Do Trans Feminine Athletes Have An Advantage?

CW: transphobic language and mentions of medical transition.

I recently watched a documentary called Game Face which follows two LGBT athletes–Fallon Fox, a trans feminine mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, and Terrence Clemens, a gay male college basketball player–as they struggle to come to terms with themselves and find their places in their respective sports. As a transgender athlete, Fallon Fox has been at the center of a debate in the MMA world in particular, and the world of sports in general. Do trans feminine athletes have an unfair competitive advantage over their cis feminine counterparts?

Some have asserted that Fallon Fox has an unfair advantage due to the fact that she “used to be a man”, which gives her a masculine bone structure that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS) are unable to change. So is there anything to this argument? Well, not really.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), two athletic organizations with a vested interest in maintaining competitive fairness in athletics, permit trans feminine athletes to compete with other women after one year of HRT. So if various athletic organizations such as the IOC and NCAA don’t think being a trans woman is an unfair competitive advantage while too much caffeine is, it would seem that there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that trans feminine athletes have an unfair competitive advantage.

The NCAA explains its policies regarding trans women by stating the following:

“…Some people fear that transgender women will have an unfair advantage over non-transgender women. It is important to place that fear in context.

“Transgender girls who medically transition at an early age do not go through a male puberty, and therefore their participation in athletics as girls does not raise the same equity concerns that arise when transgender women transition after puberty.

“Transgender women display a great deal of physical variation, just as there is a great deal of natural variation in physical size and ability among non-transgender women and men. Many people may have a stereotype that all transgender women are unusually tall and have large bones and muscles. But that is not true. A male-to-female transgender woman may be small and slight, even if she is not on hormone blockers or taking estrogen. It is important not to overgeneralize. The assumption that all male-bodied people are taller, stronger, and more highly skilled in a sport than all female-bodied people is not accurate.”

“It is also important to know that any strength and endurance advantages a transgender woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate after about one year of estrogen or testosterone-suppression therapy. According to medical experts on this issue, the assumption that a transgender woman competing on a women’s team would have a competitive advantage outside the range of performance and competitive advantage or disadvantage that already exists among female athletes is not supported by evidence.”

In other words, trans feminine athletes are not significantly different from cis feminine athletes, especially after undergoing a year of HRT which takes care of any potential differences in muscle mass, bone density, etc. The variation that exists between trans feminine athletes who have undergone HRT for at least a year and cis feminine athletes is no different from the variation that already exists among cis feminine athletes. This policy is based on scientific research and expert medical opinion. If you don’t believe me, check my link to the NCAA’s policy and its reference section.

Despite the overwhelming support for trans athletes from various athletic organizations and the scientific evidence, many in the world of sports still believe the myth that trans feminine athletes have an unfair advantage. UFC president Dana White has argued, “Bone structure is different, hands are bigger, jaw is bigger, everything is bigger. I don’t believe in it. I don’t think someone who used to be a man and became a woman should be able to fight a woman.” Apparently Mr. White is unaware of the evidence. If he is aware of it, then it is likely he is relying on other people’s prejudices and ignorance.

When it comes to deciding whether or not trans feminine athletes have an unfair advantage, your choices are clear. You can believe in the science-based expert opinion I have presented here, or you can believe the transphobic pseudoscience non-experts who suddenly believe themselves to be experts when the topic comes up like to spout off.