Trans Athletes, Revisited

Alt Titles: "Trans Athletes 2: Electric Boogaloo" "Trans Athletes 2: This Time It's Personal" "Revenge of the Trans Athletes" "Why Are We Talking About Trans Athletes When There's a Pandemic?"

I am often my own biggest critic. While my previous essay on trans athletes received largely positive responses, I am not happy with it. With transgender athletes suddenly becoming a big discussion, now is a good time to revisit the topic.

It is remarkable how big a topic it is now. At this moment, over a dozen states have legislators pushing to make it illegal for trans girls to play girls sports. All at once. There is even a bill in one state which goes so far as to criminalize trans girls who even try out for a girls team. This is not because there is a sudden surge of trans girls destroying cis girls in sports. In the vast majority of the states in question, the legislators pushing these laws cannot even name a single trans girl in a girls sports team in their state. It is a problem that does not exist, but they insist it is important to take proactive measures. The political debate has reached a point where 48 Republican senators and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) voted to defund schools that allowed transgender students to play on the sports team consistent with their gender. It is being treated with a very high level of urgency.

I want to emphasize that this is not a problem that currently exists. People aiming to keep trans girls from playing in girls sports repeatedly bring up an example from Connecticut, where two transgender athletes won some races. Yet, one of the cisgender athletes who alleges it is unfair wins over the transgender athletes sometimes, too. Interestingly, this mirrors the situation with adult athletes. A great example is that of cycling, where cisgender athlete Jen-Wagner Assali insisted that her loss against Veronica Ivy (formerly known as Rachel McKinnon) was unfair, even though Assali had beaten Ivy in 10 of the last 12 events. There are very few examples of transgender athletes, let alone ones that ever win anything of any significance. When they do win, it is treated as proof that it is unfair; when they do not win, it is treated as though it does not count.


Let’s lay out the key question clearly: Is it acceptable to implement a blanket ban on transgender women from participating in women’s sports?

There are three commonly cited principles in sports ethics: Fairness, inclusion, and safety. In other words, a good sports competition is:

  • Between competitors on an acceptably even playing-field,

  • Not unduly exclusive, and

  • Minimally dangerous.

There is a line between tolerable and intolerable unfairness, exclusion, and lack of safety, since we cannot calculate the cumulative effects of every major non-skill factor in a competition — at least, not yet. In addition to these three principles, there is a general consensus among sports ethicists that playing sports is a right. Sports are a deeply human thing; to restrict someone who wants to play sports from doing so is a real jerk move.

The argument against transgender athletes I hear time and time again goes as follows. Women’s sports exist because women deserve the ability to compete with an opportunity to win, and if women were required to compete against men then men would dominate most sports. Since transgender women are “biologically male,” it is necessarily, or nearly certainly, categorically unfair for them to compete against cisgender women.

The many studies which are brought up in this debate reflect the second argument in their methodology. A great example is Knox et al. (2019), which analogizes from studies on cisgender men to the case of transgender women. It admits it does so, but holds that this is a valid comparison to make regardless. I do not agree.

The populations of cisgender men and transgender women are distinct in many ways that influence biology and performance. Transgender people as a population face a series of hurdles far larger than cisgender men as a population do: Rampant homelessness, extremely high poverty rates, tragic levels of suicide, and intolerably frequent assault. While understudied, this inevitably impacts transgender women’s biology. In addition to this, the biology of transgender women is often intentionally different from cisgender men, with different endocrine levels resulting in changes to musculature, weight, and fat distribution. The second puberty prompted by hormone therapy is an extra challenge when it comes to physical competition, since it takes time to get re-acquainted with one’s abilities and limits.

There are other, less sports-relevant biological differences as well, such as differences in brain structure. I think the overall picture is fairly clear: the populations of transgender women and cisgender men are distinct in ways that substantially limit analogizing from one to the other. This is significant because there is very, very little in the way of actual evidence regarding the athletic performance of transgender women. When taken alongside the near-complete absence of transgender women in sports, reality seems to suggest that there is no present reason to fear a generally uneven playing field between transgender women and cisgender women. It seems to me that any potential unfairness in cisgender and transgender women competing is generally tolerable. I leave open the possibility that particular sports — perhaps powerlifting, for example — may require their own regulations to protect fairness.

What about inclusion and safety?

In the absence of a pressing threat of intolerable unfairness, the case for exclusion grows weak. If it is not meant for women, a sport is typically de facto a mens sport. Playing a men’s sport will often be something between fairly uncomfortable to intolerably distressing for many transgender women. Therefore, for many transgender women, a flat ban on participating in women’s sports is a very large impediment to playing sports at all. On its face, it is also a jerk move to prevent young trans girls from playing school sports with their friends. This is exemplified by this snippet from an Associated Press story:

The two dozen bills making their way through state legislatures this year could be devastating for transgender teens who usually get little attention as they compete.

In Utah, a 12-year-old transgender girl cried when she heard about the proposal, which would separate her from her friends. She’s far from the tallest girl on her club team and has worked hard to improve her times but is not a dominant swimmer in her age group, her coach said.

“Other than body parts, I’ve been a girl my whole life,” she said.

Safety is a more nuanced topic. On average, transgender women are substantially taller and heavier than cisgender women. This fact got some attention late last year, when World Rugby banned transgender women from its international competitions over safety concerns. However, it raises the question: why can’t safety be ensured without flatly banning transgender women? It would seem that the same effect could be gained by implementing something akin to the weight classes that boxing has, or implementing a transgender-neutral ban on people over certain weights or heights. While I would still oppose it, a similar effect on safety could be achieved with less exclusivity by banning transgender women over certain heights or weights.

In the final analysis, it seems that a blanket ban on transgender women in women’s sports is tolerably unfair (if unfair at all), an intolerable exclusion, and unnecessary in ensuring safety. In addition, a blanket ban on transgender women in women’s sports is a substantial and unacceptable barrier in the ability to participate in sports whatsoever.

I would like to close on two final comments.

First: there is a lot of discussion about whether these bans are transphobic or not. On the one side there are backers who say “we’re not transphobic, we just have Legitimate Concerns!” On the other, there are opponents who say “it’s transphobic, and their concerns are fake!” I don’t like this debate. I see no point in differentiating between “not transphobic with Legitimate Concerns” and “transphobic with Fake Concerns” if the rhetoric and policy solutions are the same.

Second: it remains bewildering to me to think that a twelve year old trans girl must necessarily have a substantial advantage over a twelve year old cis girl. Policies which ban young trans children from playing sports congruent with their gender are just cruel. Let kids play with their friends.