Trans athletes and challenging biological essentialism

This week, news spread of new guidelines that would allow trans athletes to compete in the Olympics without needing to have surgery. Trans men would have no restrictions on competition, while trans women would need to reduce their serum testosterone levels to below 10 nmol/L for a year before competition.

This development (which, as of this writing, has not yet been confirmed by the Olympic committee) is welcome progress. For trans men, I doubt whether anyone has challenged their inclusion in men’s events based on anything other than bigotry. Genuine concerns about unfair physical advantage have been levied almost exclusively at trans women, due primarily to the higher testosterone levels that male-assigned people generally have. But surgery is unnecessary to address this imbalance; hormone therapy is sufficient.

Some have questioned whether testosterone levels are actually a useful predictor of athletic advantage. This article on that subject was written with intersex and cis female athletes in mind, not trans women. Intersex athletes have endured invasive gender checks for decades; see this article for some history of Olympic sex testing (note: contains cissexist language). Regardless, the question of whether hormone levels should determine eligibility to compete applies to trans athletes as well.

What about other physical differences, like height? While in the general population, male-assigned people are generally taller,  elite athletes do not represent the general population. Many cis female athletes benefit from being taller or more muscular than the average woman.

Where does this all leave non-binary people like myself? Is truly gender-neutral athletic competition possible? If athletic events all became gender-neutral today, there’s no question that cis men would dominate. But how much of this is due to biology, and how much to conditioning? If we had several generations of female-assigned children taught that they are every bit as physically capable as their male-assigned friends and siblings, and male-assigned children were taught to truly respect them as equals, I predict we’d see a huge narrowing of the supposedly hard-wired gender gap.

While I can say with confidence that I will never compete at the elite level, I sure would like to run in my local club races without being misgendered. (My annual checkup this month revealed that my testosterone levels are currently much higher than the average cis male’s*, but no one in my running club has anything to worry about; I’m solidly back-of-the-pack.)  We should continue to challenge biological essentialism that exaggerates or invents differences between sexes.

* Overly high testosterone in trans males doesn’t help speed masculinization, as too much testosterone converts to estrogen. I’ll be seeking the advice of a specialist.