While competing as an elite level mountain biker, I've been called disgusting, a freak, a cheater and selfish. All words used to express discontent with the fact that I - a transgender woman - was competing in sports alongside cisgender women.
This discontent is typically in relation to the general public's concerns about the fairness of such competition and the perceived disregard for the wellbeing of cis athletes by trans women.
Although fairness is a critical conversation in elite-level sports, when it comes to trans athletes, this conversation is often over-simplified and ignores the individual (physiological and sociological) experiences of both trans and cis athletes alike.
These discussions often centre on sex-hormone differences between males or females.
Testosterone levels are a huge dictator of sporting performance, with higher levels offering a number of both long- and short-term benefits: from faster recovery time to larger bones and higher density muscle fibre.
Understandably, many people are concerned that the testosterone trans women may have been exposed to as a result of a male puberty prior to a medical transition could lead to an unfair advantage. Steps have been taken (to varying levels) by many sporting bodies to try to mitigate this potential unfairness. However, often they fail to consider the amount of variation that can occur in individuals within genders, and these steps can limit or prohibit trans women from competing with cis women where there is actually no significant unfair advantage.
The process by which a trans person pursues a transition can vary greatly, with timeframes, prescribed drugs, and treatments (whether pharmaceutical, social, or surgical) differing depending on the individual. For example, some people suggest trans women athletes may experience an unfair advantage due to increased bone density. Although this may be true in some cases, if someone had an extended period of time between having their testosterone blocked and starting hormone-replacement therapy, like I did during my transition, they could experience bone density loss or even osteoporosis. Policy guidelines also do not control for bone density levels prior to transition.
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In addition, while focussing on the perceived advantages, many people wilfully ignore the possible disadvantages that trans women face when competing. During my racing career I have experienced many of these side effects. After having their testosterone blocked, most trans women will have very low T levels (I typically test at around 0.4 nmol/L, while cis women typical sit around 0.5–2.5 nmol/L).
Sadly, the rules do not take into consideration whether a trans woman has had low testosterone prior to transition or how they developed through puberty. The fact is that many trans women will have permanently lower T levels than cis women, resulting in longer recovery times, difficulty building/maintaining muscle mass and lower red blood cell count – all notable disadvantages when it comes to sporting performance.
Although trans women may be taller or have wider shoulders than average, the physiological consequences of their transition may be significant enough to remove any advantage they may have had as a result of their physical build. Not to mention those trans women whose physique falls well within the 'average' body type range for women – of which there are many. In addition, discussion is typically centred on biological indicators of sports performance, often ignoring the socioeconomic disadvantages that trans women may experience.
So many factors play a role in an athlete's ability to perform on any given day and to suggest that we can draw a simple line in the sand about the fairness of sports is impossible. Sporting bodies should consider that scientific consensus is still limited with much of the existing data evaluating limited sample sizes or not controlling for factors such as transition age, pre-transition testosterone levels, or individual performance history.