Two female runners competing in a state high school championship this weekend have come under attack because people believe they are transgender and therefore may have an unfair advantage. But the science is far from clear as to whether trans athletes are actually faster or stronger than their cisgender peers, experts say.
The evidence is especially murky for teen athletes, who may be going through puberty or taking drugs to suppress hormones — actions that could improve their performance or hinder it, or have very little impact at all.
As the global debate around transgender athletes’ participation in all levels of sport ramps up — particularly in the United States, which is enduring a wave of anti-trans legislation — a paucity of research on the subject makes it challenging to understand exactly what’s at stake, say experts in sports medicine and gender biology.
But for young athletes, equal access to sports — which offer a slew of benefits, physically, mentally and socially — outweighs any potential issues of unfairness, many experts in youth sports say. That’s why California, along with a dozen other states, allows kids to participate in the gender category associated with their identity, without question or restrictions.
“The most important thing is that everyone is treated equally and included, and has the opportunity to participate,” said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, who has studied policies for transgender athletes for 20 years. “That has to be the overriding consideration in K-12 school-based sports.”
Only a handful of small studies exist that examine whether transgender people, in particular trans women, have an unfair advantage in sports based on their biology. The first study, out of Loughborough University in the United Kingdom and published in 2015, looked at performances for eight trans female athletes and found they were about equally competitive before and after transitioning.
Another study, also from Loughborough University and published in 2021, found that for several key markers of athletic performance, trans female athletes on hormone therapy for at least three months were very similar to cisgender athletes.
“It’s not unreasonable to suggest that in endurance performance, trans women who are on hormone therapy may not have any significant advantages,” said Joanna Harper, a doctoral student at Loughborough who was an author on both studies and is a transgender runner herself.
Much of the focus is on testosterone, the male hormone that floods boys’ bodies during puberty and helps them develop muscle mass, and has other effects that could improve athletic performance. Many trans women — though definitely not all — take drugs to suppress testosterone, and some competitive sports organizations require female athletes to meet certain hormone levels in order to participate.
That’s likely reasonable, from a scientific perspective, for college sports and beyond, said Harper. But that kind of testing for high school athletes is dicier, partly because trans youth may not be taking hormone-suppressing drugs, and forcing them to as a requirement to play would be wrong, she said.
“The high school thing, it’s really, really tricky,” Harper said. “There are high school trans girls who are on hormone therapy, but they do so not because of sports, but because it’s the right time for them to go on hormone therapy.”
The public backlash against the two runners competing in the California Interscholastic Federation championships Friday and Saturday hinges on assumptions that both athletes are transgender, based in part on them having run on boys’ teams in previous seasons.
But neither girl has identified publicly as transgender, and it’s not known if they are currently or have ever taken hormone-suppressing drugs. And they shouldn’t have to reveal that information, say experts in sports medicine and biology, along with trans rights advocates.
“The best policy would be to accept all kids, let all kids participate, and not get into the potentially very troubling arena of requiring kids to go through very invasive examinations and scrutiny,” Minter said.
Minter and others also questioned whether issues of fairness were really driving the conversations around trans athletes’ participation. “Transgender kids are less than 1% of the population — there’s not been any indication of any systemic problem,” Minter said. “Most transgender kids playing sports are average, just like most kids are average.
“What’s happening now is not for the most part about any legitimate concerns or questions,” he added. “It’s just a political targeting of a vulnerable group. It’s not that problems have suddenly arisen, it’s that it’s suddenly become a political issue. And that’s really tragic for these kids.”
Indeed, the attacks on the athletes participating in this weekend’s state championships started in part because some people believed that a cisgender athlete who came in fourth was upset about losing to a presumed trans athlete, Athena Ryan, a high school junior from Sonoma County who placed second.
Some critics of Ryan’s participation noted her celebrating the accomplishment — along with a personal best time for the season — in an interview with Milesplit, which tracks student athlete performances. Just after finishing her qualifying race last weekend, Ryan thanked her coach and her father for giving her confidence, and said she was excited to have run under 5 minutes for the 1,600 meters.
“I wasn’t expecting that. I’ve dropped like 17 seconds on my season-best in the past two weeks,” Ryan said, still out of breath from the race.
Ryan’s improved times over the course of one season would have nothing to do with whether she is trans or not, Harper and other experts said. But they, along with other trans athletes, said they weren’t surprised to see Ryan come under attack simply for doing well and being proud of it.
“As a trans person, it’s OK for you to participate as long as you’re not winning, but the moment you become celebrated it becomes a problem and you become a monster,” said Navi Huskey, who experienced that firsthand during two seasons on the Long Beach City College basketball team, even as she took on the role model mantle for other trans athletes. “It was like, be good, but then you’re being too good, so that’s a problem.”
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