Transgender Women Allowed to Participate in Sports

Renne Richards, a transgender tennis player, meets with the press. Photo courtesy of Manny Millan.

Picture a line drawn using chalk. Up until the twentieth century, society stood on the side that limited opportunities for transgender women in athletics. However, with the emergence and legacy of trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson and former U.S. Open tennis player, Renée Richards, many individuals have since traversed that line, leaving the once distinct line to be obscure and indiscernible.

Transgender is an adjective used to describe those whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth whereas a cisgender individual’s identity corresponds with their assigned sex. For instance, a person who is born male but identifies as female is a trans woman and uses the pronouns “she” and “her.”

In 2014, the Virginia High School League (VHSL) enabled the participation of trans athletes in high school sports, after being unanimously being agreed upon by the league’s executive committee. Therefore, trans individuals are allowed to compete alongside cisgender athletes consistent with their gender identity or transition identity. 

While this revision serves as a form of validation for trans students and athletes, they are still required to fulfill the Application for VHSL Transgender Rule Appeals, which is approved by the Compliance Director and the District Committee. In order for the waiver to be authorized, all applicants must satisfy the Criteria for VHSL Transgender Rule Appeals, which can be found on the VHSL website. 

In order to adhere to the criteria, potential trans athletes must make physiological and anatomical modifications, including hormonal therapy and the removal of external sex organs. Although an individual does not have to undergo sex reassignment medications or surgeries to be trans, VHSL is adamant about limiting gender-based advantages.

Even though such provisions intend to maintain gender equality in athletics, some claim that being born a male, regardless of surgeries or medication, provides trans women an edge over cis women in muscle building and resistance. As in the case of Fallon Fox, the first trans-MMA fighter, who drew widespread scrutiny in 2014 after breaking two opponents’ skulls as a fully transitioned trans woman. Many, including UFC’s Joe Rogan and Miesha Tate, believe that Fox retained certain male performance advantages, like a higher bone density level, despite her gender-reassignment surgery. 

The British Journal of Sports Medicine analyzed these advantages in a study published last month, which was conducted by pediatrician Dr. Timothy Roberts, a fellow of the American Board of Pediatrics and Medicine. He and his researchers concluded that testosterone greatly affected women in sports, after comparing the results of fitness competency exams between trans women and cis women.

 After all trans women consumed hormonal medication, Roberts found that they were able to do ten percent more push-ups than cis women, in addition to being 12 percent faster in the one-and-a-half-mile run. Since men produce more testosterone than women, they are able to better sustain muscle growth. 

Hence, it is argued that those who are born male have stronger athletic capabilities compared to those who are not. Roberts ultimately contended that “the trans women on average still have an advantage over the cis women.”

While it appears that science leans heavily in favor of those who claim that trans women have unfair advantages, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) responded to these claims in a recent article, stating that “the idea that women… have an advantage because they are trans ignores the actual conditions of their lives.”

Chase Strangio, ACLU’s Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, attests that the separation of trans women from cis women further exacerbates the adversities that trans individuals already experience. In the U.S. Trans Survey, it was recorded that 22 percent of trans women left their educational institutions due to the harassment they faced, with the remaining 78 percent confronting discrimination daily.

With potential restrictions in sports, it is likely that trans women are left feeling ostracized and invalidated not only in the classrooms but also on the courts and fields.
Strangio also proposes that “trans athletes vary in athletic ability just like cisgender athletes,” and that a variety of factors, from private coaching to intrinsic skill, can factor into one’s success as an athlete.  The president of the United States Professional Association for Transgender Health (USPATH) and endocrinologist, Dr. Joshua Safer negates Dr. Roberts’ research as he reports in an interview with Strangio on how an athlete’s physiological composition is an inaccurate indicator of athletic performance.

Despite of a multitude scientific studies and opinions, it remains unclear as to whether more high school and collegiate athletic leagues will be enforcing transgender restrictions like the VHSL. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the divide between the acceptance of trans women in sports will always be present, but for now, it remains blurred and unclear.