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Female Olympians’ voices: Female sports categories and International Olympic Committee Transgender guidelines

  • Independent Researcher


Abstract The fair inclusion of female athletes at elite and Olympic level is secured in most sports by way of female categories because of the extensively documented biological and performance-related differences between the sexes. International policy for transgender inclusion is framed by the definitive IOC Transgender guidelines in which the IOC confirms the ‘overriding sporting objective is and remains the guarantee of fair competition’ and transwomen can be excluded from female categories if, in the interests of fairness, this is necessary and proportionate. Feminist theorists argue justice requires that women have equal moral standing in the socio-cultural-political structures of society including sport. As such their voices should carry equal democratic weight. However, female elite and Olympic athletes are rarely heard in the socio-cultural-political discourses of academic literature, or policy formulation for transgender inclusion in female categories by the IOC and governing bodies of sport. This empirical study investigated the views and presents the ‘voices’ of 19 female Olympians. The main findings include (1) these athletes thought both female and transgender athletes should be fairly included in elite sport (2) unanimous agreement there is not enough scientific evidence to show no competitive advantage for transwomen (3) unanimous agreement that the IOC should revisit the rules and scientific evidence for transgender inclusion in female categories and (4) the majority of athletes felt that they could not ask questions or discuss this issue without being accused of transphobia. Key Words Female Olympians, IOC, transgender, policy, fairness and inclusion
Extensive sociological literature analyses the Olympic Games as a mega-event at the pinnacle
of globalised neoliberal sport culture, with associated socio-political-economic and
ideological struggles for democracy justice and human rights (Horne, 2015; Jennings, 2011).
Critiques explore the gap between mission rhetoric proclaiming the harmonious
development of humankind (IOC, 2020a: 11), and the reality of an unaccountable
transnational megalith. In this tradition, critiquing the historically patriarchal IOC celebrating
hegemonic masculinity is important. Female athlete inclusion in the difficult deliberations
regarding the fairest way to include transgender athletes is of contemporary relevance in this
The Olympic Charter asserts sport is a human right (IOC, 2020a: 11) without discrimination
of any kind, such as sex …’ (12). The IOC’s role is to ‘ensure the spirit of fair play
prevails’ (16), support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and the principle of
equality of men and women’ (17) and promote safe sport and the protection of athletes from
all forms of harassment and abuse’ (17). Further, the IOC (2015: 2/3) outlines ‘it is necessary
to ensure insofar as possible that trans athletes are not excluded from the opportunity to
participate’ but reiterates ‘the overriding sporting objective is and remains the guarantee of
fair competition’. It explains ‘restrictions on participation are appropriate to the extent that
they are necessary and proportionate’ and outlines transgender guidelines to be taken into
account by governing bodies of sport (GBS) when determining eligibility criteria. Thus, at
least rhetorically, the IOC is committed to fairness, equality between the sexes, and
transgender inclusion if this does not compromise fairness or safety. In essence, although
international human rights instruments do not recognise sport as a human right (Devine,
2013), IOC aspirations mean inclusion claims of both female and transgender athletes must
be fairly and safely balanced.
The fair and safe inclusion of females is secured via single sex categories for most sports
given well-established biological and performance-related differentials between the sexes
(Bermon et al, 2019; Handelsman et al, 2018; Harper et al, 2021; Hilton and Lundberg, 2021;
Knox et al, 2018). The socio-historically contextualised sex-related performance gap stopped
narrowing in the 1980’s revealing underlying biological differentials (Thibault et al, 2010).
Hilton and Lundberg explain testosterone-driven male puberty ‘underpins sporting
advantages that are so large no female could reasonably hope to succeed without sex
segregation in most sporting competitions’. Thus, in 2019 the fastest woman in the world,
Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce, ran 100 metres in 10.71s, 2160 adult males and 107 boys (under
18’s) are listed as running faster (IAAF, n.d.) and 10 000 males have faster personal bests
(Hilton and Lundberg, 2021). These sex-differentials hold true across all athletic events
including the marathon where Brigid Kosgei’s all-time women’s record of 2:14:04 was
exceeded in 2019 alone by 586 listed males (IAAF, n.d.). Without single sex categories, the
fastest highest and strongest females would disappear from most elite sport. Inclusion of
transwomen via female categories is therefore controversial and may be difficult to reconcile
with fairness for females.
IOC plans to revise transgender guidelines prior to Tokyo 2020 were delayed since
agreement was far more difficult than expected because this is such a tricky political and
emotive issue (Ingle, 2019a). In their absence, World Athletics and four additional
international GBS reduced the upper limit for serum testosterone for transwomen in the
female category to 5 nmol/l (World Athletics, 2019), half that suggested by the IOC. Further,
World Rugby (2020a), following an extensive scientific review and elite player survey
(World Rugby, 2020b), decided ‘transgender women may not currently play women’s rugby’
and revised rules require competition in sex not gender categories.
This research is contextualised by the feminist socio-cultural-political and citizenship theory
of Pateman, Fraser and Lister who argue for recognition and ‘voice’ of all affected by the
reach of any socio-cultural-political policy. The IOC Transgender guidelines frame inclusion
of transwomen as via female categories and consequently female Olympians are stakeholders.
The aims are firstly, to investigate whether female Olympians have been consulted by the
IOC and GBS and secondly, to solicit their ‘voices’. Females who have competed in any
Olympic Games were eligible to participate.
Initial IOC Transgender guidelines for eligibility in female categories (2003) recommended
completed surgery, legal recognition of reassigned sex, and hormone therapy. Revised
Guidelines (IOC, 2015) reiterated the overriding commitment to fairness and that necessary
and proportionate restrictions to transgender participation may be appropriate. The
requirement for surgery and legal recognition were removed and serum testosterone adopted
as a proxy for male-advantage. These Guidelines suggest self-declaration of female gender
identity and serum testosterone below 10nmol/L for at least 12 months. However, reference
female serum testosterone is 0-1.7 nmols/L and for males significantly higher at 7.7-29.4
nmols/L (Handelsman et al, 2018), explaining the lower World Athletics limit and anticipated
IOC revisions. Further, recent scientific reviews of male-advantage mitigation conclude
‘strength may be well preserved in transwomen during the first 3 years of hormone therapy’
(Harper et al 2021) notwithstanding most therapeutic interventions result in almost complete
suppression of testosterone levels, certainly well below 5 nmol/L’ (Hilton and Lundberg,
2021 211).
World Rugby’s elite female survey (2020b) finds only a minority of Women’s Sevens World
Series (17 of 86, 20%), Women’s Six Nations (7 of 65, 11%) and other elite players (10 of
29, 34%) support introducing the IOC Guidelines in rugby, or transwomen playing in elite
female competition (Womens Sevens World Series: 16 of 86, 19%; Women’s Six Nations: 6
of 65, 9%; other elite players: 10 of 29, 34%).
Importantly, populations with disorders/differences/variations of sexual development
(DSDs/VSDs) have minimal overlap with transgender populations (García-Acero et al;
ISNA, n.d.). Consequently, GBS have distinct eligibility guidelines for these athletes (IOC,
2015, IAAF, 2019a; 2019b).
Theoretical Framework
‘meta-political misrepresentation arises when states and transnational elites
monopolise the activity of frame-setting, denying voice to those who may be harmed
in the process (Fraser, 2008 p26)
Feminist socio-cultural-political and citizenship work documents that historically ‘persons’
‘citizens’ ‘moral agents’ and ‘human rights’ have recognised only or primarily males, with
females excluded from full status and the social contract between persons and civil society.
Pateman’s work explains that women historically did not possess ‘property in the person’,
were not party to the contract but rather the subject of it. Consequently, women were the
property of men and ‘the contract establishes men's political right over women …
establishing orderly access by men to women's bodies' (1988: 2). The Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (UN, 1979) is the international
human rights instrument designed to address hegemonic masculinity of patriarchal citizenship
and recognises discrimination against women on the basis of sex.
Nevertheless, female exclusion from personhood and decision-making about themselves and
their bodies is evident in contemporary global policy arenas including sport (Burt, 2020;
Devine 2016). Lister (2003) terms this ‘androcentric citizenship’ which presents as universal
and sex-neutral but includes female citizens primarily as recipients or subjects of decisions
made about them and their bodies rather than decision-making agents. She notes ‘behind the
cloak of gender-neutrality … there lurks … a definitely male citizen, and it is his interests
and concerns that have traditionally dictated the agenda’ (4). Further, ‘to the extent that (a)
universalist principle in fact embodies masculine particularist interests, women will remain
excluded or will be included only on male terms' (199). Androcentric citizenship and human
rights frameworks foreground male interests whilst females remain de facto second-class.
Lister proposes an inclusive universal differentiated, rather than androcentric (sex-blind)
citizenship requiring ‘status’ recognition of females as members of communities and
‘practice’ recognition as socio-cultural-political participation or ‘voice’ in public life so
women’s voices carry equal democratic weight.
Fraser’s work on justice involves mapping the socio-cultural-political terrain in any human
endeavour, identifying ‘subjects of justice’ and fairly balancing countervailing inclusion
claims. Interrogating naturalised hegemonic frames is central since if drawn too narrowly,
legitimate subjects of justice are excluded from contested cultural arenas. Contestation may
comprise conflicting ontologies and incommensurability between inclusion claims.
Accordingly, Fraser adopts a critical democratic theory of framing, drawing socio-cultural-
political maps more broadly at meta-political levels, foregrounding transborder injustices and
avoiding mis-recognition mis-framing and gerrymandering of socio-cultural-political space.
To this end, mapping and balancing involve three inextricably linked components: cultural
recognition, political participation and economic redistribution (Fraser, 2008).
‘this feminine semi-Olympiad is impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, andimproper.
It is not in keeping with my concept of the Olympic Games the solemn and periodic
exaltation of male athleticismwith the applause of women as a reward’ (De
Coubertin, 1912: 713)
All frames, including IOC committees and competition categories create, by definition,
boundaries and exclusions but the test of fairness is that these are just. Crucially, when
framing any socio-cultural-political space ‘all those affected by a given social structure or
institution have moral standing as subjects of justice’ (Fraser, 2008: 24).
De Coubertin’s androcentrism is unsurprising given most modern sports celebrate hegemonic
masculinity. Nevertheless, although female elite competitor status is increasingly recognised,
this is incomplete and possibly fragile. Females comprised 2.2% of athletes at the 1900
Olympics and by Rio 2016 just 45% of athletes and 11% of coaches were women. Decision-
making is far from egalitarian and leading into Rio, 62 National Olympic Committees (NOC)
were less than 20% female and ten included no women (IOC, 2020b). Further, the sexist
remarks of the Head of the Tokyo NOC resulted in resignation six months before the
rescheduled 2021 Games, and as a concession, Japan’s ruling Party invited five women to
observe but not speak, at its all-male Board Meetings (BBC, 2021a). The IOC Board is 30%
female and five of 20 IOC 2015 Transgender Panel members were female. Whether this
Panel sought elite female or transgender athlete representation is unknown, but it included
one transwoman. Estimated transgender population prevalence is up to 1%, two thirds of
whom are biological males (Collin et al, 2016; Stonewall n.d.).
Inclusion and Fairness
“discussions so far have confirmed considerable tension between the notions of
fairness and inclusion, and the desire and need to protect the women’s category,”
(IOC, cited by Pavitt, 2020)
Notwithstanding the IOC’s overarching fairness principle, the dominant discourse assumes
that instead of inclusion being dependent on fair eligibility criteria, inclusion and fairness are
in tension. Further, transgender inclusion via ‘tolerable unfairness’ appears privileged over
female inclusion via fairness (Devine, 2019; Gooren and Bunck, 2004; Knox et al, 2019).
Thus, three IOC Panel members published ‘Beyond Fairness: The Biology of Inclusion for
Transgender and Intersex Athletes’ (Pitsiladis et al, 2016), and some IOC scientists are
attempting ‘a reasonable compromise between inclusion and fairness’ (Ingle, 2019a).
A fairness/inclusion opposition rather than alignment discourse assumes transwomen’s
biological advantages are less important than social disadvantages, even in elite sport,
justifying inclusion in female categories. This is problematic, given females are widely
recognised as socio-culturally, politically and economically disadvantaged (Burt, 2020), and
biologically disadvantaged in most sports. Equality is not yet achieved within Olympic
categories, elite sport, sports participation or decision-making structures in sport and wider
society. Further, female inclusion necessitates fair competition categories recognising female
sexed bodies and performance-related consequences. If the overarching fairness principle is
displaced by inclusion, athletes asked to tolerate unfairness are certainly subjects of justice
and should be centrally involved in policy development.
Importantly, transwomen as distinct from transgender advocacy organisations and many
trans-allies and academics, espouse heterogenous positions. Joanna Harper, IOC Panel
transgender member, adopts a fairness/inclusion opposition discourse and whilst
acknowledging, ‘Transgender women after hormone therapy are taller, bigger and stronger on
average than cisgender (sic) women.’ believes,
‘But that does not necessarily make it unfair. In high levels of sport transgender
women are substantially under-represented. That indicates that, whatever physical
advantages transgender women have and they certainly exist they are not nearly as
large as the sociological disadvantages’ (Ingle, 2019b).
Conversely, Caitlyn Jenner, 1976 Olympic gold medal winner prior to transition, advocates a
fairness/inclusion alignment commenting, ‘This is a question of fairness…That's why I
oppose biological boys who are trans competing in girls' sports in school. It just isn't fair.’
(BBC, 2 May 2021b). Similarly, Renee Richards, a medical doctor who played on the
professional women’s tennis circuit in her 40’s elucidates ‘I think transsexuals have every
right to play, but maybe not at the professional level, because it’s not a level playing field’
explaining ‘I know if I’d had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no
genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me. And so I’ve
reconsidered my opinion’ (Bazelon, 2012).
A dichotomy exists between scientific/quantitative and humanities/qualitative disciplines
with the former foregrounding ‘fairness’ or ‘tolerable unfairness’ by exploring mitigation of
the widely accepted puberty-related male-advantage (Bermon et al, 2019; Gooren and Bunck,
2004; Handelsman et al, 2018; Hilton and Lundberg, 2021; Knox et al, 2018; Thibault et al,
2010). In contrast, the humanities/qualitative literature often asymmetrically prioritises
gender identity recognition and transgender inclusion, while discounting female exclusion via
unfairness, or minimising misunderstanding or denying the science regarding biological and
performance-related sex differences (Gleaves and Lehrbach, 2016; Anderson and Travers
2017) and that documenting legacy puberty-related male-advantage of transwomen (Gooren
and Bunck, 2004; Harper et al, 2021; Hilton and Lundberg, 2021; Wiik et al, 2020). Thus,
Gleaves and Lehrbach argue ‘inclusion of transgender and intersex athletes must move
beyond the idea of fairness’ (Gleaves and Lehrbach, 2016: 323) and be ‘unaffected by
contingent appeals to science’ (314).
These perspectives align with gender identity theory grounded in postmodern/queer theory
(Burt, 2020; Lowrey, 2021; Suissa and Sullivan, 2021) and dominant particularly in North
America. This epistemological orthodoxy draws heavily on Butler (2006) who famously
collapses the conceptual sex/gender binary, and Fausto-Sterling criticised for over-estimating
‘intersex’ prevalence (García-Acero et al, 2020; Sax, 2002), claiming five sexes and
subsequently acknowledging this as tongue-in-cheek (n.d.). The gender identity theory
conceptualisation of gender departs from both the inaccurate gender as a synonym for sex,
and established scientific (Heidari et al, 2016) and historical feminist (Stone, 2007)
understandings of the analytically distinct sex and gender where gender depicts socio-cultural
historically contextualised femininity and masculinity. Historically feminism has conceived
these as contested hierarchical stereotypes essential to the subjugation of women and
maintenance of patriarchy. Instead, gender identity theory deconstructs or reverses sex and
gender, so gender metamorphosises into an innate essence albeit subjective and unverifiable,
whilst sex becomes socially constructed, ideological and ‘assigned at birth’. Gender identity
theorists believe biological sex itself (not sex characteristics) exists on a spectrum, because
the endocrine systems of both sexes include testosterone albeit in non-over-lapping ranges,
and female and male sport performance distributions overlap (Anderson and Travers, 2017).
Consequently, gender identity should overwrite sex, sex categories become gender
categories, and sex segregation in sport is reconstructed as oppressive rather than essential for
female inclusion. Sometimes an understanding of human sexual dimorphism is linked to
whiteness where ‘assumptions of unfair male advantage…lean heavily on a Western image of
white middle- and upper-class female frailty (Anderson and Travers, 2017: 3).
Critics argue gender identity theory encompasses (at least) three problematic conceptual
conflations: immutable biological sex with socially constructed gender; transgender people
without DSDs, with people with DSDs who are not transgender (García-Acero et al, 2020;
ISNA, n.d); and sex segregation in sport (based on biological reality) with race segregation
(unscientific racist ideology). Also, in sport, conflation of historical/contemporary
exploitation and sex-testing of DSD athletes, with transgender inclusion guidelines permitting
therapeutic use exemptions for prohibited substances (WADA, 2017). Biological realists
maintain anisogamous sex, determined at conception, immutable and unproblematically
classified in 99.98% of humans including transgender athletes, is settled science (Bhargava et
al., 2021; 2019; Hull, 2006; Sax, 2002) but should not determine social roles of females and
males. Also, people with DSDs support rather than negate the sex binary given, by definition,
DSDs are disorders/differences of either female or male sexual development not additional
sexes. Further, conceptualising innate gender identities reinscribes rather than deconstructs
oppressive hierarchical gender stereotypes assigning a feminine ‘cisgender’ identity to
females in direct contradistinction to historical/contemporary struggles to dismantle gendered
social scripts (Burt, 2020; Suissa and Sullivan 2021). Accordingly, gender identity theory
appears definitionally sexist, denying the importance of female sex to the recognition and
human rights of females and redefining them as sexist gender stereotypes.
Further, Crenshaw’s work on discrimination discourse at the intersections of sex race and
class (1989) together with a transnational feminist lens (Ratna, 2018) necessitate avoiding
homogenising black female athletes within dominant epistemologies. Empirical work by and
with black female athletes and athletes of colour, including their voices on sex and gender, is
under-represented/non-existent in sport sociology. However, given black elite female athletes
particularly from the global south including Fraser-Pryce from Jamaica and Kosgei from
Kenya are well represented in athletics and depend on female categories for their success, it
seems unlikely they do not share an understanding of the importance of human sexual
dimorphism for female sport. In sum, disappearing sex/females and consequently sexism, is
seen by critics as supporting institutions and practices reflecting and reinforcing rather than
resisting intersectional power configurations between females and males, in this case within
sport. This is perpetuated by knowledge production of privileged white academics from the
global north, often male, speaking on behalf of heterogeneous hegemonically excluded black
female athletes from the global south, rather than soliciting their voices.
Nevertheless, most stop short of prescribing and policing female athlete’s voices and
permitted interventions by way of coerced solidarity and allyship (Anderson and Loland,
2015; Teetzel, 2020) and Teetzel concedes ‘very little is known about athlete’s opposition to
trans-inclusive sport (10) acknowledging ‘athletes need to be able to exercise their freedom
of speech and not be stifled’. Consequently, regardless of theoretical allegiance, whether to
biological realism and human sexual dimorphism, or gender identity theory, there is
agreement female athletes’ voices should be heard.
Female Olympic athletes are a hard to reach ‘hidden’ demographic given the worldwide
celebrity and high-profile status of many, some of whom are household names.
Consequently, they take significant measures to protect privacy and manage time by
balancing demands of training, travelling and competing with those of work, family and
sponsors. Olympians prepared to comment on this contentious issue are doubly difficult to
access and trust between participants and researcher is paramount. Therefore, probability
sampling was not feasible (Bryman, 2015: 415) and a non-probability purposive snowball
sampling design adopted. Further, given their related reluctance to participate in focus groups
or interviews, an online instrument was the only way to collect data.
Noy (2006: 331) explains snowball sampling is used to access marginalised communities but
also ‘groups that do not suffer from stigmas and marginalization, but, to the contrary, enjoy
the status of social elites’ and are ‘hidden by choice’. Given there is no research with female
Olympians on this issue and they are centrally important stakeholders in IOC and GBS policy
development, access was of primary concern for this exploratory study. Female Olympians
are marginalised both by the hegemonic masculinity of elite sport structures, and their
‘hidden by choice’ high-profile celebrity status. Noy explains snowball sampling is
particularly useful for feminist hermeneutics and generates ‘a unique type of social
knowledge—knowledge which is emergent, political and interactional’.
The mixed methods design involved data collection via Survey Monkey questionnaire
consisting of career and contact data and 39 closed Likert-style questions grouped in seven
themes with additional open questions. The themes were: IOC Guidelines, fairness, scientific
evidence, impact on female categories, consultation and discussion, what should happen next,
and the fairest way to include transwomen. The questionnaire was cascaded via one
Olympian to her networks and the researcher approached by two additional contacts.
The purpose of the study was clearly described in recruitment information, electronic consent
obtained and participants could ask questions and withdraw consent at any time. Athletes
were assured they would not be identifiable via sport, medals or Olympic Games attended.
Due to the sensitive subject Olympians were asked to keep the Survey confidential.
Additional athletes were referred to the original cascading Olympian or the researcher
avoiding the risk of sabotage and ensuring submissions were verified as from Olympians. It
was explained the research related only to transgender guidelines and not guidelines for
athletes with DSDs. Data were collected between May and December 2019.
Since the purpose of the research was to describe and present the views of female Olympians
the non-probability research design did not test hypotheses or make predictions for the wider
female Olympic population. Because of the unique participant group, retaining data richness
and foregrounding individual participants’ voices was essential to ensure depth and meaning
were not diluted or homogenised through extensive data processing. Consequently,
descriptive statistical analysis was used for quantitative data and presented as frequency
distributions. Further, all open-ended responses for each theme were anonymised and
included in the results to retain nuance richness and meaning.
Anecdotal feedback suggested a shorter instrument would have generated more participants.
However, the trade-off was between participant numbers and data richness, and the detailed
questionnaire was retained. Nineteen Olympians responded with a mean age of 41 (n=15),
seven athletes under 35 and four over 50 (Figure 1), not all answered all questions.
Represented sports were hockey athletics rowing swimming and modern pentathlon, most
Olympians were from athletics, and represented countries were Britain Australia and Canada.
Many of these athletes are/were the best in the world and between them, attended all Olympic
Games from 1976 to 2016. Three attended Rio 2016 and five London 2012 (figure 2), they
have six gold, two silver and one bronze Olympic medal and additional top six placings
(figure 3), plus many additional world championship titles medals and records.
Detailed intersectional data were not collected, however, some athletes are black, some with
global south heritage, one a Paralympian and several from under-privileged backgrounds. No
data on sexuality were collected as this was considered overly intrusive.
Table 1: Age of Olympians
Table 2: Olympic games attended
Olympic Games
Number of Olympians
1976 Montreal
1980 Moscow
1984 Los Angeles
1988 Seoul
1992 Barcelona
1996 Atlanta
2000 Sydney
2004 Athens
2008 Beijing
2012 London
2016 Rio de Janeiro
Table 3: Olympic medals and placings
Results and Descriptive Analysis
The descriptive statistics are presented in figures 4-10 and all comments numbered and
Theme 1: The IOC recommendations.
Age (years)
Number of Athletes
Figure 1a
Figure 1b
0% 0%
11% 11%
0% 0%
33% 33%
39%39% 39% 39% 39%
I was aware of the IOC
involving genital
surgery and hormone
There was
consultation with
female athletes before
introduction of 2003
I was aware of the
2015 IOC
change so surgery is
now not necessary
I was aware the level
of T allowed for TG
athletes in female
categories is >5x
higher than normal
female range
Figure 1a: IOC Transgender guidelines
Strongly agree Agree No opinion Disagree Strongly disagree
Figures 1a and 1b show the majority of athletes were unaware of the 2003 recommendations,
2015 revisions and any consultation with athletes prior to agreement of either set of
guidelines. Athlete 17 commented,
‘I'm not sure how to answer the "I was aware..." questions. I was aware of the
changes in 2015 but NOT in 2003. As well, I’m simply saying I was aware of the
changes, but not that I agreed with those recommendations.
Athlete 14 contributed,
‘I feel that the opinions of female athletes on such a controversial matter need to be
explained and presented so the facts are clear. Only then can their voices be heard
…Most female athletes have no clue about the decisions that take place behind their
backs that have a direct impact on the sport in which they participate. This is not
There was proper
consultation with female
athletes before 2015
guidelines introduced
IOC 2015 recommendations
will impact on female
IOC 2015 recommendations
for TG athletes in female
categories are fit for
IOC 2015 recommendations
should be put on hold
pending further scientific
research and consultation
with female athletes
Figure 1b: IOC Transgender guidelines
Strongly agree Agree No opinion Disagree Strongly disagree
Further, the majority were unaware permitted serum testosterone levels are more than five
times the reference female range and some felt very strongly this was unfair. Athlete 19
Men and women are biologically different, hence the need for single sex
competitions in most sports. Any sport where speed, strength and power (most sports)
require separate competitions for males and females to ensure a fair environment for
competition. I agree in principle that transgender athletes need support and protection
to compete without discrimination, but this cannot be at the expense of female
athletes, when it comes to fair competition. The notion that a male can self-declare
that they are transgender and possibly compete with testosterone levels vastly higher
than the normal range for women is open to exploitation, or at the very minimum an
unfair advantage. More research is needed in this area and the 2015 IOC
recommendations need to be put on hold as soon as possible’.
Athlete 9 stated succinctly ‘The testosterone limit should be lower than 10’ and athlete 5
Being a former Olympian I understand how much dedication and hard work athletes
put in to get towards their dream. Competing against “females with extremely high
testosterone levels creates a totally unfair field, especially when females of the
sporting world are not properly informed, which ruins any sport and the reason why
Olympic Games was brought about.
Athlete responses centre fairness. They almost unanimously regarded the 2015
recommendations not fit for purpose with 16 agreeing they should be paused pending further
research and consultation with female athletes. Athlete 16 elaborated,
‘It's really hard to know whether they are fit for purpose or not, the scientific evidence
through the media feels patchy, but the media never provide balanced information and
statistics. As ever, most scientific evidence relating to females is pretty patchy, so
definitely more research is essential, but we start from a poor base as sports science is
mostly based on male statistics and research. I think there needs to be an international
expert group to work in a well-funded way on this subject, I don't know what exists at
the moment.’
Others were less equivocal, athlete18 noting We seem to be creating a un-fair playing field
for female athletes--- we need to be stronger, have better facts, and communicate better. We
are being pushed around by new social expectations’ and athlete 2 Neither guidelines are fit
for purpose and extensive research should be done before any transgender athletes are
allowed to compete.
Finally, athlete 15 commented,
Years of knowledge & experience in sport shows me there is a huge physical
difference between male & female performance. New guidelines do not level the
playing field or protect equal opportunities for female athletes to achieve successes
based on their biology. Our human rights to equal opportunities (are) not being
protected. There was not enough science-based research on elite athletes to make
rules. It’s a live experiment where female athletes will lose out until the obvious is
proved. Then it will be changed. That’s not fair’.
Theme 2: Fairness
Figure 2a
Figure 2b
17% 17%
24% 22%
0% 0% 0%
Elite sport should be fair for
female and transgender
Nobody should be treated
unfairly because of their
biological sex
Nobody should be treated
unfairly because of their
transgender status
Current rules for inclusion
of TG athletes (born male)
in female sport categories
are fair
Figure 2a: Fairness
Strongly agree Agree No opinion Disagree Strongly disagree
The IOC fairness principle was explored further in theme 2 (figures 2a and 2b). The majority
agreed elite sport should be fair for both female and transgender athletes and nobody should
be treated unfairly because of biological sex or transgender status. However, most did not
regard current guidelines as fair.
The majority thought male-advantage should be completely eliminated and athletes who have
experienced male puberty can never compete fairly in female categories. Athlete 18 stated ‘I
don't believe athletes born male, developed as male, should be competing in high
performance sport’. Similarly, athlete 19 explained,
I do not fully understand the medical aspects of transgender males who transition to
female, but I find it hard to believe that a male who has gone through puberty and
developed male physical characteristics and then undergone treatment to reduce
testosterone levels does not have some physical advantage over female athletes -
22% 22%
11% 11%
Rules for inclusion of TG
athletes (born male) in
female categories should
completely eliminate male
The rules for inclusion of TG
athletes (born male) in
female categories should
minimise male advantage
Can never be fair for TG
athletes (born male) to
compete in female
categories if gone through
male puberty
Is fair for TG athletes (born
male) to compete in female
categories if been through
male puberty but lower T to
within female range
Figure 2b: Fairness
Strongly agree Agree No opinion Disagree Strongly disagree
especially if the current nominated level is over 5 times the normal testosterone range
for females. It is not right that females are disadvantaged by an altruistic desire to
include transgender athletes under an unfair policy.
Athlete 2 commented ‘My understanding is that the physical advantages gained by going
through male puberty (bones, muscles, organs) will not be ‘undone’ by lowering testosterone
levels post-puberty. So anything post-puberty will still leave trans-gender athletes with a
huge and unfair advantage’.
In contrast, just over half agreed it would be fair to include transwomen in female categories
if testosterone was brought within reference female range despite some also agreeing athletes
who have experienced male puberty can never compete fairly in female categories. This
apparent contradiction possibly represents a staged approach to fairness given the current
upper testosterone limit is significantly above the reference female range, lowering this might
represent an improvement, but actual fairness involves excluding athletes who have
experienced male puberty from female categories. Similarly, a minority thought rules should
minimise male-advantage although some also agreed male-advantage should be completely
eliminated. Nevertheless athlete 16 reflected,
These are incredibly hard (questions) to answer, what is 'fair'? Is it fair that an athlete
in a country with good support can reach their potential and another isn't funded in the
same country, or elsewhere in the world? Where is the line between natural and
'unnatural' advantage.... How do we define fair, that's one of the challenges, so I think
it's about minimising/levelling playing field, but there is probably never an absolute
that can be achieved’.
Athlete 10 thought,
‘It would only seem "fair" if a transgender's serum testosterone level was required to
be "normal" level of a female. I am unsure how they've come to the conclusion that
having 5 times more would not be considered as having an unfair advantage.
Athlete14 was interesting regarding medication stating,
More research and studies need to make clear if there are still advantages for
transgender athletes (born male) in a variety of different sport when they have
lowered their testosterone. I fundamentally don't agree with giving athletes chemically
enhanced drugs to participate in sport
and athlete 15 acknowledged ‘Don’t know the science enough to answer last question’.
Athlete 8 thought These answers depend on which sport you are referring too. Some sports
are already mixed, some sports do not depend on testosterone to create an advantage’.
Theme 3: The scientific evidence
Figure 3
All Olympians thought there was not enough scientific evidence to show no competitive
advantage for transwomen in female categories and most thought the scientific evidence for
transgender inclusion was unclear (Figure 3). Athlete 19 asserted,
As a female athlete I have the right to compete in a fair and safe sporting
environment. It is essential, and indeed a responsibility of peak sporting organisations,
that extensive research is undertaken to fully understand the implications of allowing
transgender athletes (male to female who have gone through puberty) to compete
against females’.
Athlete 2 elaborated I believe trans-gender athletes have a significant advantage over
females and scientific research will show this. There are many cases that are blindingly
obvious but for the sake of clarity the research should be done’.
Theme 4: The impact of the 2015 guideline changes
0% 0%
0% 0%
47% 47%
The scientific evidence for
inclusion is available and
There is enough scientific
evidence to show no
competitive advantage
More scientific research is
No more scientific research
is needed
Figure 3: Scientific evidence
Strongly agree Agree No opinion Disagree Strongly disagree
Figure 4
Figure 4 shows the majority thought 2015 guideline changes likely to increase numbers of
transwomen competing, winning medals, and setting world records in female sport. They
almost unanimously thought the guidelines open to exploitation by countries with athlete 19
We already know that individuals and countries are prepared to cheat to win - this is
why there is such extensive efforts made to stop doping in sport. There is no doubt in
my mind that these rule changes will be exploited by some
and athlete 2,
‘Sadly history has shown the extent to which some nations and some individuals will
go for the rewards & glory that sporting success can bring. Athletes/governing bodies
21% 21%
0% 0% 0% 0%0% 0% 0% 0%
The changes are likely to
increaseTG athletes (born
male) participating in
female sport
TG athletes (born male)
winning medals in female
sport is likely to increase
TG athletes (born male)
setting female world
records is likely to increase
These rule changes are
open to exploitation by
some countries
Figure 4: Impact of IOC Guideline changes
Strongly agree Agree No opinion Disagree Strongly disagree
risking illness, injury and permanent body changes have happened before and will
happen again’.
Athlete 16 responded,
Again, I find it hard to gauge the impact, I think we are talking about a relatively
small number of athletes. There will always be exploitation by some countries/some
athletes, as there are in doping and other areas where we also don't have a perfect
solution by any means or 100% way of creating a level playing field.’
Athlete 10 reiterated the doping analogy and said In my honest opinion, some current world
records were set by women using performance enhancing drugs’.
Theme 5: Consultation and discussion
Figure 5a
11% 11%
63% 63%
0% 0%
There is respectful and
evidence based discussion
about TG (born male)
inclusion in female
I can ask questions & speak
freely without accusations
of transphobia
I am concerned about
sponsors if I ask questions
or speak freely about TG
I am concerned about other
athletes if I ask questions or
speak freely about TG
Figure 5a: Consultation and discussion
Strongly agree Agree No opinion Disagree Strongly disagree
Figure 5b
The majority of athletes felt unable to ask questions, speak freely or discuss transgender
inclusion in female categories without accusations of transphobia (Figure 5a). Further, most
indicated their GBS has not consulted female athletes or facilitated respectful and evidence-
based discussion (figure 5b). Athlete 16 elaborated,
‘This is a really sensitive discussion and very difficult to discuss publicly. It therefore
requires federations and the professional bodies to be engaging professionally with
this within their work in order to take up the lead, rather than leave it to others.
Professional bodies should be helping athletes to manage the issue, not the other way
as the questions above suggest’.
Of significant concern is athlete 2’s experience,
5% 5%
My GBS has consulted female athletes
re TG athlete (born male) inclusion in
female sport
My GBS has facilitated respectful and
evidence based discussion re TG
inclusion in female sport
I am concerned for my career if I ask
questions or speak freely re TG
athlete (born male) inclusion in
female categories
Figure 5b: Consultation and discussion
Strongly agree Agree No opinion Disagree Strongly disagree
In my role with a sporting organisation I have been advised to be careful about what I
say on the matter until their guidelines on this subject have been finalised. Athletes
are wary. I have been abused on social media for commenting on this issue. The abuse
is generally vitriolic and aggressive’.
There was mixed feedback regarding sponsor reactions to discussion of the topic with a
significant minority indicating concern. These may be athletes still competing, or working in
some capacity in sport. Regarding other athletes’ reactions, some were concerned and others
not. Possibly athletes’ views are well known in closed settings even if not expressed publicly,
or retired athletes are less concerned about others views and more able to speak freely.
The response to career impact if athletes asked questions or spoke freely was again mixed
with some indicating concern, athlete 12 stating ‘Agree but will do it anyway’ and a small
minority who were unconcerned. These may include older Olympians and athlete 19
I think reactions will vary. Some people would be open to respectful discussions and
others not - possibly due to a lack of understanding of the issues that need to be
further researched and understood. As I am long retired from sport, and semi-retired
from work, I am not concerned that my career will be affected by asking questions or
engaging in discussions, but would have concerns about some personal backlash if my
views were public’.
Athlete 18 elaborated I am not worried about my career, sponsors, what others think. I am
concerned that social expectations are driving matters such as this, without elite sport
realising the consequences’.
Theme 6: What should happen next?
Figure 6
Almost unanimously these Olympians think eligibility into female categories should be for
female athletes only, with a majority feeling strongly about this (Figure 6). Fairness is
prioritised with athlete 15 elaborating ‘Biology in sport is key, a protected xx class needs
implementing & maintaining for equal opportunities.’ Athlete 19 thinks ‘More research and
understanding is required to ensure female athletes are not disadvantaged by any policy to
allow for inclusion of transgender athletes in female competitions.’
Similarly, the majority agree/strongly agree current IOC Guidelines are unfair and should be
paused. Athlete 16 elaborated,
‘Again I struggle with what 'fair' really means.... we do not live in a fair world on so
many levels beyond this issue.... we need to define what 'reasonable fairness' or
58% 58%
32% 32%
5% 5% 5% 5%
5% 5%
0% 0% 0%
The rules for inclusion of TG
athletes (born male) in
female categories are fair
and should stay as they are
The rules for inclusion of TG
athletes (born male) in
female categories are unfair
and should be put on hold
Female athletes should be
consulted about inclusion of
TG athletes (born male) in
female categories
Eligibility into female sport
categories should be for
female athletes only
Figure 6: What should happen next?
Strongly agree Agree No opinion Disagree Strongly disagree
'reasonable minimised advantage' actually means. Sports stars are naturally at the
edge of what's possible which allows them to excel’.
Male puberty is revisited by athlete two who explains,
‘As per my previous statement, the changes to a male body through puberty are
significantly different to that of a woman and are the reason why in almost all sports
the competition is divided by gender. It clearly would not be fair otherwise and is
blindingly obvious if you just look around, look at sporting results, look at men and
women in general. To try and say otherwise is completely ridiculous. To say it’s not
fair for trans-genders to not be able to compete is completely negating the fact that it
disadvantages women. Why don’t women matter? I am in support of people living
however they choose but to try and say this wouldn’t disadvantage women in sport is
a lie’.
Further, the majority agree female athletes should be consulted about transgender inclusion in
female categories, however interestingly, athlete 18 commented,
‘I don't believe female athletes should be overly consulted, nor put under pressure to form
a view. I believe it is everyone's role to consider the implication of transgender athletes
competing in female sport, and its everyone's role to ensure we keep a level playing
Crucially, athlete 17 explained ‘consultation anonymously will be only way to get current
(active sport career) females to speak up.’
Theme 7: What is the fairest way to include transwomen in elite sport?
Figure 7
These Olympians unanimously disagreed with transgender inclusion in female categories
without male-advantage mitigation (Figure 7). However, although the majority did not agree
with inclusion in female categories even with hormone/surgery-related restrictions, a
minority supported this. Athlete 18 explained ‘I believe transgender athletes should be able to
compete at all competitions minus the top events (eg world cups and Olympic Games) or
where they are supporting countries to qualify for such events’. Four athletes had no opinion
on third category/open category options with athlete 19 acknowledging ‘I do not pretend to
fully understand the implications of the above options. We need research and facts to base
respectful discussions on before any decisions are made’. The most popular option by a small
margin was for additional categories, however, athlete 4 pointed out ‘It would not be fair to
expect athletes who have had surgery or hormone therapy (to) compete against those who
have not’. Half supported open/protected female categories with athlete 15 explaining ‘Open
0% 6%
28% 21% 21%
0% 6%
21% 21%
5% 5%
Include TG athletes (born
male) in female categories
without restrictions
Include TG athletes (born
male) in female categories
with restrictions relating to
hormones and/or surgery
Include a third category for
TG athletes inclusive of all
TG people including those
who do not wish to have
homonal or surgical
The male category could be
open and the female
category for the female
biological sex only
Figure 7: What is the fairest way to include transwomen?
Strongly agree Agree No opinion Disagree Strongly disagree
means no one is excluded’ and athlete 2 ‘I think this is the fairest way to support trans-gender
athletes right to live & compete as a women but to stop female sport being destroyed by
unfair competition’, but a significant minority disagreed. This may be due to lack of
symmetry between open/female, as compared to male/female categories, meaning the female
category is considered secondary.
Fairness, scientific evidence and IOC guidelines.
These female Olympians centred fairness, scientific evidence, and the importance of both for
female inclusion in sport. The majority agreed elite sport should be fair for female and
transgender athletes, but not that transgender inclusion should take precedence over fairness
for females. Their principles therefore aligned with the IOC for which transgender inclusion
should be ensured insofar as possible, but the overriding objective remains fairness.
However, the athletes diverged regarding evidence for the IOC guidelines, for two
empirically-related reasons. Firstly, they considered permitted serum testosterone too high to
mitigate male-advantage and secondly, together with former elite transwomen athletes Jenner
and Richards, they were unconvinced the evidence supports mitigation of puberty-related
male-advantage based on testosterone suppression alone.
It is therefore necessary to (re)visit the research. There is a growing consensus that,
notwithstanding the IOC’s fairness principle, achieving ‘tolerable unfairness’ using serum
testosterone as a proxy for male-advantage necessitates lowering the upper limit to 5nmols/l.
This is well above the reference female range, at the top end of female outliers with
polycystic ovary syndrome, and below the male range (Handelsman et al, 2018; World
Athletics, 2019). However, Harper et al (2021), and Hilton and Lundberg (2021) both report
therapeutic intervention for non-athletic transwomen achieves testosterone suppression to
well below 5 nmol/l.
This leads to the second question regarding puberty-related male-advantage mitigation via
testosterone suppression alone. Both review articles find that despite extremely low
testosterone levels in transwomen, significant male-advantage is retained. Hilton and
Lundberg (2021, 199) conclude ‘the effects of testosterone suppression on muscle mass and
strength in transgender women consistently show very modest changes, where the loss of lean
body mass, muscle area and strength typically amounts to approximately 5% after 12 months
of treatment’ and Harper et al (2021) that ‘values for strength, LBM (lean body mass) and
muscle area in transwomen remain above those of cisgender (sic) women, even after 36
months of hormone therapy.’ In contrast, male-advantage ranges from 8-12% in running
events (Handelsman et al, 2018) to 50% in some strength and power sports (Hilton and
Lundberg, 2021) and females have ‘31% lower LBM, 36% lower hand-grip strength and 35%
lower knee extension strength’ than males (Harper et al, 2021). The scientific evidence is
unequivocable, testosterone suppression to well below both 5 and 10nmol/l for one year, only
minimally affects male-advantage.
The two specific concerns of these Olympians regarding lack of evidence to support the IOC
guidelines as fair or even ‘tolerably unfair’ are therefore upheld by the scientific literature.
Conversely, significant male-advantage remains following the suggested protocol.
Accordingly, Hilton and Lundberg (p. 211) conclude, These data significantly undermine the
delivery of fairness and safety presumed by the criteria set out in transgender inclusion
policies. It appears 2015 IOC guidelines do not align with current scientific evidence and,
notwithstanding the over-arching fairness principle, prioritise transgender inclusion via
intolerable unfairness, over fairness or even tolerable unfairness for females.
Consultation and discussion
Given the IOC pre-frames the socio-cultural-political space within which inclusion claims for
transwomen in elite sport are weighed as female categories, female elite athletes are self-
evidently stakeholders and the athletes required to tolerate any unfairness. However, the
majority were unaware of either set of IOC Transgender guidelines and did not think there
has been adequate information or consultation with female athletes. Of real concern was that
the majority of athletes felt unable to ask questions, speak freely or participate in evidence-
based discussion, without being accused of transphobia.
This is corroborated by Teetzel (2020) who documents female Olympians are often labelled
anti-inclusive, transphobic, anti-trans, bigoted or intolerant for questioning the fairness of
existing guidelines and the scientific evidence. Accusations of transphobia (irrational fear of
transgender people) are widespread beyond sport in relation to feminist academics who
support female socio-cultural-political justice on the basis of sex (Burt, 2020; Blackburn,
Murray and Mackenzie, 2021; Lowrey, 2021; Suissa and Sullivan, 2021). These allegations
reprise androcentric discourses, framing women’s socio-cultural-political interventions as
emotional (irrational fears and phobias) rather than rational (logical and evidence-based).
Teetzel, for example, adopts sexist gender stereotypes by assuming female Olympians are
‘acting from jealousy fear or ignorance’ or ‘perpetuating injustices’ (10). This negates their
moral agency, scientific understanding, embodied lived experience, and equal socio-cultural-
political value within policy deliberations regarding their own categories. Given these
Olympians views aligned with the IOC principles, the scientific evidence and the views of
some ex-elite transwomen athletes, their views cannot be considered transphobic bigoted or
intolerant. That is, unless the overarching fairness principle, scientific literature and ex-elite
transwomen are also considered to be so.
To the contrary, these athletes demonstrated reasonable considered and respectful
engagement and concern for fair inclusion of transgender people. Consequently, athlete 14
fundamentally disagreed with eligibility criteria requiring medication, athlete 4 outlined the
unfairness of athletes with hormonal/surgical intervention competing in third categories
against those without, and athlete 18 that ‘transgender athletes should be able to compete at
all competitions minus the top events.
What should happen next?
The athletes overwhelming agreed with Harper et al (2021) and Hilton and Lundsberg (2021)
that research is necessary with elite transgender athletes including investigation of scientific
protocols which might eliminate/mitigate male-advantage. To explore the extent to which
these might be considered fair/tolerably unfair, female athletes and heterogenous transwomen
should be meaningfully consulted. Further, as Athlete 16 identified, given scientific research
is androcentric, research with female athletes who are the comparators needs attention
beyond circulating testosterone levels. This accords with Brown et al (2020) who report the
‘dearth of female-specific research in sport, and in sports medicine’. The specific
morphology, biomechanics, physiology and endocrinology of females is under-researched
which Heidari et al (2016) explain ‘limits the generalizability of research findings and their
applicability… in particular for women’.
In the meantime, these athletes favoured pausing IOC Guidelines and exploring alternative
solutions, including additional transgender categories, or protected female categories together
with open categories. The latter might actually maximise transgender inclusion, since a
minority of transgender people undergo any hormonal/surgical transition (Collin et al, 2016),
and social-only transition would exclude transwomen and male non-binary athletes from
female categories requiring male-advantage mitigation, but enable inclusive competition in
open categories.
This exploratory research investigated the intersectional hegemonically excluded ‘hidden by
choice’ voices of 19 female Olympians regarding IOC Transgender guidelines, but may not
be representative, preventing generalisability. The emergent knowledge should therefore be
developed by the IOC and GBS including, in particular, black elite female athletes and
athletes of colour from the global south.
However the socio-cultural-political space for transgender inclusion is mapped, whether at
first-order meta-political levels or as single sex categories, female elite athletes are ‘subjects
of justice’ and entitled to the full citizenship and human rights of both status and practice
within elite and Olympic sport communities. Yet these female Olympians, have not been
recognised and afforded equal political participation in policy formulation. This social justice
deficit means female athletes are recipients of arguably coercive evaluative decisions
regarding their own categories and sexed bodies. Further, given they felt unable to speak
without being termed transphobic, the wider female athlete population may feel similarly
silenced mis-recognised and mis-represented. This is a significant democratic failing by the
IOC and GBS which should rightly recognise the unique embodied lived experiences of
female elite athletes. Further, the IOC and GBS should ensure ‘protection of athletes from all
forms of harassment and abuse’ (IOC, 2020) including accusations of transphobia, for
contributing to eligibility deliberations about their own categories.
These Olympians agreed with the IOC’s over-arching fairness principle but, in common with
some ex-elite transwomen athletes, did not think evidence regarding male-advantage
mitigation via testosterone suppression supports IOC 2015 Transgender guidelines. The
scientific literature corroborates this position. Further, they did not accept fairness for females
should be subordinated to inclusion for transwomen, and consequently regarded IOC
guidelines as unfit for purpose. A minority supported the ‘tolerable unfairness’ of
testosterone suppression but were unaware this only minimally reduces male-advantage.
Within sport sociology, the dominant framing of quantitative methods and the social and
biological sciences as the pejorative scientism (Pringle and Falcous, 2018), is deeply
problematic for socio-cultural-political justice for female athletes. What might be considered
the disciplinary hubris and somatophobia of negating the material reality of human sexual
dimorphism, biologically sexed bodies and performance-related consequences for female
athletes notwithstanding the over-whelming scientific evidence, reinstates/maintains a
patriarchal mis-recognition of female persons as at most, smaller/lighter/inferior males. This
reinscribes normalised sex-blind hegemonic masculinity and androcentric citizenship. The
emancipatory origins of social constructionism, postmodernism and qualitative methods, may
have engendered a widespread over-reach of these privileged epistemologies necessitating a
rebalancing to include more empirical quantitative and cross-disciplinary research (Elling,
2015) with heterogenous female and transgender populations in the pursuit of socio-cultural-
political justice.
Both female and transgender athletes are socially disadvantaged, however fairness in sport
necessitates that females are not also physically disadvantaged. Justice entails the recognition
of females as equal moral agents, also and at the same time with distinctly female sexed
bodies, in order that the fastest highest and strongest females are celebrated at elite and
Olympic levels. Given these female Olympians viewed the IOC Transgender guidelines as
unjust, it is unsurprising they thought, in the words of two athletes, ‘Our Human rights to
equal opportunities (are) not being protected’ and asked ‘Why don’t women matter?’
I would like to thank nineteen female Olympic athletes for taking the time to generously
contribute to this research since without them this work would not have been possible.
Further, I would like to thank the editor and reviewers for their extremely helpful input.
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... Recent efforts are also part of a broader set of policies regulating access to the category of women's sport and stigmatizing those who do not fit neatly into sex/gender binaries. These sports and society-related sex/gender controversies have involved transgender athletes' rights, rights for individuals with varied sex characteristics, sex testing, and gender segregation in sports (Devine, 2021; GATE, 2022;Love, 2019;Pieper, 2016;Scovel et al., 2022). Commonly, ...
... Thus, men, heterosexuals, and older generations may be most comfortable and approving of the (re)construction of sex/gender binaries, and the policing of them, in sports and society. Relatedly, education may lead to a greater recognition of the variance that occurs along sex/gender lines and the extent to which sex/gender systems are socially constructed (Anderson & Travers, 2017;Devine, 2021;E-Alliance, 2022;Fischer & McClearen, 2019;Pieper, 2016). ...
... Although there is substantial disagreement, there is apparent majority support for transgender athletes' rights to be able to choose with whom they compete, rights for athletes with varied sex characteristics to be allowed to compete with female athletes, agreeing that there is no need for sex testing in sports, and recognizing that gender segregation in youth sports is problematic. This demonstrates more support for athletes' rights and inclusivity since the Flores et al. (2020) findings from 2015, the global internet study focused on sports fans by Cleland et al. (2021) in 2019, and in comparison to the 19 (non-U.S.) female Olympians' attitudes from Devine's (2021) research. ...
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Using data from the National Sports and Society Survey (N = 3,993), this study considers U.S. public opinion about transgender athletes’ rights, rights for athletes with varied sex characteristics, sex testing, and gender segregation in sports. Social structural location, social group, and ideological characteristics are examined as predictors of these opinions. Results indicated that most U.S. adults seem to support transgender athletes’ rights and rights for athletes with varied sex characteristics and oppose sex testing and gender segregation in youth sports. Men, heterosexuals, older generations, those without a college education, Republicans, Christians, and rural residents, as well as those who exhibit more traditionalism and traditionally gendered beliefs in their ideologies, were more opposed to athletes’ rights and inclusivity on these issues.
... Academic work attempting to reconcile fair and safe inclusion of both female and transgender participants in sport ranges between two distinct theoretical positions, underlying ontological assumptions and conceptual architecture. The biological sciences, quantitative social sciences, and materialist feminism overwhelmingly regard human sexual dimorphism as settled scientific reality, with associated performance-related consequences for females and males in sport (Bermon et al 2019;Burt, 2020;Devine, 2021;Harper et al 2021;Handelsman Hirschberg and Bermon 2018;Hilton and Lundberg 2021;Knox Anderson and Heather 2019;Lowrey, 2021;Murray and Blackburn, 2019;Stock, 2021;Suissa and Sullivan, 2021;Thibault et al, 2010). In contrast, the humanities and qualitative social sciences drawing heavily on postmodern and queer theory, often favour gender identity theory. ...
... Conversely, the social sciences, psychology and materialist feminism, have long rejected a biologically essentialised understanding of gender, instead conceptualising it as historically and socioculturally constructed femininity and masculinity, as distinct from immutable biological sex (Burt, 2020;Devine, 2021;Haines Deaux and Lofaro 2016;Fine, 2017;Suissa and Sullivan 2021). This distinction is widespread. ...
... It conceptualises unverifiable, innate, non-binary gender identities, unrelated to biological sex and understood as a spectrum rather than binary, but often identified by way of feminine or masculine gender stereotypes. In contrast with materialist feminism, these stereotypes are uncoupled from biological sex (Anderson and Travers, 2017;Burt, 2020; Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, n.d.; Devine, 2021;Lowrey, 2021;Stonewall;Suissa and Sullivan, 2021). ...
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The inclusion of girls and women in sport at all levels depends on single sex categories for most sports from puberty onwards, because of the biological differences between the sexes. Most sport is, by definition, competitive; involving invasion games, teams, leagues, races, competitions and sometimes rankings, from foundation to excellence. Girls and women are underrepresented, particularly in traditional sport, as recognised by the UK Sports Councils and most governing bodies of sport. This paper uses feminist philosophy: Lister on androcentric citizenship, and Fraser on justice as balance, framing, recognition, representation and redistribution. It investigates the impact on the inclusion of girls and women, of eligibility policies adopting ‘self-identification of gender’ guidelines for the inclusion of transgender people in sport, at participation rather than elite levels. It explores fairness and equality as incorporated in law in the 2010 Equality Act in Britain, and contributes to ‘equality evidence’ available to the UK Sports Councils and GBS. These bodies are charged with developing fair and inclusive evidence-based eligibility criteria, in sports participation settings, for both girls and women, and transgender people.
... Academic work attempting to reconcile fair and safe inclusion of both female and transgender participants in sport ranges between two distinct theoretical positions, underlying ontological assumptions and conceptual architecture. The biological sciences, quantitative social sciences, and materialist feminism overwhelmingly regard human sexual dimorphism as settled scientific reality, with associated performance-related consequences for females and males in sport (Bermon et al 2019;Burt, 2020;Devine, 2021;Harper et al 2021;Handelsman Hirschberg and Bermon 2018;Hilton and Lundberg 2021;Knox Anderson and Heather 2019;Lowrey, 2021;Murray and Blackburn, 2019;Stock, 2021;Suissa and Sullivan, 2021;Thibault et al, 2010). In contrast, the humanities and qualitative social sciences drawing heavily on postmodern and queer theory, often favour gender identity theory. ...
... Conversely, the social sciences, psychology and materialist feminism, have long rejected a biologically essentialised understanding of gender, instead conceptualising it as historically and socioculturally constructed femininity and masculinity, as distinct from immutable biological sex (Burt, 2020;Devine, 2021;Haines Deaux and Lofaro 2016;Fine, 2017;Suissa and Sullivan 2021). This distinction is widespread. ...
... It conceptualises unverifiable, innate, non-binary gender identities, unrelated to biological sex and understood as a spectrum rather than binary, but often identified by way of feminine or masculine gender stereotypes. In contrast with materialist feminism, these stereotypes are uncoupled from biological sex (Anderson and Travers, 2017;Burt, 2020; Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, n.d.; Devine, 2021;Lowrey, 2021;Stonewall;Suissa and Sullivan, 2021). ...
The inclusion of girls and women in sport at all levels depends on single sex categories for most sports from puberty onwards, because of the biological differences between the sexes. Most sport is, by definition, competitive; involving invasion games, teams, leagues, races, competitions and sometimes rankings, from foundation to excellence. Girls and women are underrepresented, particularly in traditional sport, as recognised by the UK Sports Councils and most governing bodies of sport. This paper uses feminist philosophy: Lister on androcentric citizenship, and Fraser on justice as balance, framing, recognition, representation and redistribution. It investigates the impact on the inclusion of girls and women, of eligibility policies adopting ‘self-identification of gender’ guidelines for the inclusion of transgender people in sport, at participation rather than elite levels. It explores fairness and equality as incorporated in law in the 2010 Equality Act in Britain, and contributes to ‘equality evidence’ available to the UK Sports Councils and GBS. These bodies are charged with developing fair and inclusive evidence-based eligibility criteria, in sports participation settings, for both girls and women, and transgender people. Author's Manuscript (full text) available from my website:
... Though several nations now accept a "third gender," transgender persons are sometimes compelled to endure genital surgery to acquire the official status of the gender; also, some nations would never acknowledge a change in a person's birth gender (WHO 2022). The WHO report additionally states that, overall, transgender persons have poor levels of access to medical treatments because of a variety of that transgender individuals who have undergone total medical conversion may participate in all subsequent Olympic Games (Devine 2022). This decision aimed to make it easier for transgender athletes to compete at the highest level of sport. ...
... The IOC has amended its rule to become more accepting of transgender athletes; also, the 2004 guideline has had a significant influence on the policy-making of other sports organizations (Genel 2017). Trans women could benefit from a competitive advantage within sports after the medical transition because of earlier exposure to testosterone hormones (Devine 2022), which might confer some physical benefits such as enhanced bone density, muscle mass, and increased oxygen-carrying ability. Even though the policy's standards seem to back the widely held idea that transgender persons have an athletic edge, they have already been criticized for lacking an evidence-based basis. ...
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Transgender individuals face discrimination and exclusion in various areas of society, including sports. Notably, intercollegiate athletics suffer criticism for their lack of inclusivity towards transgender athletes. Despite the increasing visibility of transgender individuals and ongoing efforts towards greater inclusivity, there is a significant lack of research on their social integration within college sports. This scoping review aimed to explore the then-current state of research on the social integration of transgender individuals in intercollegiate athletics, identify gaps in the literature, and suggest areas for further investigation. The study examined articles published between 2013 and 2023, using databases such as PubMed, ERIC, and EBSCO Essentials, as well as relevant citations from selected articles. The inclusion criteria for articles were their focus on the social integration of transgender individuals in sports events, publication in English, and relevance to the research question. A standardized technique based on the PRISMA flow diagram 2020 was used to locate, assess, and extract information from eligible research. The results of the study are expected to inform policy and strategy in transgender participation in college sports and promote greater inclusivity for transgender individuals in sports institutions and groups.
... Respective information is not collected for the SOEP, too. The inclusion of trans-and intersexual athletes into the binary gender order of competitive sports is controversially discussed [56]. However, these topics are out of the scope of this study, which addressed leisure-time, recreational sport, and exercise activities at the population level. ...
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It is widely assumed that LGBT+ people may feel insecure and unwelcome in sports settings, which are often characterized by a binary gender order and a culture of heteronormativity. Previous research also suggests that LGBT+ individuals experience homophobia in the context of sport. Despite these findings, reliable quantitative data on the sports participation levels of sexual minority groups are scarce. The paper addresses this academic void by analyzing sports activity data of sexual minority groups. The 2019 wave of the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) study is analyzed, which includes a novel LGBT+ boost sample of respondents who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or non-binary with regard to gender. The analysis of this sample shows that sports activity levels (with regard to frequency and duration) of homo- and bisexual individuals are comparable to the heterosexual majority. Although findings show that a high share of homo- and bisexual individuals experience sexual discrimination, discrimination is not associated with lower participation rates in sports. We thus conclude that the domain of sport—although by no means free of discrimination—offers sufficient participation opportunities for LGBT+ people.
... The number of Chinese female athletes participating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is three times that of male athletes, while the number of medals won by American female athletes accounted for 58% of the total number of medals won by the USA. Nonetheless, the efforts of female athletes have not received enough attention and respect, both at the media level and the competition system level (Devine, 2021;Nie, 2019). Nevertheless, in any case, those women, through their protest and reclamation, have left behind battle experiences for other vulnerable groups, such as gender or ethnic minorities (Ferez et al., 2017). ...
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The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games has brought great strides in terms of equality and inclusion. At least 185 publicly out LGBTIQ+ athletes have attended this global mega-event, which is more than triple the number from the 2016 Rio Olympics. This study investigates the sports participation of the LGBTIQ+ group based on qualitative method of literature review and logical analysis. It first examines the literature about the LGBTIQ+ group's sports participation and then sheds light on the evolution of gender characteristics of Olympics and sports from a historical research perspective. Finally, taking Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games as an example, this work discusses the state quo and future of the LGBTIQ+ group's Olympic participation. The results indicate that sex discrimination in sports has a long history. As the most important global sporting event, the Olympic Games have gone through different stages from the "male-exclusivity" to the gender binary system. However, true gender equality has not yet been realized. In addition, it points out that the Tokyo Olympics is of positive significance for promoting inclusiveness and equality. The ever-developing inclusiveness and diversity will probably break the gender competition mechanism of the Olympic Games. Sports institutions need to deal well with issues of gender equality and fair competition
There is current scientific and legal controversy about sports competition eligibility regulations for transgender athletes. In this case study, we quantified performances by an elite, transgender woman (male sex, female gender identity) college swimmer who competed in both the men's and women's NCAA categories. We also contextualized her performances with respect to contemporary elite college swimmers. These data demonstrate that the declines in freestyle swimming performances of a transgender woman after about two years of feminizing gender affirming hormone treatment (0.5% for the 100 to 7.3% for the 1650-yard distance) are smaller than the observed sex-related differences in performance of top athletes (11.4% for the 100 to 9.3% for the 1650-yard distance). Despite slower performances, the transgender woman swimmer experienced improvements in performance for each freestyle event (100 to 1650 yard) relative to sex-specific NCAA rankings, including producing the best swimming time in the NCAA for the 500-yard distance (65th in the men's category in 2018-19 to 1st in the women's, 2022). Similarly, NCAA-ranked male swimmers did not show large improvements in rank in the men's category during the same time frame. Our findings suggest that the performance times of the transgender woman swimmer in the women's NCAA category were outliers for each event distance, including 100-, 200-, 500-, and 1650-yard freestyle events. Our analysis may be useful as a framework for regulators considering participation guidelines which promote fair competition for all athletes- irrespective of gender identity.
What is happening with sex-based data collection? Alice Sullivan addresses contemporary confusions and controversies
The UK Government's Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is currently progressing through Parliament. The bill is designed to strengthen free speech and academic freedom in higher education, in response to what former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson describes as ‘the rise of intolerance and cancel culture upon our campuses’. But is there really a crisis of academic freedom in British universities? To see that there is, say Judith Suissa and Alice Sullivan, we need only look at the contemporary reality of suppression of debate on sex and gender. The evidence they catalogue of supression of research, of blacklisting, harassment and smear campaigns, of no‐platforming, disinvitations and shutting down of events, is incontrovertible. The recent experience of scholars and students wishing to discuss the material reality and political salience of sex makes complacency about academic freedom a luxury we cannot afford. Suissa and Sullivan set out a powerful argument for the role of academic freedom in pursuing truth within the academy and developing democracy beyond it. They effectively counter attempts to narrow the scope of academic freedom so as to render it compatible with no‐platforming. And they lay out a series of practical steps administrators can take to ensure that universities are places where an expansive and pluralistic intellectual climate prevails. This is a timely and compelling intervention in a vexed but urgent public debate. For their clear‐sighted diagnosis of where and how academic freedom has been eroded in our universities, and for their judicious account of what must be done to rebuild it, Suissa and Sullivan deserve a wide and attentive hearing.
Since the update of the Stockholm consensus in 2015, the policy direction had been to allow trans and non-binary women to participate as women athletes, after satisfying certain restrictions. More recently, a reversal in policy direction towards the exclusion of trans* athletes from women’s competitive sports has occurred. This policy reversal has been driven by a number of authors who openly support a gender critical feminist position. This brief commentary looks at three pillars of the gender critical position, and argues that each of these three pillars will produce conservative outcomes in women’s sport that will do nothing to challenge the dominance of men, nor prevent the ongoing subordination of both women and trans* athletes.
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Philosophical arguments regarding academic freedom can sometimes appear removed from the real conflicts playing out in contemporary universities. This paper focusses on a set of issues at the front line of these conflicts, namely, questions regarding sex, gender and gender identity. We document the ways in which the work of academics has been affected by political activism around these questions and, drawing on our respective disciplinary expertise as a sociologist and a philosopher, elucidate the costs of curtailing discussion on fundamental demographic and conceptual categories. We discuss some philosophical work that addresses the conceptual distinction between academic freedom and free speech and explore how these notions are intertwined in significant ways in universities. Our discussion elucidates and emphasises the educational costs of curtailing academic freedom.
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Objectives: We systemically reviewed the literature to assess how long-term testosterone suppressing gender-affirming hormone therapy influenced lean body mass (LBM), muscular area, muscular strength and haemoglobin (Hgb)/haematocrit (HCT). Design: Systematic review. Data sources: Four databases (BioMed Central, PubMed, Scopus and Web of Science) were searched in April 2020 for papers from 1999 to 2020. Eligibility criteria for selecting studies: Eligible studies were those that measured at least one of the variables of interest, included transwomen and were written in English. Results: Twenty-four studies were identified and reviewed. Transwomen experienced significant decreases in all parameters measured, with different time courses noted. After 4 months of hormone therapy, transwomen have Hgb/HCT levels equivalent to those of cisgender women. After 12 months of hormone therapy, significant decreases in measures of strength, LBM and muscle area are observed. The effects of longer duration therapy (36 months) in eliciting further decrements in these measures are unclear due to paucity of data. Notwithstanding, values for strength, LBM and muscle area in transwomen remain above those of cisgender women, even after 36 months of hormone therapy. Conclusion: In transwomen, hormone therapy rapidly reduces Hgb to levels seen in cisgender women. In contrast, hormone therapy decreases strength, LBM and muscle area, yet values remain above that observed in cisgender women, even after 36 months. These findings suggest that strength may be well preserved in transwomen during the first 3 years of hormone therapy.
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This article responds to Cowan et al.'s critique of our article ‘Losing sight of women's rights: the unregulated introduction of gender self-identification as a case study of policy capture in Scotland’, published by Scottish Affairs 28(3) in August 2019. Cowan et al. make a series of strong criticisms, including of our accuracy, diligence and adherence to scholarly norms. We reject these as unreasonable. In our view, they misunderstand and misrepresent the fundamental purpose of our article, fail to engage with our core thesis of policy capture, and implausibly seek to place our view of the law beyond academic respectability. Their own strongly-asserted view of the law appears at least open to question. We argue that the problem is not with our scholarship falling below any normal acceptable standard, but rather that Cowan et al. appear to be uncomfortable with others holding and expressing any different view to theirs on this topic. They have therefore reached too quickly for assertions of incompetence or worse. We discuss the climate in which our original article was produced and in which we are now defending it. Describing our own experiences as well of those of other academics, we question how the scholarship needed to help shape policy and law in this area can take place under such conditions.
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Males enjoy physical performance advantages over females within competitive sport. The sex-based segregation into male and female sporting categories does not account for transgender persons who experience incongruence between their biological sex and their experienced gender identity. Accordingly, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) determined criteria by which a transgender woman may be eligible to compete in the female category, requiring total serum testosterone levels to be suppressed below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to and during competition. Whether this regulation removes the male performance advantage has not been scrutinized. Here, we review how differences in biological characteristics between biological males and females affect sporting performance and assess whether evidence exists to support the assumption that testosterone suppression in transgender women removes the male performance advantage and thus delivers fair and safe competition. We report that the performance gap between males and females becomes significant at puberty and often amounts to 10–50% depending on sport. The performance gap is more pronounced in sporting activities relying on muscle mass and explosive strength, particularly in the upper body. Longitudinal studies examining the effects of testosterone suppression on muscle mass and strength in transgender women consistently show very modest changes, where the loss of lean body mass, muscle area and strength typically amounts to approximately 5% after 12 months of treatment. Thus, the muscular advantage enjoyed by transgender women is only minimally reduced when testosterone is suppressed. Sports organizations should consider this evidence when reassessing current policies regarding participation of transgender women in the female category of sport.
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The US Equality Act, which amends civil rights statutes to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, passed the House in May 2019 with unanimous Democratic support. Adopting a feminist perspective, I scrutinize the act from a largely neglected position, one that supports both LGBTQ and sex-based rights. Although laudable in its aims, the Equality Act is objectionable in form. Rather than create new protected classes, the Equality Act's provides non-discrimination protections to LGBTQ individuals by redefining sex to include gender identity and sexual orientation. This is not only terminologically imprecise but also creates a clash between sex-based and gender identity-based rights. By defining gender identity as something that exists to be protected "regardless of sex", the act undermines sex-based provisions, replacing them with provisions based on gender self-identification. Recognizing confusion over terminology, I describe key terms (sex, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation) and consider various usages. I conclude by discussing ways the bill might be modified so as to protect LGBTQ people without undermining women's rights.
In May 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stated its intent to “require applicants to consider sex as a biological variable (SABV) in the design and analysis of NIH-funded research involving animals and cells.” Since then, proposed research plans that include animals routinely state that both sexes/genders will be used; however, in many instances, researchers and reviewers are at a loss about the issue of sex differences. Moreover, the terms sex and gender are used interchangeably by many researchers, further complicating the issue. In addition, the sex or gender of the researcher might influence study outcomes, especially those concerning behavioral studies, in both animals and humans. The act of observation may change the outcome (the “observer effect”) and any experimental manipulation, no matter how well-controlled, is subject to it. This is nowhere more applicable than in physiology and behavior. The sex of established cultured cell lines is another issue, in addition to aneuploidy; chromosomal numbers can change as cells are passaged. Additionally, culture medium contains steroids, growth hormone, and insulin that might influence expression of various genes. These issues often are not taken into account, determined, or even considered. Issues pertaining to the “sex” of cultured cells are beyond the scope of this Statement. However, we will discuss the factors that influence sex and gender in both basic research (that using animal models) and clinical research (that involving human subjects), as well as in some areas of science where sex differences are routinely studied. Sex differences in baseline physiology and associated mechanisms form the foundation for understanding sex differences in diseases pathology, treatments, and outcomes. The purpose of this Statement is to highlight lessons learned, caveats, and what to consider when evaluating data pertaining to sex differences, using 3 areas of research as examples; it is not intended to serve as a guideline for research design.
This article is a response to ‘Losing Sight of Women's Rights: The Unregulated Introduction of Gender Self-Identification as a Case Study of Policy Capture in Scotland’ by Kath Murray, Lucy Hunter Blackburn and Lisa MacKenzie, published in Scottish Affairs 28(3). Murray et al. sought to explore the legal status of women, particularly with regard to discrimination legislation, and concluded that the interests of trans women had begun to systematically erode the interests of non-trans women in Scotland. In this response, we aim to correct some of the erroneous statements made by Murray et al. about legal definitions of sex and gender, and about discrimination law. In critically engaging with Murray et al..’s argument we aim to build a much-needed clearer understanding of law and policy on sex and gender in Scotland, particularly as it relates to the application of the Equality Act 2010. We argue that, in that claiming that there has been policy capture in Scotland, Murray et al.. have neglected to contextualise ongoing debates about sex and gender in law against the backdrop of over two decades of clear legal and policy shifts across the UK. We call for researchers and others – in Scotland and elsewhere – to take care, particularly in interpreting and applying the law, especially as it applies to marginalised minority populations, so that we do not further obfuscate or mislead on important legal and social issues.
Throughout 2019, retired athletes Martina Navratilova (tennis), Sharron Davies (swimming), Kelly Holmes (athletics) and Paula Radcliffe (marathon) all spoke publically about what they perceive to be the unfairness of trans women competing in women’s elite sport. These successful athletes, all with a history of growing and promoting women’s sport, were simultaneously celebrated for sharing their thoughts on a complex issue, and labelled transphobic for expressing anti-inclusive and transphobic views. Navratilova, particularly, despite her long history of fighting for inclusion and to end homophobia in sport, faced a severe backlash for expressing anti-trans rhetoric. This paper examines the concept of allyship in the context of inclusion and fairness in sport. Conceptual clarification of what allyship involves and requires precedes an examination of whether athletes should be obliged to promote inclusive sport. I argue that elite women athletes have an obligation to promote women’s sport, but not one that extends as far as a requirement to actively act as allies. To support this conclusion, I argue that: 1) past and present trans athlete eligibility rules endorsed by the IOC are problematic; 2) the typical arguments from unfairness and performance advantages fail to demonstrate why trans athletes should not be welcome to compete; but 3) a requirement of allyship requires more from women athletes than we can reasonably expect. Being mandated to act as an ally, without full commitment, does more harm than good. Athletes thus are entitled to express their views, but sports organizations should be responsible for providing education to all athletes on the science and ethics of trans athlete inclusion.