The following is an essay I have written which I thought some readers may find interesting. It was written five months ago, and I came across it in a ‘documents’ folder this morning. The research was fascinating and my initial preconceptions were challenged and altered thereafter.
Transsexualism is still a relatively uncharted social issue, particularly within sport. One important issue to address is whether or not it is appropriate or fair to incorporate transgender athletes into sex-segregated sports. As it is crucial for a coherent body of law to be adhered to for sporting organisations across the country, I found the government’s ‘Guidance for Sporting bodies’ on ‘Transsexual people and sport’ a wise place to begin.
Whilst the government’s guidance doesn’t place any real focus on the ethicality of drafting transsexual individuals into sex-segregated sports or teams, it does note (quite significantly) that discrimination of any kind is illegal, and may not take place under UK law. Notable legal acts include the Gender Recognition Act, 2004 and the Sex Discrimination Act, 1975 (amended in 2004).
This fact foreshadows, in stark fashion, the moral and cultural difficulties which may arise as a result, as sporting organisations will often face severe criticism, especially if supporters of the sport in question feel that a transgender player or athlete has a unique advantage or disadvantage. Bodies involved in sport are able to justify the inclusion of transgender athletes through relevant governmental and internationally recognised law.
2015’s star transsexual and Woman of the Year, Caitlyn Jenner (a former Olympic athlete herself), stressed the importance of acceptance particularly with youth sports when approaching such a sensitive issue at her ESPY speech last summer, saying that young people ‘should be able to play sports as who they really are’ as it was not something that she, as a man, was able to do.
Her leading role in the battle to normalise, or reduce public stigmatisation of transsexuality will resonate with 12 year-old Mac, from Washington. TIME Magazine recently reported on his case, which became a more pertinent issue (along with similar instances across the United States) subsequent to the success of the former Bruce Jenner.
“One of those youths is Mac, a 12-year-old in Washington state. Before and after coming out as transgender, he suffered through bullying, pushing and shoving and name-calling. Both his family and school officials have supported him on the basketball court. When Mac wanted to play on his middle school boys’ team, school officials were thoughtful and accommodating, even though the state’s policy allowing transgender athletes to play on the team that aligns with their gender identity only officially applies to high school sports.”
The story gained widespread interest, and Mac was eventually able to play on the middle school boys’ team with his friends. According to the report, however, there seems to be a slight hypocrisy within the issue bubbling away under the surface, which primarily revolves around the direction of physiological transformation. Critics argue that, in many sports, transgender girl athletes have an unfair advantage due to increased strength or height, emanating from distinct biological differences, both in terms of size and hormonal composition. The report reads:
“Transgender boy athletes—students assigned the female sex at birth who identify a male—don’t tend to cause as much of a stir as their counterparts. Critics often argue that transgender girl athletes might have unfair advantages because of the strength or height that comes with testosterone. But supporters say that’s not really relevant in youth sports. And they stress that the benefits to transgender youths struggling to find their place far outweigh concerns about a slightly taller-than-average girl on the volleyball team.”
In November 2008, Lana Lawless, a retired male-born police officer who had undergone gender reassignment surgery just three years prior, won the Women’s RE/MAX Long Drive Championship in Mesquite, Nevada. Her victory was met, understandably, with scathing criticism from the golfing community, criticism she swiftly rejected. ESPN quoted in January 2009:
“I am shocked more women are not complaining about this,” three-time world champion Sean “The Beast” Fister said, according to the Web site. “It’s not an apples-to-apples deal. Men and women are different.”
Her rebuttal to the complaint, though, was strong and directly addressed the popular argument that she and other female transgender athletes had an outright anatomical advantage.
“I am a woman,” Lawless said, according to Golfweek. “I’ve lost muscle mass. I don’t have big guns [biceps]. They give you a drug that stops you from producing testosterone. Your muscles atrophy. In about seven months, I went from 245 pounds to 175 pounds. I’ve gained back a little bit, but I feel like I don’t have any power”.
If this is indeed true, and those who undergo specific surgeries are given a testosterone block in drug form, then those advocating the unfair biological advantage argument will have to be very careful when they do so. One might argue that deliberate medical attempts to block the production of testosterone in the body of a female transgender athlete may go some way to neutralising any pre-existing physiological imbalances.
Attitudes towards transsexuality and its involvement in sport is often shaped by the particular sport at hand. Some sports, such as darts or snooker, may be less prone to controversy than sports like mixed martial arts, for instance. Joe Rogan, UFC commentator, sparked outrage when, on his own podcast, he lambasted transgender female fighter Fallon Fox for competing with women without (in his mind) eligibility:
“She wants to be able to fight women in MMA; I say no fucking way. I say if you had a dick at one point in time, you also have all the bone structure that comes with having a dick. You have bigger hands, you have bigger shoulder joints. You’re a fucking man. That’s a man, OK?
The evidence against his rant (an opinion held by, I suspect, many UFC fans) is quite astonishing, however. In direct opposition to this school of thought and in an interview regarding transgender MMA fighter Fox, Dr. Marci Bowers explains why there is no effective competitive advantage in being a transgender woman:
“Most measures of physical strength minimize, muscle mass decreases, bone density decreases, and they become fairly comparable to women in their musculature. After as much time as has passed in her case, if tested, she would probably end up in the same muscle mass category as her biologically born female counterpart.”
What is particularly intriguing here is that according to both Dr. Marci and Medscape, transgender women may actually be at a disadvantage when competing with fellow female fighters. An interesting insight into the production of testosterone in the natural female body concludes:
“The ovaries produce 25% of circulating testosterone, which is dependent on luteinizing hormone (LH) secreted by the anterior pituitary. The ovaries also secrete 50% of the androstenedione and 20% of DHEA. Testosterone is used as a marker of ovarian androgen secretion. However, the adrenals also contribute to circulating testosterone via peripheral conversion of androstenedione to testosterone”
Most readers will find medical evidence of a transgender female disadvantage to be weak or non-existent, but these findings seem to suggest otherwise. Perhaps I, along with many other critics at face value, overestimate the anatomical imbalance of testosterone in the body of a transgender woman when competing with other female athletes. Speaking to InsideMMA back in May 2013, Fallon Fox explained:
“I am actually at a disadvantage. Any of the women I’m competing against, my testosterone levels are drastically lower than theirs, it’s almost nothing.”
It seems very much to me, as I delve further into my research, that arguments designed to condemn the involvement of transgender athletes in sex-segregated sport are becoming more brittle and less objective by the minute. As Juliet Jacques points out quite accurately in an article for The Guardian:
“Over time, a combination of principles and precedents will clarify the place of trans people in single-sex sports. Challenging the underlying prejudices that might discourage them from participating, such as the virulent hostility experienced by Fox, will almost certainly take longer.”
And that is exactly the point: social attitude is absolutely vital in waging the battle for acceptance in sport. For those who do come out, the ‘appropriateness’ of their inclusion in an environment tends to match the level of local support that meets it. In an interview with TIME, Kye Allums revealed:
“At other schools, we were anticipating a lot of negativity, but the schools were actually very supportive. Some would reach out and offer a gender neutral space for me to change. With the players, it was all business. The fans were different. Whenever I walked onto the court, people would just stare at me. They would stare at me and point, as if they were expecting me to be a 10-foot monster.”
The final point in TIME Magazine’s statement at the very beginning of this essay is interesting, as it uses moral reasoning to downplay the importance of a transsexual’s role in a sex-segregated team. I think this is an exemplary basis upon which to form our own conclusion. In my view, allowing those struggling with gender dysphoria to assimilate into their desired surroundings will ensure that sport makes a hugely positive moral statement in the fight against intolerance and prejudice.
As Ms Steinmetz mentioned in her report, ‘supporters stress that the benefits to transgender youths struggling to find their place far outweigh concerns about a slightly taller-than-average girl on the volleyball team’. What a wonderfully tolerant, open-minded mindset to have over what I now believe to be an unnecessarily convoluted issue.
Transsexuality will, from this point on, only gather momentum as a more widely accepted and publicly prominent aspect of sporting life, and so sport can and should play its part to make this process easier for those affected. As with attitudes towards same-sex marriage and adoption, conservative moral opinion seems to be trumped in the case of transsexuality in sport by both surprising medical evidence and a communal desire to promote tolerance and diversity.
And so on this basis, I think we can safely say that it is appropriate to promote the harnessing and incorporation of transsexual athletes amongst sex-segregated sports.