University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas congratulates Princeton’s Ellie Marquardt after a qualifying run of the 500-yard freestyle event at the Ivy League Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in February.
By Donna Lopiano and Mariah Burton Nelson
Include or exclude? This is the question at the heart of the debate on transgender women in sport. But this is a binary way of thinking about a non-binary situation. It assumes only two types of people: men and women. People are more different than that.
We propose a third option as trans women themselves transcend our traditional way of thinking about how individuals fit into female or male biological categories. The fact that trans girls and women are born with biologically male bodies means that even after taking hormones or undergoing surgery or both, they don’t fit perfectly into female or male categories, biologically speaking. In sport, those categories matter.
So, our policies shouldn’t be binary either. We need a creative solution.
Fair competition is why separate women’s sports have been created. Competitive sport (which does not include recreational sports, physical education or intramural) is ultimately a physical test in which post-puberty males possess significant advantages. During puberty, boys generally develop longer, denser bones, more muscle tissue, more strength, more speed, greater height, and greater lung capacity than girls. These differences provide men with a performance advantage ranging from 8 to 50 percent. This is why men and women have different tee boxes in golf; several three-point bows in basketball; different net heights in volleyball; and different heights of obstacles on the track.
The performance benefits (including musculoskeletal features and lung capacity) persist even after transgender women suppress testosterone levels or surgically alter their body.
“What’s right is right!” trans activist Caitlin Jenner tweeted, praising the recent decision by the World Governing Body of Swimming (FINA) to ban people who have gone through male puberty from women’s competitions. “If you go through male puberty you shouldn’t be able to take medals from females. Point, ”wrote Jenner, who won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympic men’s decathlon.
Yet trans girls and women must not be relegated to the sidelines. These courageous athletes, who declare themselves trans despite widespread discrimination and even threats of violence against them, must be welcomed into the women’s teams. Considering their grace and determination under pressure, who wouldn’t want trans women as teammates?
On one side of the binary debate are those who believe that trans women should be excluded in order to be fair to cisgender women. When signing Florida’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, Governor Ron DeSantis said, “I want … every Florida girl to compete on a uniform playing field.” Seventeen other states also ban transgender athletes from competing in women’s and women’s sports teams.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that trans women should be able to compete without conditions. They argue that there are relatively few trans athletes, so their inclusion in women’s teams will not have a noticeable impact. They argue that trans girls are a vulnerable minority, as illustrated by an above-average suicide rate. According to the human rights campaign, the anti-trans sport bills “represent a cruel effort to further stigmatize and discriminate against LGBTQ + people across the country.”
But including better-performing trans women at the expense of cisgender women (who also face persistent discrimination) would violate the main motive of separate women’s competitions.
So, the question is, how can we include trans women without hurting cisgender women, who both deserve fair and safe competition?
Our non-binary solution is called Women’s Sports Umbrella. Under this umbrella, all people who identify as women would be invited to try for women’s sports teams, with one caveat: competition.
The vast majority of the team experience revolves around things like practice, meetings, weight lifting, team travel, and social activities. There is no reason why this environment shouldn’t include everyone who identifies as female.
Trans women who passed before male puberty do not have a performance advantage; they would be allowed to compete in women’s teams without any restrictions if they so wished. However, in individual sports, trans women who have gone through male puberty could exercise, travel and socialize with women’s teams if they so wish, but would be scored separately. For example, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas would still swim in team matches and post-season women’s championships, but her times would be recorded in a separate trans category.
In team sports, trans women who possess the post-puberty performance advantage might also exercise, travel and socialize with their teammates, then compete in a trans category. If the number of trans women is insufficient to field teams, teams from all districts or all conferences could be formed. In contact sports like basketball and rugby, this pattern would also prevent cisgender women from being injured by larger, denser bodies after male puberty.
Under the women’s sports umbrella, the legal justification for a separate category of women’s sports – relevant physical and physiological differences between the biological sexes – would be preserved.
An essential aspect would be the training of coaches, administrators and athletes in diversity, equity and inclusion so that the results of the separate scores are equally respected and evaluated by all team members, just as they currently are for the light rowers; different weight classes of wrestlers; junior and varsity teams; athletes with disabilities; and athletes of different age groups.
The achievements of transgender people and other athletes would be equally celebrated. Biological differences – along with differences in gender identity, race, culture, religion and sexual orientation – would be accepted as natural human variations.
The Women’s Sports Umbrella also provides solutions for others who don’t fit into the female / male binary: intersex, non-binary and gender-fluid people. These athletes would compete in the transgender scoring category only if they chose to join a women’s team and possessed the performance advantage of male puberty.
Like any compromise, the women’s sports umbrella won’t make everyone happy. Open-minded trans and non-trans administrators, coaches and athletes should work together to fine-tune the best possible options for each sport to change the specifics over time. But this model offers a starting point. It transcends the misguided binary o / o. It welcomes everyone to the maximum extent possible and requires non-identical treatment of as few people as possible. It helps us imagine a sports arena where all who identify as women would experience a fair, safe and appropriate playing field. It is both inclusive and fair.
Mariah Burton Nelson is a former Stanford professional basketball player and author of The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football and six other books. She is also co-author of Staying in Bounds: An NCAA Model Policy to prevent poor relationships between student-athletes and athletics department staff. She can be reached on Facebook or Instagram @MariahBurtonNelson or on her website, MariahBurtonNelson.com.