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The debate over transgender athletes

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  • Martina Navratilova
    Martina Navratilova
    American-Czech tennis player

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Transgender athletes are breaking barriers at all levels of competitive sports, but their participation and wins are stirring controversy and resentment among those who believe they aren’t competing on equal playing fields. Schools and professional sports organizations now face the challenge of how to deal with athletes who are transgender.
Who: Transgender athletes, high schools, colleges and professional sports organizations, and tennis great Martina Navratilova, who reignited this debate recently with a strongly worded op-ed.
What: Recent events surrounding the debate highlight the myriad social and legal questions spawned by the participation of transgender athletes in sports competitions.
Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam winner, came under fire for the op-ed she wrote this month, in which she said that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sports is “insane, and it’s cheating.” Her comments sparked criticism and prompted an LGBTQ athletics group to cut ties with her. Transgender athletes spoke out, calling her words “disturbing, upsetting, and deeply transphobic.”
In Connecticut, two transgender high school sprinters recently placed favorably in competition, leading critics to say their gender identity created an unfair advantage. The state is one of 17 that allows transgender athletes to compete without restrictions, according to transathlete, which tracks high school sports policies. Seven states have tighter restrictions, while other states have no policy or handle the issue on a case-by-case basis.
A bill in South Dakota targeting a policy on transgender athletes has failed in the state House. The vote for the bill — the fourth one lawmakers have rejected this session — fell short of the majority needed to send it to the Senate. “This is all about fair competition,” said House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, the bill’s sponsor, while critics called the measure anti-transgender.
When: The issue over whether to include transgender athletes at all levels of sports is ongoing, and a variety of sports organizations addressed it recently. USA Powerlifting this month banned male-to-female athletes from competing against women, while in October, USA Swimming increased inclusion.
Why: The debate over how to handle transgender athletes comes down to each school, team and sports group deciding how to move forward with methods like enforcing bans, instituting rules, monitoring athletes’ hormone levels or creating new competition categories.
A growing number of state high school athletic associations let participants play on teams based on their gender identity, and the NCAA has trans-inclusive guidelines for all its member schools. The International Olympic Committee has allowed transgender athletes to compete in its affiliated sports since 2003, but in 2016 it required them to first undergo sex-reassignment surgery.
What’s next: As the issue gains prominence, athletic participants will look for guidance in how their sports should address transgender people. There are no statistics on the number of trans athletes competing in high schools and colleges, but a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1.8 percent of high school students identified as transgender.
The sports world is closely watching the case of Olympian Caster Semenya – who after her win in the 2009 Games was accused of being a man by a competitor and was then subjected to sex verification tests. The South African runner is seeking to overturn a new set of regulations aimed at lowering testosterone levels of hyperandrogenic athletes. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has set a March 26 deadline for a verdict, saying the “pivotal” case has potential for wide-reaching consequences. Her lawyers call Semenya, who appears in a new Nike ad, “unquestionably a woman.”


Transgender women have an unfair advantage over other female competitors.

“To put the argument at its most basic: A man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organization is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.” — Tennis champion Martina Navratilova, The Times and CNN
“This trend will ultimately hurt high school and college sports, but the most harmful aspect is the fact that some are willing to suspend belief about basic biology and fairness to help advocate for a cause that defies reality. At the very least, transgender athletes … should be intellectually honest about the advantages that transitioning offers to transgender women. The over-the-top willingness to ignore biology when it matters, yet push for biological recognition in something like sports, shows an entire LGBTQ lobby willing to gaslight the rest of us to further their ideology.” — Nicole Russell, Washington Examiner
Until hormone therapies begin to work, genetic males have a distinct advantage over genetic females. Most transgender teens don’t begin hormone therapy until after puberty. Younger teens can be on puberty-blocking drugs, but puberty is very individualized and testosterone levels can vary greatly from one transgender girl to another. “The gender identity doesn’t matter, it’s the testosterone levels. Trans girls should have the right to compete in sports. But cisgender girls should have the right to compete and succeed, too. How do you balance that? That’s the question.” — Joanna Harper, medical physicist and transgender runner, Washington Post
Biology doesn’t matter, there are already factors that create differences among competitors
“One high jumper could be taller and have longer legs than another, but the other could have perfect form, and then do better. One sprinter could have parents who spend so much money on personal training for their child, which in turn, would cause that child to run faster.” — Andraya Yearwood, a high school sprinter in Connecticut, Associated Press
This debate is bigger than transgender athletes on the field, it’s about Inclusion in sports and is part of a broader social and political movement.
“I see my win in this broader political moment where trans rights have made great strides and people are waking up. We are not going to go backwards.” — Rachel McKinnon, transgender Canadian cyclist defending winning a women’s world championship race, National Post
“Ultimately, this debate is not about the intricate scientific details of what makes trans women physiologically unique. It’s about fairness and inclusion. Intersex women are women and have a right to be included in fair sport. If it’s fair for intersex women, then it should also be fair for trans women. Both are women. Both have unique physiological features. And both have a right to compete in fair sport.” — Rachel Anne Williams, Medium
Fairness claims about trans athletes are rooted in prejudice and phobia.
“For most of the arguments against allowing trans women to compete in female athletic competition rest on a scenario that borders on the fantastical. Are we really suggesting there are hordes of male athletes who will suddenly declare themselves female simply to game the system? … It’s a straw man, a distraction, a pure chimera. In many ways, it falls under the most literal definition of transphobia: an irrational fear of the other, based on ingrained prejudice and occasionally pure ignorance.” — Jonathan Liew, Independent
Pushing transgender youth away from sports is harmful.
“Barring trans people from participation hurts everyone. Young people start to think that there is no place for them in athletics and they drop out, even when it is the one place where they may find belonging and hope. It affects every aspect of their educational experience and can even reduce the likelihood that they graduate from high school. It robs transgender youth from connecting with their peers, and can even cause adults at schools to treat trans students differently.” — Chris Mosier​, trans athlete and Team USA member, Out


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