With the global recognition of the LGBTQ+ community and its rights in recent decades, one topic which has faced significant controversy is the presence of transgender athletes in all levels of professional sports. The debate centers around transgender rights, limitations of science in influencing biology, and the inconsistency of politics and rules which have not been able to provide a clear resolution so far. Transgender women should be allowed to compete in professional sport based on gender identity under certain conditions required by governing sports bodies that focus establishing equality and integrity in the athletic world.
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Legal and Policy Considerations
In 2004, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), one of the most respectable sport governing bodies announced a policy that transgender individuals will be able to compete if they have had gender-confirming surgery, legal recognition of their gender, and followed a hormone treatment therapy for at least 2 years. In 2016, the policy was updated that surgery is no longer required, but identification as the non-biological sex must have been declared for at least 4 years. Furthermore, blood testoreone level must remain below 10 nmol/L for 12 months before competition for transgender women.
Although facing some criticism, the IOC is often seen as the leader in global athletic policy, with the majority of other governing bodies across various sports followed suit in announcing similar policies (Alice-Jones et al. 711). These policies provide legal recognition to transgender athletes by experts in sport which also use the significant resources at their disposal to conduct medical legal research to form such policy. The inclusivity and legal recognition suggest that transgender athletes are welcome to participate in competitive sport given they meet the established requirements which help to maintain integrity.
Social and Ethical Considerations
Transgenderism is a highly controversial topic in society, with many having opinions while also lacking understanding. Transgender individuals face significant challenges and discrimination in daily lives, which becomes appalling at the level of publicity that professional sport often brings. The social consideration of allowing transgender athletes to compete stems from the concept of inclusivity and protection for such athletes. Without the public recognition and discussion, transphobia will prevail, and appropriate research will not be conducted on how to best address the biological roots of the issue (Ingle).
Sport is meant to be inclusive, creating connections and community, as stated in the Olympic charter and many other organizations support. Transgender identity for these athletes, a concept that many transgender individuals struggle with, is formed through sport. Furthermore, sport has always been a platform which is used to drive progressive social issues such as inclusion of individuals of a non-traditional sexual orientation or establishing equality of pay between men and women. Sport is a social narrative shaped by communities telling meaningful stories rather than just competitive empirical comparisons.
While the primary focus of the debate focuses on biologically dependent fairness, the ethical consideration of fairness support inclusion which is coherent and long-lasting. The policy discussed above takes some steps forward, following the ethical rationale that participation is allowed if physiological equivalency can be demonstrated. However, it is too imperfect since it marginalizes athletic accomplishments of transgender athletes, and further action needs to be taken beyond comparative advantage in sport which already has numerous conceptions of inequality (Gleaves and Lehrbach 2).
Primary opponents of transgender women in professional sports indicate the issues of biology as the principal concern, potentially affecting fairness in athletic performance. Despite performance for transgender women dropping as they complete their transition and hormone therapy with testosterone levels dropping to regulated requirements, other benefits of the male body remain. Testosterone aids with muscle memory by increasing nuclei in muscle tissue, thus an ability to regain mass after detraining. These nuclei do not disappear, and transgender women have an increased ability to build strength in comparison to cisgender women.
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Furthermore, male biological advantages which are not addressed by transition therapy or surgery in modern science include stronger and bigger bone structure, increased lung capacity, and a larger heart size. Another concern is that even with hormone replacement therapy meant to lower testosterone levels, since the IOC does not require sex reassignment surgery, transgender women have to continue taking medication to suppress these levels. However, since the testosterone levels are tested on the average volume in a 12-month period, medications can be manipulated to increase levels during training or pre-competition in order to enhance performance (Pitsiladis et al. 386).
All the above aspects combined with still significant gaps in scientific and medical data regarding the exact physical changes during transition, particularly at the level of elite athleticism, creates concern that the integrity of female sport will be compromised by allowing transgender women to compete. Therefore, the primary issue is that in the biological case, sub-elite men would be able to compete with elite women after transition, creating an unfair advantage.
However, this position is challenging, and there is no good empirical evidence to support it since the data on the athletes that have transitioned is small in sample for scientific analysis, and the concepts are based on theory alone.
At the same time, a large majority of medical experts agree that there is no proof of a biological advantage after transition. Furthermore, decreasing testosterone to the required levels of even the most lax guidelines of 10 nmol/L impairs the transgender athlete enough with at least a 5% drop (often much more) in performance, that unless one is at the absolute top echelon of male athletes, the transition would not even place such an athlete in contention for currently female-held records (Kornei). Some empirical and anecdotal data exists to support this, but the issue still remains regarding athletics on lower levels than the elite, as well as sports where size (football or rugby) matters and transgender women continue to demonstrate advantage after transition.
Considering the controversial nature of the issue, some solutions have been brought up in this debate by involved stakeholders, which should be discussed. Across scholarly research and wide media coverage, the most common solution that remains more or less practical and ethical, is redefining categories in sports. Athletics has been divided by gender, men and women, for as long as professional sport existed. The solution to this impasse of transgender athletes is to create new categories. There are suggestions such as simply creating a “transgender” category, thus encouraging more athletes to be recognized or complete the transition.
Others find this to be discriminatory as such athletes will likely experience much prejudice. Finally, a more complex division based on an algorithm of categories focused on physical abilities and characteristics based loosely on the system currently in place at the Paralympics to ensure fairness has been proposed (Knox et al. 401). While imperfect, the solution of creating new categories is beneficial as it creates a regulated control of integrity in sports, potentially recognizing and promoting transgender athletes, and redefining modern athletic and social understanding of transgender rights.
Despite the complexity of the issue, evidence suggests that transgender women should be allowed in professional sport under certain conditions and regulations. The competitive advantage created by biology can be mitigated with appropriate scientific solutions. Meanwhile, social and ethical considerations indicate that inclusivity and acceptance of such athletes is the future of sport and social diversity that should be encouraged and respected while maintaining integrity in competition.
Alice-Jones, Bethany, et al. “Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies.” Sports Medicine, vol. 47, no. 4, 2017, pp. 701–716. Web.
Gleaves, John, and Tim Lehrbach. “Beyond Fairness: The Ethics Of Inclusion For Transgender And Intersex Athletes.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 43, no. 2, 2016, pp. 311–326. Web.
Ingle, Sean. “Sports Stars Weigh In On Row Over Transgender Athletes.” The Guardian. 2019. Web.
Knox, Taryn, et al. “Transwomen in Elite Sport: Scientific and Ethical Considerations.” BMJ Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 45, no. 6, 2019, pp. 395–403. Web.
Kornei, Katherine. “This Scientist Is Racing to Discover How Gender Transitions Alter Athletic Performance—Including Her Own.” Science. 2018. Web.
Pitsiladis, Yannis, et al. “Beyond Fairness: The Biology of Inclusion for Transgender and Intersex Athletes.” Current Sports Medicine Reports, vol. 15, no. 6, 2016, pp. 386–388. Web.