For the most part, there are no overarching rules or legal precedents governing whether transgender athletes can compete across various sports in their true gender, as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth. (An exception is the U.S. National College Athletic Association, which does have a complete policy concerning transgender athletes.) It may be one of the most contentious conflicts in sports, starting at school age and stretching up through the most prestigious echelons of competition, including the Olympics.
There is an enormous grey area here, and it’s fostered a simmering debate across sports, politics, and education. Dividing athletic contests by gender suggests that men and women have different genetic or hormonal advantages — so how can those differences be accounted for, if they should be a factor at all, to maintain a level playing field when transgender athletes are in the competition? Where is the line between concerns for fairness and transphobia?
The issue only grows thornier with news of a bipartisan bill in the U.S. authored by Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin. Their bill, called the Protect Women’s Sports Act of 2020, would impose sweeping changes to the current ways the NCAA treats transgender athletes.
Per a press release from Gabbard’s office, the legislation, “would clarify Title IX protections for female athletes is based on biological sex.” In more blunt and actionable terms, the bill would formally cut off Title IX funding to any academic institution that allows transgender female athletes to compete as women. (This isn’t the first time Title IX has been leveraged to change the legal governance of transgender collegiate athletes.)
Though the bill threatens a major disruption to college athletics in the U.S., it’s not like the rest of country has a clear-cut set of rules governing how transgender athletes can participate in sports.
The NCAA already has strict rules
The NCAA already allows transgender women and men to compete in sports of their chosen gender, but these athletes must follow a strict hormone regulation process for one year in order to do so. The reasoning for this hinges on regulating an athlete’s testosterone level, whether it is being suppressed or boosted.
Smith College distills the NCAA’s rules:
A trans male (FTM) student-athlete who has received a medical exception for treatment with testosterone for diagnosed Gender Identity Disorder or gender dysphoria and/or Transsexualism, for purposes of NCAA competition may compete on a men’s team, but is no longer eligible to compete on a women’s team without changing that team status to a mixed team.
A trans female (MTF) student-athlete being treated with testosterone suppression medication for Gender Identity Disorder or gender dysphoria and/or Transsexualism, for the purposes of NCAA competition may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment.
The rules and the NCAA’s generally inclusive tone haven’t stopped participation of transgender athletes from sparking outrage. The achievements of CeCé Telfer, a trans woman sprinter who won a NCAA Division II national championship in 2019, prompted backlash from Donald Trump, Jr.; Telfer subsequently became something of a national symbol of the still raging debate.
The Olympics have even stricter rules
The International Olympic Committee also allows for transgender athletes to compete, but its hormone criteria are even more rigorous. As Wired pointed out last year, the IOC dictates the exact testosterone threshold that transgender athletes can exhibit before competing in the Games.
Transgender women can compete in the women’s category as long as their blood testosterone levels have been maintained below 10 nano moles per litre for a minimum of 12 months. Cisgender men typically have testosterone levels of 7.7 to 29.4 nano moles per litre, while premenopausal cis women are generally 1.7 nmol/L or less. Meanwhile, the governing body of track and field just adopted a 5nmol/L limit.
It gets murkier at the high school level
High school education is subject to rules at the federal, state, and local levels in the U.S., so it isn’t surprising there’s no official policy akin to the NCAA’s regarding trans athletes. The issue of trans athletes in high school competition has gotten particularly fractious, highlighted by a few recent lawsuits that have thrust the issue into national spotlight.
Mack Beggs, a Texas high school wrestler who was assigned female at birth but underwent hormone testosterone therapy, was the subject of a 2018 lawsuit that, per the Dallas Morning News, “alleged the risk of injury to other wrestlers and an unfair advantage to Beggs,” who was required to wrestle girls due to University Interscholastic League rules requiring athletes to “compete in the gender division that corresponds to their birth certificate.” (Beggs maintained he always wanted to wrestle boys, but Texas state law forbade him from doing so).
Another suit in Connecticut earlier this year alleged that two sprinters, trans women Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, were able to win a host of championships due to advantages granted them by their biological gender. The suit specifically referenced Title IX, which prompted intervention from the federal Department of Education. The DOE eventually threatened to defund the Connecticut high schools in question unless they stopped allowing trans athletes to compete.
Given the amount of controversy and legal turmoil the issue has aroused, the debate obviously won’t stop with Tulsi Gabbard and Markwayne Mullin’s bill, which is almost certainly doomed to fail on its initial vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.