If you’ve been following our coverage the past 6 months, you’ll have noticed a rise in coverage regarding the diversity of transgender athletes within many different sports. Many of the stories are about the wins and triumphs of various athletes within their sports. But this has not been without controversy either, as the wins bring up ongoing discussions regarding eligibility, fairness of play, and a perceived “unfair advantage” in sports.
And it’s a fair question to ask, because it’s a factor that we are still working to fully understand. This stems from a lack of experience that can be attributed to the lack of previous participation of transgender athletes in sports. Does a transgender woman have an unfair advantage in a sport due to the previous physiological influence of testosterone in her system? Is a transgender male at an increased risk of injury when compared to his cisgender counterparts? Does an athlete with hyperandrogegism have an unfair advantage that puts them ahead of their fellow competitors? These are valid questions that we are starting to research, learn, and understand as more transgender, non-binary, and intersex people participate in sports.
We focus so much on the winners, but what about the losers? By that I mean, what about the transgender, non-binary, and intersex athletes who don’t win, make national headlines, and piss off the IAAF, USAPL or Martina Navratilova? The ongoing drama and fallout over Martina Navratilova’s recent Op-Ed article where she stated “The rules on trans athletes reward cheats and punish the innocent” should also serve as a stark reminder of Navratilova’s own history in competing against trans athletes. That is, being transgender in sports doesn’t necessarily mean the athlete will always win.
Flash back to 1977 and the first ever openly transgender professional athlete, Dr. Renee Richards. Richards was a professional tennis player throughout the 50s and 60s in the men’s league. In the early 1970s, she begun to transition to female. Following her transition in the mid 1970s, Richards fought for her eligibility to play tennis in the Women’s Tennis Association and became the highest profile transgender person at the time. She sued for her right to compete in the US Open as a woman on the grounds of sex discrimination after she was denied a spot in the tournament; despite having qualified. Winning her court case, she was allowed to continue her tennis career as a woman and permitted to compete in the US Open in the women’s division. She became the first pioneer of transgender athletes in sports.
While many people know the story of Renee Richards fighting for her right to play. What a lot of people don’t remember is that within her career, before and after her transition, and despite being a strong tennis player. She never had any major championship wins or significant career highlights that helped her stand out as a professional tennis player. The only Grand Slam event she has ever participated in was the US Open. She had eight appearances competing in the men’s division (1953-1960) and five appearances competing in the women’s division (1977-1981). Despite the numerous appearances, Richards never made it past the 3rd round in the singles tournament. In doubles, she made it to the semifinals once in Mixed Doubles (1979) and to the finals once in Women’s Doubles (1977). In her Women’s Doubles Final Match in 1977; Richards and her partner, Betty Ann Stuart, lost the match to Betty Stöve and Martina Navratilova. Richards is remembered more for her status as a transgender athlete than she is known for being a tennis player.
Fast forward to 2013, Bobbi Lancaster who is a transgender woman was attempting to qualify for the LPGA tour. Having been a golf phenomenon in her youth and winning several various professional golf championships in the 90s and 2000s. Lancaster transitioned in 2012 and took up golf again, competing against elite level women. In her first professional tour as a woman, she competed and won against athletes 40 years younger than her despite complaints that she had an “unfair advantage.” Following the tour, she attempted to qualify for the LGPA Tour which had recently adopted a more trans-inclusive policy. She made it as far as the LGPA Qualifying Tournament but she never made it further. In 2016 Lancaster regained her amateur status and still competes recreationally.
Even today, there are athletes who are competing without question. Natalie van Gogh is a dutch professional cyclist who is a transgender woman currently competing for the Biehler Cycling Team. She has made appearances in several professional cycling events, including La Vuelta, Tour De France, Ladies Tour, Netherland National Championships and even the World Championships. However, her results have been mixed and has never won an international race.
Dr. Rachel McKinnon is known as the first transgender track cyclist to win a world championship. She has been competing since 2015 and throughout her career she has seen highs and more than a few lows. Like all athletes, her career successes haven’t been without losses. McKinnon is recognized for her World Champion win in 2018, but not for the 3.5 years of competition that lead up to it.
As organizations such as the IOC, NCAA, USA Hockey, Scottish Athletics, Canada Games, Crossfit, United States Powerlifting Association, and others that have adopted transgender inclusive policies; more and more transgender and non-binary athletes are taking part in sports. Sports has long represented an institution that is unwelcoming and unaccepting of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex athletes. Only now is the culture starting to change as we increase representation and pursue scientific research to understand the physiological and psychological influences affecting LGBTI athletes in sports. As policies evolve, more transgender athletes will participate and there will be a shift in the dynamic competitive field on both sides of the spectrum. This means that the number of athletes who compete and don’t win, will balance out with those who do. Athletes who are transgender, who also win are garnering more attention because their win is immediately attributed to their gender identity. Yet, we don’t do the same with their cisgender counter parts. The proportion of active trans athletes compared to active cisgender athletes is statistically insignificant.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics, Katie Ledecky, a cisgender female swimmer took home the gold medal in the women’s 800m. She did this by winning the race 12 seconds faster than the silver medalist and she broke the Olympic record by 14 seconds. In a sport where a gold medal and 8th place can come down to 10ths or 100ths of a second. She decisively won the 800m, while her closest competitors were over half a pool length behind her. In the end, she won 5 Olympic gold medals and one silver medal. As a 6-foot-tall, cisgender female, how should we justify her amazing performance? Does she have an unfair advantage because as a 6-foot-tall female, she is 8 inches taller than the average US female? Perhaps it would be more fair to her competitors if she raced in the men’s division instead, where the average height of a US male in 5 foot 9 inches.
The point is, so much attention is being drawn on transgender athletes who win because it is something that as individuals and as a society, we are still uncomfortable and unprepared to understand what it all means. Coming from both ends of the argument, one side would suggest that their win is attributed solely to their gender identity and bring up the tired “unfair advantage” arguments. The other side would talk up the significance of their performance and how “groundbreaking” it might be in the grander scheme of things. Yet, these athlete’s legacies are solely defined by entering “transgender [insert sport here] player” into Google rather than on their capabilities as an athlete in general. So, when there’s a transgender athlete who doesn’t win. Nobody notices, and they are simply forgotten about.
Yes, representation of transgender, non-binary, and intersex athletes in sports is important because its an important step toward creating discussions, performing research and adopting inclusive policies. Policies that are inclusive and accepting while also taking into account updated research to keep within the spirit of sports will help build participation. But a bias representation of transgender athletes towards only the ones who win creates a one-side discussion that doesn’t offer a full perspective. In this modern era, it is easy to publish opinions and push arguments out there for anybody and everybody to read. But we’ve become so polarized that we are quick to respond without fully understanding what we are saying, or the consequences of how we say it.
It is easy to see sports as just “playing a game” but yet it’s about so much more than that. Despite the strong opinions of many; sports and politics can never be separated. Sports is another platform where political discussions often conflict, figuratively and literally. From the Blood in the Water, water polo match at the 1956 Olympics. To the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics, and the Miracle on Ice hockey match at the 1980 Olympics among others. Those examples show that sports and politics will often conflict, regardless of any efforts to keep them separated.
The whole drama with Navratilova’s Op-Ed is another good example. The openly lesbian tennis champion’s (the same one whom Renee Richards lost too) article was recently cited by anti-LGBT lawmakers on the Montana State Legislature who are currently debating an Anti-Discrimination bill.
The discussions regarding transgender athletes in sports are so split among so many people because we are failing to understand what the underlying issue is, discrimination. We forget that we are talking about real life people. It’s not just an issue of fair play; it’s an extension to whether or not we’re willing to accept that people don’t conform to our ideals of what gender is. The recent case with the IAAF and Caster Semenya is about the IAAF trying to define a physiological standard to what a “female” is. To the point of forcing cisgender females who don’t conform to that standard to alter their body in order to be eligible to play. Is this a line we really want to cross? This year, it might be hormone levels, next year it could be height limits, foot size, muscle density, even skin color or some other factor. We are quick to attack, and quick to respond to things we don’t fully understand, yet we also don’t take the time to learn and educate ourselves on these issues and their context.
As more people who identify as transgender and non-binary participate in sports, we will see a shift that will include less focus on athletes whose wins are attributed to their gender identity and more towards those who win because of their athletic abilities. As we learn more about the psychological and physiological influences that affect transgender, non-binary and intersex athletes. More athletes will take part but who don’t win and we will become more grounded in our discussions to better understand how to incorporate inclusive policies that ensure that the fairness and dignity for all athletes is considered.
By Dirk Smith