The Case for Trans Women in Sports

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Photo by Getty Images/leezsnow.

Transgender athletes continue to be misunderstood, as evidenced by Martina Navratilova’s uninformed comments about the “cheating” of trans women and that, “Even if they’ve had hormone treatment,” they have an “unfair advantage over other female competitors.”

The word “transgender” is meant to describe those whose gender identity is divergent from the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans people may take hormones and have surgical procedures, while others may choose not to.

Pat Griffin and Helen Carroll were responsible for writing the NCAA’s original transgender policy, entitled “NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes.” This resource was meant to serve as a guide for NCAA athletic programs on “how to ensure transgender student-athletes fair, respectful, and legal access to collegiate sports teams based on current medical and legal knowledge.”

In the document, the authors define the term “transgender” and further specify the two types of transgender identity, including male-to-female (a person who was assigned male sex at birth but identifies as female) and female-to-male (a person who was assigned female sex at birth but identifies as male). They go on to explain the variety of steps transgender people take to adapt to their actual gender identity.

An important area Griffin and Carroll address in this guide is the difference between transgender and intersex individuals. Intersex individuals (“disorder of sex development”) have “physically mixed or atypical bodies with respect to sexual characteristics such as chromosomes, internal reproductive organs and genitalia, and external genitalia.”

Transgender individuals are those who believe they were born in the wrong body and work to become either a woman changing to a man or a man changing to a woman. Men transitioning to women must take appropriate hormones for a minimum of a year before they can compete in sporting events. The authors also address the expanding numbers of high school and college students who are identifying as trans or transgender.

After providing a thorough review of the reasons why this type of policy is needed to understand and protect transgender students, Griffin and Carroll present “guiding principles” and “policy recommendations for collegiate athletics,” including the following:

• Transgender student-athletes should have equal opportunity to participate in sports.

• The integrity of women’s sports should be preserved.

• Policies governing sports should be based on sound medical knowledge and scientific validity.

• The medical privacy of transgender students should be preserved. Athletics administrators, staff, parents of athletes, and student-athletes should have access to sound and effective educational resources and training related to the participation of transgender and gender-variant students in athletics.

Describing this guide as an “emerging endeavor,” Griffin and Carroll recommend periodic review and revision as updated research and information come forth.

The most well-known intersex woman in sport is South African Caster Semenya. In response to Semenya’s intersex identity coming out, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the international governing body of athletics, proposed a testosterone limit for women—despite the fact that Semenya’s levels are not as high as those of most men, not to mention the fact that the IAAF is operating on flawed research and information about the role of testosterone in athletic performance.

“It’s a total disgrace how they’ve treated her,” said Carroll. “Intersex should be a nonissue. Competitive advantage should not be based solely on testosterone.” Griffin added. “Semenya has lived her entire life as a girl and a woman. Increased testosterone in a person should not be the sole basis for deciding which sex they are.”

This notwithstanding, Semenya has been ordered to reduce her testosterone levels prior to competing again. In late February 2019 her case went to arbitration in front of the Court for Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. She is challenging the IAAF ruling based on flawed research/lack of research by the IAAF.

 The obvious conflict of interest with the IAAF sponsoring and helping conduct the research that sup-ports their new regulation should weigh in her favor. Other scientists who attempted to replicate the results found by the IAAF were unable to do so. Furthermore, those scientists found that IAAF’s research was flawed and that the federation had misinterpreted data.

In early February 2019, scientists Roger Peike, Ross Tucker, and Erik Boye put out a paper entitled “Scientific Integrity and the IAAF Testosterone Regulations,” disputing claims that testosterone gives individuals a competitive advantage. The paper refers to the testosterone rule change as “discriminatory, irrational, and unjustifiable.”

In the wake of this controversy, Caster Semenya has become a hero among South Africans. They even voted her “Most Influential Young South African” for 2018 through the ranking company Avance Media. She was nominated in the sports category for her achievements in track and field, notably her gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. One hundred South Africans in 10 categories were nominated. What makes this an even more remarkable and historic achievement is that Semenya is the first woman to win the prize.

Throughout the years, a number of different organizations have worked for the rights of lesbian and transgender athletes. Today there are a number of organizations rallying in support of the acceptance and rights of LGBTQ athletes. Three of the top advocacy groups are Athlete Ally, the You Can Play Project, and LGBT SportSafe.

Athlete Ally has three major goals: 1) educate, 2) change sport policy, and 3) advocate for LGBTQ rights. Education is done to reach out to communities about the inclusion of LGBTQ athletes in colleges and such sports leagues and institutions as the WNBA and NCAA. Athlete Ally views changing sport policy as a vital component of their work. Just last year they introduced the Athletic Equality Index, which monitors inclusion policies and practices in the NCAA’s Power Five conferences. They advocate through their Ambassador Program, which uses the talents of athletes to support and speak out for LGBTQ rights.

The You Can Play Project is a “social activism” campaign devoted to reducing homophobia in sports. The motto of the project is, “If you can play, you can play.” Their mission statement simply states, “You Can Play works to ensure the safety and inclusion of all in sports—including LGBTQ athletes, coaches, and fans.”

The project strives to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete and are judged by other athletes and fans only on what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success. You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing on an athlete’s skills, work ethic, and competitive spirit. This program encompasses youth sport as well, and its goal is simple: to achieve fairness for the LGBTQ athletic community.

LGBT SportSafe was founded in 2015 by Nevin Caple (a diversity in sport consultant) and Dr. Eric Lueshen (a former Nebraska football player). They started off by recruiting a number of founding member schools, for example, the University of Nebraska, Temple University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, and have since expanded to a number of other schools. Their mission statement reads, “LGBT SportSafe Inclusion Program was developed to create an infrastructure for athletic administrators, coaches, and recreational sports leaders to support LGBTQ inclusion in college, high school, and professional sports.”

They describe their model as a “3-Peat Model” due to its consideration of three core areas: “programming, policy, and public awareness.” A key goal for Caple and Lueshen is the inclusion of LGBTQ athletes in every aspect of sport.

Finally, it’s important to give a shout-out to Outsports (a subsidiary of SBNation), which has been in existence since 1999, when two gay men took a risk and started writing about LGBTQ athletes in sports. The publication quickly found many interested readers and has since become the major sporting publication for reading about LGBTQ athletes in the United States. Outsports has featured hundreds of coming-out stories from athletes and also stays on top of current news involving LGBTQ athletes, coaches, and administrators in sport.

Recently even major sports manufacturers are starting to emerge with campaigns that include lesbian and women of color athletes. The latest campaign by Adidas is “She Breaks Barriers.” One of the leaders of this campaign is Layshia Clarendon, a well-known lesbian and woman of color WNBA star. She is a point guard for the Connecticut Sun. Her role is bringing attention for equal media representation for women in sport and to inspire young female athletes. This was the message communicated in one of the short films about women in sport that Adidas released in March 2019. This demonstrates a small step toward inclusion of LGBTQ and women of color athletes in the media.

When Pat Griffin decided to be the “person to break the silence” in the 1980s, she took a gigantic step forward for lesbians and transgender athletes to be acknowledged and at least start to gain acceptance in the sports world. Further advocacy efforts for lesbian and trans women were continued in earnest by Helen Carroll and are now being led by Nevin Caple of LGBT SafeSport.

The current situation is a far cry from what things were like in the 1980s, when Griffin was accused of holding a gay rights rally in 1987. Today in the United States, greater numbers of athletes, coaches, and sports administrators are coming out. We anxiously await the outcome of Caster Semenya’s case with the Court for Arbitration for Sport as an indication of how far the world’s acceptance of women has actually come. Despite this progress, the lesbian, trans, and intersex communities have a long way to go to fully gain acceptance.

Excerpt from the book Stand Up and Shout Out: Women’s Fight for Equal Pay, Equal Rights, and Equal Opportunities in Sports by Joan Steidinger. Used by permission of the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

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