher by a large amount||Lower by a large amount|
|Muscular Endurance||Higher by a medium amount||Lower by a medium amount|
|Cardiovascular Endurance||Higher by a small amount||Lower by a small amount|
|Flexibility||Lower by a small amount||Higher by a small amount|
|Body Composition||Lower by a medium amount||Higher by a medium amount|
|Power||Higher by a medium amount||Lower by a medium amount|
|Speed||Higher by a small amount||Lower by a small amount|
|Agility||Higher by a small amount||Lower by a small amount|
|Quickness||Higher by a small amount||Lower by a small amount|
|Explosiveness||Higher by a small amount||Lower by a small amount|
- A Small amount predicts about a 10% difference in performance
- A Medium amount predicts about a 20-25% difference in performance
- A Large amount predicts about a 33%+ difference in performance
Let’s examine in more detail why we would expect to see those differences.
Strength: There are very large differences in strength demonstrated by men and women. The leading theory that best predicts maximal strength is to calculate the size/density of one’s bones (13). This in turn determines a maximal amount of muscle that one can develop, and that maximal muscle then dictates how much force (strength) one can express. Men have larger and denser skeletons and can generally develop 5 lbs of muscle for every 1 lb of bone they have; women can develop 4 lbs of muscle for each 1 lb of bone they have (13). Men are larger than women. If examining absolute strength (the strongest man vs the strongest woman) we would expect to see a very large difference in strength; if examining relative strength (comparing men and women of the same size and weight) we would still expect to see reasonable differences in strength because of the greater amount of bone and muscle, stronger tendons and ligaments, and more efficient firing pattern of the nerves (explained in more detail below under “power”).
Muscle Endurance: One would predict men to have higher muscle endurance (perform better at push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, etc) compared to women because of the greater proportion of muscle on their body, the lower percentage of bodyfat, and the more efficient firing patterns of the nerves. However, women’s lower bodyweight can help offset this advantage so this should be a small to medium difference.
Cardiovascular Endurance: One would expect men to have a small advantage in cardiovascular events compared to women. This is because on average a man’s heart and lungs are larger than his female counterpart, even when factoring in body size (14). Men may also have an increased capacity to carry oxygen in their blood (15). In athletic testing this component of fitness is often referred to as one’s VO2 Max.
Flexibility: Women typically perform slightly better than men on flexibility tests (16). This is likely due to lower total muscle mass, more flexible tendons and ligaments, and a smaller overall skeletal structure.
Body Composition: This measures the amount of lean tissue (muscle and organs) to fat tissue (body fat – often call adipose tissue) in the body. Women typically carry more body fat than men. This is likely due to hormonal factors (estrogen promotes the storage of body fat; testosterone tends to build skeletal muscle) and due to the increased metabolic demands that pregnancy can place on a woman’s body.
Power: Power commonly involves lifting/throwing an object as fast/far as possible. It is typically expressed against reasonably heavy things. One’s Rate of Force Development (RFD) greatly affects power, as does one’s overall strength. It is very important for the motor nerves to fire rapidly and in sync in order to best express power. One function of testosterone is that it directly affects the motor nerves, increasing their effectiveness and efficiency (17). One of the most observable differences in performance between men and women is throwing ability (18) and my explanation for that large difference is – at least in part – due to how testosterone helps improve one’s neuromuscular coordination (the ability to use one’s muscles to produce coordinated and effective movement).
Speed, Agility, Quickness, and Explosiveness: These abilities are all similar and they tend to take advantage of the following physical characteristics: relative strength, body fat, limb length, pelvic structure, nervous firing ability, and muscle fiber type. As such it is likely that men should perform a little bit better than women in these areas.
Speed: Maximum velocity, how fast can one run
Agility: The ability to brake, change direction, and then go again
Quickness: The ability to change one’s body position in response to an unexpected stimulus
Explosiveness: The ability to generate RFD against a resistance of minimal/no load
Now that we have made our predictions, let’s see how those predictions match up to the actual performance of men and women as they step on their respective fields of play.
The sexual dimorphism present in adult humans leads to various differences in levels of physical performance.
Chart 3 – Observed differences in various sports records between men and women
|Physical Performance||Male||Female||% difference|
|Strength – Absolute|
|Strength – Equal Weight Class – 84 kg|
|(83 kg class)|
|100 M Dash World Record (WR)||9.58s||10.49s||9.5%|
|1500 M WR||3:26.00 min||3:50.07 min||11.7%|
|Marathon WR||2:01.39 hr||2:15.25 hr||11.5%|
|VO2 Max||Est ~90||Est ~77||14.5%|
|Long Jump WR||8.95 M||7.52 M||16%|
|High Jump WR||2.45 M||2.09 M||14.7%|
|Olympic Lifting WR – Absolute Snatch|
Clean and Jerk
|Olympic Lifting WR – Equal Weight Class 69 kg|
Clean and Jerk
|Shot Put WR||23.12M (16 lb shot)||22.63 M (8.8 lb shot)||2% (not factoring in weigh of shot put)|
|Javelin Throw WR||98.48 M (800 grams)||72.28 M (600 grams)||27% (not factoring in weight of javelin)|
Note: Wikipedia and USAPL lifter records were used to verify the record lifts
For clarity, a 10% difference in sports performance at high levels is a very large and noticeable difference. For example, the difference between the gold medalist and the last place finisher in the men’s finals in the 2016 Olympic 100M run was 2.5% (19).
When we look at the physical performance differences between the sexes as created by sexual dimorphism, we generally see at a 10% difference in performance on the low end up to a 50% difference on the high end.
To summarize so far, it is easily observable and verifiable that men and women do have notable physical differences. We have established that those differences are significant enough to have a large impact on athletic performance. It is worth noting that virtually every sport does separate out men and women based on their sex, from youth league recreational sports to top level professional sports. It seems unlikely this separation arose by accident.
3) Are these Physical Differences Explained by Hormone Levels?
Hormone are complex molecules in the body. They are generally seen as chemical messengers and their job is to tell the body what to do. As noted above, men and women do have significantly different levels of hormones in their body. This difference tends to be most notable during puberty and hormones are in part responsible for the some of the changes that turn a girl into a woman and a boy into a man. Likely the most significant hormones are Testosterone and Estrogen. Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone and from a fitness point of view it has three main functions: it directly affects skeletal muscle (signaling that muscle tissue to grow bigger and stronger – particularly around the shoulder girdle); it directly affects the motor nerves (improving their firing rate and efficiency); and it releases growth hormone (20). Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone. Its main functions include promoting the growth of breast tissue, redistributing bodyfat to match the adult female body type pattern, maturing and regulating a female’s reproductive system, facilitating bone health, and producing key proteins in the body that help with blood clotting and the transportation of other hormones (21).
Hormones help explain some, but certainly not all, of the physical differences seen between men and women. In addition, taking certain hormones as an adult have different functions than when taking/experiencing those same hormones as a child. For example, growth hormone can help children grow taller in height, however once adulthood has been reached taking additional growth hormone will not cause an adult to grow taller (22). Listed below are some of the physical characteristics that altering hormone profiles will likely NOT change:
- Skeletal Size
- Tendon/Ligament Strength
- Skull Size
- Limb Length
- Heart/Lung Size
- Metabolic Rate
- Pelvic Structure
For clarity, hormones do explain some of the physical differences, but clearly not all of the differences between men and women. For greater detail on hormones and genetic differences between the sexes in humans, refer to THIS LINK:
4) After Transitioning, is a Transgender Athlete on a Physiologically Even Playing Field as Cis-Gendered Athletes?
When a transgender athlete transitions, they typically go through various surgical and hormonal procedures to bring their biological sex in line with their gender. Hormones have very powerful effects on the body. Here’s an example. A person is born sexually as a male but is a female. She might decide to take estrogen and other drugs as prescribed by a doctor to make her physiology more female. It is very likely that those hormones would alter, and in this case lower, her physical performance. But the question we must ask is this: is her body now physically “equal to” that of a cis-gendered woman?
For the sake of discussion, let’s use a hypothetical person. 20 years ago a powerlifter named Sam was born and was biologically classified as a male. Growing up this person discovered she was a female and at age 20 she began the process of changing her gender. Sam changed her name to Samantha, and she underwent a full transition including complete surgery and complete hormone profile. Samantha is now 25 and she is considering in competing in an athletic competition. Which division should she compete in?
To help answer this question, I would consider the following variables:
- Are her denser and thicker bones an advantage
over her competitors?
- Is her physical height and limb structure an advantage over her competitors?
- Are her stronger tendons/ligaments an advantage over her competitors?
- Is her larger heart/lungs an advantage over her competitors?
- Is her improved neuromuscular coordination an advantage over her competitors?
- Is her hormonal profile an advantage over her competitors?
If she has fully transitioned then her hormonal profile may well not be advantage, but it seems very clear to me that having been born a male conferred on her many physiological differences that give her an unfair advantage against her competitors. We have to ask: Does the transitioning process fully change the individual’s bones to match their gender? Does it alter their heart and lung size? Does it directly affect their tendon and ligament strength? Does it directly change their neuromuscular coordination? To the best of my knowledge, a full transition does very little to counteract these significant and permanent differences, and many transgender athletes have not gone through a full transition. As such, in my opinion it would be unfair to allow Samantha to compete against cis-gendered women.
Throughout this article I am operating on a few assumptions that I want to make explicitly clear. If one is operating under different underlying assumptions then one might come to a different conclusion.
- My goal is to provide fair play for the athletes. If it was 100% clear that trans women had an advantage over cis women; then I am assuming it would be equally clear they should not be able to compete with cis women (I have seen arguments stating that even if they had an advantage it doesn’t matter, they should still be able to compete in the women’s division). If it was 100% clear that trans women had zero advantage over cis women; then I am assuming it would be equally clear they should be allowed to compete with cis women.
- My other assumption is the burden of proof. From the previously explored data, to me it is very reasonable and likely that trans women do possess a physical advantage over cis women. As such, I see it that they do have an advantage until it is demonstrated very clearly that they do not. Others might start with the assumption that there isn’t any advantage and as such they may need to see a lot of hard evidence that these athletes do have an advantage. Since research is lacking on both sides of this specific question, those individuals might feel the burden of proof has not been met for them. From my vantage point we don’t have enough direct evidence of how specific trans athletes compete after a transition; however we have a vast amount of evidence of how cis men and women compete, how human physiology works, and reasonable assumptions can be drawn from that data.
- My final assumption is that there are no major physiological differences between trans women and cis men if the trans woman has not started the medical process of transitioning.
What does the IOC say?
The IOC (International Olympic Committee) has recently modified its rules regarding transgender athletes competing in the Olympics. In 2003 it established guidelines that required surgery for transgendered athletes, in 2016 it removed that criteria and established new guidelines which are as follows:
For female to male athletes: female-to-male transgender athletes are eligible to take part in men’s competitions “without restriction”.
For male to female athletes: male-to-female transgender athletes will need to demonstrate that their testosterone level has been below a certain cutoff point for at least one year before their first competition. An athlete transitioning to a woman must undergo hormone therapy and demonstrate that the total level of male testosterone in the blood has been below 10 nanomols per litre for at least a year prior to competing. (There is some discussion that this range will be lowered in the future). (23)
The NCAA has adopted a very similar policy to the IOC (25).
What are the Rules for Powerlifting?
As the author of All About Powerlifting and as someone who sits on the board of a powerlifting federation and is involved in helping shape these decisions, the guidelines for athletes competing in powerlifting are what I am particularly focused on. I do feel that a rule that works for powerlifting is likely to work for all sports as well.
There are multiple federations in powerlifting across the globe, and different federations have come up with various rules pertaining to this topic. Here are a few federations highlighting different procedures.
The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) in general tries to align itself with IOC guidelines and it has adopted the IOC policies in this regard.
The USAPL generally follows the IPF policies and procedures but in this case the USAPL is not allowing trans women to compete along side of cis women. Their policy, along with additional reading material and youtube videos, can be found here: https://www.usapowerlifting.com/transgender-participation-policy/
The 100% RAW Powerlifting Federation uses the physiological classification of sex at birth to determine which division an athlete should compete in. A trans woman would not be allowed to compete with a cis woman in 100% RAW. 100% RAW released a recent statement about this that focused on an athlete that did attempt to compete in the female division without initially disclosing she was a trans athlete. https://rawpowerlifting.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Transgender-statement-05.2019.pdf
The Canadian Powerlifting Union (CPU) allows athletes to compete in any gender division they wish. There are no hormone tests or other criteria, it is simply a matter of personal choice. http://www.powerlifting.ca/constitution.html
Why Measuring Hormones Doesn’t Work
The current IOC guideline is that athletes who wish to compete as women must not have testosterone levels above 10 nmol/L. This is – in my opinion – a very flawed measure for two reasons. First, it should be clear from the evidence presented that current hormone levels will not affect all of the various physiological aspects that impact performance, such as height, bone density, limb length, etc. Second, and in my opinion equally as compelling, it has been well documented that many elite male athletes compete and perform extremely well with low levels of testosterone – low enough for them to easily meet the suggested female standard (28). There are also some cis women that have naturally higher levels of testosterone.
Below is a picture of testosterone levels of male and female athletes. As should be quickly clear, a significant minority of male athletes fall below the current standard of 10 nmol/L of testosterone that is allowed for female athletes. This would mean that those athletes could simply declare themselves to be female and compete in the female division with no other change. To me that idea seems extremely unfair.
I was curious as to the public opinion on this topic. In order to get a quick assessment, I conducted a 1-week poll on Facebook. I make no claims this is perfectly scientifically valid but as I see it the sample size is large enough to include the results as a point of discussion. For the record one’s ‘friends’ tend to have similar beliefs as you. Due to my involvement in powerlifting I have a lot of lifters connected to me over social media and in general lifters tend to lean in the conservative direction on most issues. On the flip side I live in a suburb of Washington DC and I am socially liberal myself so many of friends would be on the other side of the aisle. I tried to word the poll so as to not sway the voter or induce bias, you can decide for yourself if that was successful or not.
To me what it most noteworthy on this poll is how one-sided it is. The population at large tends to be evenly split on most issues; in a presidential race a 60/40 decision is essentially a landslide. Less than 10% of the individuals polled believed that a trans woman should compete against a cis woman. What other politically charged question could you ask where over 90% of the respondents will respond the same way? To me this indicates an overwhelming majority of individuals believe it is important to maintain a level of fair-play by maintaining a firm sex division in sports. I also think it is useful to remember how clear public opinion is on this issue when the pros and cons of inclusion are discussed. Sometimes a vocal minority can appear to outweigh a silent majority.
What are the Options?
Sex isn’t perfectly binary. There are 7 billion humans on the planet and our physiology will have a wide array of expressions. As I see it the goal of sporting policies should be to promote inclusion whenever possible while maintaining integrity to those competitors competing in sport. It is likely that no single policy will be perfect for everyone.
Chromosome tests don’t seem to work (27). Having athletes meet some sort of ‘female physiological standard’ is arbitrary and hopefully from the data presented here it should be clear that even with a full surgical transition a trans woman is very likely to retain physiological advantages over a cis woman. Athletes that haven’t fully transitioned will retain an even higher advantage. If we don’t use a chromosome test and we eliminate athletes meeting some sort of standard, as I see it we are just left with 3 options:
Division by Sex at Birth – this is how sports have been historically separated. I believe this is the best current solution we have. While it is not perfect in all cases, it is important that we don’t provide an advantage to a very small percent of the population while simultaneously creating a disadvantage for a much larger percent of the population. The poll clearly shows a vast majority of individuals appear to believe this method continues to be the best way to separate sports.
Let the Athlete Choose – this policy would simply let each individual athlete choose to compete in whatever division they deemed appropriate. This is the policy that the Canadian Powerlifting Union has implemented for its athletes. Powerlifting does not involve direct contact with another athlete – it is just you and the bar. I wonder how people would feel if the Canadian Boxing Union adopted the same policy – athletes can compete in whichever division they wish? How would that be fair and safe to the other competitors? And what would happen if a cis male or a trans woman entered in the female division and won a scholarship because of it?
I read a comment that was defending this practice, and when asked about the possibility of cheating the person simply responded “that isn’t a concern.” Really? Humans will cheat at anything if there is something to gain as a result. The more to gain, the more likely they are too cheat. If we are to simply take everyone at their word, why have official weigh-ins? Why not just let the athlete tell us what their bodyweight is? For that matter why even have an official competition? We can just have everyone get together and they can tell us what their best performance is and we’ll take them for their word and then hand out awards based on what they say. Does that sound like a good idea?
If we just let individuals choose their sex on all matters, where does it stop? What about criminals? Should a trans woman be placed in a prison with other men or women (26)? Should we force workers at health and beauty salon to wax a trans woman’s genitalia despite not having surgically transitioned (29)? Isn’t it possible that someone might take advantage of these situations for their own benefit?
Eliminate Sex Division in Sports – Perhaps the most extreme option of all is to simply eliminate any sex division in sports. This means there would not be a female and male division in basketball, there is just basketball. Same for every other sport. A recent book “Beyond Trans: Does Sex Matter” advocates this approach. From my point of view this recommendation is completely misguided. The author argues that any division between men and women is sexism and we shouldn’t lower the bar by having a separate women’s division. Sexual dimorphism has been around long before humans and to deny that sex matters in a physical activity is to deny basic facts. It seems very clear to me that women’s sports have blossomed in the US over the last 70 years because of promotion of those very same sports to women. In my opinion eliminating a women’s division would be extremely foolish and extremely harmful to women athletes and to all of the opportunities they currently have.
For the record I would see no issue with a woman playing in a man’s league. If there was a female Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds or Tom Brady out there and she could compete with elite men, and was aware and willing to take those risks, that is fine with me. I have no issues with individual athletes playing “up”; I think athletes should always be able to test their abilities to the fullest. The same is true if a female wanted to compete against a male in powerlifting, I can’t see a problem with that. The same is true for age divisions. A 60-year-old can enter the “open” age division (which is the most competitive) and compete against younger athletes if they so choose. But what shouldn’t be allowed is for athletes to play “down”. Those born and identified as a male should not be able to compete against those born and identified as a female; just like a 30-year-old should not be able to enter the 60-year-old division and compete. If you happen to agree with the idea that 30-yr-olds (of any gender) should not be able to compete in the same division as 60-yr-olds, be aware that in many sports there is a greater difference in performance between men and women than there is between comparing what a 30-yr-old and a 60-yr-old can do.
I personally do not agree with the IOC recommendation. I believe they are focusing on only one variable – hormones – and not looking at the complete picture. Hopefully it has been clear from this article that an athlete’s height, limb length, neuromuscular coordination, and skeletal structure will be unchanged after hormonal therapy, all of which have huge implications for how one would perform in sports. Remember, skeletal structure is one of the best predictors for how much muscle a person can build, and hormones will have not have a corrective effect on that.
I believe the IOC based this recommendation by looking at a very small sample of transgender athletes and how they performed after receiving hormone therapy. They also focused more on cardiovascular fitness, which is a component of fitness that already shows minimal difference between and women. I don’t believe that provides enough information to make such an important decision.
It is worth noting that no one seems to have an issue with female to male athletes competing because, as should be apparent by now, those athletes are starting with a distinct disadvantage, and thus even with the benefit of added hormones it is unlikely a male who was born a female at birth would be able to compete at the highest levels with cis gendered men.
However, the reverse is what is drawing all of the press. Trans gender women that are competing against cis gendered women and then performing very well – such as winning track championships, setting powerlifting records, and performing well in MMA. Of interest, according to recent research 2 out of 3 individuals that identify as transgender are transgender men (those assigned female at birth who identify as male); with only 1 out of 3 individuals being transgender women (those assigned male at birth who identify as a female) (24). If everything was really “equal” we should see a higher number of transgender men competing and going after records since there are twice as many of those individuals, but instead it is the just the transgender women that receive the spotlight – because it isn’t equal. From a population point of view there are likely a little over 300,000 trans people in the US, or perhaps 1% of the population.
In an effort to try to provide balance on this topic, not everyone agrees with my reasoning. Here are some articles that support the idea of allowing trans athletes to compete in the division they identify with:
Gender is very complicated at its deepest levels. Not everyone fits neatly into a box of either “male” or “female”. I can only imagine how frustrating and hard it must be if your gender and your sex don’t align. But that doesn’t change the fact that being born a certain sex confers various physiological differences on to you, whether that matches with your gender identification or not.
Age is extremely complicated as well. We have chronological age, biological age, training age, etc. There are conditions that make people age extremely fast and for others, they will age extremely slow. Genes seem to keep some people young and others age before their time (30). Should we allow lifters to simply select the age category they identify with, or should they select their age based on how old they are according to their actual date or birth? I am not arguing the latter is perfect, but I can’t see any other system that is better and fairer to the vast majority of athletes.
Trans women competing in sports against cis women is a sensitive, polarizing subject and it can be tough to have a good discussion about its various factors, particularly when limited to short snippets on social media. It is very important for both sides to be considerate and respectful of others when discussing these issues. I’ve seen people post “If you’re born with a W!*@#$R you are a man!” which is grossly simplistic and not helpful in the slightest. I’ve also seen individuals labeled as “transphobes” because they are simply engaging in debate about this topic. Not all speech that disagrees with one’s opinion is hate speech. It is important to give each other respect and space to talk about these issues and to understand that people may be viewing these issues through a different lens.
I personally don’t mind engaging in debate about this topic. I have tried to set up what I believe to be a logical flow chart outlining my thought process which has led me to my concurrent conclusion. If you disagree and wish to debate this further, please be specific and let me know which point in the chart you disagree with so our discussion can be as productive as possible.
If you do not believe sports should have sex divisions then we are probably looking at things quite differently. I don’t think much dialogue about that topic would useful. I can’t see how eliminating a women’s division in sports would be a good thing for either sex.
If you do believe we should separate sports based on sex and you also believe that trans women should be able to compete against cis women, I would like to know what restrictions if any you would place on the trans women and how you are rectifying that with the need for fair play concerning the cis gendered women?
For me it is relatively simple. Sports are separated by sex. A trans person is changing their gender, not their sex. As such, a trans person competes in the division of their original sex. If preferred, a separate trans category(s) can be created.
1 – https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318155.php
2 – https://www.verywellfit.com/average-height-for-a-woman-statistics-2632136
3 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_dimorphism
4 – https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/body-measurements.htm
5 – J. Kang, 2008. Bioenergetics Primer for Exercise Science (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics), 132
6 – https://calculate-this.com/how-much-do-bones-your-body-weigh
7 – M Benjamin; H Toumi; J R Ralphs; G Bydder; T M Best & S Milz (2006). “Where tendons and ligaments meet bone: attachment sites (‘entheses’) in relation to exercise and/or mechanical load”. Journal of Anatomy. 208 (4): 471–90. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7580.2006.00540.x. PMC 2100202. PMID 16637873.
8. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_differences_in_human_physiology
9. – https://www.health24.com/Lifestyle/Woman/Your-body/12-testosterone-facts-20130403
10 – https://www.bodylogicmd.com/hormones-for-men/estrogen
11 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lung_volumes
12 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC329930/
13 – https://www.strongerbyscience.com/your-drug-free-muscle-and-strength-potential-part-1/
14 – https://healthfully.com/546912-gender-vs-level-of-cardiovascular-fitness.html
15 – https://www.verywellhealth.com/red-blood-cell-rbc-count-1942659
16 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1434582
17 – T. Henriques, 2014. NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics), 111
18 – https://en.paperblog.com/the-evolution-of-sex-differences-in-throwing-1871483/
19 – https://www.olympic.org/rio-2016/athletics/100m-men
20 – T. Henriques, 2014. NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics), Ch 9
21 – https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-function-of-estrogen.htm
22 – https://www.metro-md.com/can-adults-grow-taller-with-hgh-therapy/
23 – https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jan/25/ioc-rules-transgender-athletes-can-take-part-in-olympics-without-surgery
24 – https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/upshot/the-search-for-the-best-estimate-of-the-transgender-population.html
25 – https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Transgender_Handbook_2011_Final.pdf
26 – https://www.glad.org/post/in-groundbreaking-development-incarcerated-transgender-woman-is-transferred-from-mens-to-womens-prison-in-ma/
27 – https://www.newstatesman.com/future-proof/2015/02/sex-isn-t-chromosomes-story-century-misconceptions-about-x-y
28 – https://www.biointeractive.org/classroom-resources/testosterone-levels-elite-athletes
29 – https://dailycaller.com/2019/07/18/transgender-brazilian-wax-jessica-yaniv-predator/
Start another division just like raw competes with raw and shirts compete with shirts.
Appreciate the article and the scientific data!
I have to wonder why this: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26792335 is not given more attention by the IOC and the sporting wolrd.
The amount of myonuclei doesn’t seem to decrease with detraining, it should be studied whether it decreases with decreased testosterone.
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I liked your article. Actually, I am an FTM and I agree with you (my sporting days are over). My brother is 6’2 and I am 5’7. We were both swimmers growing up. In swimming height is an advantaged. There are certain attributes that I will never have that he has. The interesting thing about this MTF sports debate, no one ever talks about what’s going on the men’s side. Are men upset that FTM athletes are competing against them? Are the FTM athletes breaking world men’s records? To make this whole debate fair, reporters should also keep track of FTM athletes competing against the men. With viewing the results of trans athletes on both sides, we can conclude which biological sex has the advantaged.
It’s strange, I can’t even say this stuff to my community. They would crucify me. But, I am for protecting women’s sports.
If a FTM goes and competes in USAPL or the IPF without any exogenous hormones, there would not be an issue. There was a FTM powerlifter who wanted to compete in USAPL but was not able to compete because they were on test. There was a time when some men on HRT could compete in tested powerlifting but there was abuse so that was discontinued.
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Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. I am a transgendered man, and while it is nice to see the willingness of various leagues to include transgendered women, I can’t imagine this will last very long. As it becomes more socially acceptable to transition, I think it will become clear that among elite athletes, transgendered women have considerable physiological advantages over non-transgendered women, even after hormone levels have dropped below some arbitrary marker. Especially in sports where there is a large gap between male and female performance.
I think it would be far more apparent already if women’s athletics had equal prestige and money as men’s athletics. At present, someone who is is a world-class competitor in the men’s leagues has a HUGE incentive to keep competing in the men’s leagues, even if that is not the gender they identify as. They can make more money, get ten times more media coverage, sponsorships, etc. competing as a man. And you don’t become a world-class competitor unless you are willing to make sacrifices for your sport. But if they are only a middling athlete in the men’s leagues, or past their prime, they have less to lose, and even with a physiological advantage, they might not dramatically outclass the other elite female athletes.
It seems to me the best solution for leagues who want greater inclusion is an open division, where anyone can compete, and then restricted divisions.