3 Myths About Transgender Athletes

Two runners on race track with one jumping up in air
Two runners on race track with one jumping up in air

Recent news stories about the sporting successes of Nattaphon Wangyot and Chris Mosier have convinced me that I need to debunk three widely held beliefs about trans athletes.

Myth 1: Trans men will never be able to compete successfully against cisgender men.

Mosier should be exhibit A in any rebuttal to the belief that trans men will necessarily be inferior to cisgender men. On June 5th, in Avilla Spain, Mosier placed 142nd among 432 men of all ages and 26th among the 47 men in the 35-39 age group in the sprint duathlon at the World Duathlon Championships. Mosier was the second American in his age group to finish the event.

The reason that Mosier's success would be shocking to most people is the lingering belief that trans men are "really" women. After properly supervised testosterone (T) therapy, trans men have T and hemoglobin levels equivalent to those of cisgender men - both of these values are critically important in endurance sports such as duathlon. Of course, Mosier has also trained very hard in order to achieve his success.

While it is true that the shorter stature of trans men will limit their opportunities in sports such as basketball, there is no reason why dedicated trans male athletes can't be successful in a wide variety of sports. In fact, the only known trans athlete competing in the NCAA's division I is Schuyler Bailer who swims the butterfly for the Harvard men's team.

Myth 2: If you let trans women compete against cisgender women, it will mean the end of women's sport.

Nattaphon Wangyot recently finished third in the 200 meters in the state of Alaska's 3A (the big schools compete in 6A) meet - she also finished 5th in the 100 meters. Based on the resulting outcry, one would have thought that she had just won an Olympic medal. Wangyot's times of 27.3 and 13.36 at the state meet are nothing extraordinary. Her fastest 200 time ties her for 15th place in her small state, while her best 100 time ties her for 28th place. Nationwide, her times aren't in the top 5000 performances in either event. Her relatively ordinary times have not stopped the critics from saying that it is unfair to allow her to race other girls.

The opposition that Wangyot and other trans women athletes face is due to the perception that they are men invading women's sport, rather than the reality of their ordinary achievements.

The fear that trans women will dominate women's sport is bellied by recent history in collegiate sports. In 2011, the NCAA implemented a policy allowing trans women to compete after one year of hormone therapy. Five years later there are two openly transgender women athletes out of 200,000 in the NCAA, and none in division I. Statistically, there should be hundreds. Instead of dominating, trans women are only making a very small dent in collegiate sports.

One year of hormone therapy (HRT) - a testosterone blocker and estrogen - causes large changes in the athletic capabilities of trans women. A seminal study showed that HRT brings T levels down below the average for cisgender women, brings hemoglobin levels to female norms, and greatly reduces muscle mass. Another study showed that HRT was enough to slow the race times of trans women runners so much that they were competing at the same relative levels as they had as men. Wangyot is on HRT.

The bottom line is that trans women are drastically under-represented in women's sport and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Myth 3: Men will masquerade as transgender women to win in women's sport.

This myth actually predates the inclusion of trans women into sports. Back in 1936, Avery Brundage proposed gender verification for women's sport largely out of fear of men's invasion. In the eighty years since, there is not a single documented instance of it ever happening. The legend of German high jumper Dora Ratjen as an example of a man winning in women's sport has been exposed as false.

The notion of men invading women's sport has been given new life by the inclusion of transgender women. It has been argued that the 2016 IOC transgender rules mimicking those of the NCAA will lead to men at all levels of women's sport. It won't happen because men would need to live full time as women and become hormonally female in order to comply with the rules. No man would be willing to go through female puberty in order to improve his chances in sport.

Surely the time has come to put away the myths surrounding trans athletes, and instead celebrate their successes, from small victories of the likes of Nattaphon Wagnyot to the larger triumphs of athletes like Chris Mosier.