Thinking Beyond Testosterone
by Christian Gamauf
(Content Note: Discussion of interphobia, transphobia, racism, gender testing)
In recent months, we have seen an increased negative focus on many transgender and intersex people in sports, particularly around access to women’s competition. This follows the ongoing moral panic about trans people in the media which focuses on and demonises trans women and their right to take part in many competitive sports, alongside long-standing suspicion and hostility towards intersex people in sport. Recently, several high-profile athletes have waded into the debate on Twitter, speaking out against trans women’s rights to compete in women’s sport and claiming unfair advantages.
Discussion around eligibility in women’s sports often disproportionately affects intersectionally marginalised women. In April of this year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is set to reach a decision on Caster Semenya’s appeal hearing against the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) on new regulations which would disqualify women with a testosterone level over 5 nmol/L from competitions. These rules disproportionately affect women with higher than average levels of testosterone, particularly many trans women and women with some intersex variations. In sport, women of colour remain particularly targeted for suspicion and calls for gender testing in regard to testosterone – this is something with historical precedent.
Both responses to transgender athletes competing and discussions around gender testing of women are often framed as stemming from a desire to protect fairness in women’s sport and representing simple facts of biology or science. However, many of these assertions are based on under-researched and/or transphobic, interphobic and racist assumptions and there is not enough evidence to demonstrate a link between testosterone or transition and unfair advantages.
Transgender athletes have been able to compete in the Olympic Games since 2003 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) first implemented rules allowing transgender athletes to compete on the condition of having undertaken sex reassignment surgery, a minimum of 2 years of hormonal therapy and legal recognition by the appropriate official authorities.
In 2015, the IOC recognised changes in attitudes towards gender identity and updated their rules on transgender athletes and while removing the requirement to undergo surgery is a welcome improvement, the new rules set limits on athletes’ testosterone levels are still inadequate. While there are no restrictions to trans men competing in the male category, a trans woman must still demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition, and it must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of competition.
It is striking that no out transgender athlete has won a medal at the Olympics, especially considering the fear-mongering that claims that women’s sports might become ‘overrun’ by men pretending to be trans women in order to gain a competitive advantage. Indeed, it would be more important to look at why trans women haven’t won any events at the Olympics level yet. There is clear evidence that many trans people and especially trans women experience discrimination because of their gender identity and face barriers to participation in sports, making it more difficult to progress to the highest levels of competition, or in many cases to access sports at all.
It is misleading to focus on testosterone as the only deciding factor in athletic success or in the differences between men and women. As seen in the case Dutee Chand v. AFI & IAAF, there is limited evidence of a correlation between high testosterone levels and athletic success, and the studies brought forward by the IAAF since then have been criticised for their methods. Whatever the effects of higher testosterone on strength and speed, other factors such as economy of movement, interactions with teammates or competitors or mental toughness also have a determining impact in sports.
Katrina Karkazis, an anthropologist and bioethicist who has written extensively about testosterone says, “If we are really concerned about fairness, we need to think beyond one biological trait, testosterone, and think about what fairness would look like in athletics”, and this statement goes to the heart of the debate. There is a huge divide between developing countries and more affluent countries in terms of resources and opportunities, including training, coaching staff, nutrition, access to sporting facilities, and more.
As a recent response by LGBTQI+ sports organisations to Sharron Davies’ recent remarks on trans women in sport notes, “Well-funded private schools with top-class sporting facilities and highly qualified coaches have always dominated performance sport and yet the current debate is focusing on an estimated 1% of the female population who are currently underrepresented in organised sport, not dominating it.”
To protect women’s sport, shouldn’t we be demanding greater investment both in the performance pathway for women alongside improvements in the way women’s sport is represented? And shouldn’t we be aiming to ensure that women’s sport is available and accessible to all women?
It is irresponsible to frame the debate around the inclusion of trans and intersex people in sports as merely a debate about safeguarding competition, with a complete disregard to the ways trans and intersex people face a range of difficulties in accessing sports, from the highest levels of competition to grassroots groups and within the educational system.