Transgender Participation in Sports

By Kanade Shiono

The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group is known as a pioneer in the fight for equal participation in sports games. Members include professional tennis player, Martina Navratilova, Olympic gold medal swimmers, Donna de Varona and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, and other world-class athletes and influential sports leaders. With an initiative to change the way transgender girls and women participate in women’s sports, the group announced that transgender girls and women in high school sports and above should be required to suppress testosterone levels for at least one year before the competitions. They suggested accommodations such as separated races, podiums, or teams for transgender girls in high school who do not suppress testosterone levels. Although they claimed that their proposals were scientifically supported, whether testosterone levels directly affect athletic performance remains unclear.

A study shows that testosterone-blocking hormone therapy has a significant effect on physical strengths. It found that after 4 months of hormone therapy, transwomen’s  Hgb/HCT (Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells and hematocrit is a measurement of the amount of red blood cells as related to total blood cell count) levels were equivalent to those of cisgender women. After 12 months of hormone therapy, significant decreases in measures of strength, LBM (Lean Body Mass), and muscle area were observed. However, transwomen’s LBM and muscle area were higher than those of cisgender women, even after 36 months of hormone therapy. These results suggest that testosterone-blocking hormone therapy can reduce Hgb levels, but it does not reduce transwomen’s physical strengths. 

On the contrary, bioethics at Yale University, Katrina Karkazis, claims that the notion that transgender women have advantages in competing because of their high testosterone levels is not always true. She says that “it’s an artifact of the ideology of testosterone that we continue to believe that it drives aggression, because aggression has been framed as a masculine behavior and testosterone has been framed as a masculine hormone.” She explains that testosterone can help build lean muscle mass, and increase red blood cells that carry oxygen, but there is no clear relationship between testosterone levels in athletes and their athletic performance. 

Furthermore, the idea that transgender individuals have an advantage in physical performance fails to consider the fact that they are more likely to suffer from high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality, which could negatively affect their training and performance in competition. They also face significant health and economic hardships than cisgender adults. Transgender Americans have significantly lower employment rates, lower incomes, and higher rates of living in poverty,  lower rates of having a good self-rates of health than cisgender Americans. 

Although  research may seem to support that hormone therapy can help with maintaining equality among participants in sports games, we need to consider a variety of factors such as socioeconomic status, effects on mental health, and education to achieve equality, fairness, and justice for a transgender individual in athletic sports. 

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