Changing My Reflection: Transition and Athleticism

Do trans women have an unfair competitive advantage?

Hello readers, I hope your holidays went well.

Recently I’ve been analyzing the potential impact the transition process can have on society. A particularly controversial issue I have found is the subject of athleticism.

One of the cornerstones to the transitional process I preach is health. In physical activities, such as my passion for aerial circus arts, I’ve found a catalyst for both physical and mental health and something to enrich myself as a person.

I’ve also recently fallen in love with skating. Local groups such as Skate Charlotte and the opening of the new Oso Skate Park in Plaza Midwood have given such warm welcomes to all interested in learning. Everyone in each group has been helpful in teaching me as a newcomer, providing abundant opportunity to improve my ability with the aid of positive, welcoming instructors.

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The non-competitive nature of these sports is such that I can’t see hormones granting an extra edge to performance, but what about sports in which they might? Ideally, anyone transitioning should be free to be themselves and pursue whatever activities they wish. On the subject of competitive sports, the situation becomes more complex when we consider the potential for hormone advantages in what should be an even playing field.

Dutee Chand, a 19-year-old female sprinter, wished to compete in the 2012 Olympics. She was told she could only compete if she were to lower her testosterone through drugs or surgery due to hyperandrongenism, a medical condition that causes significantly high levels of testosterone in women.

She challenged the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruling and in 2015, the IAAF suspended their rule for two years in order to take time to study and research the issue. She was allowed to compete while the research was ongoing and last year the study found that “in certain events, female athletes with high testosterone levels benefit from a 1.8 percent to 4.5 percent competitive advantage over female athletes with lower testosterone levels.” However, the study still acknowledges that science has not conclusively shown that increased levels of testosterone provides women with more of a significant competitive advantage compared to factors like diet, access to coaching and training facilities, and other genetic and biological variations.

The only real conclusion I see that can be drawn is that further research is necessary and perhaps this is more complex than we yet understand.

Another example of controversy is found in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. According to the Association of Boxing Commissions, to license transgender female fighters, they first “must undergo complete surgical anatomical changes, including external genitalia and gonadectomy and subsequently a minimum of two years of hormone replacement therapy, administered by a board certified specialist.”

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Fallon Fox

Transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox (Credit: Facebook/Fox)

This ruling was reached by a panel with the current understanding of the time it takes to eliminate/reduce male hormone gender-related advantages in sports competition. The problem arises when considering the current understanding can change at a rapid pace. Controversy arose when fighter Fallon Fox came out in 2013 as having transitioned, one year into her fight career with two professional fights under her belt. There shouldn’t be any question about whether she can compete or not and it’s absurd (not to mention offensive) to even question her gender and/or sex. She’s a woman eligible for competition and it’s awesome to see another trans woman comfortable with separating toughness and strength from masculinity. I truly admire that. In the interest of competitive fairness, the other fighters should maybe have a degree of transparency with what they’re up against. The issue comes down to a conflict of privacy vs. competitive fairness, and the lines aren’t easy to distinguish.

The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) has established policies on transgender student-athlete participation. A transgender male (FTM) who has received a medical exception for treatment with testosterone may compete on a men’s team, but is no longer eligible to compete on a women’s team. A transgender female (MTF) has a different ruling in that the student-athlete must continue to compete on a men’s team until undergoing one calendar year of hormone therapy.

I don’t relate to college athletics as a late 20s millennial, but I understand college is a time where many first start to figure things out. I could see the issues being hard to deal with, but I also understand their necessity. I see no problem with rulings and policies. I believe it’s acceptable to have standards as they have a fair and scientific justification. In fact, I see them as necessary. We’ve reached a point where there’s this destination, and it’s okay to reach for that point with transition. People are awake and aware to the fact that this is a thing, and that’s great. What feels lacking is the guidelines and rules that, if they were to exist, would eliminate some of the situational “what ifs” that plague those grappling with dysphoria.

I look up to and admire those who adopt strength as a defining aspect of their character. I would hate to see transwomen adopting weakness and lack of ability in order to appear more feminine. I see this as misogynistic. That behavior goes against everything I stand for. I, and many transwomen, feel the desire for recognition based on merit and ability rather than the transition process being the definition of our identities. Athleticism is just one more place where that naturally occurs. I hope that society can reach a point where we find the balance between competitive advantage and even playing fields.

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