You'd expect the women's college basketball team at George Washington University to be made up of, well, women. That ceased to be the case this season as Kye Allums took his place on the court and in history as the first transgender NCAA basketball player. Not so far removed from the case of middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, the nastiness of her competitors and the thorough bungling by track and field's governing board, the handling of Allums' situation could've easily taken a similar turn. But it didn't.
During the team's opening game, the crowd in Minneapolis warmly greeted Allums with a round of applause. A Sports Illustrated report reveals further support:
"The reaction by both the NCAA and GW has been unconditionally positive. ... 'I told my teammates first, and they, including my coaches, have supported me. My teammates have embraced me as the big brother of the team. They have been my family, and I love them all.'"
This is a heart-warming case and undoubtedly it's a sign of progress. However, many questions remain regarding transgender athletes in competition.
Allums is delaying hormone therapy and potential surgeries until after he graduates, so he can continue to play with his team. Increased testosterone levels would provide him with unfair advantages in building strength and speed, not much different than illegal performance-enhancing drugs. So, as far as the NCAA is concerned, all that's changing in this case is a name, some pronouns and a mindset. It's a dream case for them; nothing physical is changing except for perhaps a haircut. Give them credit for making the right call, but it was an easy call to make.
What if Allums' situation was closer to Semenya's? Not all the medical information was released in her case for privacy reasons, but her blood was found to contain three times the normal amount of testosterone for women. What if Allums wanted to start taking hormones? If a male athlete at George Washington began transitioning and then wanted to play on a women's team, would it be allowed? Would the school be as accommodating in these instances? Probably not; but should they be? The need for compromise in this area is becoming necessary.
Should we divide our sports competitions, not by genitalia, but by blood chemistry? This seems to be the solution athletic associations are leaning toward currently. But even then, our past hormonal makeup still has an impact in the present. One need look no further than the average height of trans men and women for evidence of this. Transgender women's tennis champion Renee Richards believes past influence is enough to warrant a ban:
"If your body is fueled by testosterone from an early age, you're going to develop a skeleton and a muscle mass and a type of muscle that is different from that of a normal woman -- so you have this tremendous advantage. That's why they have to be very careful to have men competing with men, and women with women."
Richards' hypocrisy aside, she has a point. Competitive sports are not so-named only for athletes battling each other, but for battling the very limits of the body itself. This is especially true of sports in which results are measured as opposed to scored - track and field, swimming, weight lifting, skiing, skating, etc. To see a female high-jumper squeeze every bit of ability and strength out of her body to clear a record 6'10'' is compelling without any other competitors. If someone with a hormone-aided body then came along and easily cleared 7'8" it would cheapen both the feat and the contest. The instruments these two hypothetical athletes manipulate to achieve such heights are not equal.
Richards' perspective is illuminating, but simplistic and incomplete because it still blindly subscribes to the gender binary. The wide variety of chromosomal possibilities outside XX and XY complicates things further. Those with different chromosomal pairings did not choose to transition, and in some cases they're not even aware of their condition. What if a female athlete with a chromosomal variation naturally produces more testosterone? Must she alter the way she was born to compete with women? What if she's happiest and healthiest the way she is? The gender binary in sports falls short just as it does in life.
The sport certainly plays a role as well. When I was in high school, a boy was allowed to play field hockey in our athletic conference. Gender differences are certainly rendered moot in sports like croquet; perhaps my athletic directors thought the same of field hockey. If so, at what sport do we draw the line?
When it pops its head up, this issue continues to grab headlines precisely because there is no easy answer. The best I can recommend at this point are in-depth case-by-case evaluations and a loosening of the gender binary. Perhaps you can allow a trans woman to play with genetic women if their levels of play are similar. If she has more ability, allow her to play with the men as a woman, because she's just that good (Michelle Wie and Annika Sorenstam did it, and Cheryl Miller easily could have). Like in Allums' case, allow trans men to play with women's teams if levels of play are comparable, or with the men if that's more appropriate.
Athletic associations could politely request athletes compete on a hormonally level playing field, but not mandate it. Consider the demands of the sport, the differences between the men's and women's games - determine if the person in question can handle it, as opposed to whether "men" or "women" as a whole can handle it. Sensitive, thoughtful, case-by-case decisions, with solutions tailored to each individual and each sport. That's the only viable path here. Once we get into mandatory testing of athletes' hormones and chromosomes, the allowable levels set will be arbitrary, and it will come at a high cost to personal privacy as well as the budgets of schools and athletic associations.
One thing is certain: Transgender athletes deserve to compete.