Recently my politically-active hairdresser made the following statement, “Trans women in sports are being used as a partisan issue and, I need to understand what it all means.”
You may be asking the same question, especially in light of the Biden administration’s recent Title IX proposal regarding transgender athletes.
The proposal would forbid banning transgender athletes from teams aligned with their gender identities while also allowing limitations on competition to ensure fairness and safety. The Biden administration’s proposal allows for nuanced interplay between science and justice while avoiding the trap of equating sex discrimination with gender identity discrimination.
As a gender justice warrior, lifelong athlete, and women’s sports equity zealot, I’m well equipped to answer my hairdresser’s call for context. To do so, I created the following primer.
I’m sharing it again in the hopes of strengthening the bridge between science and justice. We can, and should, recognize the injustice of gender identity discrimination.
Simultaneously, we should consider that scientific facts complicate a blanket inclusion of transgender women athletes, which could ultimately compromise the fairness and safety of competition.
I’ve spent 30-plus years of my 60 years on this earth professionally engaged in women’s sports. I am, and always will be, a point guard. I carry that identity with me daily as a “coach on the floor” to women leaders.
Practicing inclusion and belonging are central to my life and work. I want everyone to be able to realize their dreams — on whatever platform, in whatever sector.
I am an idealist at heart.
At the same time, I’m a scientist. I’m critical, skeptical, and seek out evidence to back up every hypothesis.
Forty years ago, I created an Exercise Science major at Ithaca College. Women athlete’s bodies — and particularly, their interactions with physiology and biochemistry — are unique and worthy of study. I know enough about biomechanics, hormones, and performance to navigate the scientific issues around trans women athletes in sports.
What is Transgender?
Our society is in the middle of an exploration of gender identity. Our collective education about what it means for people to ‘live’ wherever they desire on a gender continuum is ongoing. Ideological distortions of justice prevent children in Florida from safely expressing their gender, and children in Texas from accessing gender-affirming medication.
When homophobic communities aren’t able to separate sex from gender identity from sexuality, the community regresses and people suffer.
For those who still see the construct of gender as limited to a binary, cis, or trans, transgender is when your gender identity differs from the sex on your birth certificate. Sex chromosomes — XX for females and XY for males — determine your sex.
For less than 1% of the population, there are about 60 conditions where biological sex is not clear. Differences in Sexual Development or Intersex means there is a mismatch between the genetic chromosomes and the appearance of genitals and secondary sex characteristics.
I like to think of gender like color. It would be dull and boring to live in a black and white world. A full spectrum of color — of sexual orientation, intersex conditions, gender variance, and the choices available therein — brings so much more vibrancy to our lives!’
5 Concepts for Understanding Gender in Sport
The following is the five-point primer I shared with my hair dresser. If we hold these five concepts as foundational, we can then have a conversation about trans women and women’s sports.
1. The Legacy Advantage of Male Puberty
There is a natural athletic advantage to people born male and having gone through male puberty. This can be visually seen in muscle mass, wingspan, bone length, and expressed in sports with advantages of explosive speed and strength.
Once a body builds up this post puberty muscle tissue, it stays. When an athlete begins training (even after getting ‘soft’), the muscle comes back.
2. The Power of Hormones
All of us have an inner knowing of the power of hormones. When we lived through puberty, experienced menopause or birthed a baby, and/or felt our body age, that’s our lived experience of the power of hormones.
Testosterone and estrogen each bring their own qualities. Those born male at birth have twenty times the testosterone that people born female have on average. Testosterone produced during puberty creates an advantage in sports by increasing bone growth, muscle tissue, and the amount of oxygen our blood can carry with higher amounts of hemoglobin.
Studies have shown the male athletic advantage is normally between 8 and 20%, depending on the sport and event, and up to 50% in sports and events featuring explosive power like throwing, jumping, and lifting. The difference in punching power is 160% greater for males after puberty!
3. The Sports Industry Glorifies Male Performance Advantages
The competitive sports industry has a rich history of recognizing and glorifying the performance advantages of males. Among men’s sports are a variety of protocols, events, and categories to address these muscle mass and size advantages, allowing different body types to find success. For example, school sport creates age categories that typically revolve around puberty. Then there are weight categories in boxing, weightlifting, rowing, and wrestling, recognizing the athletic advantage of more mass and size.
4. Sporting Events and Categories Distinguish Between Men and Women
For example, men and women who throw the shot put may have the same world records, but only because men throw a 16-pound weight and women throw an 8-pound weight.
Volleyball nets are eight inches higher for men, and basketballs are smaller in circumference for women. Men’s and women’s gymnastics use different apparatuses; the men’s pommel horse and rings feature men’s stronger upper body strength.
5. Socialization in Sports is 90% of the Game
Practices, travel, working out, stretching, navigating interactions with adults and teammates is the fabric of sports. Probably less than 10% of sports consists of actual competition. The other 90% is the training and getting together and being social as part of a team.
Innovate to Promote Inclusion and Fairness
Once we find common ground on the concepts above, we can have a fruitful conversation in which social and scientific considerations inform one another.
Can we agree with the fact that a male who has gone through puberty has a natural strength and cardiovascular advantage? Can we agree sports should strive to be an open, safe and welcoming environment, as well as create fair competition?
If the answer to these two questions is ‘yes,’ we can seek to establish fairness. Leaders in sports, like athletic directors, conference leaders, coaches, and sports media have an opportunity to innovate proactively.
The possibilities for inclusion and fairness are endless.
Hormone Testing and Measurements
For the small number of trans women/girls who have begun puberty and are mitigating their testosterone advantage with gender affirming hormones like testosterone blockers and estrogen, sports federations need to create consistent metrics and practices to check for the impact of the hormones and for any legacy advantages that may nonetheless remain.
Ideally, federations would be utilizing the knowledge that a person with XY chromosomes (males) has a typical range of 10 to 35 nanomoles/liter (nmol/L) and a person with XX chromosomes (females) has a range of .5 to 2.4 nmol/L.
The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) chose to ignore these average levels. They are using a cap of 10 nmol/L (applying to males who transition to become females) maintained for a 12 month period as an entry level to compete in the league.
Create Competitive Distinctions — But Retain Social Inclusion
Another option is to have full inclusion for trans women within the social constructs of sport (practices, meetings, etc.) but have a separate competitive category or scoring separately for trans women athletes. As the number of transgender women grows, trans women could eventually compete head-to-head in their own competition.
Said more succinctly, if someone self-identifies as a girl or woman, she should be included and fully welcomed in the social construct of sport.
The locker room is a changing place rather than a social lounge and provides privacy based on biological sex that is best to be honored. So many women are sexually abused and their trauma can be recreated at the site of male genitals.
By setting and widely adopting consistent standards, categories, and practices, leaders can ensure athletics are fair and inclusive for all kids.
Science and Social Justice: Unifying our “MVPs”
Gender imbalances in athletics reflect themselves in social and scientific perspectives on and off the field.
Statistics show more than 80% of all sport leaders are still male. High school girls still get millions of fewer sports opportunities than schools provide boys. Women in college are being denied a billion dollars in athletic scholarships.
Clearly, there is room for radical change in our sports constructs.
Transgender inclusion presents a consequential opportunity to integrate more scientific and social justice advancements into the sports industry. (We haven’t even talked about how to include transgender boys or men!) Visionary leadership is essential to level the playing field for ALL athletes, regardless of their gender orientation.
In the long-term game of creating fair and just sports for all, our social justice and scientific acumen are not opponents, but teammates. To win, we’ll need them both.
Thanks to the entire leadership of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group and Champion Women for dedicating years gathering information, sharing insights, and having conversations with trans leaders, scientists, athletes, lawyers, coaches, activists, and more to understand and distill information on this complex topic. Go HERE to join Olympians and Paralympians in asking lawmakers to prioritize fairness and safety. sign a petition inviting sports conferences and governing bodies to address this issue.
Building upon a 35-year career in women’s leadership, sports, and strategic consulting with her firm Changemaker Strategies, Tuti Scott is focused on engaging people in philanthropy and investing to activate their capital with a social justice lens. As a life-long athlete, gender avenger, and point guard, Tuti and her team engaged thousands of activist donors at the Women’s Sports Foundation, raising $70 million (1994–2008) to catalyze equal access to all sports for all women and girls. After growing up in rural New Hampshire and “jumping class,” Tuti’s story and publications inspire people to make money moves that matter.