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Should Trans Women be Allowed to play in Women’s Sports?

Most sports have women-only events, leagues, and prizes. This is because women are at such a physical disadvantage when competing against men that requiring them to do so would effectively bar them from competing at all. No one willing to put in the necessary effort should be denied a practical chance to compete, especially on account of a demographic feature like gender that forms a core part of one’s identity.

By the same token, it would be wrong to exclude transgender women from competing in sports. Some people will respond that trans women could still play in men’s sections – but requiring them to do so would effectively ban them from competing. It would be humiliating and provide no real consolation to a trans woman: it’s no different from old the argument that “gay people already have the right to marry – they can marry someone of the opposite sex.” Furthermore, most adult trans women are on hormone therapy, which reduces their performance in most sports. Just as cis women, trans women would be unable to realistically compete against cis men.

There’s evidence that trans women retain some biological advantage over cis women even after undergoing hormone therapy. Some say that this means they shouldn’t be able to compete in women’s sections even if we otherwise recognize them as women. But everyone has different biological advantages and disadvantages in sports. Tall people have a biological advantage in basketball. There are even groups that have genetic advantages in specific sports. For instance, most of the best runners in the world have ancestry in Kenya, and especially one specific tribe. No one proposes that they be barred from competition as a consequence. We accept that certain people and groups can compete in sports despite their biological advantages: it only becomes a problem when it practically deprives others of their ability to compete.

If allowing trans women to compete in women’s sports made it effectively impossible for cis women to compete, then it could be fair to restrict their ability to participate. Since there are more cis women than trans women, cis women’s needs take precedence. However, the fact that there are so few trans women also makes it unlikely that trans women will deprive cis women of a realistic chance to compete. Trans women have been allowed in the Olympics since 2004, but none have ever won a medal – including after Laurel Hubbard’s 2020 Olympic debut, at which she came last in her section. There are some examples of trans women doing exceptionally well in certain sports. For instance, Veronica Ivy was the 2018 Master Track Cycling world champion in the Women’s 35-44 age bracket. However, her performance was not so great that her cis competitors had no chance of winning – indeed, some of them had beaten her in other races1. Furthermore, neither the 2018 runners-up nor the 2019 champion were trans. Trans women may have some advantages in sports, but not so much as to deprive cis women of the opportunity to compete. There is therefore no sufficient justification to deny trans women that same opportunity.

There is some room for nuance. So far I’ve only discussed adult trans women who are on hormone therapy. Not all trans women are on hormones, but virtually all (95%) of them want to be – the number that don’t is in the range of Lizardman’s Constant. Therefore, it seems reasonable to require that adult trans women start hormones before they compete in women’s sports. However, trans girls are frequently restricted – by their parents or the law – from getting on hormone therapy. As a result, there will be trans girls who will want to compete in school sports but who won’t be allowed to start hormones in order to do so. If they’re allowed to compete without hormone therapy, then it seems like they might limit the ability of cis girls to have realistic winning chances. I don’t think it would be fair to ban trans girls from sports entirely just because they can’t access hormones, but there may need to be restrictions. Some possible restrictions could be:

These solutions are imperfect and potentially embarrassing, but they would be better than no option to compete at all. In any case, rules regarding transgender participation in sports should be be designed considering the interests of both transgender and cisgender competitors – and with the aim of maximizing opportunities to compete for both groups.

  1. A similar situation occurred in Connecticut, where two trans girls got 1st and 2nd place in a 2019 High School sprinting championship. This way highly controversial, and one of their cis competitors sued because she found it unfair. Nevertheless, the next year, she beat both of them. Both trans girls were on hormone therapy.↩︎