Debunking Myths About Trans Women in Sport

By Patrick McTague and Jessica Sutton.

“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Olympic Charter

New Zealand’s very own Laurel Hubbard was the first transgender athlete selected to compete at the Olympics.[1] Yet, her selection to the women’s weightlifting team has been met with what can charitably be described as mixed responses. Many are questioning the fairness of allowing someone who was assigned male at birth to compete alongside cisgender women. Some people have genuine questions about this issue. Others are thrilled to find another opportunity to voice transphobia disguised as feminism. A vocal part of that latter group are TERFs – trans exclusionary radical feminists who disparage and disbelieve trans lived experiences. We once again dive down the rabbit hole of transphobic ideology to bust some myths: what is the truth about trans women in sport?

Trans women will take over female sport!

The premise that trans women will dominate all female sport is simply statistically flawed. First, the percentage of women who identify as transgender is extremely small. While data on transgender populations remains scarce, all results we have show that the percentage is very low. In the United States, trans people make up around 0.6% of the population.[2] If we estimate that roughly half of this population are transgender women, and we extrapolate data from the US is roughly the same as other European dominant cultures, we can guess that 0.3% of the western world’s population are transgender women.

Secondly, we can assume, without having any statistics, that the percentage of trans women who are athletes is even smaller again. Lastly, the percentage of trans women who are not only athletes, but world-class athletes is even smaller again. There are 11,326 athletes competing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics,[3] 48.8% (5,527) are women,[4] and only 1 transgender woman is causing this outrage. Approximately 0.018% of female Olympic athletes.

But aren’t trans women physically stronger than cisgender women?

Many of those concerned about Laurel’s participation raise the argument that those assigned male at birth have an unfair advantage in strength-based sports due to their biological makeup. But exact equality in sport is not possible, nor is it desirable. Some cis women weightlifters build muscle more easily than their peers. Some cis women runners have bigger lung capacity than other runners. And some cis women naturally produce much higher levels of testosterone. Should all these women be barred from participating in sport? Starting to differentiate and discriminate on the basis of physical advantage soon becomes ridiculous.

Similar questions of whether someone is biologically fit to compete do not seem to be asked of athletes in the men’s category. Michael Phelps has a condition which reduces lactic acid build-up significantly, increasing his endurance.[5] Usain Bolt has been dominating the sprinting field for years, but nobody has questioned whether his natural speed advantages should stop him competing. So, when does a biological advantage become “unfair”? And why are trans women treated so differently?

Bad faith arguments will tell you that the level of testosterone and the resulting physical differences trans women express, amount to the greatest advantage any athlete could ever have. These arguments would have you think that any cis man could defeat any cis woman in sport due to their increased testosterone, which is highly insulting to every cis woman athlete in the world.

And while it’s true that increased testosterone can lead to faster muscle building and increased endurance, it is not true that this is always a greater advantage over training, technique, encouragement, determination, and work ethic. Not to mention that trans women often have to deal with extremely complex emotional, mental, and physical issues arising from gender dysmorphia, gender affirming surgery, hormone treatments, and legal, social, and systemic discrimination. According to the Europe-wide Outsport survey, 40% of trans athletes experienced harassment, abuse, discrimination, threats, or violence in the 12 months leading up to the study.[6] Trans women already have the world of sport stacked against them.

Laurel is a very strong woman. But she is competing against other very strong women. She placed 6th at the last World Championships in 2019.[7] Her victory is far from assured when she is competing against cis women who have had extensive training, do not face transphobic discrimination, and who have beaten her once before. Claiming that Laurel is destined to dominate the competition because she has certain physical advantages is an insult to the cis women she is competing against and ignores the obstacles trans women must overcome to become high level athletes.

Sport is based on sex not gender!

Some argue that Laurel should compete in the men’s competition, as sport is divided according to sex assigned at birth rather than gender identity. On a basic legal level, this is just not true. In a 2015 decision given by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), it was found that there are only two categories of competition: male and female. These categories are together intended to cover all athletes who wish to participate in competitive athletics”.[8] Competitive sport therefore makes no provision for non-binary people who do not fit into a binary view of gender, which is disappointing. But it also makes no distinction between sex and gender. Whether someone is a woman, and eligible to compete in the female category, is determined by whether they are legally identified as a woman.

Sport and sporting competitions are social constructs. This means the rules of who competes, when, and how, are largely dictated by what is socially acceptable and are subject to change as society evolves. This can be seen in Olympic practices prior to 1999, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had a policy of genital inspection for women who appeared too “masculine”.[9] These inspections were routinely performed on women of colour who did not fit stereotypes of femininity based on white women. Eventually this practice was deemed insufficient and so chromosomal testing was introduced.

However, as scientific understanding of sex developed, specifically regarding intersex people and various hormone conditions, this practice was banned along with all “sex verification policies”. In the same 2015 decision above, CAS noted that “the distinction between male and female is a matter of legal recognition” and “whether a person is female is a matter of law”.[10]  Transphobic activists are essentially attempting to re-litigate this judgement in the court of public opinion by scapegoating one or two prominent transgender athletes.

Thus, Laurel cannot be forced to compete alongside men, because sporting competitions are categorised by legally recognized gender. This may change in future, but if sporting bodies keep up with current societal understandings of gender, it is not likely that it will revert to sex assigned at birth. It is more likely that this will evolve further to recognise non-binary competitors, and one day may even remove gender from consideration completely.

Can’t trans people compete in their own category?

This argument is at best deeply ignorant, and at worst dangerously transphobic. Forcing trans women to compete as men, or in a third category, would exacerbate gender dysphoria and have other serious mental health impacts for trans athletes. To do so would be telling trans women athletes that they aren’t women, and that society will never recognise them as such. To do so would be to trample over their identity and deny them any dignity in sport.

It is clear then, when we review the arguments and the logic behind them, that they are not made from compassion for cis women in sport. They largely express hatred and disdain for trans women. You may also find that many of those making these arguments in everyday life have not previously given attention to issues facing women’s sport. These people seem to be simply making the most of an opportunity to vilify women like Laurel.

Participating in sport is considered a human right. It is declared so in the Olympic Charter.[11] It is implied in the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.[12] Transphobes would have us believe that trans women are denying that right to cis women by participating as their correct gender. But arguing any differently is denying trans women, not only the right to participate in sport, but the right to live freely as women.

In short, we need to be focusing on the real threats to women’s sport. We need to fight chronic underfunding, pay inequity, harassment, and assault of athletes. Trans women are not the enemy.













Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

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