• Su Ning Goh

Transgender Athletes: A League of Their Own?

Image taken from Dr Rachel McKinnon’s blog post “Rainbow-striped armour: The ups and downs of winning Worlds as a trans woman.”

Where queer individuals have achieved increasing recognition in many societies around the world, there has been a consequent rise in discussions regarding the accommodation of such individuals who don’t fit into conventional hetero- or cis-normative boxes. From furious debates on which bathrooms transgender individuals should use, to the US’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, our conceptions of gender and the extent to which gender has the ability to determine our rights have been challenged.

The question of who trans athletes should be allowed to compete against has been a long-standing, unresolved issue. Most recently, retired tennis star Martina Navratilova commented that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s categories is “insane and cheating” (Perraudin). She was quickly condemned for being transphobic, but her opinion is not uncommon. Other well-known sports figures have spoken out against allowing trans athletes to compete in women’s categories, calling it unfair. In 2006, Michelle Dumaresq, a transgender woman won the gold medal in mountain biking at the Canadian Nationals – the second-place finisher donned a t-shirt saying “100% Pure Woman Champ” in protest (Hall).

Sporting achievements are celebrated because we admire the discipline and skill the athletes have cultivated. For this reason, fairness is an incredibly important virtue: all the athletes should start on as level a playing field as possible, so that the winner is truly the strongest or fastest or most skilled of them all. Athletes found to have used performance enhancing drugs to get ahead of their competition have suffered disgrace. This logic is employed by people who are against the inclusion of trans athletes: male-to-female transgender athletes have the advantage of bodies shaped by testosterone.

The argument against trans athletes is straightforward. Men and women compete in different categories because of the inherent physical differences between them. Testosterone increases muscle mass, strength and allows blood to carry more oxygen – traits that can lead to a significant advantage in sports (Savage). This biological advantage should not be understated. Serena Williams’ claim that she could take on a male tennis player was disproved when she was easily beaten by the 203rd ranked male tennis player in the 1998 Battle of the Sexes. Although sports regulation boards such as the International Olympic Committee have created guidelines like a maximum testosterone level for women’s categories, some say that it still isn’t enough (Perraudin). It is claimed that the formative effects of testosterone during puberty cannot be entirely undone through the hormonal replacement therapy that male-to-female transgender individuals receive. While one study of trans women runners showed that hormonal therapy took away the biological advantage of testosterone over cisgender female runners (Savage), there is insufficient scientific evidence to substantiate or disprove this claim. In combat sports, this unchecked biological advantage can be dangerous: in a UFC match, Fallon Fox, a trans woman fighter, overpowered her opponent, Tamikka Brents, and broke Brents’ skull.

While the discussion on whether sex and gender should be conflated in sports and how we should draw the lines in these categories is a pertinent one, it is often sidetracked by overt transphobia. Trans athletes have been booed at the podium, their victories diminished. While the biological advantage may exist, they too have trained hard, yet their effort is rarely celebrated. Their identities are too often invalidated when critics call them “not real” women/men. Joe Rogan, a UFC commentator, called Fox “a man without a dick” (Noble); Dr Rachel McKinnon, cycling world champion, found herself the victim of online trolls after Breitbart covered her victory with an article titled “Biological Man Wins Women’s World Cycling Championship” (“Trans Athletes Make Great Gains, yet Resentment Still Flares”). Then there are the more outlandish arguments, like Navratilova’s assertion that trans women are actually men that just want to cheat: “A man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organization is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires." (“Trans Athletes Make Great Gains, yet Resentment Still Flares”). In response to these arguments demonizing trans athletes, Dr McKinnon makes an astute observation. In her reflections on receiving so much hate after winning the championship, she points out: "This isn’t about masters women’s track cycling. It’s not even about women’s sport. These people have never done anything meaningful to support women’s sport, something they seem very invested in ‘protecting’ against the trans woman invasion.

Supporters of transgender athletes’ participation seek to equate gender identity to biological sex (Freeman). While some proponents argue that hormonal therapy makes trans women’s physical ability comparable to that of their cisgender counterparts, others accept that trans women would outclass biological females. To them, cis women may become disadvantaged in their own category, but this is “the price of equality” (Freeman). The inclusion of trans athletes challenges the idea of a fair category of competition. It is argued that cisgender women have different levels of testosterone too, so the testosterone cut-off regulation is an arbitrary delineation of what it means to be a woman. Caster Semenya, the South African two-time Olympic medalist in track, is biologically female but has hyperandrogenism, which causes her to have high levels of testosterone. Semenya was subject to humiliating sex verification tests by various sporting boards, and will only be able to compete by taking hormone suppressing medication (Perraudin).

The debate on who transgender athletes should be allowed to compete against reveals the wedge between biological sex and gender identity. As a society, our acceptance of transgender individuals is particularly challenged and contradicted in our responses to trans athletes. While sporting regulations are catching up to become more trans-inclusive (whatever that may look like), we should remember that trans athletes are at the end of the day athletes too. They, just like any other athlete, have dedicated their bodies to pursuing excellence in their sports and have pushed themselves to their limits, and that should already be worthy of recognition.



Freeman, Hadley. “Sport Can Help to Clarify the Trans Debate.” The Guardian, 6 Mar. 2019. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/06/sport-trans-martina-navratilova.

Hall, Vicki. Canada’s Michelle Dumaresq Upbeat about IOC Change for Transgender Athletes Heading into Rio 2016 Olympics. 27 Jan. 2016, https://nationalpost.com/sports/olympics/canadas-michelle-dumaresq-upbeat-about-ioc-change-for-transgender-athletes-heading-into-rio-2016-olympics.

Noble, McKinley. “UFC’s Joe Rogan to Transgender MMA Fighter Fallon Fox: ‘You’re a F***ing Man.’” Bleacher Report, https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1573044-ufc-joe-rogan-to-transgender-mma-fighter-fallon-fox-youre-a-man.

Perraudin, Frances. “Martina Navratilova Criticised over ‘cheating’ Trans Women Comments.” The Guardian, 17 Feb. 2019. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/feb/17/martina-navratilova-criticised-over-cheating-trans-women-comments.

Savage, Rachel. British Olympians Argue against ‘Unfair’ Trans Women Athletes. The Globe and Mail, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/article-british-female-olympians-argue-against-unfair-trans-women-athletes/.

“Trans Athletes Make Great Gains, yet Resentment Still Flares.” CBC, 23 Feb. 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/sports/tennis/martina-navratilova-trans-comments-1.5031246.

5,561 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All