The Debate On Transgender Athletes Is Fundamentally About Fairness

Amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US engaged in a national debate on who was eligible to compete in women’s sports. As a country which was founded on the principle of “all men are created equal,” most would argue that this rule never applied to women and minorities. Over time, the US has striven to become a more inclusive country. Both women and minorities have the vote. Many have risen to top positions in the country. Even with all of these achievements, the road to equality for female athletes has been incredibly bumpy and many would argue we aren’t there yet.

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. She was physically assaulted by numerous men, including the race director who tried to remove her bib number and throw her out of the race. Switzer’s courage became a symbol of the struggle for inclusiveness in sports. Her determination paved a path for so many other women athletes. Billie Jean King is viewed as one of the most iconic women in tennis. In 1973, she founded the Women’s Tennis Association and led the fight for equal prize money for women in tennis tournaments. In 2007, Venus Williams pressured Wimbledon to offer the same prize money to women as they do to men, actualizing the goal envisioned many years before. Simone Biles won a total of 25 world championship medals, the most global competition series medals out of any male or female gymnast ever.

Gender is Controversial

Women have been fighting for equal footing in sports for decades, so it’s no surprise that the idea that gender is a choice is proving to be controversial. At the heart of the debate is Lia Thomas, a transgender woman who swam for the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) located in the historic city of Philadelphia where the Founding Fathers of the US signed the declaration of independence in 1776. Thomas competed on UPenn’s men’s swim team from 2017 to 2020. Thomas then started competing on UPenn’s women’s team from 2021. In 2022, she became the first transgender athlete to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Division 1 national championship in any intercollegiate sport. The event was the women’s 500-yard freestyle race.

Thomas began hormone replacement therapy in the spring of 2019. It was at this time that she came out as a transgender woman to her coaches and friends. She was required to swim for the men’s team during the time she was going through hormone treatment. Thomas swam for the women’s team in the 2021-22 season. The 2020-21 swimming season was canceled due to COVID-19. Thomas competed in intercollegiate swimming after adhering to all of the guidelines set forth by the NCAA to compete as a woman.

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Nonetheless, Thomas found herself in the middle of a national firestorm. Her taking part in women’s swimming elicited criticism from her teammates, coaches and national and international competitors. Thomas also received support from current and former NCAA swimmers, Team USA and international swimmers across the globe. In December 2021, Thomas achieved the nation’s fastest times in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle races, smoking the competition. 

Thomas’s record-breaking success caused public uproar. Legislators introduced bills to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sporting events. Many were concerned that Thomas’ participation would destroy women’s sports and rob cisgender (denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex) women of achievements. The number of transgender athletes competing in women’s sports is probably very low and this data is not collected formally. Regardless, the argument on the transgender issue is fierce and many question the difference between assigned biological sex and gender identity.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines transgender as “an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” The APA goes on to state that “gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else.”

Making Sense of the Controversial Transgender Debate

I am a women’s health doctor and a former collegiate athlete. It goes without saying that I am a feminist. I have and will always be a staunch supporter of women’s rights. I have fought for equality in women’s sports since I was in grade school. The boys lacrosse team at my high school would always compete on the best field with an electronic scoreboard while the girls team, of which I was the captain, was relegated to an inferior field at the back without a scoreboard. I was part of a very vocal group that fought for the girls team to be treated the same as the boys team. 

I believe in equality in sports and I fully support the right to transition to another gender. But we have to recognize the anatomic, physiologic advantages that a transitioned woman (XY) has over a biological woman (XX), regardless of hormone treatment. If we ignore that, it’s almost like we are partaking in a version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, ignoring what is obvious because we want to be politically correct, progressive and inclusive.  

Men and women have different bodies. We have recognized this from the beginning of time. We can try to distill the differences down to hormones, but that we would be oversimplifying and quite frankly, ignoring inherent differences that are on a variety of different levels.

Once a biological male body hits puberty, there are a host of physical changes that result in larger muscle mass, denser bones and higher fractions of lean body mass. It’s the reason why male athletes on average run faster, can lift more weight and throw farther than the average female athlete. And the differences can be seen on a microscopic level. Take skeletal muscle kinetics and muscle fiber composition for example. One of the many research studies on the subject tells us: “The identification of over 3,000 genes differentially regulated in male and female muscle highlights the complex differences that occur in skeletal muscle from both sexes.” 

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This study reveals that gender differences are present across numerous species. It observes: “Sex-based differences in skeletal muscle fiber-type composition and function are apparent in numerous species and are present in specific anatomical locations. Here, we present findings on sexual dimorphisms present in the mammalian musculoskeletal system.” These scientifically observed differences simply cannot be wished away.

Many famous biological women athletes are against the inclusion of transgender women in competition. Three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar told ESPN: “We need to prioritize fairness for biological women in sports. A category that is for half the world’s population is worth defending. Only then can we talk about ways to include transgender men and women, ways that respect everyone with all their differences and that don’t harm biological women.”

A cohort of swimmers from the University of Arizona, including several former Olympic athletes wrote a letter to the NCAA after Lia Thomas decisively won at a swim championship in Atlanta, GA. The letter blamed the NCAA Board of Governors for “successfully failing everyone by allowing Thomas who has distinct biological advantages, to compete against women to ‘appease everyone.”

In a recent interview with The New York Times, internationally recognized sports physiologist Ross Tucker pointed to peer-reviewed studies that highlight top transgender women athletes having a substantial edge over top biological women. Hormones aside, biologic men who transition have inherent advantages. He says, “Lia Thomas is the manifestation of scientific evidence. The reduction of testosterone did not remove her biological advantage.”

Not everyone in the scientific community agrees, Dr. Joshua Safer, an internist and executive director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York was quoted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as saying, “A person’s genetic make-up and internal and external reproductive anatomy are not useful indicators of athletic performance. According to Safer, “For a trans woman athlete who meets NCAA standards there is no inherent reason why her physiological characteristics related to athletic performance should be treated differently from the physiological characteristics of a non-transgender woman.”

Genetic advantages may not be limited to assigned gender at birth, according to some experts. Discussing genetic advantages is a slippery slope, Alexi Kuska, assistant swimming and diving coach at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee says. “Every elite swimmer has a genetic advantage.” Analysis of 23-time Olympic gold-medalist American swimmer Michael Phelps illustrates this point. Kuska says, “His measurements (height, wing-span, etc) are inches beyond of what the ‘perfect’ swimmer would be.” This raises the question: Should someone like Phelps be sidelined? 

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An Issue of Fairness

But in my opinion, that’s not really the point. Everything can be distilled down to genetics and gender definitely plays a role in sports. It’s really about where you draw the line, and a line must be drawn in order to maintain fairness in women’s sports, an ideal that has been fought for, for decades. Assigned gender at birth is a rational and very reproducible method for delineation.

The debate continues to rage on. Fédération internationale de natation (FINA), the world’s swimming governing body, recently banned transgender women from competing in women’s events. It has decided to permit only those tansgender swimmers to compete in women’s events who transition before the advent of puberty, which they have set as 12. FINA has also proposed an “open competition category,” for trans swimmers to compete in. This ruling makes sense to me but clearly not to everyone involved.

We are living in a time where people are afraid to offer their opinion, where facts don’t seem to matter as much as they should. The transgender issue is one where people are afraid of expressing themselves lest they be damned like the noted Scottish writer JK Rowling. In 2020, she took a strong view about the current debate.

Rowling argued:

“We’re living through the most misogynistic period I’ve experienced. Back in the 80s, I imagined that my future daughters, should I have any, would have it far better than I ever did, but between the backlash against feminism and a porn-saturated online culture, I believe things have got significantly worse for girls.

She went on to make the case that there was indeed a difference between trans women and women. She found the demand that “women must accept and admit that there is no material difference between trans women and themselves” unacceptable. In her memorable words:

“But, as many women have said before me, ‘woman’ is not a costume. ‘Woman’ is not an idea in a man’s head. ‘Woman’ is not a pink brain, a liking for Jimmy Choos or any of the other sexist ideas now somehow touted as progressive. Moreover, the ‘inclusive’ language that calls female people ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’ strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning. I understand why trans activists consider this language to be appropriate and kind, but for those of us who’ve had degrading slurs spat at us by violent men, it’s not neutral, it’s hostile and alienating.”

Rowling has a right to raise these issues as do I. If we are afraid to speak out aloud about the issues that matter most to us, everyone is bound to lose out.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.