Transgender athletes: inclusion and fairness

In recent years, controversy about transgender individuals’ participation in sports has become a pressing matter, especially in the United States. Some people who identify as transgender undergo physical changes to their bodies, which can cause physical disparities between themselves and other athletes. However, limiting gender expression within communities can fundamentally deny a part of someone’s identity. 

But why do people transition? What exactly is the problem?

The meaning of gender and sexuality is debated worldwide. However, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, having a different understanding of gender than the one they were assigned at birth is medically defined as gender dysphoria. 

For some, gender dysphoria can be a great contributor of serious stress or anxiety that causes depression or even suicidal thoughts, sometimes causing them to seek medical care like hair growth and removal, surgery, or hormone therapy. 

Gender dysphoria can be even worse for athletes, who make up sport communities that are mostly single-sex dominated.

Unfortunately, for these athletes, transitioning is not as simple as gender affirmation. Hormone therapy can involve testosterone, a hormone present in male bodies that has a significant biological effect on physical and mental growth and athletics. According to Joshua Safer from the National Library of Medicine, “There does not seem to be any reason to expect advantage for transgender people prior to puberty of or for transgender people whose gender-affirming treatment begins at the onset of puberty.” 

The United States National Library of Medicine, where Joshua Safer, an expert on transgender medicine, works, pictured in 1999 – CDC/ Dr. Edwin P. Ewing, Jr. via Wikimedia Commons

However, gender-affirming treatment can affect athletic performance post-puberty, which risks undermining the integrity of sports separated by sex to balance the playing field for the disadvantaged female athletes without testosterone.

The conflict of interest centers around individuals who transition after puberty, and where they should compete in their sports communities. Someone who is male at birth and transitions to female can have the physical advantage of male testosterone. A similar situation occurs for someone female at birth who transitions, only this time, the female athlete may be left disadvantaged in their new male community. Whether the transgender person considers themself a man or a woman, they are likely biologically different from the rest of their peers. Since transitioning is a treatment that people go through by choice, some believe transitioning gives transgender athletes an unfair physical advantage. 

On the other side of the argument, athletes who would prefer to transition but don’t (due to gendered-division restrictions in sports) now compete in a body and a community they are uncomfortable with. Regardless of assigned gender at birth, athletes who do not transition despite desiring to can face further gender dysphoria. Without transitioning, these athletes may be secluded among peers and forced to stop playing their sport altogether. They might be forced to choose between continuing playing or feeling right in their own bodies.

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, who is transgender, photographed in 2022 – Iszac Henig via Wikimedia Commons

One very famous example of this difficult situation surrounds college swimmer Lia Thomas. Thomas identified as a transgender female in 2019. She started her swimming career at the University of Pennsylvania on the men’s team, and in 2020, transferred to the women’s team, where she found massive success: she became the first publicly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Championship after winning her freestyle event, and she holds multiple achievements for UPenn’s women’s swim team, including the title of All-American. 

In an ESPN interview, Thomas opened up about her decisions. 

“Being trans is not a choice. I didn’t have any other choice because not transitioning was not leading me anywhere.” 

Thomas’s sudden switch from the men’s team to the women’s team obviously sparked controversy—her decision was either unjust and potentially fraudulent, or showed bravery in the face of opposition and was a step forward in society. 

Lia Thomas was one of the first athletes to take this debate nationwide. For some, it was a revelation believing that the youth should be able to freely express and feel comfortable with themselves. For others, it was an unparalleled travesty. 

“Every event that transgender athletes participated in was one spot taken away from biological females throughout the meet,” said Reka Gyorgy, who received 17th place at the same NCAA event that Lia Thomas won the title of All American. In the same statement, Gyorgy requested that the NCAA change its rules regarding transitioned individuals like Lia Thomas. She acknowledged the efforts by Thomas, but considering the biological differences between Lia and the rest of the female division, she has every right to be frustrated. 

While one cannot deny the absolute unfairness of the situation for Gyorgy and her peers, many respect Lia Thomas’s decision. Simply due to both of their situations being fundamentally different, it becomes impossible to compare each of their sufferings or to rationalize any decisive decision in policy. It’s like comparing apples to oranges—you cannot weigh or value one individual’s experience to another’s if they both suffer from different problems. In any hypothetical world, it’s either that Gyorgy and her peers are denied their hard work, or that Lia Thomas and other individuals looking to transition are caught in a catch-22. Even so, many believe that Lia Thomas’s comfort outweighs the unfairness.

For many though, the idea falls short. 

A number of people saw the switch as a scandal because Lia Thomas would have an incredible advantage in such a physical sport like swimming. Thomas herself stated, “People will say, ‘She just transitioned so she could win.’ I transitioned to be happy, to be true to myself.” 

Despite this, many believe this still does not justify allowing medically-based physical disparities in a sport where strength and physique is crucial for victory. In a 2022 article from The Washington Post featuring UPenn’s swim team, sixteen anonymous teammates of Thomas said that she should not be allowed to compete with them. The swimmers themselves, the ones most affected by Thomas’s presence in the woman’s division, agreed that having a transgender woman participate with them was problematic. Thomas’s participation is not fair to the other swimmers, as they have worked just as hard their whole lives to reach this stage, only to get their spot taken or to lose a race to someone with a significant advantage over them. Until a solution is reached to resolve this issue, many believe transgender athletes should participate in the division of their sex given at birth.

The debate continues on even in the legal sense. A recent court ruling upheld Connecticut’s transgender athletes’ policy, stating that transgender athletes are allowed to participate with the sex of which they identify. Biological females then sued the transgender athletes, arguing they were deprived of state titles and qualifying scholarships due to the transgender athletes’ victories. However, this suit was difficult to prove in court and the case was dismissed. There are still issues and controversies on the topic of proving the unfair advantage. Since it is possible for transgender women to dominate in many female sports, this heated situation among others proves that thus far no good solutions have been found. In the future, there are hopes of a similar systematic change that can satisfy both parties, but until then many concede that there is no solution.

Fortunately, there is some promise for solutions

Fortunately, there is some promise for solutions: as more and more transgender individuals emerge in society, new sports divisions could be created solely for said athletes. While it is a radical change, it could succeed in satisfying both the needs, beliefs, and desires of athletes and maintain the integrity of sports. Additionally (and perhaps more radically), some sports like volleyball which are not necessarily dominated by those with testosterone could adopt divisions that are totally gender-neutral.

But why should a high school athlete care? What about non-athletes? Will any of this matter in our lives?

Young people, the most affected by policies, will determine this debate’s fate. 

While there may not be consensus over this issue, young students and athletes should be as educated and informed as possible. Without it, misinformation, differing logic, and actual, physical conflicts could arise. Only the informed have the ability and responsibility to form educated opinions, with any and all problems in the world. 

This is but one example of a conflict that can change our lives. Not just because it changes the world around us, but because the decisions we make define the way we and the future generations will live.