The success of transgender female swimmer Lia Thomas, who competes for the University of Pennsylvania, has caused a lot of polarization. On one hand there are those, like the state of Connecticut and the ACLU, who think that it’s okay if a biological male competes against biological females if that person simply declares themselves to have a female gender. No surgery or hormone treatement are required.
On the other hand are those who argue that no transgender woman should ever compete in woman’s sports, as they have an inherent biological advantage that makes the playing field “unlevel”.
On the third hand we have people like me who say that it’s possible that you could level the playing field, but that would be nearly impossible to do, for how do you ensure that all the advantages of bone density, physiology, and musculature that males acquire at puberty are effaced by the rules? This requires a kind of research that has been done only a little, and what research there is suggests that the solution will be complicated and probably not congenial to transgender women athletes.
We are, of course, not talking about transgender men competing against biological men, which is not much of an issue except in rugby, where World Rugby, which has completely banned transgender women from playing in women’s rugby, still allows transgender men to play men’s (and sometimes women’s) rugby under these conditions:
Transgender men may play men’s rugby having provided confirmation of physical ability. Transgender men may not play women’s rugby after the process of sex reassignment has begun, if this reassignment includes supplementation with testosterone
The International Olympic Committee used to have a rule that transgender women could compete in women’s events so long as they maintained a testosterone titer of no more than 10 nanomoles/liter of blood for 12 months before competition. (The normal ranges for cis biological men are 8.8–30.9 nanomoles/liter while female testosterone ranges from 0.4–2.0 nmol/liter. These distributions are nonoverlapping from puberty into adulthood.)
Recent research, which I’ve covered here and here, however, shows that the IOC regulations aren’t sufficient, even with three years of testosterone treatment, for biological males acquire a competitive (and performance) advantage at puberty that isn’t effaced by testosterone treatment. This led the IOC to ditch its regulation, and it hasn’t yet replaced it with a new one.
Imagine the research it would take to show what kind of treatment transgender women would need to “level the playing field”, and how would we even know when the playing field is level? The experimentation it would take to show that (testing performance of many transgender female athletes medically treated in different ways) is not only impractical, but seems unethical. Because of this, some people (including me) have suggested that, without this kind of knowledge, all transgender athletes might compete in an “open” third league, or allow all transgender athletes, of whatever gender, to compete in men’s sports (the rugby issue of injury, however, may bar this for some sports). A third solution was suggested below by a Canadian study.
The disadvantage of the first solution is that athletes in the “third” gender league would probably feel stigmatized. But I, for one, would rate the fairness issue as higher than the possibility of stigmatization. The issue of transgender women entering women’s sports will only grow over time, and you can’t dismiss it as a “trivial issue.” It’s not trivial for biological women who feel cheated by the performance advantage of transgender women. A long report by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute in Canada, with both athletes and experts of both sexes on the advisory board, concludes this:
For this reason, it seems to us that fairness in sport can be achieved with the removal, as far as is possible, of gender identifiers in sport, and the reconceptualization of the male category as “Open” and the women’s category as “Female” where female refers to the sex recorded at birth. In this, we broadly support the policy proposals included in the Sports Councils’ Equality Group report (SCEG 2021). We urge national and international sports organizations, in Canada and beyond, to develop a similar policy.
That is one possible solution, and readers here have also suggested it. It would, of course force Lea Thomas to compete in the “open” category against biological men. But at least no hormone treatment is required if a biological woman who transitions to the male gender wants to compete with others.
None of this, of course, is to imply that transgender individuals should be treated differently from cisgender individuals in a legal or moral sense, or discriminated against or treated uncivilly in society. Sports is one of those rare areas, however, where you have to consider differential treatment of cisgender and transgender individuals. To do so is not to be “transphobic”, and I totally reject that adjective applied to discussions like this one.
In light of Lia Thomas’s success, and her lack of success when she competed as a man, USA Swimming, which has over 400,000 members, has just released a new policy about transgender swimmers, described in the NBC News and BBC articles below (click on screenshots):
The new policy, which you can find here, has this rationale:
The development of the elite policy therefore acknowledges a competitive difference in the male and female categories and the disadvantages this presents in elite head-to-head competition. This is supported by statistical data that shows that the top-ranked female in 2021, on average, would be ranked 536th across all short course yards (25 yards) male events in the country and 326th across all long course meters (50 meters) male events in the country, among USA Swimming members. The policy therefore supports the need for competitive equity at the most elite levels of competition.
While recognizing the need for the aforementioned guidelines in elite competition, sport is an important vehicle for positive physical and mental health, and, for this reason, USA Swimming remains steadfast in its continued commitment to greater inclusivity at the non-elite levels.
In order to balance these two priorities, specific guidelines have been developed for both non-elite and elite athletes and elite events. At the non-elite level, an inclusive process has been established by which an athlete can elect to change their competition category in order for them to experience the sport of swimming in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity and expression. At the elite level, a policy has been created for transgender athlete participation in the U.S. that relies on science and medical evidence-based methods to provide a level-playing field for elite cisgender women, and to mitigate the advantages associated with male puberty and physiology. Elite athletes shall include any athlete who has achieved a time standard and desires to participate in elite events as defined in the policy.
I take “competitive equity” to mean “a level playing field” i.e., no average performance advantage of transgender women over biological women in elite sports. And here are the official rules (my emphasis):
The elite athlete policy will be implemented by a decision-making panel comprised of three independent medical experts and eligibility criteria will consist of:
- Evidence that the prior physical development of the athlete as a male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.
- Evidence that the concentration of testosterone in the athlete’s serum has been less than 5 nmol/L (as measured by liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry) continuously for a period of at least thirty-six (36) months before the date of application.
The two news articles above basically reiterate these rules and add other material, like a letter of support for Thomas that came some women on her team. Let’s just look at the rules, though.
The first criterion—evaluation by three experts that the athlete “does not [have] a competitive advantage over cisgender female competitors”— seems to me unworkable. How do they determine that? No criteria are given. Perhaps you can say that the transgender woman hasn’t excelled in past competition against cisgender women so she shows no “competitive advantage”. But I doubt they’ll use that as a criterion, for I suspect the women who undergo this evaluation will be those like Lia Thomas, who have already shown a competitive advantage.
This first point surely needs more explicit explanation. Or they could use measurements like muscle mass and bone density, and physiology, showing that they’re no different between elite transgender and cisgender women athletes. But this would disqualify nearly all transgender women who are examined, for those traits remain different even after several years of hormone therapy (see below).
What about the 36 months of maintaining low testosterone? That seems unworkable too, at least in terms of leveling the playing field. If you read this recent paper in British Journal of Sports Medicine by Harper et al., you’ll see their conclusion (my emphases):
Results Twenty-four studies were identified and reviewed. Transwomen experienced significant decreases in all parameters measured, with different time courses noted. After 4 months of hormone therapy, transwomen have Hgb/HCT levels equivalent to those of cisgender women. After 12 months of hormone therapy, significant decreases in measures of strength, LBM and muscle area are observed. The effects of longer duration therapy (36 months) in eliciting further decrements in these measures are unclear due to paucity of data. Notwithstanding, values for strength, LBM and muscle area in transwomen remain above those of cisgender women, even after 36 months of hormone therapy.
Conclusion In transwomen, hormone therapy rapidly reduces Hgb to levels seen in cisgender women. In contrast, hormone therapy decreases strength, LBM and muscle area, yet values remain above that observed in cisgender women, even after 36 months. These findings suggest that strength may be well preserved in transwomen during the first 3 years of hormone therapy.
In other words, the data we have so far suggest that three years of hormone treatment isn’t long enough to efface the morphological and physiological advantages of transwomen over biological women. In other words, the second criterion of American swimming somewhat contradicts the first.
So this isn’t a solution, as it’s more or less subjective and not solidly based on data.
The more I think about it, the more I’m agreeing with the Canadian solution that we need two categories: “open” and “women”, the latter containing only biological wome). That way nobody is stigmatized by being in a third category. It’s not perfect, of course, because transwomen still have to compete against biological men, and if they have had hormone treatment, they’ll be at a disadvantage. The fact is that no solution is fair to everyone, but this seems to be the fairest one I see—until we have more data on performance of transgender athletes.
As for Lia Thomas, I don’t know how she’ll fare under the new rules, or whether she’ll even be forced to abide by them. In the end, I think this issue is as much a philosophical as an empirical one. What is the “fairest” way to treat everyone? I haven’t seen philosophers write on this—I might have missed some—but since the area is a minefield, I doubt that they’d want to touch it. But athletic organizations must, as the issue will only become more pressing.