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  • Writer's pictureDr. Bow Tie

Transgender “Advantage” in Sports, And Other Myths

Transgender athletes are back in the news again. Admittedly, I'm not sure they ever left the news. But it resurged again when Lance Armstrong decided to talk about transgender athleticism. Below is that Tweet, alongside a meme that a Facebook friend shared mocking transgender athletes.

Look, asking questions is fine. I welcome questions - that's how I end every post. That's not what Armstrong is doing, though, is it? This is a technique often used by anti-vaxxers, too - the "just asking questions" bit, but what they're really doing is posing myths in the form of a question when they are not willing to listen to the answer, and instead are trying to convince others of their pseudoscience.

What is truly upsetting here is that this is coming from Lance Armstrong, a man who misled us about his own performance-enhancing drug use for YEARS. He led what the United States Anti-Doping Agency called "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen." This is a man who could be considered an expert on hiding performance-enhancing drug use in sports...but it does not appear he understands the science, and he definitely does not appear to understand how it works in transitioning.

More importantly, what Armstrong did was considered cheating. He knowingly and repeatedly ignored established rules and hid that for years. Now he tries to spread misinformation about transgender athletes, but the main difference there is that these athletes, both at the school level and beyond, are working within the rules of their sport. There has been a great deal of discussion about this lately and so sport oversight committees everywhere have had to create rules about transgender athletes in competition (length of time since beginning transition, therapy used, etc.), and these athletes are working within those rules. Still, they are persecuted for trying to live their lives and pursue this passion by Republican lawmakers who do not understand the science or purposely mislead about it. That is actually a common theme here - most folks publicly speaking out against transgender athletes are starting from misconceptions or a lack of knowledge about the sex and gender spectra.

Speaking of which, let's move on to the meme.

"Best female swimmer is a male

Best female cyclist is a male

Best female runner is a male

Best female jeopardy player is a male

Male wins woman of the year

Male wins women's beauty pageant"

As you can see, this goes beyond sports.

We'll talk about the folks discussed there. Just to show the other side, because you don't hear about this as much - this article discusses trans men who are competing in men's sports.

These trans men, similar to trans women discussed in the meme, are competitive in their sports, while facing of what must be (at times) overwhelming prejudice, ridicule, and even violence against them. Still, the meme talks about trans women and the myth that they are trouncing cis women in every sport with their biological advantage. So let's talk about these women:

Lia Thomas, the swimmer, won ONE RACE (and it was damn close), at a meet where she did well but did not win in her other events. Her times have slowed post-transition and she is competitive with but not outstripping other women in the sport. Interestingly, last year she was beat by Iszac Henig, who is a trans man, but who at the time had not started testosterone therapy yet, meaning Henig had not undergone physical changes to transition to the body of a man. Meanwhile, cis woman Riley Gaines is hailed as some kind of conservative hero for "standing up for women" by claiming her win was "given to" or "stolen" by Lia Thomas, scaring people who think that teen girls will lose out to trans women with a "biological advantage." Except that Gaines came in 5th place in that race (which is still way better than I could have done). She placed behind both Lia Thomas AND 3 other cis women.

The cyclist: Veronica Ivy had lost to third-place finisher Jennifer Wagner in the past, even if she did beat her more recently (both races post-transition). Emily Bridges originally set records before transitioning, but finished lower after starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT). She became competitive with her true-to-self gender, but is certainly not running away with any competition (again, still doing way better than many of us would).

The runner: Terry Miller - similar to Lia Thomas, she won a race, but placed 4th in another in the same competition.

In discussing these cases, folks will respond that while reproductive organs can be changed, "biological makeup" cannot change. They claim that "Science" says that "men are biologically stronger than women." However, the flaw in that argument is that hormone treatments CAN change physical and phenotypic expression - ask anyone who has been on treatment. Ask those athletes I just mentioned above (except, please don't bother them).

Hormonal changes with treatment can dramatically change size and muscle mass (in either direction). Not permanently, because once you stop hormonal treatments or puberty blockers, they stop working (the effects do not continue). The anecdotal examples of "unfair advantage" don't hold up against scrutiny or within the rules established by sports committees (for length of time on HRT and other factors).

Someone recently commented on one of my TikToks with "...what do you think you are doing promoting nongender when science proves xx an xy (sic)?"

In retrospect, it is funny to me that we (including me) ever considered life to be that simple. Not to go deeply into the topic, but a Y chromosome does not always a man make. More narrowly, we look at the SRY (sex-determining region Y) protein, encoded by the SRY gene, which is responsible for initiating male phenotypical characteristics. It's usually found on the Y chromosome, but not always. Sometimes it's on the X chromosome, so the Y in those bodies has little to do with being male. Sometimes it's elsewhere entirely! And that's not the only aspect that can vary and produce different results. Binary is not an effective description or conceptualization.

Beyond that, here is an article about people with XY gene pairings who then got pregnant.

I showed this to someone and the article was dismissed as "a rare genetic disorder or a form of hermaphroditism." Again...our understanding has evolved. What we used to call rare hermaphroditism is likely far more common than we thought - going back to the spectrum of sex and gender. If it still seems rare, it's because we have not made it safe for these folks to declare themselves even to their physicians, let alone for research.

"In such cases they receive hormone therapy very early in life before and/or during puberty. Which would be completely (sic) different situation..."

Except that it is NOT that different. What is hormone therapy but medication to help a person express their true gender and/or feel healthy in their own body? We utilize hormone therapy as gender-affirming care, both in cis and trans folks! Testosterone therapy, estrogen therapy, breast augmentation and/or reduction, hair transplants, plenty of examples.

At this point, folks will sometimes bring up Caitlyn Jenner (the "Woman of the Year" in the meme, named as one of 25 by Glamour magazine in 2015), a transgender athlete who now speaks out against gender-affirming care with all the right-wing talking points ("groomer" being one of the foremost). Jenner is the ultimate example of "rules for thee, not for me." She is not a transgender medicine expert and very few transgender people agree with what she says. She benefitted from being able to live her best life but wants to impose restrictions on others who don't have as much in terms of means/money.

Now, I've talked about a lot of this very matter-of-factly. I also call out politicians and celebrities who do the "just asking questions" bit on their platforms and follow it up with transphobic myths. However, the awareness of transgender people in our communities is still a relatively new thing, and so it's not abnormal to feel a bit uncomfortable. I have accidentally misgendered people both as a physician in the hospital and as a person on the street. We all make mistakes. The best thing to do is acknowledge it, correct oneself, and avoid doing it again.

It's also something to get used to transgender folks using the bathrooms according to their true-to-self gender, especially with new outlets and conservative politicians highlighting the fears of a man spying on or assaulting women in the restroom. I never saw the movie White Chicks, but it springs to mind as the depiction they're going for.

For a person assigned a specific gender at birth who feels that is not their true gender, to transition requires a commitment to treatment that may or may not be covered by insurance, and all of the ridicule, physical changes, and emotional turmoil - it is not a light decision or a small cost. Sometimes it involves surgery (for adults), which is definitely not a small cost. The vast majority of assaults on women are committed not by transgender women but by cisgender men (without any trans pretense) entering bathrooms and other spaces. Generally speaking, it is not transgender women making these spaces unsafe, nor are they invading women's spaces to take opportunities from those assigned female at birth. As much as cis men like to erroneously claim that men suffer discrimination on basis of gender, it is without a doubt easier to be a man in 2023, and not worth the difficulties associated with transitioning to womanhood unless that is truly one's true gender.

Have there been bumps as transgender people become more a part of society? Yes. I'm sure most transgender people regret Glamour's naming Caitlyn Jenner's Woman of the Year given who she turned out to be. But also the difficulties in navigating bathrooms and sports. Are Republican lawmakers with their bathroom bills (oversexualizing things) and transgender athlete bans making that worse? Absolutely. And you know who also is negatively impacted? That's right, cis women.

Here's an article where this couple accused a 9-year-old of being transgender at a track meet. The man demanded that the girl's mom produce proof of her gender and "his wife called her and the girl's other mother "genital mutilators", "groomers" and "pedophiles."" The 9-year-old is a cisgender girl whose safety was threatened by this couple.

That's an anecdote, just like the ones Republican lawmakers and transphobic people like to use. But there are other cases. Recently Daniel Radcliffe's girlfriend was accused of being transgender - she is not. It's okay to be uncomfortable with change, because change is uncomfortable. But when we take that discomfort out on others and compromise their mental health and safety, it's no longer okay.

I don't have easy answers because there aren't any. But bathroom bills forcing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender assigned at birth, genital inspections of children (likely to be more traumatic than sharing a bathroom), and banning trans kids and adults from living as their true selves are not the right answers.

Quick points:

1. Elon Musk called "cis" a slur. As with most things Musk says, this is incorrect, as "cisgender" and "transgender" are merely descriptive terms. Naysayers decry this on the basis that we are giving a new name to "normal" but, as I have said multiple times, our understanding has evolved. Being transgender is not "abnormal" - gender dysphoria comes from being forced away from one's true-to-self gender, not from realizing one may not be the gender assigned one at birth.

2. Not every tomboy is a trans man. There are some girls who will just like to wear boys' clothing and play with "boy things" (which is arbitrary anyway), and vice versa with boys wearing girls' clothing. However, too many people go "well, that's how it always was! We didn't need to switch genders!" It is up to the rest of us to be open to their expression and if the children, who are often more self-aware than the credit we give them, inform us that they are a different gender than assigned at birth, we should be receptive to that and help them explore their options (which may include non-permanent treatments like puberty blockers) with the help of a physician who has expertise in gender-affirming care (not everyone has access to this, but that's a different topic and a different post).

Young children, cis or trans, tend to adapt much easier to trans classmates because it's not harped on as "abnormal." Conservatives will cry "grooming" and say things like "do whatever you want but keep it away from kids!" However then two things happen: 1) Republican politicians make laws going after transgender adults as well as kids, and 2) no one talks about the emphasis on heterosexuality in media and clothing as grooming. How is that different?

White baby onesie with "Ladies Man" and lipstick prints all over it

Transgender athletes, and people in general, are trying to live their best lives as their true selves. More often than not, it is cisgender people harming them and other cis people because of an inability to accept change. Discomfort is okay, and so is discussion. But it can and must be done respectfully. It's okay to ask genuine questions if you're willing to hear the answers, including that our scientific understanding has evolved past sixth grade level genetics.

T-shirt: Protect Trans Kids in trans colors of light pink, white, and light blue

It is those questions that I welcome.

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