Opinion: We Need to Talk About Transgender Women in Sports

Updated on December 2, 2019
Transgender cyclist Rachel McKinnon on the podium with a gold medal.
Transgender cyclist Rachel McKinnon on the podium with a gold medal. | Source

Ericka Newsome, a 33-year-old mixed martial arts fighter, enters the cage for only her second professional fight. She has an undefeated record as an amateur fighter, so she has her sights set on a bounce-back performance. As she steps into the ring, full of confidence fueled by weeks of hardcore training and preparation, she locks eyes with her opponent across the cage. The referee signals the start of the fight, and Newsome maintains eye contact with her counterpart. She is entirely unaware that her opponent, Fallon Fox, was born a man.

Controversial transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox during a weigh-in.
Controversial transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox during a weigh-in. | Source

It is important to start off by mentioning the climate we are in today. While social awareness has risen exponentially over the past decade, transgender issues are still a little behind. Transphobia is a very real problem all over the globe. For example, a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that 29.9% of transgender female teenagers say they have attempted suicide (Hassanein, 2018). Transgender people should be treated with respect, just like everyone else, and they should be recognized for who they are.

With that being said, there are many conversations that need to take place on a larger scale. The debate about gender pronouns has been very public, playing openly on television stations such as breakfast television in the UK. Pronouns are harmless, however. The participation of transgender women in women’s sports is not. It is a growing phenomenon, and it has become a major dilemma. Serious conversations need to be had before women’s combat sports are damaged forever.

Many sports have been affected by the participation of transgender women, such as powerlifting, cycling, and track and field. For example, Laurel Hubbard, a transgender woman, dominated weightlifting at the Pacific Games, winning 2 gold medals (Aschwanden, 2019). Canadian Rachel McKinnon has broken world records in women’s cycling, dominating her competition since she broke into the scene as a transgender woman in 2018 ("Transgender world champion Rachel McKinnon defends title in Manchester," 2019). This should be considered a problem, as cisgender men have many biological advantages over women and transitioning won’t get rid of them. These results are to be expected, not celebrated.

Gold medalist weightlifter Laurel Hubbard mid-lift.
Gold medalist weightlifter Laurel Hubbard mid-lift. | Source

Those sports mentioned above are being hurt because cis women are put at an unfair advantage. The biggest issue, however, is their participation in combat sports, because women’s health and safety are also at risk. Putting a transgender woman in a cage or on a wrestling mat against a cis woman is like asking for a serious injury.

The most notable example of this is when former mixed martial artist Fallon Fox competed against two women without anybody even knowing she was a transgender woman. One of her opponents, Tamika Brents, ended up with a concussion and a fractured skull before getting knocked out in the first round. She gave the following remarks about the fight: “I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night…I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life” ("Transgender MMA Fighter Breaks Skull of Her Female Opponent. Are we Becoming too Careful not to Offend any Group of People?" 2018).

Common Counterarguments

Action needs to be taken, but I quickly want to address the two most common counterarguments I hear.

Are you implying that men are superior to women?

No, I am categorically not saying that men are superior to women. I believe in equality for all, regardless of gender or even biology. However, there is a difference between wanting equality for all and everybody being equivalent. Men and women are not the same. They never will be. Biologically, we are very different.

In particular, men have many physical advantages when it comes to most sports. Generally, men have significantly higher testosterone levels, which increases bone and muscle mass, among other benefits. Men have greater lung capacity, stronger grip strength, bigger bone structure, and so on. The list is long. On average, men are biologically predisposed to have significant advantages in most sports against women. After all, that is why sports are often split into gender categories. Can you imagine if we had women playing in the NFL? I certainly do not want to.

The NFL is widely considered the most physical sports league in North America.
The NFL is widely considered the most physical sports league in North America. | Source

If what you are saying is true, then why don't all transgender athletes participating against women win every time?

Having an inherent advantage, no matter how significant, does not guarantee victory. The rate of transgender people participating in women’s sports is still relatively low. As society evolves, it is fair to assume that more and more people will transition, and that rate will only increase. Years down the line, women’s sports could be dominated by transgender athletes. That would essentially ruin women’s sports, and that is what we should hope to avoid.

Possible Solutions

It is great that we are fighting for transgender rights, and that should continue. We also need to fight for women’s rights. Sports are a passion for so many women, adults and children alike. It is also a profession for some of them. Making the playing field unfair by allowing transgender females to compete against them can take away that right for many women. It is essential that we reconsider the approach to this issue. It is a very sensitive topic, but some conversations cannot be censored. Women’s safety and competitive integrity are in jeopardy

There are no easy solutions. A change as radical as banning transgender women from competing in women’s sports is not even necessary. However, some athletic organizations have taken a step toward leveling the playing field. For example, the International Olympic Committee has adopted the rule that “transgender women can compete in the women’s category as long as their blood testosterone levels have been maintained below 10 nano moles per liter for a minimum of 12 months, while premenopausal cis women are generally 1.7 nmol/L” (Aschwanden, 2019). As previously mentioned, other advantages such as bone density, height, grip strength would still exist even with lowered testosterone levels. But this is a much-needed attempt to level the playing field. Other organizations and athletic bodies should implement a similar rule to help combat unfair and potentially dangerous competition for women.

In combat sports, having fighters be aware of the biological sex of their opponent is the right step to take. In that case, the women would be given a choice whether they would compete with them or not. I believe they should be given that option.

If none of these actions are taken, then what is stopping a highly athletic man from declaring himself a transgender woman solely to take advantage of his physical gifts for a payday or notoriety? Questions like these need to be asked to move towards solutions.

Fallon Fox vs. Ericka Newsome, 2013

The referee jumps in after only 39 seconds of fight time. A vicious knee from Fallon Fox knocked Ericka Newsome out cold. As Fox celebrates with her coaches, Newsome is trying to remember what year she’s in. It was the last time Ericka Newsome ever fought professionally. Situations like these are fairly uncommon, but they are increasing. It is time for people to step in, or else women’s sports for the next generation will be much worse off.

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    • Bushra Iqbal profile image

      Anya Ali 

      5 months ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      Well said!

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