A new report says the number of transgender high school and college athletes is growing — and it's time for schools, teams, and regulations to catch up.
In On the Team , a report sponsored by several LGBT and women's rights groups, by Dr. Pat Griffin and Helen Carroll write,
Transgender young people have the same right to participate and benefit from the positive aspects of athletics as other students do. School athletic leaders, in response to this interest, must identify effective and fair policies to ensure that transgender students have an equal opportunity to participate on school sports teams.
Unfortunately, not all trans students get this opportunity — the report mentions one student who feared his transition to male would cost him his spot on a college track team, and another whose school wouldn't let her compete as her stated gender. Trans players face not only bias and ignorance — Lea Robinson, an Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs at Columbia, mentions "a lack of support within their athletic communities as well as a real lack of resources, education, and safe spaces" — but also concerns about whether their birth sex might give them an unfair advantage. The report argues that these concerns are largely misplaced.
Griffin and Carroll write that many trans girls now take hormone blockers that prevent them from ever going through male puberty, meaning they don't develop the "growth in long bones, muscle mass, and strength" that might give them an edge in sports. They also note that taking estrogen can neutralize any competitive advantage of being born male:
It is also important to know that any athletic advantages a transgender girl or woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate after about one year of estrogen therapy. According to medical experts on this issue, the assumption that a transgender girl or woman competing on a women's team would have a competitive advantage outside the range of performance and competitive advantage or disadvantage that already exists among female athletes is not supported by evidence. As one survey of the existing research concludes, "the data available does not appear to suggest that transitioned athletes would compete at an advantage or disadvantage as compared with physically born men and women."
Given this information, the report recommends that high school athletes be allowed to compete on teams consistent with their gender identity regardless of hormone or surgical status. Somewhat depressingly, their recommendations also include a lengthy appeals process for situations where "any questions arise about whether a student's request to participate in a sports activity consistent with his or her gender identity is bona fide" — something that cisgender students would likely never have to deal with. For college athletes, the report's guidelines are a little more complex. Griffin and Carroll advocate that college students "should be allowed to participate in any sports activity so long as that athlete's use of hormone therapy, if any, is consistent with the National Governing Body's (NGB) existing policies on banned medications." Specifically, they argue that male-to-female athletes should get to play on men's teams no matter what, but on women's teams only after a year of estrogen therapy. Female-to-male athletes should not be able to play on women's teams after starting testosterone, and should "request a medical exception from the National Governing Body (NGB) prior to competing on a men's team because testosterone is a banned substance."
The recommendations seem to strike a reasonable balance between fairness to trans athletes and fairness to competitors, but the complexities don't end there. Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed notes that according to NCAA rules, "a male on a female team classifies the team as 'mixed,' making it ineligible for NCAA women's championships" — and while the report offers guidelines for the classification of "mixed" teams (i.e. a women's team should not be considered mixed if it includes a trans woman who has completed a year of hormone therapy), the NCAA has yet to accept any of the recommendations. The report also includes a registration process to help trans athletes "avoid challenges" to their participation — again, something cisgender athletes would never have to go through. And of course the right to play on a team consistent with one's gender is only part of the issue for trans students — the report also lists recommendations on making locker rooms, hotel accommodations, and uniform policies safe and inclusive for trans athletes. Implementing the report's guidelines would indeed make competition fairer for many trans athletes. But obstacles (like those "challenges" to participation) would remain, and given the difficulties they still face, it's clear that trans athletes have anything but an "unfair advantage."