Since ancient times, sport competitions have been used to showcase men, their masculinity, strength, and physique. According to Doriane Lambelet Coleman’s article “Sex in Sport”, men used to compete in various competitions naked to show off their bodies to, “. . .pay homage to Zeus by showing him how they had trained their bodies to their physical peak.” Not only did they want to pay homage to Zeus and show their skill, men also wanted to prove that they had, but Coleman says that “.
. . balance between body and mind” (85) were critical. Women were excluded from these prestigious activities because they were considered to be unimportant and the lesser sex. Today, women are very much a part of competitive sports. Yes, times have changed slowly, but the discrimination of women participating in sports has changed significantly. Sports now work to support and uplift women. To do this, however, sport organizations have separated male and female athletes by creating a women’s only category.
The reason for this is so women can confidently showcase their own abilities without having to compete against the advantage that men have over them. Men are biologically stronger than women because they produce more testosterone, an androgen that promotes muscle growth, strength, endurance, and power.
A study was done in 2004 to show the differences in muscle function in males versus females. The authors concluded that there are significant contrasts between male and female skeletal muscles in how fast they contract, their fiber content, and energy metabolism most likely due to the effects of testosterone versus estrogen in their makeup; male muscles work faster and can bring forth more power than the muscles of females (Glenmark, et al.
, 1125, 1127). In an article titled, “The Transgender Athlete”, Pablo S. Torre and David Epstein state that the Y chromosome introduced to the developing fetus after six weeks immediately causes the development of testicles, which begin producing large amounts of testosterone, the sex hormone responsible for the performance gap between male and female athletes. Testosterone gives men the competitive advantage of, “. . .[more] height and weight, higher bone density, larger muscle mass, and a [larger amount of red blood cells, which can carry more oxygen]”, a definite advantage when a body is exerting itself (5). Therefore, if athletically trained women were to compete with athletically trained men, they would continuously lose and not get the true recognition they deserve. Thus, the need for a women’s only category.
In sports today, the women’s only category is being challenged by the new way society is embracing the idea of gender identity instead of biological sex classifications. This idea revolves around whether a person’s gender is determined by how they feel and what they believe it is rather than the sex they were assigned at birth due to biology. A result of moving toward gender identity classification is that in the wider variety of gender categories, LGBTQ+, intersex and transgender females are participating in the women’s only category of sports competition, which begs the question of whether they should be allowed to participate because of the known advantage that testosterone provides. This is the controversy and debate that is in the forefront of competitive sports today. Should they be able to participate? Should they not be able to participate? There are two sides to this argument and although in this present day, transgender females and intersex persons are allowed to participate in women only categories in the Olympics, it is not a settled argument with clear cut answers.
In 2009, the controversy of sex versus gender became front and center when a South African runner named Caster Semenya won the 800-meter race in the World Championships in Berlin. Because of her deep voice and muscular body, speculation began as to whether she was really a female. The International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) had Semenya undergo supervised sex testing to verify her biological sex; her result was that she has an intersex condition, which causes her body to produce as much as three times the amount of testosterone as an average female (Buzuvis, 55, 56). Intersex conditions are present in persons that have a DSD or disorder of sex development. Through no fault of their own, they simply can have the biological sex hormones and traits of both sexes; they are neither fully male, nor fully female (Coleman, 78). Should Semenya be able to compete as a woman? With the push for change in sex classification from biology to gender identity, Semenya can compete as a woman because that is what she identifies as. This would also hold true for transgender athletes, especially male to female. Torre and Epstein ask, “What happens to the athletes whose physiology doesn’t match their gender identity? Against whom do they compete” (1)? If they feel that they are female, then they should be able to participate in all female activities and visa versa for females who identify as males. Gender, to them, is a state of mind, and not just a physical attribute.
The main argument that many sports organizations bring up is the fact that transgender females and intersex persons have higher testosterone levels than biological women. Due to this fact, transgender females and intersex persons can have an advantage over biological females; Coleman firmly states that, “There is no scientific doubt that testosterone is the reason that men as a group perform better than women in sports” (75). When a biological male has reached his developmental peak through puberty, he has gained the total benefits of testosterone. This leads to the conclusion that when a male wishes to transition to become a female, the advantage that they might have will be difficult to reverse because in the article, “Transsexual and Transgender Policies in Sport” Heather Sykes points out that males, “ ‘have been under the influence of hormones under their former gender during their puberty’ ” (7). There has not been any scientific data published to confirm how long it takes for the advantages of testosterone exposure to dissipate (Torre, 6).
To keep transgender women and intersex persons from competing with an advantage, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have created policies that require certain criteria. The LPGA had a rule that players had to be female at birth since the early 1990s. If a person’s identity did not match their sex documentation, they were deemed ineligible to compete. Lana Lawless, a male to female transgender, had won the 2008 Women’s Long Drive Tournament put on by the Long Drive Association (LDA) but was denied the right to play in the 2009 tournament because the LDA had adopted the policy of the LPGA. Lawless was disqualified for not fitting into the category of being female at birth (Robson, 1, 3). The NCAA followed the LPGA’s rule similarly. However, it was not until the IOC changed their policy, that both the LPGA and NCAA changed their policies to what the IOC required. The IOC has changed their policy from not letting, specifically, female transgenders compete, to allowing them to compete only if they undergo sex reassignment surgery, or complete two years of hormonal suppression therapy as well as change their sex identification on legal documents (Buzuvis, 64).
What course took place to create this rule that the IOC has implemented? Several legislative acts and policy implementations paved the road. The first legislative act affecting the IOC’s policy was Title IX. Title IX is a part of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. According to the NCAA’s, “Title IX Frequently Asked Questions”, this amendment applies to, “. . . educational institutions, both public and private, that receive federal funds” ( Jackson, 1). Title IX applies to sport, specifically in the educational systems of high school and college because sport is considered to be a part of educational programs. Therefore, sport cannot discriminate against a person based on their sex identification, and sport must give equal opportunity to all athletic persons. It also broadened its policies to identify harassment based on gender characteristics to be in the same category as “sex discrimination” (Sykes, 5). Title IX has given transgender and intersex athletes more opportunities in high school and college sports.
Another legislative action that the IOC drew from to try and rectify the issue of transgender and intersex athletes, is the Gender Recognition Act. The Gender Recognition Act was passed in the United Kingdom. This Act stated that, according to Sykes, “. . . transsexual people may be restricted or prohibited in competing in ‘gender affected sports’ where ‘the physical strength, stamina, or physique of average persons of one gender would put them at a disadvantage to average persons of the other gender’ ” (7). The Gender Recognition Act was not well received because it did not allow transgender and intersex athletes to compete with their same gender.
A final example of legislative action or policy that the IOC drew from is policy implemented by the Gay Games. Unlike other organizations, the Gay Games has had difficulties creating a policy that is inclusive to all genders. Their policy had similar requirements to the current IOC policy in that athletes were required to show proof of reassignment surgery, or undergo hormonal therapy. However, this was poorly received by athletes of the Gay Games, so they changed their policy to require athletes to show documentation of their legal sex change or that they were in the process of doing hormonal therapy. This policy is what influenced the IOC’s most recent policy for transgender and intersex athletes.
The argument from the LGBTQ+ community to solve all of these issues is to simply get rid of biological sex classification and rules and regulations and, “replace the word and idea of ‘sex’ with the word and idea of ‘gender’ ”, says Coleman (63). Gender identity is defined by Coleman as, “an individual’s internal sense of gender, which may be male, female, neither, or a combination of both male and female, and which may be different from an individual’s sex assigned at birth” (64). Advocates for identity over sex believe this will ensure that all people are included in whatever gender, career, relationship, sport, or way of life they choose. Transgender females want to compete in sports with their own gender because it is their chosen identity; they feel that not allowing them is to not validate who they are and is discrimination. Transgender women and their advocates know that their choice to fight against discriminatory policies that separate them from the sex that they identify with goes against traditional society’s belief; their personhood is that of a woman despite their biological makeup. The entire point is to replace sex with identity so that classifying by just physical attributes will end (Coleman, 105, 106).
The second argument made for allowing intersex and transgender females to compete in women only sport categories is that the performance gap between biological females and intersex and transgender females would be smaller than the ten to twelve percent gap between biological males and females. It is also claimed that the populations of intersex persons and transgender males and females are not as huge as the populations of biological males and females, and therefore, would not have a significant impact in the arena of elite sports competitions (Coleman, 106).
Of course, those that advocate for keeping a women’s only category for biological women, see the performance gap as still a performance gap even if it is as low as two percent (Coleman, 109). Even a transgender female having gone through hormone suppression therapy or sex reassignment surgery and getting her testosterone levels down to the lowest male standard, still has more than that of a biological female; you cannot eliminate all of the advantages that come with a male body producing testosterone (Coleman, 105). In regard to the size of the transgender and intersex populations, it is known that they are small in size in comparison to biologically female and male populations, but due to the changing climate of acceptance and empowerment for these groups, one could see their populations growing and increasing in participation in sports. If intersex and transgender persons could participate in whichever sport category they wanted without any conditions or controversy, bias, or prejudice, they may become the focus of the scouts and actively recruited for their prowess; “Thus, the reported 3 to 8 incidence of males with very rare DSDs in the women’s 800 meters final at the Rio Olympics was not a coincidence, nor was the fact that these athletes took all three spots on the podium” (Coleman, 107).
Although, advocates for transgender and intersex athletes believe that the performance gap is not big enough, why is it that male transgenders (female to male) do not have as big of a problem as female transgenders playing sports? When a female transgender or intersex person wishes to compete with women, they are immediately met with obstacles. However, when male transgenders want to compete with their gender, they are allowed. The reason for this is because of the greater performance gap between biological men and transgender males. A female that has transitioned to being a male will never have levels of testosterone equal to a biological man. This is why transgender males choose to still compete in women’s categories, and if they do, no one complains because male biology versus female is not an issue here. This discrepancy clearly shows that testosterone versus estrogen is a big deal.
Changing sex classification from biology to gender identity may bring about benefits for the identity movement, but it may wipe away a hundred years of anti-discrimination progress for biological females in competitive sports. The women only category was put into place to lift women up and give them a chance to be featured in an elite status, gain the chance to shine, have equal opportunities, and become role models for younger girls aspiring to do something great. That may all be changing with the push to exclude biology in gender classification allowing anyone to participate in the gender sport of choice pushing biological females back to fighting against the odds of advantage for a piece of the pie. Whether you agree that biological classification should be replaced with gender identity, or not, leaving the women only category in competitive sports untouched seems to be a reasonable compromise. This debate doesn’t seem to have a clear answer so, competitive female sports will continue to see more intersex and transgender persons step forward to participate, and the debate will go on, and must go on until an equitable solution can be found for all.