Brynn Tannehill

Why the Rationales for Barring Trans Athletes Suck

Filed By Brynn Tannehill | March 11, 2014 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Chloie Jönsson, CrossFit, ignorance, IOC, NCAA, Renee Richards, testosterone, trans athletes, transgender athletes, transphobia

Chloie-Jönsson.jpgChloie Jönsson (right) is a transgender woman who fully transitioned in 2006, and is a competitive CrossFit athlete. She was outed, and Crossfit headquarters sent her an extraordinarily nasty letter telling her that she cannot compete as a woman, but must do it in the men's division.

"We have simply ruled that based upon being born a male, she will need to compete in the Man's Division... The fundamental, ineluctable fact is that a male competitor who has a sex reassignment procedure still has a genetic makeup that confers a physical and physiological advantage over women... Our decision has nothing to do with "ignorance" or being bigots - it has to do with a very real understanding of the human genome, of fundamental biology, that you are intentionally ignoring or missed in high school."

The facts don't support CrossFit's assertions, as I've noted here. The consensus of medical experts on sports medicine and transgender medicine are that transgender athletes do not have an advantage. Professor Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology and Chief Medical Genetics in UCLA's Department of Pediatrics, says:

"Research suggests that androgen deprivation and cross sex hormone treatment in male-to-female transsexuals reduces muscle mass; accordingly, one year of hormone therapy is an appropriate transitional time before a male-to- female student athlete competes on a women's team."

Dr. Nick Gorton of the American Board of Emergency Medicine adds, "Transgender student athletes fall within the spectrum of physical traits found in athletes of their transitioned gender, allowing them to compete fairly and equitably."

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), NCAA, the Australian Sports Commission, and others all permit transgender athletes to compete after appropriate hormonal and/or surgical transition.

Unfortunately, the reasons I see given for why Chloie should not compete are based on the visceral reaction that she somehow still retains an advantage of some sort, no matter what doctors, researchers, and competitive sporting bodies have to say. Even many LGB people who are otherwise supportive of transgender issues offer up rationales that are based on ignorance, or eerily echo positions of the religious right.

We'll break them down, after the jump.

1.) "Transgender people should have their own leagues."

Let me see, where have I seen the argument that a marginalized and hated group of people should have their own sporting league?


Oh, yeah, that's it.

However, being transgender is very uncommon. If I rounded up every transgender person I know within 50 miles of me, I wouldn't even be able to play a decent game of Cards Against Humanity, much less have a league of any sort.

"Get your own league," is unacceptable not just because it echoes our racist past, but because it is functionally telling transgender people they cannot compete at all.

2.) You can't change your chromosomes.

The IOC and most other governing bodies stopped genetic gender testing almost two decades ago because there are many intersex individual out there. Karyotype is clearly not sufficient for determining who can compete in what division.

3.) Renée Richards shows that male-to-females have an advantage.

In the 35 years that male-to-female transgender individuals have been allowed to compete in tennis, precisely one has had even a modicum of success. Somehow, a tennis player with a short five-year career, who never ranked higher than 20th and never won an open Grand-Slam event, is proof that transgender women have an unfair advantage that will allow them to dominate women's sports? In point of fact, what little success Renée Richards had is, by definition, a statistical outlier.

4.) Allowing transgender people to compete will destroy the integrity of sports.

The IOC has allowed for transgender athletes to compete for the past three Summer Olympics. Precisely zero medals have been awarded to transsexual athletes in that time.

5.) Transgender people shouldn't be allowed to compete until the evidence is in.

Opponents of marriage equality make the same argument when they say we shouldn't allow same-sex couples to marry until research has conclusively proved that it won't cause societal harm. Same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and transgender Olympic athletes have been legal for over a decade. In neither case has there been irreparable harm to the institution. The lack of harm in and of itself is part of the proof that the fear-mongering on both issues is unfounded.

6.) Chloie would have an unfair advantage! Just look at her!

The actual numbers show that Chloie's statistics stack up unfavorably with smaller female competitors. Even if she competes with other women, she is unlikely to win. A performance comparison with another female CrossFit female athlete can be found here.

7.) No one is preventing Chloie from competing. She can always do it in the men's division.

I have seen similar arguments used on the issue of marriage. How many times have you heard bigots say that no one is preventing lesbians and gays from marrying, because they have always been allowed to marry members of the opposite sex, the same as everyone else?

Such arguments are every bit as maddening and insulting when applied to transgender athletes.

Chloie's testosterone levels have been lower than a cisgender female's for years. She is not even a top -flight female competitor. here is no way she could compete in the men's division. Conversely, a female-to-male transgender individual would have to stop taking testosterone to legally compete in a women's division. Asking a competitor to forgo treatment that is medically necessary for their physical and mental well-being in order to compete is unethical.

As such, requiring Chloie to compete in the men's division bars her from competition as effectively as "one man, one woman" laws prevent gays and lesbians from marrying.

So what is the answer?

Let transgender individuals compete, just like the NCAA does. We have 35 years worth of evidence that allowing transgender people to compete won't let them dominate a sport. We have the evidence of medical professionals, research, and an understanding of endocrinology.

Transgender people are already the most marginalized group in the US. There's no reason to further segregate them. Allow transgender people to compete using NCAA guidelines.

If it becomes disruptive to the competitiveness of the sport, fine, then reassess the policy. However, given the evidence, there is zero reason to believe this will happen.

Until then, though, discrimination based on a visceral, uneducated reaction is unacceptable.

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