Transgender Athletes: A Fine Line Between Fairness and Acceptance

By Leo Rector

On a blistering June afternoon in 2019, the eight competitors of the girls 100 meter dash final are settling into the blocks. As excited as the crowd is to watch this race, most of the spectators’ energy is due to the competitors. Terry Miller, a transgender woman and a junior from Bloomfield Highschool, is on the verge of sweeping the short sprints at both the indoor and outdoor state open championships. Another pre-race favorite is Andraya Yearwood, a transgender junior from Cromwell Highschool, who was second to Miller in the 55 meter indoors. The official raises his starting gun, and fires the ceremonial blank that springs the athletes into action. Almost immediately his gun fires again, calling the runners back to their blocks. Someone is about to be disqualified for a false start, and as the official walks to Miller’s lane and holds up the red card, the air is sucked out of the crowd. Some onlookers cheer in support of the stunned Miller and applaud her as she walks off the track; others jeer bitterly. Many parents and students that believe neither she nor Yearwood deserve to race against biological females at all.

The strong emotions surrounding transgender women athletes are indicative of the larger clash between societal acceptance and sporting competition. Sports represent one of humanity’s greatest attempts to create order where there is none; we line up each individual as equals, who all have a chance, and then celebrate the winner. We pretend that there is something special about the victor, something they actively did or controlled, that separates them from the rest of the field. Usain Bolt, who is fractions of a second better than his competitors, is worshipped for his accomplishments, and yet it is highly unlikely that the average person could run 100 meters in 9.58 seconds, no matter how hard they trained. As much as we love great athletes, the true beauty of sports is the meaning offered by great stories. Whether it be the underdog, the comeback, the dynasty, or the end of a championship drought, narrative transforms athletes into legends. Given that story-telling is crucial to sports, it’s puzzling why transgender atheletes are demonized as cheaters instead of honored as heroes. What story is better than one with a protagonist who has battled discrimination his or her entire life before succeeding in the field he or she is passionate about and uncovering his or her identity along the away? On the other hand, purists argue that transgender athletes win because they’re able to do things that their competitors physically can’t. As such, the only hurdle stopping transgender athletes from being celebrated is our desperate attempt to make sports a level playing field when nothing else in life is fair. 

Because of the success of Miller and Yearwood, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) challenged the guidelines of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC), the state’s governing body of highschool sports, which do not require transgender girls to undergo any amount of hormone therapy before competing against cisgender girls. Unlike the CIAC, both the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) require one year of hormone therapy, and the IOC has additional testosterone boundaries that competitors must not surpass. In their proposal, the ADF suggested a policy similar to that of the University Interscholastic League (UIL) of Texas in 2016, which mandates that athletes must compete based on the gender listed on their birth certificate. Under this rule, transgender wrestler Mack Beggs was forced to compete against girls despite beginning testosterone therapy during his sophmore year. Beggs proceeded to go 92-0 in his final two seasons, winning back to back class 6A UIL girls wrestling state championships. 

Obviously, the classification of competition based on birth certificate or chromosome favored by the ADF and the UIL is not an appropriate reaction to the intricacies of this debate. It would be foolish to ignore the biological differences between males and females that have an impact on athletic performance. Males normally have more muscle mass, higher bone density, larger lungs, wider airways, and lower resting heart rates than females. While these physiological advantages may not always result in an athletic edge, the amount of difference in key areas generally leads to males performing at a higher level in physical events. Hormone replacement therapy represents a possible solution. However, the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm published a study in 2019 that concluded that testosterone suppression did not significantly reduce the muscle mass of transgender women after a year. Even over a longer period of time, there are aspects of physiology like bone density and lung capacity that are not affected and provide a significant edge. 

With potential life-altering scholarships and career opportunities on the line, it seems unfair to ask someone to try to win when the deck is stacked against them. Perhaps what needs to change is our perception of what a “normal” athlete is. When the Korean Basketball League enforced a height limit of no taller than 6’6”, NBA fans laughed. How hypocritical are we to ban a transgender woman, who has been a woman her whole life and was simply born into a different body, because her testosterone levels are too great? From a purism perspective, it is ridiculous to allow Tyson Fury, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, to fight “normal” human beings when he is 6’9” and 254 pounds, yet light on his feet and almost impossible to hit. The difference between these two examples must come down to how a large part of society views transitioning as a choice, while Fury’s talents are god-given. While most people might abide by political correctness and parrot back that a transgender person is not changing their sex, but their appearance to reflect their true body, the controversy surrounding transgender athletes proves that not everyone treats transgender women the same as cisgender women. Terry Miller had as much choice to pick her life as Lebron James; both possess athletic qualities that elevate them above the rest. Whether it be concerns about possible gamesmanship or a stubborn refusal to believe in something that cannot be demonstrably proven, there are reasons outside of sports purism why the average person is hesitant to accept transgender atheletes. As a society, we need to reflect on these beliefs and decide if they are more important than the identities of 1.4 million transgender Americans.

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