Across the U.S., over 20 states are currently attempting to ban transgender athletes from competing in girls’ and women’s sports competitions. In states including Tennessee, Alabama, Montana, and Mississippi, proponents of the ban allege that transgender women have biological advantages over cisgender women, despite having little medical proof.
High-profile supporters of this legislation include South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), whose recent tweet expressing her excitement to sign the Women’s Fairness in Sports bill garnered both excitement and deep consternation — the ban is, of course, a form of discrimination against trans women. Following President Biden’s executive order allowing transgender students to participate in school sports, pro tennis player Martina Navratilova tweeted her opposition to “an all-inclusive situation where trans men and women, just based on their self I.D., would be able to compete with no mitigation,” claiming that it wouldn’t be a “level playing field."
Put simply, some people are scared that if trans women are included in “women’s sports,” it wouldn’t be fair because of supposed physiological and biological advantages. But let’s be real: Sports has never truly been fair. Also, many of these assumptions about the alleged physiological “advantages” are far from factual.
“When we look at the elite level, we love sports because sports aren't fair,” says Anne Lieberman, the director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, an organization that advocates for transgender athletes. In reality, many cisgender athletes already possess physical predispositions that help them athletically excel. They cites Michael Phelps and Brady Ellison as examples; Phelps’s lack of regular lactic acid production and massive wingspan give him advantages, while Ellison’s 20/10 vision enables him to see better than others can.
“All of these athletes have very specific and distinct advantages that make them competing in their sport ‘unfair’ because they're dominant,” Lieberman says. They note that in sports, “[fairness] means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”
Some people might think Lieberman just justified banning transgender athletes from competing according to their gender identity. But the point, Lieberman says, is that fairness and equal opportunity are not the same thing.
As a nonbinary Muay Thai competitor, they hit a personal ceiling at one point, regardless of her consistent, intensive training (up to 20 hours a week). “I had equal opportunity to participate,” Lieberman says. “I won three belts. I did well, but I was never going to reach a certain level because I reached my peak as an athlete. There's a difference between equal opportunity and sport. What we love about sport is that everybody has the ability and opportunity to reach the highest level, but how people get there is uneven and often not fair.”
One of Lieberman’s most salient concerns about states trying to making transgender student athletes compete under their sex assigned at birth is how these bills’ unproven biological claims directly target transgender children, an already vulnerable demographic.
“While arguments regarding physiological advantages for transgender girls are tenuous, it’s clear that transgender youth have the deck stacked against them in nearly every other way,” says Jack Turban, a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he researches the mental health of transgender youth. “They suffer from high rates of harassment, bullying, and stigma, which lead to elevated rates of anxiety, depression, and trauma-related symptoms — all of which make it more difficult to train and compete.” All of these factors, he says, are linked to the underrepresentation of trans girls both in sports participation and in sports victories. In lawmakers’ rush to make sports “fair,” is any of this even being considered?
Proponents of banning trans people in sports also often use scientific studies to bolster their arguments. But these findings are often irresponsibly applied out of context. Author and bioethicist Katrina Karkazis notes that many of the studies used to legitimize trans-exclusionary bills don’t even include transgender participants. “Sometimes they're looking at cisgender men and extrapolating what that might mean for transgender athletes or for women,” she says. She mentions one 2017 meta-analysis that analyzed whether transgender athletes had physiological advantages in sports.
The study found that “currently, there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition (e.g. cross-sex hormones, gender-confirming surgery) and, therefore, competitive sport policies that place restrictions on transgender people need to be considered and potentially revised.”
Later in the conclusion, researchers reiterated: “At a medical level, more physiological research is needed with the transgender population to accurately determine whether transgender people have an advantage in competitive sport or not.”
Karkazis also emphasizes that higher testosterone levels do not automatically translate to improved athleticism. “It's not the case that just because someone had, or has, higher testosterone, that they will necessarily do better,” she says. “They may, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that they may not. I would argue that quite a few of these studies don't show improved performance when they compare them to cisgender women.”
For many transgender athletes like JayCee Cooper, trans women being recognized as women is crucial. Being gendered correctly and being given equal respect and opportunities as their cis counterparts is essential for their all-around wellbeing, confidence, and personal dignity. Currently, Cooper, a professional weightlifter, is suing USA Powerlifting and USA Powerlifting Minnesota because she alleges they disqualified her from competing because she is a transgender woman.
In January, USA Powerlifting released the following statement: “USA Powerlifting is aware of the public notice made on the Gender Justice website but are not in receipt of any formal filing at this time. We dispute the allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present the facts within the legal system. No further statements will be made while this is going through legal proceedings.”
For Cooper, the disqualification is unacceptable. “The perspective is always that we are men competing in women's sports, and that couldn't be further from the truth,” she says. “It's important that that perspective is shifted. Otherwise, we're never going to be able to see eye to eye. We aren't men. [Trans women] aren't boys competing in women's and girl’s sports — [trans women] are women and girls competing, and that needs to be understood.”
Ultimately, Lieberman believes that including trans women in women’s sports only strengthens athletics. “I don't think there's ever been a moment where as an athletic community, we have been weaker when we include more people,” they say. “We're always stronger as an athletic community when we include everybody because sports is equal opportunity.”
As of March 23, 16 states (including the District of Columbia), have trans-inclusive school sports participation laws. Opponents may claim they’re fighting for “fairness,” utilizing baseless scientific references to make their cases. But upon closer examination, it’s clear that the notion to unfairly target transgender athletes (student and professional) is rooted in bigotry and misinformation, rather than good sportsmanship.