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Fairness and Inclusion – Transgender Women in Sport

trans inclusion trans women Jan 17, 2023

By Sara Gross

The conversation about trans women’s inclusion in elite sport has often pitted “fairness” against “inclusion,” most notably by World Athletics President Sebatian Coe.  I have heard this binary approach several times and every time it makes me wonder, do we really have to choose? Can we find a solution that is both fair and inclusive? 


To answer this question, let’s go back to basics and ask ourselves, “What do we want sport to be in our culture? What value does it provide and how does it function? And in an ideal world, how do we want it to function?” 

The Role of Sport in Society


The role of sport in society is to build community, entertain, encourage physical fitness, sustain mental health and create emotional resilience. I think it would be fair to say that in an ideal world, everyone would have access to these benefits in a way that is both fair and inclusive.


Women have fought for over a century to have equal access to sport and we still have a long way to go. In order to create equity for women, we need to participate in a category that allows us to develop on our own terms as sportswomen. The category itself is important.


On the other hand, if in creating and enforcing that category we are leaving our trans sisters behind, we are doing to them exactly what’s been done to us - sending a message that trans folks don’t belong. 


We can’t solve one inequity by creating another. 

Fairness in Women’s Sport


Let’s face it, almost nothing is fair when it comes to women’s sports. Though we are making progress, we are working against a cultural institution designed to showcase male power, strength, speed, and skill. It’s not surprising that there is a huge amount of gender inequality baked into sports history and the systems that were created by that history. 


For example, participation in sport by men and boys is still double that of girls and women. Girls’ sports programming is of lower quality to boys’ programming and sports leaders and coaches are not equipped to deal with the needs of girls and women. And if you think a gender pay gap in which women make 80 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts is bad, the numbers for professional sports are staggering. 


As recently as 2021, women playing in the WNBA made on average 0.9% of what their male counterparts make, 4% for golf, and 0.1% for Softball/Baseball. Add this to the oft-quoted statistic that women’s sports receive less than 4-5% of media exposure, and we have ourselves a pretty unfair situation.  


Because of this widespread level of unfairness in women’s sports, and the need to continue to work towards a more equitable future, it is imperative that women continue to develop our sporting prowess in a category unto ourselves. And so in order to create and maintain that category, and because neither gender nor biological sex are binary, a need arises to define what makes a woman a woman and who is included in that category. 


Some people feel that in the future transgender women will start scooping up many of the prizes in women’s sports, from pro contracts, to amateur titles and NCAA scholarships. This becomes particularly pertinent when looking at recent studies showing that testosterone levels alone are not enough to “erase” the advantages of being assigned male at birth, in particular for those who go through puberty as a male and have all the cultural and social advantages of playing boy's sports.


How can we define what makes a woman a woman for the purposes of sport?



Going back to our original question of what we want sport to be and how we want it to function in society, I think one of the answers is that we want it to be inclusive. We want everyone to have access to the physical, mental, social, and emotional benefits of sport. In order to achieve that, all people must have equal access to sport at every level. 


The risk of suicide among transgender youth is enormous. A whopping 82% of trans youth have considered suicide and 40% have attempted suicide. Not surprisingly, this is a population that disproportionately suffers from a lack of sense of belonging and has experienced emotional and social neglect. 


And, if you take into account the fact that exercise is a proven treatment for anxiety and depression and put that alongside the suicide numbers quoted above, we have a situation in which access to sport and visibility of trans athletes in sports can actually save lives.


Sports psychologist Dr. Vikki Krane makes this point on the Women’s Performance podcast this week, “Trans children are at great risk….if we kick trans kids out of sport, they might commit suicide. Inclusion is a no brainer. We should be supporting the people who are most vulnerable.” 


In order for trans folks to be able to access the full benefits of participation in sports, we must offer inclusion at every level. 

Fairness and Inclusion


I am often asked my opinion about trans women’s participation in women’s sports and my answer is always the same- If the conversation is about who NOT to include, we are having the wrong conversation.  


It’s the wrong conversation because the basis of the question is one of exclusion and that is against the values I hope we can uphold in sport. 


A better question might be, “How do we include everyone in a world that recognizes that neither gender nor biological sex are binary?”  This question takes the focus off one particular group of people and demands solutions that are both fair and inclusive for everyone.


At the moment, we don’t have a huge challenge of fairness with such a small number of trans women participating in elite sport. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but if we can find a workable solution to my question above, we will never have a wide-spread challenge with fairness. 


Also, since only 0.6% of the US population identify as trans, and assuming approximately half of those are trans women and multiplying that by the  small percentage of trans women who would beat elite cis women at their sport – we have a very, very small number. Though assuming that the trans population will continue to remain small, is not, in and of itself, a solution. Many trans folks aren’t out because of cultural stigma or inaccurate census data. It is preferable to find a solution if we can


When looking for solutions, Donna Lopiano and Mariah Burton Nelson’s “Women’s Sports Umbrella” is the best I’ve read so far. Like myself, they argue that by asking whether we should include or exclude trans women, we are looking for a binary solution to a problem that is not binary and so our policies can not be binary either;


“Our nonbinary solution is called the Women’s Sports Umbrella. Under this umbrella, all people who identify as female would be invited to try out for women’s sports teams, with one caveat: Competition.”


Under the Women’s Sports Umbrella solution, trans women who transitioned before puberty and do not have a performance advantage can compete with cis women, and trans women who transitioned after puberty could be scored in a separate category in individual sports. Admittedly this solution becomes trickier with team sports because the numbers of trans women are still so small. 


While I don’t have a fully-formed solution of my own, I do know we need to reframe the question. Perhaps this is a good moment to reconsider sports categories broadly, especially for kids. My podcast guest Dr. Vikki Krane asks,


“Why are we even separating six-year-olds into boys teams and girls teams? It makes no sense. There are so many ways we could organize sports. What if we separated kids based on height and weight instead of gender? Or based on ability? There are going to be some girls who are perfectly capable of playing at a high level.” 


Rethinking sports categories with a view to fairness and inclusion is not just about trans women. It’s about all of us. 


A strong, visceral feeling


Full disclosure, I have very strong feelings about trans women in sport. It’s easy for me to imagine how I would feel if a trans woman had beat me at one of the races I won, about the idea of working hard for years, day in and day out, as an elite athlete and then going to a race and finishing second to a transgender woman. I have a very deep, visceral reaction to that and here it is:


I would happily celebrate a transgender woman who beat me on that day because I know the example she would set, and as a trans person winning, she could ultimately save lives.  When trans youth see other people who are like them in the media, doing big brave things (like winning races), they are more likely to feel seen and heard. I was a girl who glued myself to Olympic coverage every 4 years because it was the only place I could watch women’s sports on TV, so I know how that feels.  I would be my trans sister’s loudest cheerleader because it’s what I want sport to be — a place that celebrates everyone. 

Don’t be a Jock


Sport as an institution has a level of gender inequality baked into its history that makes full inclusion of all people who identify as women tricky to say the least. Cis women deserve a fair playing field and need to continue to push for full and equal access at every level, but not at the expense of a group far more vulnerable to mental health challenges and in need of all the benefits sports provide. 


When Jock Semple famously lunged at Kathrine Switzer (the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon after sneaking into the race under the name “K. Switzer”), he shouted, “Give me those numbers and get the hell out of my race.”  


Let’s not repeat history by treating trans women the way Jock Semple treated Kathrine Switzer. We can do better. I truly believe that. 


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