trans intersex athletes sport
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Dean Moncel
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November 18, 2021
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On Fairness And Sports: Making The Case for Trans and Intersex Athletes

Every major sports tournament has its commentary and criticism, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were no different. Amongst several logistical issues pertaining to the COVID-19 safety measures, another one was brought to the forefront: the place of transgender athletes in sporting competitions.

A wide variety of opinions have been presented on the matter, but an echoed source of concern stems from the fear of unfairness. The real debate, even in implicit discussion is: is it unfair for transgender athletes to compete alongside cisgender opponents?

The discourse around that question will undoubtedly lead to stereotypes and anatomy, notably arguments linking transitioning status, hormone replacement therapy and testosterone levels to performance. I would like to make this clear right away: I am not saying that biological characteristics are irrelevant to sports and athleticism. My opinion has been formed with the self-awareness that I am neither:

a) an endocrinologist or doctor of any kind

b) a student of advanced medicine, biology and/or chemistry

c) in any other shape or form qualified to talk about how an anatomical factor (dis)qualifies someone from any sport.

This leads to my bigger point: I have noticed many hot takes, holding prejudice, from people lacking qualifications on these topics. Heck, even knowledgeable individuals are not unanimous. I am not discouraging discourse, rather encouraging mindfulness on expertise status.

For that reason, I am choosing to examine the question from a different angle: how fair are sports to begin with? Socially speaking, should our current understanding of sports be open to including everyone?

Gendered culture of sports: why do we separate by gender anyway?

Sports are gendered under the notion that anatomically, average male and female bodies operate differently, rendering certain tasks more favorable to one composition versus the other. For instance, it is factual that testosterone increases muscle growth capacities, therefore strength acquisition. That is the principal reason that men and women do not currently compete in the same weightlifting competitions. The separation is a solution that allows sports based on strict characteristics for success, in this example physical strength, to be less skewed towards one gender.

Photo credits: Alora Griffiths/Unsplash

A sport that I find fascinating in this regard is boxing. In combat sports, it is understood that weight changes the fairness of a fight. Would it then be so outrageous that basketball, a sport in which height heavily dictates success, would have leagues for shorter players? It is conceivable that a shorter person may have stellar shooting capacities that highly outperform others. However, in a game facing much taller defenders, this individual would not be able to showcase this skill.

Another great example came from a friend of mine expressing her appreciation for the show 'Survivor'. You know, the stranded-on-an-island-and-voting-people-off one? Well, that show has a gender neutral model and requires an incredibly expansive set of capacities. Not only is there the nature survival aspect, but the show moves forward with sporting games that involve endurance and strength, but also flexibility, strategy, agility, balance and dexterity. Well, in the 40 seasons the US show has filmed, there are only 3 seasons in which no woman made it to the finals. Women have also been winners of several seasons.

Sarah Lacina, Winner of Survivor in 2017 / Photo credits: CBS

These two examples open the question of fairness within genders, and between genders as well.

Stages of transitioning: what about trans people who do not transition?

The understanding of transitioning is quite narrow on the topic of transgender athletes, ignoring its definition as an umbrella term. It tends to focus on individuals who have undertaken hormone therapy, in a binary view of aligning with man or woman. However, if policies were to be inclusive of the full transgender community and gender spectrum, it would need to include those who have not and will not take on medical interventions, or are in the process of obtaining such access and its effects. Sports requiring a binary and conforming view of gender identity seems unwelcoming to the variety of people with extraordinary sportsmanship. After all, this goes beyond the transgender paradigm: where does this leave intersex people? Non-binary people? Would disclosing a non-dyadic and/or non-cis experience be necessary? A bit invasive, no?

Andraya Yearwood, an American transgender student athlete from Connecticut / Photo credits: Runnerspace

This comes into question for younger athletes too, especially those with familial support to transition earlier. With teenagers transitioning, they may have only experienced one puberty cycle (instead of a first phase in the gender assigned at birth, and second one to match current needs). In that case, they may be well-into a decade of medical transition when reaching professional sportsmanship, with such undeniably good passing that disclosing is invasive, dysphoria-inducing and rather irrelevant to performance. This is a consideration going forward, as policies concerning transgender youth become more lenient.

On the notion of fairness: can sports truly be fair?

While this conversation began by including transgender people, the reality is that fairness within sports is not universal, even among cis, dyadic people competing in same gender tournaments. That leads me to two conclusions: on one hand, the only way for sports to truly be fair would be to compete against your own personal best each time. There will always be factors that render one person’s performance more advantageous compared to an opponent, some beyond their own control. So, comparing several people’s competencies is not fair to begin with. However, this does not work well with teams on which personal bests rely on a collective performance.

On the other hand, is the imbalance of fairness not what we love about sports? Rooting for the underdog team, beating the odds, wondering how one’s robust defense will hold up against the other’s strong offense… it is the very nature of the competition. Transgender experience may be yet another factor to consider when examining all participants’ chances of success, such as height, weight, wingspan, morphology, etc.

Which leads me to the next part…

What qualifies as unfairness?

Michael Phelps was nothing short of engineered for competitive swimming. His morphology was the unfair advantage. Although he performed among fantastic other swimmers, they were hardly likely to outshine him, despite their strenuous efforts. In the current set of arguments, his participation is considered more fair than allowing transgender athletes to compete.

Michael Phelps / Photo credits: Sports Illustrated

Once again, making myself clear: I am not saying that Phelps should have been banned from competing for being part fish. But I do think examining the types of inequities in sports that are unquestioned is extremely relevant to this conversation.

Gender aside, the inequality of access to certain sports definitely skews its demographics in terms of socio-economic status - and thus race/ethnicity/location. Whether it be the equipment (sailboat for sailing, horse maintenance for polo, the car for Formula1 racing), the location (racing requires a racing track, horse riding requires a stable) or the access to the spaces in themselves (club memberships to the golf course), quite a few sports are simply not open to everyone. While some of them are highly associated with class and privilege, others do not do so necessarily maliciously: it will be difficult to train to become a winter sports competitor in a mostly warm climate.

And those examples are to enter the sport. Reaching (semi-)professional levels demand funds to travel to tournament sites, coaches, membership to elite facilities for premium training equipment, academic support for youth to balance their education with their intense training program, etc. The romanticized notion that practice alone leads to the finish line is a fantasy for most sports. Truth is, it is highly unfair to be standing at the Olympics to begin with.

How to make sports fair?

Even without biological arguments, this issue is multi-faceted. In my opinion, transgender people have been one of the most visible catalyst to the overall conversation of fairness in sports. But by far, not the only ones: the case for intersex athletes has been a long and deceiving road as well, as attested by double Olympian champion Caster Semenya’s forced withdrawal from specific Tokyo 2020 running games.

Caster Semenya / Photo credits: Karim Jaafar/AFP

How to solve unfairness in sports? Unsure. I definitely believe that our current understanding of competition has to be reformed, but the outlook of it is uncertain. I was originally partial to adopting a system akin to combat sports, where there are league tiers based on a range of a characteristic’s presence. And while this could be functional for weight class and height, it becomes far more ethically problematic for other biological factors, as an intersex activist at InterAction rightly pointed out. Such testing procedures are medically invasive and violate bodily autonomy. This concerns dyadic individuals as well: cisgender women from the global South are disproportionately affected by sports committees’ regulations of non-conforming testosterone levels, which are based on studies of Western, white people’s anatomy. 

All in all, the concern for fairness is understandable. But as I have thought about this issue, it seems like the future of sports is accepting that unfairness is part of competition, as is life. Additionally, it does not even seem like anatomy scratches the surface of (un)fairness in sports. And even if it did: biological arguments have been a slippery slope in its relationship to discrimination and exclusion. This is why scientifically peer-reviewed research is fundamental to these claims of unfairness due to hormones, for example; history has shown the deadly consequences of stigmatization from haphazard science.

While we are nitpicking under the guise of preserving fairness though, incredible transgender and intersex athletes are watching their careers be penalized. High-performing sportsmanship has a limited shelf-life, and World Record contenders such as Caster Semenya are suffering from it. That is unfair, both towards the athlete and sports lovers. We need to find solutions to include transgender and intersex athletes in sports. And we need to find them quickly. 

(Re)sources:

Tokyo 2020 - Athlétisme: la double championne olympique Semenya ne sera pas de la partie (RTS, July 2021)
Here's an exact breakdown of why 6'4" Michael Phelps has the perfect body for swimming (Business Insider, August 2016)
What Makes Michael Phelps So Good? (Scientific American, August 2008)
The Most Expensive Sports In the World (The Sports Economist, August 2021)
InterAction Suisse
Intersex and Sports (OII Europe, September 2021)

If you are still here and want to discover some very cool projects by and for trans people to end on a gayer note, you can browse through the following projects:

Making Black Trans Femmes Visible In Art: BTFA’s Mission


‘Disclosure’: A Vital Documentary On The Realities Of Trans People 
Billy Slicks Is Saying Trans Rights With His Ink
Discover Mercado De Brujas’ Eerie And Captivating Songs
Ache Magazine: A Publication By And For Women, Trans People And Non-Binary People
Being A Trans Woman In Uganda: Watch ‘The Pearl Of Africa’

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Header: Laurel Hubbard, the first trans athlete to complete at the Olympics / Photo credits: Luca Bruno/AP

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