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August 15, 2021

Protect Trans Athletes! LGBT Olympians, Transgender Women in Sports, and Rejecting Bioessentialism

Photo of an outdoor track field, showing several women running in a competition.
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Recently, I saw this tweet from the queer news publication “Them” that said if all of the world’s openly queer Olympians were competing as one country, they would be ranked #11 in the entire world based on total medals as of this summer. That’s INCREDIBLE, and makes me lowkey wish there really was such a queertopia.

But even with such unprecedented success and representation of LGBTQIA+ people at this year’s Olympic games, there are still mountains of hateful opposition to queer athletes. Specifically, conversation and legislation in the US arguing against the inclusion of trans men and women competing in sports.

Bioessentialism is Transphobia Masquerading as “Science”

Let’s get one thing straight -- trans-men are men; and trans-women are women. Period! Many transphobic ideologues arguing against transgender people in sports would like to have you believe that it is a “highly nuanced, science-based debate.” They would say that trans people ultimately “can’t argue with science,” and cite anatomy, biology, and physiology, as evidence as to why trangender people do not actually exist. This is a misappropriation of biological science known as bioessentialism.

Bioessentialism is really transphobia, masquerading as science. It attempts to weaponize the scientific understanding of human biology to bolster arguments against the existence of trans people. It is frequently used to say that a trans woman is simply a “man in a dress,” because gender is immutable and irrevocably tied to one's genitalia, chromosomes, and hormones. As such, it is no wonder that much of the discourse surrounding trans people in sports ultimately amounts to bioessentialist rhetoric.

In the US, the state of Mississippi was among the first to formally sign into law a ban against transgender women competing in women’s sports. Idaho was another state that took similar actions, and since then many other proposals have popped up all over the country.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves tweeted that he “proudly signed the Mississippi Fairness Act to ensure young girls are not forced to compete against biological males.” Take note of his language -- “biological males.” I doubt Governor Reeves is anything close to a biologist, and yet he seeks to use this as a basis for his decision -- much like other bioessentialist transphobes in our government.

These arguments are unfounded, as to date there have been no published studies on trans athletes participating in elite sports, as people like Governor Reeves are apparently so worried about. There have, however, been several studies examining the athletic differences of everyday, non-professional trans and cisgender women that we can look at.

Fitness of Trans People Undergoing Medical Transition is Roughly Equal to Cisgender

One study was led by a pediatrician at the University of Missouri, and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. It found that when comparing trans-women and cisgender women’s fitness test results pre-and-post hormone transition, any differences between the groups largely disappeared after two years of hormone replacement. (Except for a slight lead among trans-women, being roughly 9% faster than cisgender women on average when tested with a 1.5 mile run.)

Conversely, among trans-men and cisgender men, there were virtually no performance differences between the two groups after only one year.

Although these studies have found slight outperformances among transgender women within the first year of initiating hormone therapy, it’s important to provide some context for these findings before making assumptions that apply to elite sports, and sports legislation. To start -- a 9% edge given to the average trans-woman versus the average cisgender woman (only in the running category) is still not nearly notable enough to impact elite sportspeople like Olympic athletes. We are comparing otherwise normal people to each other, who hardly represent the outliers of elite athletes competing in professional sports. Additionally, trans athletes are disproportionately being focused on as a critical point of unfairness in women’s sports, without giving any credence to so many other facets which would certainly have more of an effect.

Trans-women are a Scapegoat for General Inequity in Women’s Sports

As Alex Azzi writes in NBC Sports’ “On Her Turf,” the REAL threat to women’s sports is not trans-women; it’s almost everything else about gender inequality within our society at large. Azzi astutely points out that women athletes don’t have nearly as many competitive opportunities -- regardless of their gender identity. Although Azzi writes that “the Tokyo Olympics are expected to be the most gender-balanced Games in history, with women slated to make up 49 percent of all participants,” there is still a significant gap across several sports in the Games. Azzi continues to point out that in this year’s Games, there are:

  • 16 men’s soccer teams, and only 12 women’s teams
  • 300 cycling spots for men but only 228 for women
  • 206 spots for men’s boxing and only 80 for women

And the trend continues. This is not endemic to the Olympic Games, however -- Alex Azzi emphasizes that women see fewer opportunities across all organized sports, with as many as 9 out of 10 US colleges being out of compliance with Title IX; a federal law for gender equality requiring college sports to provide equal opportunities to both male and female students. (Among other things.)

With this, it is clear that if anyone is truly concerned about fairness in women’s sports, they should start with addressing the myriad of other issues affecting ALL women -- trans included. This focus on trans-women being a key driver of inequality in sports, to the point of requiring legislation, is simply a distraction from the true inequities dragging down everyone. When you consider that fewer than 0.6% of US adults identify as transgender, it becomes obvious just how overblown the entire issue really is -- a scapegoat.

An Attack on Trans-women in Sports is an Attack on ALL Women in Sports

Fortunately, most of the legislation targeting trans-women in sports here in the US have either been struck down, or paused pending several lawsuits. However, bioessentialist thinking has already done its damage, and isn’t localized to the US -- and some of it has even hurt cisgender women.

Two Olympic track stars, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi -- who are cisgender women -- have actually been barred from competing in the women’s race because their natural testosterone levels were determined to be “too high.” While the organization that runs the Olympic Games hasn’t made the allegation that Mboma and Masilingi are not actually women, it has maintained that women with high natural levels of testosterone must take medication to reduce them in order to compete.

This is just one example of how scapegoating a vulnerable minority group like trans-women can go on to have implications that hurt all women. While these testosterone limits were most likely put into place to prevent athletes from doping on performance enhancers, bioessentialist rhetoric surrounding what makes a “real woman” can and does take advantage of these sorts of limits to justify discrimination -- under the veil of “science” and “fairness.”

As Allies We Must Strive to Protect Trans-women

Women in sports deserve our protection -- but not from trans-women. They deserve protection from a system of misogyny that has gaslighted them with false narratives of transgender predators. Women in sports have been used as pawns in the legislative assault of transphobes within our government, against transgender people who are already at higher risk of suicide, and of being violently murdered.

It is important that we reject bioessentialism, as it is not a good faith approach to fairness in sports, and is almost always a misappropriation of science. Trans-women in sports should instead be celebrated for the diversity they bring to competition, both in the form of representation, and natural ability -- two things that I would say are part of the very foundation of sports in general.

As a final note -- I want to offer one bit of GOOD news regarding transgender people in sports. The Canadian soccer team recently took home the Gold at this year’s Olympic games, and part of that victory was thanks to Quinn -- who has become the first-ever openly transgender AND non-binary athlete to win at all in the Olympic Games. (Let alone to win Gold.) A fantastic victory for the LGBTQIA+ community, but still underscored by the ongoing argument against transgender people in sports. One note on Quinn’s victory emphasized by the Washington Times is that Quinn, unlike other transgender athletes, did not raise nearly as much uproar as they were assigned female at birth, and have continued to play on the women’s team.

Photo of Omaralexis Ochoa, host of The Gay Pro, and author of this blog post.

Omaralexis Ochoa

Data analyst, podcaster, pasta-lover... I'm many things, but above all, I'm a creator. I created The Gay Pro because I love sharing stories of queer success, with the intention of empowering and inspiring other queer leaders.