Science says

Female transgender Olympic athletes have no advantage over cisgender female athletes

(ERIC GAILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

Do athletes who have transitioned from male to female have an unfair advantage over cisgender (people who identify as their biological gender) female athletes? It’s a question that Washington Post columnist Steven Petrow says has come up fairly often lately with the start of the 2016 Summer Olympics and the IOC’s decision in January to open competition to transgender athletes by implementing a rule change. The new rule stipulated that for athletes to compete as a female, they must declare their gender as female and begin taking hormone drugs that lower their testosterone levels to that of their competitors’ — or lower. The new rule reverses a mandate requiring gender reassignment surgery.

It’s also a controversial issue that some cisgender women athletes have spoken out forcefully about. Petrow quoted Ronda Rousey, a former Olympian who competed in Judo, as having once said, “She can try hormones, chop her pecker off, but it’s still the same bone structure a man has. It’s an advantage. I don’t think it’s fair.” Another Olympic runner who declined to be identified bemoaned the IOC’s decision as “incredibly unfair” and accused the IOC of “trying to be politically correct” in allowing the rule change.

But a first-of-its-kind study published last year shows that there is apparently no reason for athletes to worry about a playing field that’s not level. The study showed that trans women experience a decrease in muscle mass, bone density and other physical characteristics as their testosterone levels come down during hormone therapy. “Together these changes lead to a loss of speed, strength and endurance — all key components of athleticism,” the study’s lead author wrote in a Washington Post Op-Ed. There are those who still worry, though, that the IOC can’t be counted on to enforce the new rule and the mandatory testosterone levels. Others point out that some athletes simply have advantages over others, regardless of gender dynamics. It’s simply the nature of sports.

Cyd Zeigler, author of Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports, observed, “A universal playing field does not exist.” Zeigler added, “People come in all shapes and sizes. We don’t disqualify Michael Phelps for having super-long arms — that’s just a competitive advantage he has in his sport.”

But the science hasn’t quieted the critics — and that, in turn, has not created an atmosphere where the two reported transgender athletes competing in the 2016 games have felt comfortable coming out.

Read the full story at The Washington Post.

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