The debate on trans participation in sports has reached new extremes with the victory of NCAA swimmer Lia Thomas. Even though the outrage is larger than ever, the scientific and historical evidence show that trans women should compete as women.
Last month, yet another moral outrage campaign began making its rounds online and in the media. This controversy centered around Lia Thomas, a trans woman who competed in the 2022 NCAA swimming championship meet. After she won one of her events, becoming the first trans woman to win an NCAA DI title, the pundits and armchair experts lost their minds.
Central to these outraged critics’ arguments is the idea that trans women competing in women’s sports is unfair. Trans women, they say, have a nebulously defined “biological advantage,” so they should not be allowed to compete in women’s events. At first glance, this argument doesn’t sound too unreasonable. Most people understand that, on average, males are faster and stronger than females, and this is one of the reasons we continue to gender-segregate sports. Even though I am a supporter of trans rights myself, I was relatively agnostic on this issue until now. The recent outrage campaign, though, inspired me to look deeper in this issue. I found that, while the argument that trans women should be excluded from women's sports seems reasonable, if you look into this debate even a little you’ll find it makes no sense. After reviewing the actual evidence—rather than gut reactions and social media outrage—there is no reason why trans people should be excluded from sports. Even worse, I discovered some ominous facts about the origin of this outrage campaign.
Firstly, we should review the facts of Lia Thomas’s competition. In 2022’s NCAA swimming and diving championships, she placed first in the 500 meter freestyle event, winning the national title. Later, she placed fifth in the 200 meter freestyle. Finally, she finished last in the 100 meter freestyle. The fact that she lost multiple races is probably unknown to most people (because it is inconvenient for the people pushing narratives). That she never broke any NCAA women’s records or that she was only ranked 36th in the women’s division is also unknown.
Thomas’ performance was very good at this meet, but it was nothing that other cis women couldn’t do (or haven’t done already). Thomas is not the fastest woman to ever compete in these events; the fact that she lost to other women and failed to break any NCAA record proves it. While it is notable that she is the first trans woman to win a D1 title in the NCAA, nothing about this event shows that she dominated the competition. Nothing about the meet showed that cis women were unable to compete against her. The real takeaway here is that everything Thomas did was within the bounds of what cis women have done.
Some have criticized Lia Thomas, saying that she was a poor swimmer in the men’s division and only achieved success when entering the women’s competition. This is false. As a college freshman in the men’s division, Thomas was regularly in the top 100 in multiple events and was in the top 10 for one. As a sophomore on the men's team, Thomas placed 2nd in multiple events at the Ivy League championships. Most of the reports on social media that show her doing poorly in the men’s division are from her junior-year season, when she was on hormone replacement therapy (HRT)—a fact that should showcase how well HRT eliminates the so-called biological advantages of trans women. The historical record is clear. Lia Thomas was a very good swimmer before she transitioned, and she remained a good swimmer after she transitioned. Given the evidence, she likely would have had almost identical results if she continued to compete as a man without HRT.
Beyond the specifics of any one athlete, we have to consider two main questions in this debate: Do trans women have an advantage in athletic competition, and is this advantage something worth acting on? The first question is relatively obvious, but the second is more complicated. Even if trans women have some sort of “biological advantage,” it does not necessarily follow that the advantage should exclude them from competition—for a few reasons. One of the first things you learn in statistics is that there is a difference between statistical significance and practical importance. Even if you can prove that there is a difference, the difference may not be important. In this case, even if trans women were proven to be, say, 5% better at “sports” compared to cis women, that does not mean that they would dominate women’s sports. The advantage would only be on average, and individuals would always fall above or below that average. Practically (meaning, in terms of the outcomes of competitions), trans women would be able to compete but there would be no sort of statistical “domination” over cis women.
This crucial difference between significance and importance is even more important when we look specifically at competitive sports. People competing at a high-level are not the average person; they are the people at the top of the distribution: the best of the best. Important here is that how good this group is depends on how many people compete. If you’re building a team of 10 players and 500 people tryout, your team will be better than a team where only 50 people tried out. The same concept applies to entire fields of competition. In a women’s division where both cis and trans women are allowed to play, the trans cohort will collectively face this disadvantage. Simply put, there's just not that many trans people, so when they compete they will, collectively, not be as good as cis people. This effect is prominent in women’s competitions already. One of the primary reasons why men hold most of the top rankings in chess (a game with no biological advantages) is because there’s so few women competing. Because there is such a large sample of men, the cream of that crop is better than the small group of women. This sampling disadvantage is an important reason why no one has to fear any domination of women’s sports by trans people.
One final note on practical importance surrounds the issue of what lines we draw to define different groups. Right now, the debate pits trans people and cis people against each other, and people claim trans people have the advantage due to biolgoical factors. However, there are other biological factors that give people athletic advantages. For example, the average woman is 5-foot-four-inches tall, but there are some cis women who are over 6 feet tall—that’s a biological advantage for many sports. There are also cis women who have abnormally high amounts of testosterone—another biological advantage. We even consider some of these differences in women to be unnatural (high testosterone can be caused by disorders). If we are to take the argument (that we should exclude trans people because they have a biological advantage) seriously, we also have to ask why we draw the line around only one type of advantage? There are women of all shapes and sizes and with all types of genetic and anatomical differences. To discriminate solely on the basis of gender identity is not logical. Again, it demonstrates a reliance on initial gut reactions rather than the use of research and educated opinion-forming, because to follow this argument to its logical conclusion would mean that no one would be able to compete with anyone because everyone has some sort of advantage.
With all the caveats of practical importance out of the way, we can examine the question of statistical significance: “Do trans women have a statistically verified advantage over cis women in sports?” Unfortunately, there is very little research in this field. Currently, the most important study is from the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM). This 2021 study found that after just one year of HRT, trans women retained a (significantly diminished) advantage in running speed. However, the advantage in push-ups (upper-arm strength) and sit-ups (core strength) completely disappeared. This data (in combination with historical data which I will cover in a moment), in my opinion, points more in favor of trans women being athletically comparable to cis women. After just one year of treatment, trans women lost all of their strength advantage. The elimination of the strength advantage is significant because it is the leading factor driving males’ outperformance of females in athletics. With the knowledge that there is very little advantage at all—and the knowledge that a hypothetical advantage would not especially matter in reality—it is very hard for critics to justify blanketly banning trans women from sports.
One issue in the current discourse is the reduction of all the different types of competition into one lump category: “women’s sports.” In reality, every sport has significant differences, so the “biological advantage” of males does not exist in the same way in every field. Scientific studies have shown that the degree of advantage males have varies significantly depending on which sport we are talking about. In some sports, like swimming, the advantage is as low as 6% between males and females (before HRT). Any reasonable examination of the inclusion of trans people in sports would take a case-by-case approach, but no critic seems to be doing that. It points to these criticisms being driven more by knee-jerk reactions than logical arguments. I will fully admit that there may be certain sports where the male-female gap is not adequately eliminated by HRT. In some cases, it could be appropriate to require longer periods of hormone treatment before trans athletes can compete. These decisions will require more research. Unfortunately, critics seem to have little interest in such studies. Many of the news reports covering the BJSM article I referenced earlier styled their headlines to say that the research proved trans women had an advantage—despite the fact that the paper was much more nuanced and suggested more of the opposite. All parties to this debate should take a step back to examine the issue in a more nuanced, case-by-case analysis. In general, though, I will still argue that the evidence suggests we should start from the position that trans women competing (after a period of HRT) is okay.
This discussion of significance and practicality is forward-looking and hypothetical. Fortunately, we do have historical evidence on the inclusion of trans women into sports. Something that essentially no one knows is that trans women have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2004. It has been almost two decades since they were first allowed to play, yet no one even knew about this issue until now. Despite it being almost 20 years since their inclusion, no trans woman has ever won a medal. The only trans person so far to win a medal is Quinn (no last name), a professional soccer player who was assigned female at birth and now identifies as non-binary. The situation in the NCAA is similar. The organization first allowed trans people into competition in 2011. It has been well over a decade since their inclusion, and only recently has this debate entered the public’s eye. The first trans woman who won a title was Cecé Telfer, a DII track and field athlete, who placed first in the 400-meter hurdles in 2019. She did not break NCAA women’s records, and she lost other events at the same championship. The first trans woman to compete in a DI event, June Eastwood, ranked 7th in cross country—winning no title. It took 11 years for Lia Thomas to become the first trans woman to win a DI title.
The historical record is the most damning piece of evidence debunking the anti-trans position. Critics claim that including trans women will “destroy” women’s sports. However, these are styled as predictions of some potential future where trans women enter the field. The problem is that trans women are already there. We already know what happens when trans women compete. Sometimes they win, most times they lose. We know this because these are the actual historical facts, not wild speculation. If this doomsday of women’s sports was going to happen, it would have already happened. It has not.
Why then—with all of the evidence against them—are anti-trans pundits suddenly gaining the spotlight? It would have made more sense for them to pop up when trans women first started competing, but knowledge of this issue was relatively limited until the last few years. More than the inclusion of trans women into sports, it has been the defeat of other anti-LGBT issues that set the stage for the current moral outrage. The people against gay marriage lost in 2015 when it was legalized. The same people then campaigned against trans people in bathrooms, and they lost that battle, too. Now, they have pivoted again to sports. This debate is political theater more than anything else. Pundits who have lost every other debate have reared their heads again and are continuing to spread misinformation about LGBTQ+ people. If you heard about this issue and agreed that trans women should be excluded, I understand that. The politicians and pundits pushing this moral outrage have kept inconvenient facts suppressed and used super-charged language to hype up the issue. If after reading through this article you still disagree, you should at least be aware that the people pushing this narrative are not being honest. The best evidence of their dishonesty comes from their efforts to ban trans participation in school sports. Many of these policies require people to compete as the gender on their birth certificate. If these people want to protect women and girls, this policy is nonsensical. What reason could they have for banning trans boys from playing with other boys? There is no “biological advantage” that makes things unfair. The only factor here is that they’re trans, and these political actors don’t like trans people (as an aside, I also think trans men should be allowed to participate in men’s sports. Trans men are not mentioned much in these debates by detractors or supporters, so I wanted to give a quick shoutout to advocate for them, as well). They want to marginalize trans people and exclude them from society, and this issue is a vessel for them to validate their transphobia. Obviously, not everyone who heard about this issue and went along with it is transphobic or hateful—that is a ridiculous notion, and I hope that I have proven to be engaging in good faith with the people who have honest concerns. However, it is critical to understand that dishonest people are using this debate as a vehicle to push their own bigotry.
Even if someone ignored all the rational, scientific, and historical evidence and wanted to ban trans women from sports, they would find that enforcing such a rule is untenable. Regulations intended to keep “men” from competing in women’s sports, which would mean some variation of sex testing, are unbelievably harmful to women. According to Human Rights Watch, the first generation of sex testing in sports occured in the 1930s and 40s after rumors of men “masqeuarding” as women in athletic events. For decades afterwards, women athletes were forced to undergo invasive and degrading examinations—often forced to participate in “nude parades” in front of teams of doctors. Other methods included individual gynecological exams and genetic testing. Different versions of sex testing were systematic throughout much of the 20th century, but public criticism forced sports authorities to move to a much more limited, ad hoc program of testing only when competitors or observers had allegations against a certain person.
Even though sex testing is much less widespread now, it is just as terrible. Many women in the last two decades have been accused of being too “masucline” or have otherwise come under suspicion. The tests they then endure are still invasive and degrading; they still include inspections of women’s genitalia and other invasive procedures. Even worse, global athletics bodies have started forcing cis women to undergo medical procedures to correct their assumed over-masculine traits. These non-trans women are being forced to go through hormonal treatments that suppress their natural testosterone levels. These medically unnecessary, bias-inflicted interventions can create severe health problems. Some have even been forced to undergo surgery to remove parts of their reproductive system to change their hormonal balances. Often, these sex tests and their results are leaked to the press, which leads to massive psychological harm and public harassment. Groups like Human Rights Watch have alleged that these policies might even violate human rights. The treatment of these cis women is especially severe when they “fail” the tests (as has happened many times). Not only are they banned from competing in sports, threatening their livelihood, but they are smeared as “not-real'' women by their peers, observers, and the press.
If you really think that trans women should be banned from women’s sports, you need some sort of threshold to define “woman.” And, as the history of sex testing demonstrates, enforcing that threshold inevitably means exposing cis women to degrading treatment, and, paradoxically, banning cis women from women’s sports. Many of the critics of trans inclusion claim that they are trying to protect women. Even if their intentions are pure, this policy will not protect women. It will expose them to harassment, invasive examinations, and forced surgery. It will expose them to unfair criticism about their bodies and smears about their femininity. And, most ironically, they will ban the people they view as “real” women from women’s sports. This is not protecting women—this is sacrificing women on the altar of transphobia. The issue becomes even more severe when you consider efforts to ban trans people from school sports (K-12). The same sorts of sex testing used in professinal sports are being considered for child sports, which means that young girls could be subject to adults invasively examining their bodies. Enforcing these anti-trans policies in high, middle, and elementary schools will victimize children. Once again, no women are protected with these sorts of degrading practices. These practices will scar an endless amount of girls in this country for years.
With all the evidence presented, everything points in favor of including trans women in sports. In certain circumstances, it may be appropriate to set stricter requirements for things like HRT; in rare circumstances, exclusion from certain events is plausible. However, in almost all foreseeable cases, trans women should compete as women. The evidence shows that they have no insurmountable advantage and their inclusion will have only a limited impact. History shows there will be no doomsday; women’s sports will be just fine. Furthermore, the record shows that trying to ban trans people from competition will only hurt cis women and young girls—not to mention the many trans people and youth who will be ostracized. The only sensible solution is to allow trans women to play. For now, at least, the people who actually run sporting competitions (The Olympics, the NCAA, and more) and know the most about sports have allowed trans people to compete, and this decision should stand. There is simply no good reason to blanketly ban trans people from sports, and any efforts should be called out as the illogical, ahistorical farces they are.
Katharine Sciackitano is a a third-year Economics major in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is the Acting Editor-In-Chief for the Agora.
Image courtesy Alkarim Pirmohamed, Creative Commons