Cardella: Transgender Women and Competitive Sports

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I recently found out that I was taking the same medication — spironolactone — that is used to help males transition to females (my dosage being much smaller). Feel free to add a punchline if you wish. I was taken off the medication because of unwanted side effects, none of which had to do with my sexual identity. But no matter how much of this testosterone-blocking drug I might have been prescribed, the drug that blocks testosterone was not going to turn me into a world-class swimmer. Not by itself. My point being that it takes much more than a drug to turn a person into a championship-level athlete. Something a lot of those complaining about the supposed athletic advantage of transgender women seem to not understand.

The fear of transgender women taking over competitive women’s athletics is getting way out of hand. First off, only about 0.7% of the population in the U.S. (about 2.3 million people) identify themselves as transgender. Eliminate the male transgenders and you’re left with about a million female transgenders. And fewer of them are into competitive athletics. Yet some of us have panicked. Decided to make this tiny fraction of people’s use of a restroom or whether they compete in women’s competitive sports a major issue. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went so far as to issue a proclamation declaring the second-place finisher in the NCAA 500-meter freestyle event the winner, although the real winner was – for the first time – a transgender female, Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania. DeSantis claimed that the NCAA, by allowing a transgender female to compete in the women’s event, was “perpetrating a fraud.”

To be fair, the success of the 6-foot-2 Lia Thomas has been greeted with fear by some of us regardless of our politics. We want to be fair to women competitors. Understandable. Thomas has received a mixed reaction from fans attending the meets in which she has participated. She has become a lightning rod for the issue. But even the success of Lia Thomas has been over-hyped. It’s been made to seem that some residual testosterone in her has made her invincible competing against females. Interesting. In the final competitive race of her collegiate career, Lia Thomas finished dead last. Turns out Thomas isn’t invincible at all.

You can never totally erase certain advantages that one athlete has over another, even of the same group (meaning gender, age, etc.). A tall woman is likely to have an advantage over a short woman in basketball. Coaching and training facilities are another factor in an athlete’s success. Black athletes predominate in basketball and certain other athletic events, no matter which sex is being discussed. Are we to ban black athletes from such events? What’s next? Would it surprise you if Republicans next went after lesbians? Suppose they claim – without merit – that lesbians are on average stronger than straight females? Do we ban lesbians from female competition? Is it far-fetched — using the same prejudice directed at transgender females — to object to lesbians using restrooms frequented by straight females? Where does this thing end?

Yet, there are legitimate concerns that some unscrupulous athletes will take advantage of a situation where there is no standard requirement for those who should be allowed to compete in women’s events. And we should recognize that as a problem. It’s a problem not just for female athletes, but for transgender women themselves. Without qualification standards, transgender women will always have their achievements disrespected. And used as a way of trying to totally disqualify them from competing. There may be a way to resolve the problem.

Up until recently, the NCAA had a standard rule in effect for qualifying to compete in female events. That rule involved the necessity for a transitioning woman to pass a low testosterone threshold after 36 months of drug therapy that suppresses the male hormone. (Lia Thomas herself has been taking testosterone-suppression drugs for over two and a half years). For  whatever the reason (could it be politics?), this rule is no longer in existence. Individual swim meets are allowed to set their own rules. Worse — in some cases there are no standards at all. It may be that reasonable people can disagree on what the standards should be. But there have to be standards to maintain any semblance of fairness to BOTH groups taking into consideration the science of hormonal therapy. Re-instituting standards for qualification won’t end the controversy. There will be disagreements on the specifics of those standards. And disagreements over whether any such standards negate the disadvantages women may still face in competitive athletics. There will still be politicians who will use transgenders to foment wedge issues for their own political advantage. It’s already happening.

There is no perfect solution. But it is a point of discussion that is not going to go away.