Transgender Women Need a Separate Athletic Division

Thomas Koon, Opinion Editor

In 2019, transgender woman JayCee Cooper broke her state’s record for the bench press after only being an active powerlifter for a year.

Following her success, Cooper signed up for more USA Powerlifting (USAPL) meets. To her disappointment, the USAPL denied her participation, citing their new “Transgender Participation Policy,” which stated that transgender athletes “compromised fair play,” effectively banning them from the organization completely. 

Today, states across the nation are considering banning transgender women, meaning they were born as male and transitioned to female, from competing against cisgender women.

The Cooper incident became national news when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted her email to USAPL, which stated that the “myth that trans women have a direct competitive advantage is not supported by science.” Omar’s tweet implies that USAPL’s decision to remove transgender athletes is discriminatory and harmful. 

While Omar is right that there’s no study explicitly linking transgender women with heightened athletic performance, this is mostly because there aren’t many available transgender women for studies. However, according to a 2019 essay in the Journal of Medical Ethics, it has been demonstrated that “high testosterone and other male physiology provides a performance advantage in sport.” Trans women have both, suggesting that they have a physical advantage over biological women. 

Many athletic organizations require that trans women keep their testosterone levels low. The levels of testosterone that the International Olympic Committee allows a trans woman to have is over three times the amount of testosterone women normally produce, according to Healthline. 

Proponents of allowing trans women in women’s sports respond to this by saying that testosterone is only one factor in a person’s athletic performance. 

For example, when asked about her testosterone levels, trans powerlifter Mary Gregory defended herself, saying “there are so many other factors that determine how much you lift: biomechanics, better leverages, joints, lengths of bones – where do we stop and draw the line?” 

Ironically, these “other factors” are also advantages for trans women athletes. Even if there was a way to put trans women’s testosterone levels on an equal level with biological women, trans women would still have a huge advantage based on their previous physiology and body structure. This is especially true if the trans woman went through puberty as a male. Larger lung capacity, higher bone density, and stronger connective tissue are just some of the physical advantages that males develop in puberty over females, according to various studies by the National Institute of Health. 

These physiological advantages are likely what led transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox to break her opponent’s skull and give her a concussion in 2013. They are what led Mary Gregory to break four powerlifting world records in a single day in 2019. They are what led trans cyclist Veronica Ivy to not only break the world 200-meter sprint record for the 35-44 age bracket in 2018 but also win the UCI Masters World Track Cycling Championship a year later. 

In the future, athletic organizations should look into creating a new division for transgender people or maybe an open sex division. It’s not discrimination in the same way that weight classes and age brackets aren’t discrimination. Suggesting that transgender women have a physical advantage in sports is not at all an attack on the identity or validity of transgender people. It’s about keeping sports fair for everyone.