Trans Women in Sports: Questions Arise, Again

Athletes Standing in a Circle

Until we find a fair resolution for transgender people competing in sports, tensions are going to flare.

It should have been a happy moment for Canada’s Rachel McKinnon who came in first place at a major world cycling championship in October. McKinnon was also the first transgender woman to win the UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championships in Los Angeles. She had worked incredibly hard and trained for long hours to make her dream come true.

The problem was that so had all the other women competing with her.

McKinnon was widely supported by other competitors, friends, human rights advocates, athletes, and fans, but not everyone thought it was fair play.

Jennifer Wagner was the cyclist who came in third. “I was the 3rd place rider. It’s definitely NOT fair,” she tweeted.

Others weighed in by protesting that women who were biologically male had unfair advantages over cis women.

Different sports competitions have different regulations for transgender participants, with many conceding that if you have transitioned with hormones and surgery, you are now biologically female. Others like this one allow people to choose their identified gender without any modifications at all.

Biological men have a number of athletic advantages over women, on average, which is why men and women have always played competitive sports separately. Testosterone gives added power and stamina, less body fat streamlines performance, more muscle tissue, bigger feet and hands, smaller hips, lack of breasts, minimum of estrogen, and added height are just a few of the sports and performance and endurance advantages that men have over women.

Some trans advocates and the first place winner Rachel McKinnon were quick to dismiss criticism as transphobic or bigoted hate. McKinnon denies that transgender women, even those who have not transitioned, have any competitive advantages over cis women. She has also stated suppressing testosterone in trans women who don’t wish to transition is against their rights. She said:

“Focusing on performance advantage is largely irrelevant because this is a rights issue. We shouldn’t be worried about trans people taking over the Olympics. We should be worried about fairness and human rights instead.”

But fairness and human rights are exactly what some critics are worried about. Is it fair to let trans women win against women, if this is not a genuine victory at all? Is it trampling the human rights of cis women to give up victory to women who were born men? What kind of physical body at what stages of transition should be allowed, with whom?

As transgender women are being more visible and competing in more sports, we are seeing them make sweeping wins in many events. Is it better to create a third realm, then—cis men, cis women, transgender? Or four? Or combine all of them?

Are McKinnon’s critics motivated by trans hatred or by legitimate questions? Another transgender competitive cyclist, Jillian Bearden, speaks freely about the advantage of testosterone,and the differences in her performance when she was biologically male. And third place winner Jennifer Wagner, who is working to change what she views as unfair new regulations, resisted online “name calling” of McKinnon and says she is “choosing to move on in a positive way.”

It’s a tough question and belittling genuine concerns as “hate” or ignoring cis women’s rights won’t help transgender athletes in the long run. So far new inclusive rules are an experiment and we need to see what works, where, with whom. We don’t know the answers yet for this question. We need to be able to speak openly about the issues and not shout each other down.

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