By David “Dirk” Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
The whole notion of transgender/non-binary/intersex athletes participating in sports as equals has been a hot button issue. As anybody who follows LGBTQ+ sports news, whether it be on Compete Sports Diversity or elsewhere knows, there has been no shortage of controversy.
Some of the most recent of the many stories coming out lately have including NCAA swimmer, Lia Thomas, who has been making waves in the pool with her record setting season; Olympians, Quinn and Laurel Hubbard being the first openly trans athletes to compete at an Olympic Games, with the bonus of Quinn being the first trans athlete to win an Olympic medal; Hailey Davidson becoming the first trans woman to win a professional US golf tournament; among many others.
To make it clear, we at Compete Sports Diversity are strong advocates for inclusion of transgender, non-binary, and intersex athletes in sport. To the extent that simply looking at the results of some of the most successful trans athletes of our era show that there is no discernable advantage over their cisgender competitors that is any more different than other individual variations. It is important to understand the components of the transition process; the social transition in which a person begins to dress and present themselves socially as the gender they identify with. The second is using hormone replacement therapy or hormone suppression therapy to undergo a physiological transition. For trans women this includes testosterone blockers and estrogen supplements, whereas for trans men it is estrogen blockers and testosterone supplements. The third involves gender affirming surgery which are anatomical modifications to the body that are in line with a person’s gender identity. Most trans inclusive sports policies only require athletes to go as far as using hormone replacement therapy to qualify to compete.
Now the trans athlete debate has centered primarily around transgender women, who were assigned male at birth but now identify and live as a woman. This debate revolves around the effects of testosterone production on the development of muscle tissue in the body that occurs before transition. However much of this entire debate is purely theoretical given the lack of scientific research on this topic and the low number of participants to draw for said research. Thus, when a trans athlete “wins” a competition, the debate gets fired up as the individual is one of only a small number of examples to draw from for either side of the argument.
Some research is starting to come out such as this article by Roberts, TA., et al., (2021) but the matter of fact is, there can’t be any scientific research to help us answer these long controversial questions, if there are no participants to draw from. While it is important to note that, like almost every other athlete, trans, intersex and non-binary athletes simply want the opportunity to participate in sports rather than win (which is the foundation of good sportsmanship). Organizations and people who are arguing against the exclusion of trans athletes from sport are failing to see the forest through the trees. We, as a collective society, cannot answer questions like “do trans women have an unfair advantage due to their transgender status” if we actively exclude trans women from participating. How can we “create a level playing field” if there is no equal opportunity to participate.
Science thrives best when there are a lot of people and experiences to draw from to help us explore the complexity of our world. Diversity, inclusion, and equity in sports isn’t just a human right, it’s also for science.
Photo credit: Ted Eytan