Transgender women athletes have an unfair advantage in female sport…and we all know it

Does inclusion trump fairness? How we answer that question will determine what sport looks like for a long time to come.

Gender and sex are not the same thing

Sex is an immutable biological characteristic. Humans are either male or female. Sex is one of the two categories we have for organizing athletes in sport competitions, the other is age. Gender refers to the social or cultural roles of men and women. These roles vary amongst cultures and can change. Most gender roles are based at least somewhat on biological sex, so it's not unreasonable to think that when we say 'man' or 'woman' we're talking about males and females. However, the transgender issue shows that sex and gender are no longer trivial distinctions; we need to be more precise with our language.

There is speculation that the University of Pennsylvania athlete behind the latest dustup over trans women in sport may be about to set new American collegiate swimming records. The fact that a trans woman (a biological male) might set new records for women has placed the sport world on full alert, and the media is noticing. Voices that have been annoyingly silent are finally speaking out about the unfairness of current transgender policies when it comes to allowing trans women to compete in female competitive sports.

A trans woman is a biological male who identifies as a woman. Trans gender persons have successfully claimed their right to inclusion in many areas of life and social circumstances. However, trans activists may have jumped the shark when it comes to trans women in sports because it’s hard not to notice the obvious unfairness of allowing trans women to compete in female events. The activist claim that "trans women are women" may be valid in other areas of society where sex is not a relevant category but in sport it's nonsense to think that a biological male can compete fairly with biological females.

Inclusion activism has prompted governing bodies to adopt policies outlining a path for transgender athletes to participate in sport. These policies are ill-conceived and include laughably inadequate requirements that actually create unfair competitive environments for females. Since this issue has taken on social justice and political undertones it's hard to point out this unfairness without being labeled a transphobe or a bigot. And if you're a coach, athlete, or administrator on a college campus, where there is little intellectual tolerance for speech that challenges wokeratti dogma, speaking out about unfairness may get you sanctioned in other ways. Common sense voices have been silenced by a Pavlovian fear of cancel culture.

A number of persistent talking points are seen quite often in online forums and in some media outlets. These claims are either false or misleading, confuse the less informed, or cloud the issue with meaningless details. I want to clarify some of these erroneous points so we can focus on what's true:

  • There are so few trans women that we should not worry about this. This is both misleading and meaningless. The number of trans women has nothing to do with the issue. A trans woman in a female competition is unfair no matter how many trans women there may be.
  • People who want to change the rule just don't want trans athletes to participate in sport. This is false and the person making this claim also usually calls anyone who wants to change the rule a transphobe or a bigot. No sensible person is arguing that transgender athletes should be excluded from sport participation. The argument is over the category in which they should compete. Trans women have a huge performance advantage in the female category, thus they should not be allowed to compete in that category.
  • Just create a separate category for trans athletes. Creating a separate category for trans athletes is impractical because of the small number of trans athletes. This is a lazy suggestion that demonstrates the person making it has not given it any significant thought. Trans women should compete in their biological category. That's what categories in sport are for.
  • "Trans women are women!" This is confusing unless you're familiar with activist lingo. If you are familiar with the lingo then it's just a meaningless claim. It's usually heard from people who don't understand the difference between sex and gender. Categories are important. The two primary categories common to almost all sports are sex and age. Sex is an immutable human characteristic. A trans woman is a woman (gender is mutable) but she is not female (sex is immutable).
  • Trans women are cheating when they compete in female events. This is false. Currently the rules allow this so it should not be considered as cheating. But that's the problem: The fact that the rules allow an unfair situation to exist is the reason this is an issue. The problem is not with the athletes but with the rules. Anyone who claims that trans women are cheating when they compete in a women's event doesn't understand the rules. In the case of older athletes one would hope that they would be able to see how their participation in the female category is unfair but whether they recognize this or not they are not cheating.
  • Some men will 'identify' as women simply to win athletic events. Can this happen? Yes, but while it's possible it's also unlikely. It's in the same category as getting hit by a meteorite; it could happen but it almost certainly won't.

In 2004 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was the first international sport body to adopt guidelines regarding transgender athlete participation in the Olympic Games. These guidelines were revised in 2015 and are in use today. International federations generally follow the IOC guidance with sport specific modifications if necessary, and because of the way international sport is structured national sport governing bodies follow whatever their international federations require. So one way or another the IOC sets the standard for what a transgender policy looks like in global sport. This is what the IOC requires:

  1. Trans women athletes must declare their gender and not change that assertion for four years.
  2. Trans women athletes must demonstrate a testosterone level (T-level) of less than 10 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) of blood for at least one year prior to competition and throughout the period of eligibility. International federations are allowed to adjust this level for sport specific needs. World Athletics (formerly known as the International Amateur Athletic Federation), for example, has reduced its requirement to 5 nmol/L.
  3. Trans men athletes can compete in the male category without restriction.

The NCAA, the administrative body for collegiate sport in the United States, does not measure T-levels but requires transgender women to undergo at least one year of testosterone suppression prior to competing on a woman's team.

There is no agreed upon T-level that will reduce typical male physical performance to the same level as that of a typical female. If the T-levels can be changed by individual federations, or not measured at all as in the case of the NCAA, then why have them? Are they meaningful or are they just theater?

Does testosterone level really matter?

Table 1 shows the typical T-levels for males and females as well as the current requirements for trans women under the IOC, World Athletics, and NCAA guidelines. Normal T-levels for males range from 9.2 to 32 nmol/L. In females they range from 0.5 to 2.4 nmol/L.

How does the IOC justify lowering trans woman T-levels to only 10 nmol/L, which is four times higher than the upper level range for females and still within the typical range for males? Shouldn't this number be lower? Perhaps around 2 or 3 nmol/l? Somewhere at least in the ballpark of a typical female?

World Athletics lowers the T-level requirement to 5 nmol/L, which is closer to an actual female, but even this is twice that of the upper female range. Furthermore, the NCAA doesn't measure T-levels at all. If testosterone is truly the key to solving the unfair performance advantage between trans women and female athletes then something is wrong with the numbers. Confidence is not boosted when governing bodies are allowed to set their own T-level standards or when they don't even require that they be measured.

So what is accomplished by suppressing testosterone in the first place? The answer to this question reveals that what testosterone does in the body seems to be misrepresented -- and possibly misunderstood -- in the current IOC guidelines.

Test any male and female adult athlete and you will undoubtedly find that the male has a higher T-level, but this contemporary measurement is not the source of the male's performance advantage. Testosterone is not a stimulant; simply having more of it does not elicit immediate advantages, and reducing it for a short period has no significant effect on performance. Reducing it over a longer period diminishes performance a bit more but still not significantly. However, having more testosterone over time produces and maintains a lifelong performance advantage. This advantage is baked into male puberty and no amount of testosterone suppression as an adult will erase it. In general, males who have gone through puberty will always have a performance advantage over females.

Table 2 shows T-levels by age. At young ages both males and females have low T-levels, in fact, in the 7 to 10 years range young girls generally have higher T-levels than young boys. But with the onset of puberty things change. At about 13 years male T-levels rise dramatically and can continue rising into adulthood. This is the source of the major and durable performance advantage that males have over females. Males are generally taller, have more muscle mass, larger lung capacity, higher cardiac output, and a number of other physical advantages over females because of much higher, long-term T-levels. Females, on the other hand, see only small increases in T-levels in puberty and into adulthood.

To summarize, the notion that manipulating T-levels is all it takes to bring males into the same performance arena as females is incorrect. Going through male puberty is a one-way trip. Attempting to depress or degrade male performance to the same level as a typical adult female is not possible and is probably unhealthy.

Sport as a social construct

Until now the transgender sport issue has been treated as just another flap within the sport world that will eventually work itself out and things will get back to normal. Most of the problems we face in sport are exactly like that. We spot a problem; we fix it; we move on. The trans women issue is different. It challenges one of the foundational principles that define sport as we currently know it: fairness. We don't think about fairness much because it's so much a part of what we expect in sport that we only notice it when it's not there. Fairness is why we have rules and referees to make sure athletes follow them. Fairness is why younger athletes are separated by age, and fairness is why we separate athletes into male and female categories.

What makes the trans women issue unique is that the administrative bodies we depend on to maintain fairness have deliberately created an unfair situation for female athletes. A little second-order analysis will show this is an existential threat to what we think of as sport.

As Jay Coakley, a noted sport sociologist, points out, sport is a social construct, it is what we make it:

“…Sports are social constructions. This means that we play a role in making them what they are today and what they will be in the future. We can play this role actively by envisioning what we’d like sports to be and then working to make them so, or we can play it passively by doing nothing and allowing others to shape sports as they want them to be." (Jay Coakley)

Fairness is part of the a priori assumptions people make about sport. As Coakley says, we can shape sport the way we want it to be or we can let others do it. Allowing trans women to compete in the female category is unfair and it has a direct and immediate effect on female athletes. If we are going to allow this fundamental change to the very definition of sport we should at least be aware that we're doing it.

It's hard to imagine a scenario where trans women competing with biological females could ever be fair. Does inclusion trump fairness? How we answer that question will determine what sport looks like for a long time to come.