Should Trans Woman Athletes be Allowed to Compete in Women’s Sports?

The answer to this clickbait headline is a simple one: yes. Duh. Why shouldn’t we be allowed? What are you – some kind of transphobe?

But people are seriously up in arms over this, so I guess we’re talking about it now. The main arguments appear to be that trans women are at an apparent advantage over cis women because of greater bone density, muscle mass, and differences in hormone levels. So let’s tackle each of these.

Bone Density

According to a study by the Department of Endocrinology at Ghent University Hospital, “Transsexual women before the start of hormonal therapy appear to have lower muscle mass and strength and lower bone mass compared with control men.”

Granted, the study does mention that these deviations may be “related to a less active lifestyle”, because trans women apparently tend to be more sedentary from a young age. But then again, might the reason that cis women tend to have lower bone density than men be because society tends to force them sit still and be pretty from an early age, whereas boys are encouraged to run around and do other high impact activities?

In order to promote bone osteogenesis (the calcification of soft tissues into bone mass), children must be physically active. Yet boys tend to be more involved in sports and allowed to run around acting crazy, climbing up trees and jumping out of them, while girls are told “don’t do somersaults, you’re in a dress!”, “that’s a boy sport!”, and in general dissuaded from physical activities.

In which case, one has to wonder how much of the differences in bone density between cis males and females has to do with social roles, as opposed to biology?

Furthermore though, how different from each other are female and male bones anyway? We tend to think that archaeologists and forensic scientists can just look at any bone and tell you what sex the person was. But that’s an outdated idea. In 1972, anthropology professor at Pennsylvania State University Kenneth Weiss observed a discrepancy between male and female bones at archaeology sites: there were 12% more male bones.

This didn’t make sense, since male and female populations tend to be fairly evenly dispersed. As it turned out, archaeologists were just more likely to put bones they couldn’t categorize because they blurred gender lines into the male pile because… well… patriarchy.

It appears that since Weiss called out the archaeology community, they began changing their acts, because in 1993, a masters student at the University of Tennessee named Karen Bone discovered that the ratio of male to female bones had evened out. This was because more bones were being labeled “indeterminate”.

After all, wide-hipped men exist, as do narrow hipped women. People come in all shapes and sizes, regardless of the configuration of their genitals.

Muscle Mass

Going back to the Department of Endocrinology study at Ghent University Hospital: “Transsexual women before the start of hormonal therapy appear to have lower muscle mass and strength and lower bone mass compared with control men.”

And again, this may have much to do with sedentary lifestyles, in which case we could bring up the same sociological nature-over-nurture questions as before.

Regardless, we know that muscle mass correlates with hormone levels, which is the primary biological reason we could point to for why males tend to have more muscle mass. So with transgender women already presenting pre-HRT with low testosterone levels, and the whole point of HRT being to drop their testosterone to normal female ranges, we can assume that twitch-muscle fibers (these contribute to explosive takeoffs in sprints) would be decreased and oxygen availability to the muscles via red blood cells would be reduced.

And in fact, we do find that trans women have lower Red Blood Cell (RBC), hemoglobin (which transports oxygen within the RBC’s), and hematocrit (the volume of RBC’s per whole blood) levels following HRT. Lower RBC and hemoglobin count means less oxygen supplied to the muscles, and with less oxygen available to help break down glucose into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) molecules for fuel, the less useful whatever muscle mass happens to be there actually is.

In terms of twitch muscle fibers, no studies appear to exist that analyze that in particular in trans women. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism did show that, while overall muscle mass decreased (though not as significantly as expected) for trans women following HRT, strength did not appear to change (though keep in mind that trans women present with lower strength pre-HRT anyway).

Although estrogen replacement has been known to increase muscle mass and strength in post-menopausal women, so I suppose it’s always possible that the overabundance of estradiol in trans women could work to partially counteract some of the muscle and strength loss from the testosterone suppression, especially when trans women tend to present with lower muscle mass from the get-go.

Hormone Levels

A study in Biological Psychiatry showed that pre-HRT transgender women tend to have longer androgen receptor lengths, leading to reduced sensitivity to androgens in general, which may contribute to the above mentioned lesser muscle mass, strength, and bone density than control cisgender men.

On top of that, trans athletes are under strict hormone standards (where non-professional athletes are not, so maybe they’re not the ones to be testing when asking this particular question). The International Olympic Committee guidelines state that transgender woman competitors must be identifying continuously as their identified gender for four years and their testosterone levels must be below 10 nmol/L for at least one year prior to competition.

World Athletics guidelines require testosterone levels under 5 nmol/L for at least a year (this would match their intersex guidelines), and ICO is considering following suit.

So hormone levels aren’t even an issue now because trans women must be within normal female levels in order to compete. Now, is that necessary? A 2017 systemic review showed no evidence that transgender athletes had an advantage at any stage in transition.

Besides, ultimately such tight hormonal regulations only really impact intersex women who were assigned as female at birth (as trans female athletes are generally already on HRT). For instance, Caster Semenya, for instance, won multiple Olympic gold medals, but was barred from competing after she was subject to hormone testing and found to have naturally elevated testosterone and XY chromosomes (yes, those Assigned Female at Birth can have XY chromosomes too). She was eventually allowed to compete again, but only if she went on androgen suppressants.

Similar androgen level controversies occurred with other intersex athletes, including Dutee Chand, Maria José Martínez-Patiño, Stanisława Walasiewicz, and others.

But let’s get back to transgender athletes and ask the real question: how good are trans women at sports anyway?

Trans Women are Statistically Not that Great at Sports

There’s a very obvious selection bias when it comes to reporting on trans athletes – that is, you only hear about them when they win. But they frequently lose.

Rachael Mckinnon was a trans woman who was the center of controversy after breaking the record for the women’s 35-39 age bracket 200-meter time trial by a whopping 0.24 seconds (she notes in her New York Times op-ed that her time is still lower than the 40-44 and 45-49 age categories). But that was just for the Master’s Track Cycling championships. In elite races, her highest was a bronze medal in 2018 and her highest placing in 2019 was 8th. But of course no one talks about that because it wouldn’t be particularly interesting to read an article about a random trans woman placing 8th in a sprint. McKinnon lost 17 out of 22 events in 2019 (those aren’t exactly the best odds there). She also caught flack for beating athlete Dawn Orwick in a sprint event, except that Orwick had beat her in the 500-meter just prior.

Allayva Stier started training much harder after transitioning than before, training 5 days a week when pre-transition she only trained 2-3 times a week. And in 2019, that extra training paid off when she won a whole 2 races… out of 35. Stier started out placing among the fastest in boys competitions in her high school though, winning a number of competitions and making it to state. But her times dropped when she began medical transition and now she’s, needless to say, not that great.

Evelyn Sifton was a Canadian cyclist who placed 3rd out of 6 in a Montreal competition. Yet she still received transphobic comments by other competitors – after getting lapped by the 1st and 2nd place winners!

Athena Del Rosario is a trans soccer goalie who went from being one of the fastest runners in boys soccer to barely qualifying the mile runs in needed to place in girls soccer. Even still, she’s received her fair share of flack for apparently dominating against cisgender women. And while her stats are impressive, they’re hardly “dominating”.

Tara Seplavy is a cyclist. Unfortunately there’s really not much to say about her beyond that. She hasn’t received a single win in her three years of competing in women’s tournaments. In fact, she’s placed last place more than once. Did anyone tell her about her “biological advantage”? I don’t think she got the memo. She has no illusions about her performance though. Seplavy has professional coaches and works her ass off, but as she’s said, “I went from being a mediocre dude on a bike to being a mediocre woman on a bike. It’s not like I just changed my gender and my times stayed the same. I have to work that much harder for marginal gain.”

I could keep listing examples, but you get the point. At the end of the day, you can’t show me a single trans woman athlete who has won a competition, who hasn’t also lost. Sure, if you’re only focusing on wins, then trans athletes can seem intimidating. But if you actually compare their averages to the averages of cisgender competitors, then they’re actually quite comparable. Every. Singe. Time.

Male and Female Differences in Sports

Male and female times only differ by an average of 10-12% across events. Sure, this marginal difference likely stems from certain biological differences, such as those that we discussed above.

But trans women already tend to present with lower bone-density, muscle mass, strength, and testosterone levels pre-HRT (so maybe comparing us to cisgender men isn’t exactly the most accurate to begin with), and then we lose yet more bone density, muscle mass, and testosterone as a result of HRT.

So the question is, does HRT adequately reduce our physical abilities by roughly 10%? I think we’ve already proved that it does with our look at trans athlete averages and the fact that even those who get attention for beating cis women wind up losing, sometimes to those same cis women.

______________________

Are Men Actually More Physically Fit than Women Though?

Alright, let’s step away from trans rights and get into some general feminist analysis here and take a hard look at the apparent gender differences in sport. Sure, men tend to outperform women in traditional sports. But again, let’s consider the fact that boys are actively encouraged to be involved in physical pursuits while girls are genuinely dissuaded from such activities.

Let’s also for a moment consider that sports were invented for and by men (who also happen to be the ones most trained from an early age in them). So obviously men are going to have an advantage in activities that they themselves invented. After all, women weren’t allowed in the Olympics until 1900, and only then in certain more “feminine” activities, so it’s been an uphill battle.

So now comes the question: are there sports in which women have physiological advantages? Yes. Ultra-endurance races. Women regularly beat men in transcontinental cycling (Fiona Kolbinger cycled 2,485 miles and beat the 2nd place competitor by 6 hours – this race consisted of 224 men and 40 women), Pam Reed won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathons against male competitors, Lael Wilcox won the 4,300 mile Trans Am against men, Caroline Boller set a course record at the 50 mile Benzos Bend in Texas, and Diana Nyad set a record in the 110 mile swim from Cuba to Florida.

Women do so well in ultra-endurance possibly due to women having on average 6-11% more body fat than men, resulting in more energy storage over time.

The journal Nature has been theorizing that women will one day completely overtake men in even Olympic races, going off of data showing that women’s times have improved much more rapidly than men’s over the years. There is, of course, a very simple reason as to why female athletes might be improving so rapidly since the 80’s: there’s consistently been more of them entering into competitions since then.

This is yet another selection bias slowly being corrected. I mean it’s basic probability. If there are significantly more men competing, then they have better odds of getting better times. It’s telling that as more women have been competing in the Olympics, that gap between male and female times has gradually narrowed. Men only regularly outperform women because we live in a misogynistic world that holds women back, so maybe let’s check the ideas we have about male and female differences.

In Conclusion

So now that we have all that out of the way, let’s review what we’ve learned so far.

  • Male and Female times only differ by around 10%
  • That margin keeps narrowing as more female athletes enter competitions
  • Transgender women have lower bone density, muscle mass, strength, and testosterone than men to bein with
  • Trans women are required to be on HRT and have their testosterone in normal female ranges prior to competition
  • Is HRT enough to sufficiently narrow that 10% gap?
  • I can only assume so looking at our mediocre averages
  • Oh and also women are for more capable than we’re given credit, and that will be shown in due time
  • Any questions?

_________________________________

References:

Van Caenegem E, Taes Y, Wierckx K, Vandewalle S, Toye K, Kaufman J-M, et al. Low bone mass is prevalent in male-to-female transsexual persons before the start of cross-sex hormonal therapy and gonadectomy. Bone. 2013 May;54(1):92-7

Weiss, Kenneth M. “On the systematic bias in skeletal sexing”. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. September 1972. Volume37, Issue2. P. 239-249

Bone, Karen Elizabeth, “A Bias in Skeletal Sexing. ” Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, 1993. https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_gradthes/4135

SoRelle JA, Jiao R, Gao E, et al. Impact of Hormone Therapy on Laboratory Values in Transgender Patients. Clin Chem. 2019;65(1):170-179. doi:10.1373/clinchem.2018.292730

Wiik, Anna, et al. “Muscle Strength, Size, and Composition Following 12 Months of Gender-affirming Treatment in Transgender Individuals”, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 105, Issue 3, March 2020, Pages e805–e813, https://doi.org/10.1210/clinem/dgz247

Hare, L., Bernard, P., Sánchez, F. J., Baird, P. N., Vilain, E., Kennedy, T., & Harley, V. R. (2009). Androgen receptor repeat length polymorphism associated with male-to-female transsexualism. Biological psychiatry65(1), 93–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.08.033

Jones BA, Arcelus J, Bouman WP, Haycraft E. Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies. Sports Med. 2017;47(4):701-716. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0621-y

Pearson, H. Will women outpace men in 2156?. Nature (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/news040927-9

16 thoughts on “Should Trans Woman Athletes be Allowed to Compete in Women’s Sports?

  1. Biology matters. The hormones you take change the chemistry of your body. Gender is a social construct unrelated to biology, and men’s and women’s roles change with time. Gender dysphoria is supposedly about the mind. Taking hormones is about biology.

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    1. Define “the chemistry of your body”. Our bodies already produce all of the sex hormones to varying degrees and our biologies are constantly breaking things down and building new things. I mean technically any change in diet can be considered a change of chemistry (what one consumes for fuel correlates to body functionality).

      Yes, gender is a construct. Thank god! We’ve found common ground after all! Okay so let’s pause on that. Our brains are part of our bodies, and are thereby influenced by our biology. Your argument would be like saying that someone with depression shouldn’t take SSRI’s, or someone with seizures shouldn’t take anticonvulsants. Because it’s all in the head, right? But the head is attached to the rest of our bodies so I think it deserves equal treatment. Personally, HRT has been great for my mental health. Why? Because the mind and body are connected – after all, the “mind” doesn’t even truly exist. It’s an archetype we use to understand the various chemical reactions within the brain that make us think, feel, and behave the way we do. And it’s well known that hormones influence our feelings and behaviors (people tend to act more aggressively and compulsively in response to elevated testosterone levels, and tend to be more emotional in response to elevated estrogens. This isn’t rocket surgery). So why wouldn’t someone assigned male at birth who naturally gravitates towards femininity (whatever that means culturally) not want androgen blockers and estrogen to make feel chemically (and by proxy, emotionally) more in tune with themselves?

      This is really quite simple. You’re somehow managing to both oversimplify the issue and overcomplicate it at the same time. I believe in you though!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You can’t change your DNA. You have 37.2 trillon cells of XY DNA, determined at conception. Even after taking drugs, you will always be a male athlete with below normal levels of testosterone. You want to compete against a class of people with XX chromosomes with low levels of testosterone. Lowering your testosterone levels weakens a male body without changing the sex. All transgender males and females, reject their bodies and use drugs to conform to the opposite sex without becoming the opposite sex.

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      2. Oh I wouldn’t dream of changing my DNA. Although if I really wanted to, I suppose I wouldn’t even need to change my presumably XY to an XX. All I’d have to do is remove the SRY gene from the XY (as in Swyer Syndrome), as long as I don’t accidentally cross the SRY over to a second X (resulting in XX Male Syndrome). Honestly I could just make my AR’s even less sensitive than they are now with their longer repeat lengths, and so that even with XY, the elevated androgens wouldn’t have as much effect on the AR’s, resulting in female primary sex characteristics (as in Androgen Insensitivity Disorder). The possibilities are endless! After all, 2% of the population is intersex (that’s the same number of redheads in the world). And if we add PCOS (there’s debate as to whether to include it because the ovaries produce elevated androgen levels, resulting in masculine secondary sex characteristics, which – fun fact – are generally corrected with HRT), then we’d be at 8% at the lowest (that’s the populations of the US, Canada, and Mexico combined). Biological sex isn’t exactly straightforward.

        Jokes aside, my point here isn’t to disprove or counteract biology. It’s simply to show how chaotic biology can be. I mean after all, we have flightless birds and yet a flying mammal (the bat), egg laying mammals, mammals that can’t survive outside of the ocean and yet fish that can walk on land (mudskippers). Biology doesn’t fit into our nice neat little man-made categories. Biology is on it’s own program.

        But sure. At this point I feel like we’re just debating semantics here. You’re absolutely right that I’m not changing my 23rd chromosome pair. I never said that we were. I’m simply discussing here the various mechanisms that play a role in our sexual phenotype (I’m not even worried about genotype here). And as discussed in the article, there are significant differences between trans women and cis men, even prior to the start of HRT (longer AR’s since birth result in undermasculinization of the body and brain, which might be why pre-HRT trans women and cis women have similar brain patterns when looked at under MRI – even prior to hormone therapy). Now, does this mean anything? I don’t know and honestly I don’t care. I don’t take HRT in the hopes of changing my genetics. I take them in order to change my phenotype – I want those female secondary sex characteristics, which I’m proud to report I have! I really couldn’t care less what my chromosomes are or aren’t. Nice try though!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. But secondary characteristics do not determine sex. Under the recent SC ruling, you cannot discriminate against any member of the female sex, irrespective of gender, and you cannot discriminate against any member of the male sex, irrespective of gender. If one boy is allowed to take part in female sports, then all boys have to be allowed; boys cannot be discriminated against. Same for girls taking part in male sports. That’s what inclusivity means. Sport for all.

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      1. I never claimed that secondary sex characteristics did determine sex (although we generally take primary sex characteristics – penis vs vagina – as evidence of chromosomal and genetic sex). And the SCOTUS ruling was concerned with employment discrimination. It determined that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended to gay and trans employees. This isn’t broadly applicable to things like sports, in which there are independent organizations that determine qualifications (we mentioned some of those qualifications in the article you clearly didn’t read). Although I have to say, I absolutely love your “sport for all” sentiment. I feel like I made some pretty compelling points in the articles on cis female advantages over cis males and how the 10% gap has been steadily narrowing since more cis women have entered sport. Honestly, I’m loving this co-ed sport sentiment. Please keep that fire alive, we need good Social Justice Warriors like you to further our progress toward inclusive sports. I’ll tell you what, when we build an LGBT Community Center here, I’m gonna name the sports complex after you. In fact, I’m gonna start an all trans softball team right now and our team name will be “the Shelagh Watkinses”. We’ll absolutely lose every game because I mean just look at us! But we’ll be losing miserably in your name. Thank you for your kind sentiments Mx Watkins ❤

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      2. That’s not what the recent SCOTUS ruling means at all! In the majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch states that when deciding to discriminate against transgender people, those decisions are necessarily based upon the person’s sex, which makes such decisions a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It doesn’t say you can’t discriminate against members of either sex, just that the discrimination can’t be *because* they are transgender.

        And as Ariel pointed out, this is only applicable to employment.

        Your claim is little more than fearmongering.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Omg I’m “changing my biology” with hormones my body already naturally produces? I truly am a goddess bending nature to my will, I had no idea! Nevermind that many cisgender people also take HRT, whether for menopause, birth control, to combat pattern baldness, hormone imbalance, etc. But no, when I do it it’s alchemy!

    I honestly love this take, thank you for it. Granted, it’s an obvious strawman conflating multiple points into one and then misrepresenting them so as to seem contradictory. Like sure, biology is complicated and there are really more exceptions to the rules than their there are rules themselves. Yet this only becomes a problem when discussing sex and gender because we’ve been convinced by society and religion in particular that sex matters and can accurately predict our personalities, job prospects, etc. But biology doesn’t care about your feelings. It just exists. If you want to place emphasis on arbitrary details, that’s on you. But that doesn’t inherently contradict my use of hormones to correct a basic hormone imbalance. I don’t even know what “changing biology” means. Genetics? Chromosomes? Hormones? Availability and sensitivity of hormone receptors? Please be specific if you’re gonna come into my house like this.

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  3. Good luck with all those sports organisations. At the end of the day, they will decide. Then it’s up to the paying public to decide if they support their decision. A team named after me? That’s pretty cool. In case you wondered, Shelagh is the Irish spelling of Sheila.

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    1. Ah good ol capitalism deciding our rights. It’s an appeal to the majority but with extra steps. I’m into it. I was talking about a local ameture team though. But I really appreciate you thinking we could make it to the fancy sports organizations. Glad someone believes in us! And it’s funny you should mention it, I actually wasn’t wondering where your name derived.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been keen on sport all my life even though, in the main, I’ve not been particularly good at most of the ones I’ve tried.
    I’m a keen viewer though, and since accepting the truth about myself have been trying to decide just where I stand with regard to the trans-athlete problem.
    This post has been very enlightening and certainly helps me to decide more in favour, which is where I would want to be.
    Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so glad! All this unease over trans women in sports is just because people don’t understand who and what we are, and most don’t want to. To be fair, they’d rather us not be in men’s sports either (when I tried playing sports with boys before coming out, I got teased for “throwing like a girl” and being weak and called a sissy). They’d much prefer it if we just stopped existing altogether. But that’s tough luck for them because we’re here, and we’re making strides to change society. It’ll happen. Not too long ago, sports teams were criticized for desegregating and people used the argument that black people had “natural talent” and were “stronger and taller because only the strong could survive slavery” and whatever other kind of pseudo-Darwinian garbage they could come up with. In fact, I’ve heard these very arguments in my lifetime! Sometimes, shouting “that’s not fair!” is just another way of saying “I don’t understand and I don’t want to – make it go away!” They can dress it up with science all they want, but they always come up short in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

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