It’s time to talk about the treatment of transgender athletes in professional sports.

First and foremost, I would like to thank those individuals in the LGBTQ+ community who engaged in open conversation with me on this issue but ultimately declined to comment; your insights were invaluable to my learning process in how to approach this topic as a cisgender woman.

TRIGGER WARNING: some article links contain derogatory and/or coarse language in their own or quoted discussions and/or descriptions of transgender individuals. The Phoenix in no way condones or supports this type of behaviour or discourse; however, to exclude these sources would not accurately portray the situation as it stands.

In the fall of 2018, alt-right media outlet Caldron Pool released an article detailing a women’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) match from 2014. The match in question took place between Fallon Fox, a transgender woman, and Tamika Brents, a cisgender woman. The fight ended with Fox’s win by TKO; however, Brents suffered a concussion and broken skull as a result.

Fallon Fox - Photo from Fallon Fox's Twitter Page
Fallon Fox - Photo from Fallon Fox's Twitter Page

The argument made by Caldron Pool and multiple other news outlets, often quite indelicately, is that Fox is not a “real woman” and thus should not be allowed to compete as a woman. This argument was bolstered by the severe injuries Brents sustained (she has since recovered), prompting critics to argue that Fox’s participation in women’s MMA mean that “it is now okay for a man to hit a woman.” Comments rarely seem to include descriptions of her qualifications and are often disparaging, focusing on disapproval of her gender identity rather than whether or not she was playing by the rules when the fight escalated. In addition, they rarely use the correct gender pronouns; Caldron Pool in particular refers to Fox only as “he.” In fact, Fox was not even listed on the Unified Women’s MMA rankings, due to the fact that she is not a “natural woman” and has an “unfair advantage.” All of this aside, the arguments made tend to be based on opinion rather than science. Which led me to wonder just how much credence there is to the claim that a transgender woman and a cisgender woman of the same weight class are physically unequal due to the alleged advantage transwoman have due to the higher levels of testosterone that may occur in their bodies; and if the opposite is true of transgender men.

The case of Mack Beggs offers some insight into this. As a transgender male, Beggs was often excluded from men’s wrestling matches and forced to play on the women’s teams. He repeatedly won matches and asked repeatedly to be allowed to fight males instead, since he himself is a male. However, Texas legislation kept him from doing so, and the injustice of this decision has been cited in discussions of transgender athletics for a few years now. If Beggs’ transition from female to male places him at an advantage over biological females, this gives some weight to the argument that a transgender woman would then be better matched with cisgender women.

Ultimately, inclusion goes hand in hand with equality; equality denotes equal opportunity. If an athlete is good enough to compete professionally and is willing to do so in accordance with league safety guidelines, they should be able to, regardless of their sexual orientation.

I first wanted to size up the situation on campus, and what our policies are surrounding the inclusion of transgender athletes within university athletics. I was directed to the “U SPORTS Transgender Policy and Guidance Document,” which outlines proactive, healthy, and respectful ways to not only include and encourage transgender athletes, but to help educate and inform everyone involved in the team or athletic department.

The policy’s only caveat to transgender participation is that they conform with the Canadian Anti-Doping Program. Something that especially stands out is their emphasis that endogenous or naturally occuring levels of sex hormones, such as testosterone, could be flagged on a drug test. However, transgender atheletes would still be in compliance with all regulations once confirmation had been received that the source of those hormones was from transitional drug therapy or something similar. From this, it is clear that hormone supplements do not equal an unfair advantage, and there are measures in place to ensure accuracy and fairness to all involved. The policy also asserts that transgender individuals should not be forced to use facilities or wear uniforms which do not conform with their gender identity; in fact, it encourages the use of gender neutral uniforms across the board, particularly in terms of female sports teams (e.g. shorts or pants instead of skirts).

According to Business Insider, hormone levels are taken into account in the admission of transgender athletes to the Olympics as of 2003. As long as hormone levels are within a certain threshold, and there are plans in place to potentially decrease that amount, transgender individuals are allowed to participate. Despite this, as of 2019 there have been no openly transgender athletes who have competed in the Olympic games. The article suggests that this absence of transgender individuals could be due to the continued stigma they face in professional sports. For example, some professional athletes have spoken out against transgender athletes, arguing that one could switch genders to compete and then switch back in order to get an advantage. This possibility is proven to be next to impossible in the article, due to the lengthy and thorough process that transitioning genders is for an individual; this idea is largely rooted in exclusion and discrimination. As Fallon Fox explained in her 2015 interview with The Guardian: “They [presumably reporters, critics, athletic professionals, etc.] don’t ask me, ‘Were you a physically strong person when you were male?’ They ask, ‘Did you learn technique as a man? Because if you did, that’s prank.’ What are they really saying? They’re saying that men are smarter than women, that’s what. If you were male-bodied, that makes you learn better. That’s incredibly misogynistic; it’s mind-boggling how they get away with it.”

Although there is a fair amount of academic research measuring the biological differences between men and women, which concludes that men generally hold a physical advantage (e.g. this article that illustrates how males and females are typically matched in athletic ability until the onset of puberty, wherein males begin to surpass females), it would seem that major leagues are becoming more and more inclined to support transgender athletes. The NWHL, USA Hockey, the NBA, and U Sports (the governing body of all Canadian University athletics that wrote the document previously quoted in reference to UBCO policies) have all come out in support of transgender inclusion, whether this means allowing players on their teams or boycotting venues in states which discriminate against transgender individuals. In 2018, Chris Kolanowski of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts was quoted at a “You Can Play” event as saying, “I don’t think anybody should be discriminated against for any reason [...] If you love the sport, you’re willing to work hard, you should get the opportunity to do what you love.”

I was fortunate to be connected with Skylar, a transgender athlete who graciously shared their experiences with me in the following interview:

Dana Murphy: Should transgender individuals be allowed to compete in professional sports which are categorized as male/female?

Skylar: Short answer, yes. It's a difficult topic for a lot of reasons, but I think in many ways it's not that complicated. A trans woman is a woman, therefore she competes on women's teams, and a trans man is a man, therefore he competes on a man's team. Many people have issues around hormones and differences in body type between "male" and "female" people. However, Michael Phelps has been proven to have a body made for swimming. He has increased webbing, lower lactic acid build up, and body proportions that allow him to propel himself at an increased rate. He's not told he shouldn't be allowed to compete, but is praised for the "gifts" he was given. [This is true, check it out]

DM: What do you say to those who disagree with your perspective?

S: I really wish people would look at some facts around athletic ability and how they are treating trans people. So many arguments about this issue aren't based on facts in any way, but are based on transphobia and the fear of "the other".

DM: In your personal experience, have you heard about, witnessed, or experienced discrimination of this form: i.e. a trans woman being excluded from an event or space due to not being biologically female, and vice versa for a trans male? How have you dealt with that or felt about it?

S: I played sports all throughout high school. Mainly basketball, a sport which I love with all my heart. I played on the team which matches my assigned sex, and it wasn't easy. I was called slurs by players on the other teams. I had the option to play on the other team, but that would have required me to have letters from my parents, the school district, and it could have even been taken up in court. I decided not to, but the pain was immense being misgendered. In my grade 12 year I decided I couldn't take it, so I stopped playing. There was no good option for me, it was giving up the sport I love or being forced to be discriminated against. I know a trans girl who really likes soccer. However, she was refused access to the women's soccer team despite the numerous letters saying it was okay from parents, coaches, and would-be teammates.

DM: Are there any other comments you’d care to make on this issue?

S: I really hope people take a moment to think of the real reason they are so against trans people in sports. Hormone levels don't equate to ability. So much of this conversation is not just transphobic, but rather sexist as well (women aren't as strong/fast/etc as men). To establish a truly equal world, sports shouldn't be divided by sex. It constantly perpetuates that sex equals skill and that men are naturally better than women.

In their articulation of how gender bias and discrimination can create and perpetuate harmful norms and double-standards in the sports industry, Skylar’s insights serve to reinforce the ideas outlined earlier in this piece. Theirs is not the only story that goes this way, and the exclusion they have faced is ultimately rooted in misinformation and discrimination rather than anything measurable or scientifically justifiable.

Logan is a cisgender male who has played and coached baseball since kindergarten. He coached at the post-secondary level for three years and was eager to discuss this topic with me. He worked with players from across B.C. and Alberta, as well as players from approximately fifty different universities across the United States. When asked what the atmosphere was like for members of the LGBTQ+ community in his experience, he expressed concern for the hostile attitudes he often witnessed. Logan explained that he suspected that there were a few individuals who may have kept quiet for fear of discrimination: “I tried to be vocal to the public about my detest of homophobic jargon and slurring in hopes that if anyone were LGBT+ they’d feel able to come to me, but that never happened … I just think that [coming out as trans] would be even more difficult.”

Logan was clearly in favour of transgender inclusion in sports, and wondered with me how this inclusion could be better facilitated. In terms of MMA, he suggested that perhaps “instead of weight classes there could be strength classes,” but admitted he was unsure of the logistics of such a decision as he has little experience with the sport.

Aware that my knowledge of MMA is slim to none, I reached out to Joelle, a cisgender woman who trained as an MMA fighter in her late teens. During this period, Joelle was also training five days a week for bodybuilding and powerlifting. She has been presented with a yellow belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. When describing the environment within which she trained, Joelle saw the co-ed nature of the class as a positive thing.

She explained the logistics of this, saying “I was the biggest female in the class, with a height of 5'10" and [weight of] 150 lbs, and the largest man I drilled with was about 6'2" and 220 lbs. In contrast, the smallest person I rolled with was a girl about 5'4" and approximately 115 lbs.” One of the more notable comments she made was that “there were plenty of times that I felt more evenly matched with a male opponent of the same skill level as myself, as opposed to one of the women with a higher skill level.” Even so, in her experience, “it is much easier for biological men to build and maintain muscle than it is for biological women. Even when a person is taking testosterone blockers and estrogen supplements, if they had been training in a martial art previously, I feel they would still have the advantage over a biological woman with the same amount of training because the muscles that are built in a biological male's body are developed so much differently than in a biological female’s.”

This is not to say that she thinks transgender athletes should be excluded from professional sports, however. Her overall attitude seemed to be one of caution rather than outright exclusion. She was adamant that “there should absolutely be a place for co-ed contact sports, regardless of whether a person is trans or not, but the regulations behind weight class and amount of training, in my opinion, would have to be looked at extremely carefully to keep all competitors safe [...] there is no space for closed-mindedness or discriminatory actions, [and] I hope that professional sports organizations will work to create a space that is safe and inclusive for people of all genders.”

My messages to sports faculty and professors of kinesiology at UBCO and the University of Manitoba, where I was referred by one UBCO professor, were met with kindness and either redirection or a declination to comment due to self-described insufficient knowledge. A number of my emails and follow-up emails were met with silence. It is my opinion that this response only reinforces the assertion that this issue of transgender inclusion in professional sports is one of nuance and polarization, in desperate need of further research and awareness. But that’s not an easy answer to what is often framed as a yes-or-no question, is it?

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Academic research supplied by Dustin Cathro (Sports Editor).