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Do Transgender Athletes Have an Unfair Advantage?

03/07/2014 02:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
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Perhaps no transgender issue brings out more anger than the idea of transgender women competing in athletics. This was evident again when a female transgender CrossFit athlete was told, in writing, by the CrossFit governing body that she cannot compete as a woman. She in turn filed suit. However, the most disturbing part of this incident is the offensive and ignorant language used by CrossFit in their letter of explanation:

We have simply ruled that based upon [Chloie] being born as a male, she will need to compete in the Men's Division. ... The fundamental, ineluctable fact is that a male competitor who has a sex reassignment procedure still has a genetic makeup that confers a physical and physiological advantage over women. ... Our decision has nothing to do with "ignorance" or being bigots -- it has to do with a very real understanding of the human genome, of fundamental biology, that you are either intentionally ignoring or missed in high school.

They were kind enough to note that transgender women are welcome to compete, so long as they do it in a division in which they have no hope of being competitive. "Transgendered [sic] athletes will be welcomed with open arms in this community, but what we will not waver from is our commitment to ensure the fairness of the competition."

The first, most glaring, problem with these statements is that they sound like something a troll on YouTube would write about transgender people. Saying such things as a representative of a corporate entity has legal implications. The case was filed in California, where transgender employment protections are ensconced into state law, and the Ninth Circuit long ago applied heightened scrutiny to sex discrimination claims filed by transgender plaintiffs.

Somehow, I don't think they ran this by legal before they sent it. I also suspect someone will be receiving the contents of their desk in the mail in one to two weeks after they're escorted out of the building.

Fundamentally, though, it shows a lack of awareness of the current medical thought on the issue of transgender athletes. The overwhelming consensus is that after some period of time on hormone replacement therapy (HRT), transgender individuals should be allowed to compete in accordance with their legal gender.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) settled the issue of transgender athletes in 2004, when they released the rules for them to compete. The IOC rules boil down to three basic points:

  • They must have had gender reassignment surgery.
  • They must have legal recognition of their assigned gender.
  • They must have at least two years of hormone therapy.

Given these conditions, the IOC does not consider being transgender an unfair advantage. The IOC did, however, consider drinking too much coffee an unfair competitive advantage for nearly 20 years. The IOC still considers baking soda a potential doping agent, though. Many common cough syrups, lozenges, eye drops, cold medications, diet products, nasal sprays, and allergy medications will also result in a medical disqualification for being at an unfair advantage. Clearly, the IOC does not approach matters of unfair advantage with an under-abundance of caution.

The NCAA instituted somewhat less stringent guidelines in 2011. They do not require surgery, and they require only one year on testosterone suppression for male-to-female transgender athletes. The conclusions of the consulting medical experts on the NCAA policy were unambiguous:

It is also important to know that any strength and endurance advantages a transgender woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate after about one year of estrogen or testosterone-suppression therapy. According to medical experts on this issue, the assumption that a transgender woman competing on a women's team would have a competitive advantage outside the range of performance and competitive advantage or disadvantage that already exists among female athletes is not supported by evidence.

In an interview regarding transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox, Dr. Marci Bowers explains why there is no effective competitive advantage in being a transgender woman:

Most measures of physical strength minimize, muscle mass decreases, bone density decreases, and they become fairly comparable to women in their musculature. After as much time as has passed in her case, if tested, she would probably end up in the same muscle mass category as her biologically born female counterpart.

In the same interview, Dr. Sherman Leis concurred in all respects.

Indeed, given that women get 25 percent of their circulating testosterone from their ovaries, post-operative transgender women typically have less testosterone than their counterparts. Fox noted, "Any of the women I'm competing against, my testosterone levels are drastically lower than theirs; it's almost nothing."

Dr. Bowers agreed: "When you test her, she's going to come out with low testosterone levels and muscle mass that is remarkably similar to her counterparts." These observations were borne out in Fallon Fox's first defeat at the hands of Ashlee Evans-Smith, where Fox's muscle fatigue in later rounds gave Smith an advantage. After the fight, Smith observed, "I won because I hit harder, grappled better, had better ground techniques, cardio and leg strength."

The only dissenting medical professional I could find has no actual experience with transgender medicine, couldn't define transgender, and based his objections on claims that "all the evidence isn't in yet." This argument is remarkably similar to the one used by homophobes on why they oppose same-sex marriage.

Still, there is empirical evidence out there. If being a female transgender athlete is such an unfair competitive advantage, why aren't transgender women dominant at the highest levels? Why aren't there more of them? Why aren't cisgender (non-transgender) female athletes being injured in competitions involving transgender athletes? The fact that we see none of these things suggests that there really isn't a competitive advantage.

In professional sports, any tiny advantage translates into the difference between a win and a loss. If being a transgender woman translates into a substantial competitive advantage, you would expect to see them consistently dominating at the top levels of their sports. In fact, we see exactly the opposite: Professional female transgender athletes are exceedingly rare.

For anyone left on the fence, though, I have a question: Would you prefer to base your opinions on what all the top medical experts, and empirical evidence, say? Or would you rather side with the kind of folks who comment on YouTube?