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Bridging Social Justice and Science for Trans Women Athletes

As a gender justice warrior and women’s sports equity zealot, I want to build a bridge between science and justice on the complex topic of trans women in sports.

Forty years ago, I created an Exercise Science major at Ithaca College, as I believed women athlete’s bodies and their interactions with physiology, biochemistry, and biomechanics was unique and worthy of study. Fast forward to today and I feel as if I am back in school, as we as a community are deep in the middle of the reality of how hormones, specifically testosterone, influence muscle mass and explosive strength in women’s sports today.

We all stand on the shoulders of thought leaders who have been working for decades to build this growing body of research in the arena of exercise science and trans athletes in sports. I live as a point guard with 60 years of life experience, 30 plus professional years in women's sports. I know enough about the body, hormones, and sports to raise some issues around trans women athletes in sports in a digestible manner.

The journey and practice of inclusion and belonging are central to my life and work. I want everyone to be able to realize their dreams - on whatever platform, in whatever sector. I am an idealist at heart. At the same time, I'm a scientist who is critical and skeptical and wants evidence to back up hypotheses. Given both, I find it hard to grapple with blanket inclusion of all trans women in sports or the creation of an unfair competition due to a scientific set of markers.

Our society is in the middle of an exploration of gender identity and ongoing education about what it means for people to ‘live’ wherever they desire on a gender continuum. We see the rejection of this ideology with children in Florida unable to identify safely with their gender expression or being unable to access gender affirming medication in Texas. When Florida, Alabama, and other homophobic communities aren’t able to separate sex from gender identity from sexuality, the community regresses and people suffer.

For those who still see the construct of gender as limited to a binary, cis or trans, transgender is when your gender identity differs from the sex on your birth certificate. Sex chromosomes - XX for females and XY for males - determines your sex. For less than 1% of the population, there are about 60 conditions where biological sex is not clear. Differences in Sexual Development or Intersex means there is a mismatch between the genetic chromosomes and the appearance of genitals and secondary sex characteristics.

I like to think of gender like color. It would be very dull and boring to live in a black and white world – compared to a full spectrum of color, of sexual orientation, of intersex conditions, of gender variance and the choices available brings so much more vibrancy to our lives!

Recently my politically-active hairdresser made the following statement – ‘Trans women in sports are being used as a partisan issue and I need to understand what it all means’. The following is the primer I shared with her:

1. There is a natural athletic advantage to people born male and having gone through male puberty. This can be visually seen in muscle mass, wingspan, bone length and expressed in sports with advantages of explosive speed and strength. Once a body builds up this post puberty muscle tissue, it stays. When an athlete begins training (even after getting ‘soft’), the muscle comes back.

2. All of us have an inner knowing of the power of hormones. When we lived through puberty, experienced menopause or birthed a baby, and/or felt our body age, that’s our lived experience of the power of hormones.

Testosterone and estrogen each bring their own qualities. Those born male at birth have twenty times the testosterone that people born female have on average. Testosterone produced during puberty advances an advantage in sports as it influences bone growth, muscle tissue, and the amount of oxygen our blood can carry with higher amounts of hemoglobin. Studies have shown the male athletic advantage is normally between 8 and 20%, depending on the sport and event, and up to 50% in sports and events featuring explosive power like throwing, jumping, and lifting. The difference in punching power is 160% greater for males after puberty!

3. The competitive sports industry has a rich history of recognizing and glorifying the performance advantages of males. Among men’s sports are a variety of protocols, events, and categories to address these muscle mass and size advantages, allowing different body-types to find success. For example, school sport creates age categories that typically revolve around puberty. Then there are weight categories in boxing, weightlifting, rowing, wrestling, recognizing the athletic advantage of more mass and size.

4. The competitive sports industry has created events and categories for men and women. For example, men and women who throw the shot put may have the same world records, but only because men throw a 16-pound weight and women throw an 8-pound weight. Volleyball nets are eight inches higher for men, basketballs are smaller in circumference for women. Men’s and women’s gymnastics use different apparatuses; the men’s pommel horse and rings feature men’s stronger upper body strength.

5. Sport is a social construct. Practices, travel, working out, stretching, navigating interactions with adults and teammates is the fabric of sports. Probably less than10% of sports consists of actual competition. The other 90% is the training and getting together and being social as part of a team.

If we hold these five concepts as foundational, we can then have a conversation about trans women and women’s sports. Can we agree with the fact that a male who has gone through puberty has a natural strength and cardiovascular advantage? Can we agree sports should strive to be an open and welcoming environment, as well as creating fair competition? If the answer to these two questions is a ‘yes’, we can seek to establish fairness.

For the small number of trans women/girls who have begun puberty and are mitigating their testosterone advantage with gender affirming hormones like testosterone blockers and estrogen, sports federations need to create consistent metrics and practices to check for the impact of the hormones and for any legacy advantages that may nonetheless remain. In the future, perhaps there will be a practice to assess hormone levels right at the time of the competition. Today, these tests could be taken via a saliva swab.

Another option is to have full inclusion for trans women within all the social constructs of sport (practices, meetings, etc.), but have a separate competitive category for trans women athletes who cannot or do not want to mitigate their male puberty advantage. As the number of transgender women grows, trans women could eventually compete in their own competition.

Said more succinctly, everybody agrees that if someone’s gender identity is girl or woman, she should be included and fully welcomed in the social construct of sport. If she has chosen to retain her post-puberty male performance advantages, then she should be separately scored with those scores being equally celebrated and respected. The possibilities for inclusion and fairness are endless.

The bottom line is that we must hold both social and scientific perspectives together - not as opposing forces but as a unified team in winning the game of fair athletics that provide opportunities for everyone. Leaders in sports, like athletic directors, conference leaders, coaches, and sports media, have an opportunity to act affirmatively and proactively to address fair and inclusive sport categories and constructs for all kids.

Gender imbalances in athletics reflect itself in both social and scientific perspectives on and off the court, the field, and the pool. Statistics show more than 80% of all sport leaders are still male. High school girls still get millions of fewer sports opportunities than schools provide boys. Women in college are being denied a billion dollars in athletic scholarships. Clearly, there is room for radical change in our sports constructs.

Transgender inclusion presents a great opportunity to integrate more scientific and social justice advancements into the sports industry. (We haven’t even talked about how to include transgender boys or men!) Visionary leadership is essential to ensure consistent standards, categories, and practices, which then need to be adopted widely to create a level playing field for ALL athletes, regardless of their gender orientation.

Thanks to Dr. Donna A. Lopiano and the entire leadership of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group and Nancy Hogshead of Champion Women for dedicating four+ years gathering information, sharing insights, and having conversations with trans leaders, scientists, athletes, lawyers, coaches, activists, and more to understand and distill information on this complex topic. Go HERE to sign a petition inviting sports conferences and governing bodies to address this issue.

Building upon a 35-year career in women’s leadership, sports, and strategic consulting with her firm Changemaker Strategies, Tuti Scott is focused on engaging people in philanthropy and investing to activate their capital with a social justice lens. As a life-long athlete, gender avenger, and point guard, Tuti and her team engaged thousands of activist donors at the Women’s Sports Foundation raising $70 million (1994-2008) to catalyze equal access to all sports for all women and girls. After growing up in rural New Hampshire and “jumping class,” Tuti’s story and publications inspire people to make money moves that matter.


Tuti B. Scott Founder of Changemaker Strategies, Tuti B. Scott is a speaker, strategist and coach to leaders and teams. After a 30-year career in women’s leadership, Title IX protections, and strategic consulting, Tuti is focused on engaging people in bringing a social inclusion lens to philanthropy and investing via workshops, speaking, and convenings. A life-long athlete, she encourages women to get in the game of money with her action-oriented publications; Money, Gender and Power - A Guide to Funding with a Gender Lens (2019) with Slingshot and Moving Money for Impact; A Guide to Gender Lens Investing (2021). Tuti is an Advisory Board member of Feminist.com. www.tutiscott.com


Other articles at Feminist.com by Tuti Scott:
Moving Money for Impact
Reframing Women’s History Month
On Dreaming and Practice: Donna Lopiano, Defender of Women's Rights for Four Decades

 

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