20 Reader Views on Transgender People in Competitive Sports

Readers share their thoughts about gender separation in athletics.

Swimming-pool lanes
Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Friday, he publishes some thoughtful replies.

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After Lia Thomas became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA swimming title, intensifying the ongoing debate about transgender athletes at all levels of sports, I asked readers, “What do you think about this, and why? What are you unsure about? If you could ask one question of someone who doesn’t share your position to better understand theirs, what would it be?” Thomas herself has spoken about these matters in interviews, including a recent one with Sports Illustrated, where she says, ​​“I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone. They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.”

In excerpting your emails, I inevitably ran into language choices that could be the subjects of their own debates. For example, some correspondents use the term biological male, though many transgender people prefer assigned male at birth. Other observers even object to calling Lia Thomas a woman and using she/her pronouns, which is how I and others believe we should refer to her. So that readers get an accurate understanding of one another’s perspectives, I’ve preserved your word choices rather than imposing any consistent style, so be aware that there are contested terms throughout. (Note: No one who explicitly identified themselves as transgender replied to my question.) As ever, I have made cuts for length, clarity, and constructiveness.

We begin with Jonathan S., who urges us to enter into this controversial subject with a background question in mind: Why is it that we segregate sports by sex and/or gender in the first place?

He writes:

We cannot cogently answer the question of how trans persons fit into our sporting regime without understanding the reasons our sporting regime is the way that it is. In part, this is a historical question: why were men’s and women’s sports separated into distinct categories for most sports? Why were various laws written to promote and protect women’s sports? In part, this is a present question: why do we want men’s and women’s sports to be in distinct categories today? Do the answers to the historical question still apply today, or are they no longer relevant?

Rob’s email included one answer:

Sex-leveling in sports is based on the fact that bodies that developed in a higher testosterone environment tend to be bigger and more powerful than those that did not, and such bodies are advantaged in activities that require strength and power. That’s why most contests of physical prowess have traditionally been segregated by sex (and forbidden testosterone supplementation). The challenge arises when people whose bodies developed as male wish to compete in sports against people whose bodies did NOT develop as male. Even if they undergo hormone deprivation therapy, unless they do this prior to puberty, their prior development will have given a physical advantage (albeit less than if they had their baseline testosterone levels). Given this, having separate competitions for different sexes seems an appropriate leveling method in the artificial world of sports, and someone whose body developed male should not compete against those whose body did not.

Kevin’s belief that “the traditional sex-based bifurcation of post-pubescent organized sports has always been motivated by biological considerations,” or sex, rather than gender identity, informs his belief that “biological men,” however they identify their gender, should not be in women’s sports. “I do not think inclusiveness is the highest good, and that we should subordinate all other considerations to it,” he declares. “Nor do I think it reasonable or honest to redefine ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in a way that implicitly denies the reason for the existence of those words.”

Dean’s answer to the same question is less certain of what it implies:

Why do we segregate the genders in certain sports? I don’t think we can readily dismiss the possibility that at least in some sports, people of one gender will enjoy unearned bodily advantages having little to do with skill or talent. Those sports may find it reasonable to segregate the genders and may indeed prefer that solution over the alternatives.

Is it out of the question for those sports to also address the possibility of unearned bodily advantages posed by trans athletes? Arguably not, but the devil is certainly in the details. If the rules are not to be prejudicial, the standards prescribed will have to apply to all athletes, and they will have to be narrowly defined to address actual, gendered bodily advantages rather than mere bodily differences. I worry this can’t reasonably be done, not without also subjecting athletes to unacceptable regimes of gender policing. The Caster Semenya case comes to mind here: the indignities she has been made to suffer as a person and a woman at the hands of international athletics rulemakers, who determined she must take hormone suppressants to be allowed to compete in certain races (health consequences be damned), are troubling to say the least.

I would certainly understand if sports organizations decided on a more laissez-faire approach. Such an approach would almost certainly be more respectful to the dignity of athletes as individuals. But it would leave unresolved the problem posed by unearned bodily advantages to the possibility for fair competition. Perhaps that is for the best; perhaps the problem is unresolvable. But if it is unresolvable (and I suspect that it might be), that does not make the problem any less real or the concern for fair competition any less valid. It means only that there can be no utopia in the world of sports.

Tom cheers the NCAA champion’s victory:

Good for her!

And sad for her, that she must now endure intense scrutiny and baseless speculation about her physical attributes and genitalia, her “skeletal structure,” pictures of her face being widely spread online, her shoulders relentlessly geometrized with no basis in biological fact.

Tim lambasts her for that same victory:

Respect is something that trans folks have been denied for far too long and we would all benefit from them having their fair share. The human experience of what it means to be male and female has infinite possibilities and is full of beauty, wonder, duty, expectation, shame, subtlety, and more. I am not one to judge how any one individual defines to themselves or others how they feel their sexuality or gender identity to be. In truth I am open to learning about myself and what it means to be human through the shared experiences and expressions of how others navigate the culturally complex issue—so long as it comes with respect. And that is what strikes a nerve with me about Lia Thomas—the lack of respect for the other women whom she competes against. Despite the undeniable biological advantage that going through puberty as a male gives Lia (far greater than chemical doping would give), her decision to compete in a women’s swimming competition obliterates any concept of fairness. I find it rude and disrespectful.

B.G. believes that there is an intractable conflict between what’s in the best interest of cisgender women and transgender women in sports, and though he sympathizes with both groups, he ultimately sides with transgender women, because he believes they are more vulnerable and marginalized.

He writes:

Transgender women should be allowed to compete in the sports that they wish to compete in. As a university student, I am surrounded by a community that supports rights for transgender men and women in all circumstances. However, I do still have some reservations about biological men being able to compete alongside biological females.

It is hard for me. I wish cisgender people could fully showcase their talents in competitions with level playing fields. Often these talents have been refined over many years by dedicated athletes. I used to wonder why transgender women couldn’t just compete alongside their biological male counterparts. Why was it so important for them to compete alongside biological females? A friend who has taken LGBTQ Studies told me transgender women know they are women and see themselves as women. They would feel alienated competing against people who they feel are the opposite gender from them.

The hardest part of this debate is whose happiness should be prioritized, those who feel they have been cheated out of championships and opportunities because of transgender women’s unfair advantages or those who have an advantage but may feel lost, abandoned, and cynical about not being allowed to be who they truly want to be. If I had to choose, I would choose this latter group. If not allowed to compete as women, they could face harm to their mental health and could feel ostracized from society. Transgender people are subjected to discrimination and often face an uphill climb to feel accepted in society. I fear that banning transgender people from competing in the sport of their choosing could do even more damage to this already vulnerable group.

Katelyn comes down on the other side of the debate, in part because she fears how our society is treating cisgender women, especially the swimmers who competed against Lia Thomas, and says that, as a result, she will vote third party instead of Democratic going forward.

She writes:

I’m 34, and have been a liberal Democrat for my entire life. Every single woman in my life is terrified by what has just occurred. And we aren’t transphobic for that reaction. Many liberal women I talk to feel afraid of the current climate. The GOP is attacking women’s choice in a way I’d never truly imagined would happen and then we have a SCOTUS nominee refusing to define the word woman. How are women supposed to feel with Biden’s executive order erasing women’s sex-based rights in Title IX, the hammer coming down on women’s rights, and the party of women’s lib refusing to define woman? We are being smeared as transphobic for asking that women’s sex based rights and our biology be acknowledged.

I, and other women I know, are deeply fearful that Democrats do not foresee the backlash barreling toward them on this issue. I do not know a single person that sees this as fair. Yet I’m the only one I know willing to speak publicly. I know who I am. I know I’m not hateful. I will be voting for a third party for the first time in my life. That’s how angry and betrayed I feel by the Democratic Party. And I’m not the only one by a mile.

Matthew is another liberal feeling alienated from others on the left:

I’m an atheist and a person of mixed race heritage. As a lifelong liberal I’m super concerned that the far left has imported the worst parts of the right’s culture and called it “progressive.”

Sports are not divided due to “gender” differences. They are divided due to sex differences. Placing biological males in leagues meant for biological females seems really misogynist. As a liberal, I oppose misogynism. I’m not opposed to look at where we are separating people on the basis of their sex and asking “do we need to still do this,” but as long as we do, I don’t understand why we pretend we are separating people based on “gender identity” when the intent is and has always been to separate by biology.

… As a liberal I’m very surprised a regressive form of gender essentialism has taken over supposedly liberal institutions. I don’t understand how a person of one sex can claim to be a man or a women because they “feel” like it. As a man, I’ve got no idea what a woman feels like. The idea that all women feel the same is sexist. The idea that, as a man, I can even understand how a woman feels is sexist (much less claim “this is what women feel like”). The idea that the way women and men feel cannot overlap is sexist. This entire debate feels like it is happening between religious conservatives and religious conservatives in denial of the fact that they are religious conservatives.

Whereas Jonathan L. supports her participation, though he is still learning about this issue and has a lot of questions:

Any reasonable debate needs to begin with the premise that Lia Thomas is a woman. If we don’t agree on that, then I’m not sure the conversation can go anywhere useful in terms of the questions presented.

The rest for me is more gut reaction than reasoned conclusion. I support trans athletes’ participation in sports within the gender they legitimately identify with. (And I doubt there’s ever been a case of someone who faked gender identification for a higher finish in sports competitions.) It would be odd, to say the least, to require a girl to play with the boys or vice versa (see first paragraph). And to the extent a biological male has an unfair advantage in female competition, I think of it like an advantage in height, metabolism, or any other difference that arises naturally (again, see first paragraph).

But it’s that last point I’m most unsure of.

How much advantage does a biological male have in female competition in comparison to the advantages of other natural “gifts”? Is there an expectation that someone like Lia Thomas could win while working less hard and with poorer eating and sleeping habits? To what extent is any advantage like taking a performance-enhancing drug? Trans winners make the news, but to what extent do the data show disproportionately higher (or lower) finishes for trans athletes? Are the data different based on level (high school, college, etc.)? In short, what does science have to say about this issue?

That’s what I would ask someone who disagrees with me: How does science support the position that a trans woman should not compete on equal terms with other women? And assuming there’s a reasonable answer, why do you believe that this outweighs goals of inclusion and dignity for trans individuals? I wonder whether we’re due to say good riddance to gender division in sports. But if so, what’s the alternative and how might it be implemented without compromising women’s participation and young girls’ aspirations?

Jill asks, “If athletic competitions are ideally among peers, should we consider a new peer group—a transgender competition group? Or would that imply a suspect echo of ‘separate but equal’?”

Ryan suggested another alternative:

Should we adopt the “weight class” strategy used in Boxing and Wrestling, separating all athletes into separate classes based on testosterone levels rather than either sex or gender? One positive side effect is that nonbinary people wouldn’t have to choose “male” or “female” sports. One obvious drawback is the burden of testing every athlete’s testosterone level.

Lynn had related thoughts:

I wonder why we pick transgender status as the line to demarcate unfairness. What about swimmers who have a longer reach, bigger feet, or wider hands? Why not use height as a dividing line for basketball players into different leagues? There are all sorts of innate differences that confer advantage or disadvantage in athletics.

She goes on to explain her notion that “the actual, unstated issue some have with transgender athletes is that those objectors don’t believe transgender people truly belong to their gender,” and concludes, “If I could ask one question of someone who doesn’t share my position, I would ask them if they also think transgender men should be restricted from competing with men?”

Errol’s email included his answer:

Trans men should be allowed to compete in historically male-dominated sports but trans women should not be allowed to do the same. The reason for this is an unfortunate side effect of genetics, the sore subject that some don’t want to recognize because it inherently is unfair. And it is unfair, but society can only make up for so much. It’s a fact of biology that born males have more physical advantages than born females. This is why trans men competing is more acceptable: they are overcoming a disadvantage, rather than a trans woman having an inherent one that may or may not be suppressed.

Would trans women competing destroy women’s sports? That is David’s fear:

The impact on biologically female athletes––on women’s sports in general––has been largely ignored for fear of appearing discriminatory. Who would have thought defending what essentially is the integrity of women’s sports could become such a contentious issue?

But Benjamin contends that fears about the destruction of women’s sports are overblown:

I think one of the best arguments for this position was made by Utah Governor Spencer Cox. He pointed out that only four of the 75,000 high school athletes in Utah are transgender, and that none of them appeared to be unfairly dominating their sports.

M. urges both sides to try to bridge their differences rather than to seek total victory. He writes:

There are aspects of sexual physiology that render certain matchups unfair. Her biology is the thing that makes the difference here. But I also think it demeans Lia’s humanity to reduce this into debate over “apples & oranges.” I’m unsure what the solution is.

Unfortunately, I think that both sides will only tolerate what they consider total victory.

People will get hurt, made to feel marginalized and any nuance will be lost instead of a serious, measured conversation which could advance the cause of trans athletes’ inclusion. I would ask others, “Is there an accommodation, handicapping, or other leveling device that you would find acceptable?” and “If we found ourselves in some future where a medals podium featured only trans women athletes, would that be detrimental to women’s sports? And would you understand why many women would take issue with this?”

But Nancy is averse to compromise, going so far as to worry that society is heading for a “dystopian future” and insisting, “The people will rise up and fight tooth and nail to preserve our biological heritage, the sexual dimorphism of the human species.” She writes:

I am a proud TERF, a trans exclusionary radical feminist, and I take an extreme hardline position. There are two sexes and only two sexes, male and female. Sex is determined at the moment of conception and cannot be changed by drugs, surgery, self declaration, or wishing upon a star. What will it take to kick biological men out of women’s spaces: shelters, prisons, locker rooms, spas, and bathrooms?

Dane disputes that alarm is warranted, never mind that we’re headed for a dystopian future. He writes:

As someone who endured nearly 20 years of listening to social conservatives argue that same sex marriage would spell the end of heterosexual marriage, please forgive a bit of well-earned eye rolling.  

Whatever happens, Jeffrey is going to roll with it:

Our culture and collective identity are dramatically changing. That scares me. As a child of the 1960s and ’70s, I will cling to my ‘old-fashioned’ thinking on social issues, all while trying to understand, like, and live with the people that will be the leaders of tomorrow.

Cultural changes are not often completely understandable, especially when we’re talking about all humans’ right to the same protections under the law and in society. Survivors learn to live in their environments—change what they can and adapt to that which they can’t.

I’m a survivor. And I like people.

Thanks for your contributions. I read every one that you send. See you next week.