Banning Transgender Athletes
an op-ed by Lora Kwon
Dear Asian Youth,
The most recent setback for transgender rights in the United States targets the youth. While debates regarding the inclusion of transgender athletes have been brewing for many years, these objections are now extending to adolescents. At the moment, the country is divided over the surge of bills banning trangender youth from competing on sports teams in accordance with their gender identity. Legislation like the Mississippi Fairness Act specifically prevents transgender women from competing on female teams, arguing that trans women have a physical advantage over cisgender women because they were assigned male at birth.
Proponents who claim to be fighting for the integrity of these teams point to statistics demonstrating that males compete better athletically than females. For example, a study in NCBI analyzed 82 quantifiable events since the beginning of the Olympics and found that the gender gap between male and female competitors ranged from 5.5% to 18.8%. Another paper by Duke Law claims that there’s an average 10-12% performance gap between elite males and elite females due to a difference in testosterone. This statistic is described as “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Additionally, the previously cited Mississippi Fairness Act states that testosterone levels affect hemoglobin levels, body fat content, the storage and use of carbohydrates, and the development of Type 2 muscle fibers. These are all traits that impact one’s speed and power while performing physical activity.
While it may seem like people assigned male at birth have an inherent advantage, opponents find that these incomprehensive studies are being weaponized against the transgender community. Pediatrician and geneticist Dr. Eric Vilain, who has dedicated his career to researching sex differences in athletes, points out that we aren’t actually seeing evidence of transgender women using this potential advantage to systematically compete and win. Despite the lack of restrictions for transgender athletes in the 2016 Olympics, no transgender athletes competed in have ever competed in these games. Dr. Eric Vilain also discusses that these “inherent advantages” differ greatly from sport to sport. In an interview with NPR, he states, “the body of a marathon runner is extremely different from the body of a shot put champion, and a transwoman athlete may have some advantage on the basketball field because of her height, but would be at a disadvantage in gymnastics. So it's complicated.”
Additionally, many transgender women who are transitioning choose to take hormones that can reduce their testerone levels, but also and, in turn, their speed, strength, and endurance. Many wonder whether these women will be forced to compete on male sports teams too. Some studies have found that transgender women retain an advantage over their cisgender counterparts after a year of hormone therapy (NBC News). But as these studies are not widely applicable, at what point can a transgender woman be considered not to have an athletic advantage? Some global competitions have set upper limits for testerone levels, but whether this is appropriate for high school and middle students is questionable.
This opens the door for anyone to question whether a team player is competing in accordance to the sex they were assigned at birth, leading to the potential of sex testing. Sex testing has been weaponized against female athletes who are competing on an elite level for many years. Many have come to object to this practice, often describing the forceful use of this procedure as invasive and humiliating. Common methods include a gynecological exam and blood work or chromosome testing (NPR). These procedures themselves are inherently invasive, but even more so when women are effectively coerced into them by the public for their careers. Another consequence of sex testing is that women who don’t meet stereotypical standards of femininity, or anyone who looks “too masculine,” are often accused of lying about the sex they were assigned at birth. Often, naturally high testosterone levels in females are contributory factors. This has disproportionately affects women from the Global South, due to naturally higher testosterone levels, who are subsequently subjected to sex testing as a requirement to participate in their respective sports (The Guardian). Once again, this exposes that these regulations are solely based on arbitrary definitions of gender.
In 2019, Human Rights Watch worked with scholars Payoshni Mitra and Katrina Karkazis to research and interview athletes, coaches, and officials involved in this issue. The article states that, “Women interviewed described intense self-questioning, shame, and withdrawal from sport – even when it was their livelihood – and suicide attempts. A runner who had been sex tested and subsequently disqualified said: ‘I wanted to know the results…. I wanted to know who am I? Why are they testing me? They’re not testing other girls…. I wanted to know why they have taken me to the hospital, removing the clothes’” (Human Rights Watch). Sex testing is invasive for adult athletes competing on an elite level. These bills proposing to subject middle and high school students to the same kind of treatment is incredibly disturbing.
Luckily, as we begin to see more transgender athletes set a precedent that they have a right to be included in thse activities. An inspiring example is Andraya Yearwood. Yearwood was cruelly thrust into the public eye when those threatened by her success challenged the inclusive policy in the State of Connecticut that allowed transgender student-atheltes to compete according to their gender identity. Despite the unfortunate circumstances of Yearwood’s popularity, she has taken her newfound position in stride. Yearwood uses her social media to assert her gender identity and right to a play in accordance with this identity. In addition, she is is set to star in Changing the Game, am upcoming documentary that delves into the personal experiences of transgender athletes who faced discrimination for their athletic passions. (Bleacher).
Hopefully, these changes will encourage greater participation in team sports, as these activities are crucial for development in adolescents. The Washington Post delves into this issue through high school, transgender track athlete Terry Miller, who stated “Track helps me forget about everything, and I love it.” Similar to Yearwood, as she began to perform better in competition, girls who lost to her, their coaches, and their parents complained about an unfair advantage and began petitions to demand the use of testosterone suppression. Publicizing such a personal decision and bitterly excluding an adolescent from a marginalized community is incredibly unfortunate. As more students redefine their gender identity at young ages, more are exposed to overwhelming transphobia. By making these opportunities accessible to transgender youth, we can begin to change public perception from a young age.
- Lora Kwon