In recent months, many states have pushed forth bills restricting the rights of transgender women to partake in high school and college women’s sports.
One example of this is the “Mississippi Fairness Act,” signed by Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves in early March. If this law is to take effect as scheduled on July 1st, it will ban transgender women from women’s sports in Mississippi. The bill cites “inherent differences” between men and women as a rationale for this expulsion and constitutes only one of at least 66 bills that have been brought to the legislative table this year across more than 30 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign. For comparison, in 2019 there were only two bills.
Most all of these pieces of legislation base their argument on the fact that, on average, male athletes have a physical advantage over females. Thus, transgender women have an unfair edge over cisgender women in sports. There is no doubt that the former is true; men produce higher levels of testosterone, a hormone that generates higher bone and muscle masses. However, is that reason enough to disallow transgender women from competing on women’s sports teams in high school and college? The science suggests otherwise.
In a recent NPR interview, Dr. Eric Vilain, a pediatrician and geneticist who has advised the International Olympic Committee as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), a nonprofit that provides regulations for student athletics in all of the US, discussed the science of transgender women in sports. “[M]en have, on average, an advantage in performance in athletics of about 10 percent to 12 percent over women,” Vilain said. “But the question is whether there is in real life, during actual competitions, an advantage of performance linked to this male hormone and whether trans athletes are systematically winning all competitions. The answer to this latter question, are trans athletes winning everything, is simple—that’s not the case.”
Vilain went on to clarify that at the middle and often high school level, transgender women tend to delay their puberty naturally, causing them to remain overall on par with cisgender female athletes in terms of testosterone levels. Moreover, a large portion of transgender women, even in high school, undergo hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Such treatments often consist of medications that suppress testosterone and boost female hormones. While HRT will reduce muscle mass and cause athletic performance to deteriorate slightly in trans women, many embrace the opportunity nonetheless.
Taliah Johnson is a transgender woman and senior at Garfield who does cross country as well as track and field. She has been running for the women’s teams since her junior year.
“If trans women are on HRT, you are injecting something in your body that is weakening you every single day,” Johnson explained.
Current guidelines for student athletics from the NCAA state that transgender women should take one year of hormone therapy before competing officially for women’s teams at the high school and college level.
“Research suggests that [HRT] in transgender woman reduces muscle mass; accordingly, one year of hormone therapy is an appropriate transitional time before a male-to-female student-athlete competes on a women’s team,” Vilain said.
Many politicians fail to realize that transgender women, after applying this treatment, do not retain any bodily advantage over cisgender women. “They do not say that in any of the bills! They do not even take note of the fact that we are taking this treatment,” Johnson said. “Besides, biological differences exist everywhere in sports.” Both Johnson and Vilain advocate regarding sports, especially at the high school level, from a broader perspective than the “narrow category of gender.”
“My transgender athlete experience has been pretty positive here [at Garfield],” Johnson added. “I do want to acknowledge that trans people deserve a place in sports, that these bans are unnecessary, that they are transphobic, they are hurtful, to particularly people of color, trans people, and that these bills are unjustified and do not deserve to be into law, and that we have to fight tooth and nail to protect our trans and non-binary siblings. […] It’s so painful for me to watch that 2021 is the year that we are getting attacked by conservative politicians.”