Women’s sport has been in the news this year, with a growing controversy over the participation of transwomen in women’s competitions. Kiwi Laurel Hubbard represented New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games women’s weightlifting event at the Gold Coast last year despite having competed in the men’s events, prior to gender transition, in 2014. Towering over younger competitors from neighbouring Pacific Countries, the physical advantage Hubbard carried from earlier male physiology was very obvious.
More recently, Rachel McKinnon, a North American trans activist and academic, was in the news after winning a women’s track cycling event. Despite apparently meeting the rules regarding transgender participation for the event, the podium photo clearly demonstrated that McKinnon retained the physical advantage that came from being male during puberty and early adult life.
McKinnon re-entered the public eye in December after engaging lesbian feminist tennis legend Martina Navratilova in a Twitter argument over the fairness of allowing transwomen (male born persons who identify as women) open access to women’s sports events.
Most sporting regulatory bodies use the International Olympic Committee (IOC) 2016 regulations as the basis for trans participation in women’s sports events. In 2015 IOC rules removed the need for surgical treatments, and simply required the trans competitor to have reduced their testosterone level. New Zealand’s Olympic regulations require transgender competitors to have maintained a testosterone level of less than 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months. For comparison, testosterone levels for biological women are 0.12-1.79 nmol/L, and the normal male range is 7.7-29.4 nmol/L. This permits transgender competitors to enter women’s events with testosterone levels within the male range.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has recently implemented a lower testosterone limit of 5nmol/L. This is still well above the normal range for women, although some intersex women who have naturally high testosterone levels, such as Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand, will be affected by this change.
The physiological and anatomical effects of being exposed to testosterone during male adolescence do not disappear once testosterone suppressing drugs are taken. The height and musculature of Hubbard and McKinnon demonstrate this clearly. Reducing the category of “woman” to no more than a testosterone level for sporting purposes is rather reductive and offensive.
Arguing that transgender people have a fundamental human right to participation in sports, trans activists push for even less stringent regulation of their participation in women’s events. There are now concerted campaigns to remove the testosterone rule completely and allow participation in women’s events based on self-declared identity only. Some events have already allowed this, and in the 2018 Boston Marathon entry into the women’s race was solely on the basis of self-declared gender.
What does this mean for the future of women’s sport? Women have spent decades fighting for our own events, and for professional sportswomen to have parity with their male counterparts. Will women’s sporting competitions be opened up so that male-bodied athletes can participate on the basis of self-declaration alone?