The Transgender Athlete

It seems to be a hot-button topic right now, at least on the Book of Face. Hot on the heels of President Biden expressing his support of the transgender community both politically and legally we suddenly start seeing the big questions of “Exactly how much human dignity and respect do we really have to give you?”

There are, of course, many different reactions based on the political camp you hunker down in, but one topic that seems to come up, both in conservative and liberal leaning groups, is the subject of where to put those pesky transgendered athletes.

Of course, the words used, and the volume of shrieking that accompanies them, vary between squad red and squad blue, but the question is still the same “Should transgendered people be allowed to compete in sports as the gender they align with?”

And, actually, I’m going to just cut right through any semblance of politeness here and make this very direct because the inquisitors aren’t overly concerned about we transmen who choose to compete with cisgendered men (tho we’re a little more competent than you might think).

No, your big fear is a “dude in a dress” who is using that dress as a competitive advantage to be the very best of something, even if it means blatantly cheating. Kind of like the Corporal Klinger of athletics, I guess.

All kidding aside, this is really an issue where intelligent, informed conversations need to be had.

I’m going to frame this in the context of what is, perhaps, the most frightening scenario that folks have in mind when they think of transwomen competing against ciswomen…combat sports.

So the first thing I have to do is ask my own self is, “Would I feel good about a transwoman who has not medically transitioned stepping into an MMA ring with a ciswoman opponent?

In all honesty, I would most likely answer “Probably not.”

Let me explain a little.

I was a scholarshipped heptathlete in college, a gym manager, personal trainer, competitive powerlifter, and competitive bodybuilder after college. I was 100% natural and never touched any type of steroid, ever. Not when I was training and not when I was competing.

Integrity means a lot to me. Fairness means a lot to me.

I had a natural androgen imbalance and always tested on the high side of the range, but I was always within acceptable limits because I did not use performance enhancing drugs.

My best recorded bench press was 185, in my 20’s. I was the All-Natural Oregon State Bench Press Champion for the heavyweight class in 1994. My personal best bench was 225, unrecorded, at the age of 32 upon which life and family took over and I stopped going to the gym for a very long time. I had lost everything physical by the time I returned steadily, at the age of 47, way out of shape and miserable.

Today, at 51 and on medically guided HRT for 2.5 years, I can bench 225 lbs and am still bumping up, even after struggling for months this year with a torn rotator cuff and all the lengthy gym closures.

Testosterone really does give a body a big edge.

This is an obvious duh, of course, but what a lot of people don’t know is what a transwoman in medical transition undergoes.

For clarity’s sake, I’m going to split this up into two categories: non-surgical transitioning and surgical transitioning – both of which change the game a lot in terms of competition.

A transwoman who undergoes non-surgical transitioning will use something like Spironolactone, which is a testosterone blocker, along with estrogen therapy.

A transwoman who undergoes surgical transitioning bypasses the Spironolactone completely and, instead, at a minimum, has a surgical procedure called an orchiectomy which removes the testicles, thus completely eliminating testosterone production in her body. She will still take estrogen, tho.

In both cases, the muscles shrink drastically. The strength losses are quite profound. In fact, I’ve known a few transwomen in my life and every single one of them lament the marked loss of strength they encounter. They do not lament any loss of muscular appearance or manliness…they just lament losing the strength.

In terms of bone density, there isn’t much data on this yet, however according the research paper Bone Mass Effects of Cross-Sex Hormone Therapy in Transgender People: Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis the following was noted, however has not yet been fully proven:

…transwomen receiving estrogen therapy may lose lean mass in association with androgen deprivation, which over time can lead to smaller bones and higher prevalence of low bone mass.

Keep in mind that the research here is still in its very early stages. However, estrogen is linked to osteoporosis, which is why women tend to suffer from it more frequently than men.

In any case, transfolk, both men and women, who are undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are regularly tested to ensure that they are remaining within their healthy ranges. Too much or too little of a given hormone can actually create adverse reactions that we do not want. In the case of transwomen, they don’t want anything that will leave them looking or feeling awkwardly masculine. This does not help the gender dysphoria. In fact, it would trigger it. It would make no sense.

So, given the medical options illustrated above, the next question is “Is she testing within an acceptable range?”

If she’s testing within an acceptable range, then yes, she should be able to compete. In fact, at an upper level of competition, she’ll probably have much more frequent and consistent hormone testing than cisgendered female athletes (who, trust me, have been known to abuse their own fair share of androgen hormones, human growth hormone, and other performance enhancing drugs – remember, I was a gym manager and competitive strength athlete…I witnessed this frequently).

Now, this ends our discussion about adult athletes for the moment. Let’s ratchet things down a little to kid athletes. This is much more straightforward.

Should a transgirl who is on blockers and is being medically monitored be allowed to compete with other girls?

I see no problem with her competing at all. Not one bit. As a teen in the midst of a medical transition, she hasn’t even hit puberty yet due to the blockers and has no hormonal advantage at all.

End of argument. Next…

So back to the question of combat sports.

I’ll be honest here and admit that I get a little more nervous about combat sports and transwomen who underwent medical transitioning post-puberty.

Part of this is actually more based on socialization and training methods employed prior to transition. Socialized male athletes traditionally undergo much more rugged training and conditioning, especially when we’re talking about sports like football, boxing, and wrestling. This is changing, over time, as old sexist attitudes are slowly being drained from athletics, but, typically…we’re likely to see different approaches and expectations between men and women regarding coaching.

I would feel much more comfortable if the sport were something like swimming, basketball, tennis, softball or gymnastics, but I also understand that this could very well be some of my own internalized transphobia and sexism at work here.

Logically speaking, this should really be a case-by-case basis, but Fallon Fox opened a Pandora’s box in 2014 in terms of MMA and transfemale fighters. This particular case…combat sports…be it MMA, boxing, wrestling, etc…I don’t know if there’s truly a one-size fits all answer.

This is going to have to be something that I stay grey on until we have a better body of data to make informed decisions against.

Published by Jonah Sheridan Fenn

Nerd herder, word wrangler, working on the next chapter...

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