Approximately 35 bills are being proposed that would prevent or forbid transgender women from participating in women’s athletics. Above, athletes run in the women’s 400 meter final during the Rio 2016 Olympics. Shaun Botterill / Shaun Botterill / Getty Images Hide caption
Shaun Botterill / Shaun Botterill / Getty Images
Shaun Botterill / Shaun Botterill / Getty Images
According to LGBTQ rights group Freedom for All Americans, around 35 bills have been introduced by state lawmakers across the country that would prevent or prohibit transgender women from participating in women’s athletics. That’s down from just two in 2019.
The final act in that push came last week when Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed the law “Mississippi Fairness Act.” The law prohibits schools from allowing transgender students to participate in female sports and cites “inherent differences between men and women” as one of the reasons for excluding these athletes from competing.
The often heated debates around these bills have centered on whether transgender women and girls have an unfair advantage over cisgender women – a term used for those who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth has been.
Proponents say the legislation is necessary to uphold fairness in women’s athletics by reducing what they consider to be an inherent competitive advantage of trans athletes who identify as female. Critics call this a bogus argument, saying that the proposals are being used as a means of discriminating against transgender Americans. These proposals could also open the door to humiliating treatment of women and girls who do not fit culturally accepted notions of femininity.
Often in the culture war aspect of the debate, there is a lack of focus on the types of questions that Dr. Eric Vilain has spent much of his career in research. Vilain, a pediatrician and geneticist who studies gender differences in athletes, says there are no good reasons to restrict transgender women’s participation in sports, especially at the high school level. Vilain has advised both the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA, saying that these laws are generally not based on science but “appeal to women who either have a different biology or … just look different”.
Dr. Villain caught up with NPR’s Michel Martin earlier this week to discuss the science of transathletes. Below are excerpts from this conversation, edited in parts for clarity and length.
Highlights of the interview
Proponents of these bills say it is meant to eliminate any competitive advantage that transgender athletes might have. So I want to ask you if there is any data on it and what it shows.
We know that men, on average, have a performance advantage in athletics of about 10% to 12% over women, which sports authorities have attributed to differences in levels of a male hormone called testosterone. The question, however, is whether in real life during actual competitions there is any performance advantage associated with this male hormone and whether trans athletes systematically win all competitions. The answer to this latter question of whether trans athletes win everything is simple – it doesn’t. And higher levels of the male hormone testosterone are linked to better performance in only a very small number of sports: 400 yards, 800 yards, hammer throw, pole vault – and that certainly doesn’t explain the entire 10% difference.
Finally, I would say that each sport requires different talents and anatomies to be successful. I think we should focus on celebrating this diversity instead of focusing on relative ideas of fairness. For example, a marathon runner’s body is very different from the body of a shot put champion, and a trans woman athlete may have some advantage on the basketball court because of her size, but would be at a disadvantage in gymnastics. So it’s complicated.
Do you think there is any reason to limit participation of transgender athletes at the high school level, or perhaps even the college level, since you have advised the NCAA on this as well as the International Olympic Committee? Is there a good reason to do this?
I do not believe that. First of all, I would like to say that there is a big difference between elite sport and sport in schools. Sports in schools should primarily be about inclusivity, setting individual goals, collective goals and wellbeing. And it shouldn’t be about destroying the competition. But if we are to do it that way, the rules still have to be inclusive, or at least not provide arguments that are not based on scientific evidence. One of the main problems in school – and, of course, in the elite world – is that binary categories make it quite difficult to come up with reasonable admission requirements. And they cause a lot of frustrations. So one way out could be to open up categories. That would be a way to explore different avenues, a way to have sports competitions, especially in schools. However, adding categories needs to be well thought out and done with equal access to benefits such as scholarships. Otherwise it would create categories of second class citizens, which is certainly not a good thing.
One of the groups that have opposed this type of law is the National Women’s Law Center. They wrote a letter against a bill in Idaho banning transgender girls from participating in women’s youth sports. And in it, they write: “The law allows anyone to question whether an athlete is a woman or a girl for any reason. And then the student must verify her gender by undergoing invasive tests, which could include a pelvic exam or blood tests or chromosome tests. “And one of the plaintiffs was a plaintiff named Jane Doe, a cisgender athlete who normally does not wear skirts or dresses and is athletic. And they say that under a law like this someone could just ask or insist that this athlete take one of these exams to prove her gender is inherently harmful and has no legitimate purpose. What do you say?
You know, it’s interesting because there is a long history of discrimination in sports against women who look different. Again, the science of whether testosterone actually provides a competitive advantage in real life is not clearly established. More worryingly, all of these elite-level rules have affected women – not all women, but women with a Y chromosome. And often it is triggered by women who look different. I’m a little worried to hear that these elite-level issues are now reaching middle and high schools and colleges.
You helped the NCAA draw up their guidelines for the acceptance of transgender athletes in 2011. They also advise the International Olympic Committee on similar issues. What do you pay attention to when determining what defines a particular sports fair, especially with regard to fairness and inclusiveness?
If we want to think about fairness, we should first look at the principles of the Olympic Charter. It is said that every individual must be able to do sports without discrimination of any kind. And in the Olympic spirit, what applies to schools should apply to colleges and the elite. And there really is a long journey of gender-based athletes facing increasing choices that are often discriminatory and not based on science. And they should inspire us to consider the full complexities of interpreting data and appreciate our more valuable values, which in science I would call evidence, and of course accept inclusivity.