The answer to this clickbait headline is a simple one: yes. Duh. Why shouldn’t we be allowed? What are you – some kind of transphobe?
But people are seriously up in arms over this, so I guess we’re talking about it now. The main arguments appear to be that trans women are at an apparent advantage over cis women because of greater bone density, muscle mass, and differences in hormone levels. So let’s tackle each of these.
According to a study by the Department of Endocrinology at Ghent University Hospital, “Transsexual women before the start of hormonal therapy appear to have lower muscle mass and strength and lower bone mass compared with control men.”
Granted, the study does mention that these deviations may be “related to a less active lifestyle”, because trans women apparently tend to be more sedentary from a young age. But then again, might the reason that cis women tend to have lower bone density than men be because society tends to force them sit still and be pretty from an early age, whereas boys are encouraged to run around and do other high impact activities?
In order to promote bone osteogenesis (the calcification of soft tissues into bone mass), children must be physically active. Yet boys tend to be more involved in sports and allowed to run around acting crazy, climbing up trees and jumping out of them, while girls are told “don’t do somersaults, you’re in a dress!”, “that’s a boy sport!”, and in general dissuaded from physical activities.
In which case, one has to wonder how much of the differences in bone density between cis males and females has to do with social roles, as opposed to biology?
Furthermore though, how different from each other are female and male bones anyway? We tend to think that archaeologists and forensic scientists can just look at any bone and tell you what sex the person was. But that’s an outdated idea. In 1972, anthropology professor at Pennsylvania State University Kenneth Weiss observed a discrepancy between male and female bones at archaeology sites: there were 12% more male bones.
This didn’t make sense, since male and female populations tend to be fairly evenly dispersed. As it turned out, archaeologists were just more likely to put bones they couldn’t categorize because they blurred gender lines into the male pile because… well… patriarchy.
It appears that since Weiss called out the archaeology community, they began changing their acts, because in 1993, a masters student at the University of Tennessee named Karen Bone discovered that the ratio of male to female bones had evened out. This was because more bones were being labeled “indeterminate”.
After all, wide-hipped men exist, as do narrow hipped women. People come in all shapes and sizes, regardless of the configuration of their genitals.
Going back to the Department of Endocrinology study at Ghent University Hospital: “Transsexual women before the start of hormonal therapy appear to have lower muscle mass and strength and lower bone mass compared with control men.”
And again, this may have much to do with sedentary lifestyles, in which case we could bring up the same sociological nature-over-nurture questions as before.
Regardless, we know that muscle mass correlates with hormone levels, which is the primary biological reason we could point to for why males tend to have more muscle mass. So with transgender women already presenting pre-HRT with low testosterone levels, and the whole point of HRT being to drop their testosterone to normal female ranges, we can assume that twitch-muscle fibers (these contribute to explosive takeoffs in sprints) would be decreased and oxygen availability to the muscles via red blood cells would be reduced.
And in fact, we do find that trans women have lower Red Blood Cell (RBC), hemoglobin (which transports oxygen within the RBC’s), and hematocrit (the volume of RBC’s per whole blood) levels following HRT. Lower RBC and hemoglobin count means less oxygen supplied to the muscles, and with less oxygen available to help break down glucose into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) molecules for fuel, the less useful whatever muscle mass happens to be there actually is.
In terms of twitch muscle fibers, no studies appear to exist that analyze that in particular in trans women. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism did show that, while overall muscle mass decreased (though not as significantly as expected) for trans women following HRT, strength did not appear to change (though keep in mind that trans women present with lower strength pre-HRT anyway).
Although estrogen replacement has been known to increase muscle mass and strength in post-menopausal women, so I suppose it’s always possible that the overabundance of estradiol in trans women could work to partially counteract some of the muscle and strength loss from the testosterone suppression, especially when trans women tend to present with lower muscle mass from the get-go.
A study in Biological Psychiatry showed that pre-HRT transgender women tend to have longer androgen receptor lengths, leading to reduced sensitivity to androgens in general, which may contribute to the above mentioned lesser muscle mass, strength, and bone density than control cisgender men.
On top of that, trans athletes are under strict hormone standards (where non-professional athletes are not, so maybe they’re not the ones to be testing when asking this particular question). The International Olympic Committee guidelines state that transgender woman competitors must be identifying continuously as their identified gender for four years and their testosterone levels must be below 10 nmol/L for at least one year prior to competition.
World Athletics guidelines require testosterone levels under 5 nmol/L for at least a year (this would match their intersex guidelines), and ICO is considering following suit.
So hormone levels aren’t even an issue now because trans women must be within normal female levels in order to compete. Now, is that necessary? A 2017 systemic review showed no evidence that transgender athletes had an advantage at any stage in transition.
Besides, ultimately such tight hormonal regulations only really impact intersex women who were assigned as female at birth (as trans female athletes are generally already on HRT). For instance, Caster Semenya, for instance, won multiple Olympic gold medals, but was barred from competing after she was subject to hormone testing and found to have naturally elevated testosterone and XY chromosomes (yes, those Assigned Female at Birth can have XY chromosomes too). She was eventually allowed to compete again, but only if she went on androgen suppressants.
Similar androgen level controversies occurred with other intersex athletes, including Dutee Chand, Maria José Martínez-Patiño, Stanisława Walasiewicz, and others.
But let’s get back to transgender athletes and ask the real question: how good are trans women at sports anyway?
Trans Women are Statistically Not that Great at Sports
There’s a very obvious selection bias when it comes to reporting on trans athletes – that is, you only hear about them when they win. But they frequently lose.
Rachael Mckinnon was a trans woman who was the center of controversy after breaking the record for the women’s 35-39 age bracket 200-meter time trial by a whopping 0.24 seconds (she notes in her New York Times op-ed that her time is still lower than the 40-44 and 45-49 age categories). But that was just for the Master’s Track Cycling championships. In elite races, her highest was a bronze medal in 2018 and her highest placing in 2019 was 8th. But of course no one talks about that because it wouldn’t be particularly interesting to read an article about a random trans woman placing 8th in a sprint. McKinnon lost 17 out of 22 events in 2019 (those aren’t exactly the best odds there). She also caught flack for beating athlete Dawn Orwick in a sprint event, except that Orwick had beat her in the 500-meter just prior.
Allayva Stier started training much harder after transitioning than before, training 5 days a week when pre-transition she only trained 2-3 times a week. And in 2019, that extra training paid off when she won a whole 2 races… out of 35. Stier started out placing among the fastest in boys competitions in her high school though, winning a number of competitions and making it to state. But her times dropped when she began medical transition and now she’s, needless to say, not that great.
Evelyn Sifton was a Canadian cyclist who placed 3rd out of 6 in a Montreal competition. Yet she still received transphobic comments by other competitors – after getting lapped by the 1st and 2nd place winners!
Athena Del Rosario is a trans soccer goalie who went from being one of the fastest runners in boys soccer to barely qualifying the mile runs in needed to place in girls soccer. Even still, she’s received her fair share of flack for apparently dominating against cisgender women. And while her stats are impressive, they’re hardly “dominating”.
Tara Seplavy is a cyclist. Unfortunately there’s really not much to say about her beyond that. She hasn’t received a single win in her three years of competing in women’s tournaments. In fact, she’s placed last place more than once. Did anyone tell her about her “biological advantage”? I don’t think she got the memo. She has no illusions about her performance though. Seplavy has professional coaches and works her ass off, but as she’s said, “I went from being a mediocre dude on a bike to being a mediocre woman on a bike. It’s not like I just changed my gender and my times stayed the same. I have to work that much harder for marginal gain.”
I could keep listing examples, but you get the point. At the end of the day, you can’t show me a single trans woman athlete who has won a competition, who hasn’t also lost. Sure, if you’re only focusing on wins, then trans athletes can seem intimidating. But if you actually compare their averages to the averages of cisgender competitors, then they’re actually quite comparable. Every. Singe. Time.
Male and Female Differences in Sports
Male and female times only differ by an average of 10-12% across events. Sure, this marginal difference likely stems from certain biological differences, such as those that we discussed above.
But trans women already tend to present with lower bone-density, muscle mass, strength, and testosterone levels pre-HRT (so maybe comparing us to cisgender men isn’t exactly the most accurate to begin with), and then we lose yet more bone density, muscle mass, and testosterone as a result of HRT.
So the question is, does HRT adequately reduce our physical abilities by roughly 10%? I think we’ve already proved that it does with our look at trans athlete averages and the fact that even those who get attention for beating cis women wind up losing, sometimes to those same cis women.
Are Men Actually More Physically Fit than Women Though?
Alright, let’s step away from trans rights and get into some general feminist analysis here and take a hard look at the apparent gender differences in sport. Sure, men tend to outperform women in traditional sports. But again, let’s consider the fact that boys are actively encouraged to be involved in physical pursuits while girls are genuinely dissuaded from such activities.
Let’s also for a moment consider that sports were invented for and by men (who also happen to be the ones most trained from an early age in them). So obviously men are going to have an advantage in activities that they themselves invented. After all, women weren’t allowed in the Olympics until 1900, and only then in certain more “feminine” activities, so it’s been an uphill battle.
So now comes the question: are there sports in which women have physiological advantages? Yes. Ultra-endurance races. Women regularly beat men in transcontinental cycling (Fiona Kolbinger cycled 2,485 miles and beat the 2nd place competitor by 6 hours – this race consisted of 224 men and 40 women), Pam Reed won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathons against male competitors, Lael Wilcox won the 4,300 mile Trans Am against men, Caroline Boller set a course record at the 50 mile Benzos Bend in Texas, and Diana Nyad set a record in the 110 mile swim from Cuba to Florida.
Women do so well in ultra-endurance possibly due to women having on average 6-11% more body fat than men, resulting in more energy storage over time.
The journal Nature has been theorizing that women will one day completely overtake men in even Olympic races, going off of data showing that women’s times have improved much more rapidly than men’s over the years. There is, of course, a very simple reason as to why female athletes might be improving so rapidly since the 80’s: there’s consistently been more of them entering into competitions since then.
This is yet another selection bias slowly being corrected. I mean it’s basic probability. If there are significantly more men competing, then they have better odds of getting better times. It’s telling that as more women have been competing in the Olympics, that gap between male and female times has gradually narrowed. Men only regularly outperform women because we live in a misogynistic world that holds women back, so maybe let’s check the ideas we have about male and female differences.
So now that we have all that out of the way, let’s review what we’ve learned so far.
- Male and Female times only differ by around 10%
- That margin keeps narrowing as more female athletes enter competitions
- Transgender women have lower bone density, muscle mass, strength, and testosterone than men to bein with
- Trans women are required to be on HRT and have their testosterone in normal female ranges prior to competition
- Is HRT enough to sufficiently narrow that 10% gap?
- I can only assume so looking at our mediocre averages
- Oh and also women are for more capable than we’re given credit, and that will be shown in due time
- Any questions?
Van Caenegem E, Taes Y, Wierckx K, Vandewalle S, Toye K, Kaufman J-M, et al. Low bone mass is prevalent in male-to-female transsexual persons before the start of cross-sex hormonal therapy and gonadectomy. Bone. 2013 May;54(1):92-7
Weiss, Kenneth M. “On the systematic bias in skeletal sexing”. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. September 1972. Volume37, Issue2. P. 239-249
Bone, Karen Elizabeth, “A Bias in Skeletal Sexing. ” Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, 1993. https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_gradthes/4135
SoRelle JA, Jiao R, Gao E, et al. Impact of Hormone Therapy on Laboratory Values in Transgender Patients. Clin Chem. 2019;65(1):170-179. doi:10.1373/clinchem.2018.292730
Wiik, Anna, et al. “Muscle Strength, Size, and Composition Following 12 Months of Gender-affirming Treatment in Transgender Individuals”, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 105, Issue 3, March 2020, Pages e805–e813, https://doi.org/10.1210/clinem/dgz247
Hare, L., Bernard, P., Sánchez, F. J., Baird, P. N., Vilain, E., Kennedy, T., & Harley, V. R. (2009). Androgen receptor repeat length polymorphism associated with male-to-female transsexualism. Biological psychiatry, 65(1), 93–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.08.033
Jones BA, Arcelus J, Bouman WP, Haycraft E. Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies. Sports Med. 2017;47(4):701-716. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0621-y
Pearson, H. Will women outpace men in 2156?. Nature (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/news040927-9