The recent ban of CeCé Telfer, a trans woman, from competing in the women’s 400-meter hurdles in the US Olympic trials highlights sports regulations that cannot include trans or intersex people.
The reason given to ban Telfer [who is Black] is that it did not meet the testosterone level requirements set by World Athletics, the international governing body of track sports. According to their eligibility requirements, the testosterone level must be below 5 nanomoles per liter for a period of 12 months in order for an athlete to compete in international women’s 400-meter-per-mile races.
Are such endogenous testosterone limits justified to exclude trans or intersex women from athletic sports?
The main reason given is that trans or intersex women with higher testosterone have an unfair advantage over cis women. Proponents cite previous scientific research to say that cismen have an average 8-12% performance advantage over ciswomen.
But comparing performance between cismen and ciswomen is irrelevant here, for the simple reason that trans and intersex women are women because they identify as such. Gender identity refers to our deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to our biological sex assigned at birth or labeled by cis society.
According to a press release from World Athletics, there is a “broad medical and scientific consensus” that high levels of endogenous testosterone circulating in athletes can dramatically improve their athletic performance. But a review of the scientific literature on testosterone levels and their relationship to athletic performance shows that there is no clear and consistent correlation.
There are credible studies that link testosterone with better performance, but at the same time, there are scientific studies that show little or no connection. There are also studies that link increased testosterone to degraded performance.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that trans women with higher testosterone have a consistent advantage over cis women.
In the case of Dutee Chand v. Indian Athletics Federation (AFI) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the stated position of World Athletics was that hyperandrogenic women have a performance advantage of around 3%.
But World Athletics allows for competitive advantages far greater than that, such as advantages provided by height, metabolic levels, socio-economic privileges, nutrition, training, access to sports equipment, and more.
For example, there is no attempt to ban or restrict players with Marfan syndrome. The long limbs and flexible joints associated with this syndrome give swimmers, basketball players and volleyball players a clear advantage over other athletes.
If there is no morally relevant difference between the benefits that flow from endogenous testosterone and those that are the result of genetic variation, why should testosterone levels be limited while other variations determining performance? sporty are not?
It is interesting to note here that cis women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and Congenital Adrenal Hyperlapse (HCS) are exempt from the testosterone level requirements, even though World Athletics maintains that the higher testosterone level. in these women gives them a performance advantage.
Such discriminatory standards reinforce the myth that trans and intersex women are not really women, only cis women are.
The idea of fairness in sport is an unruly horse. The rationale for not excluding trans and intersex women must go beyond the idea of fairness. Sport is about meaningful narratives and should include and promote gender realities. Along with a level playing field, we need to make sure the pitch is accessible to everyone in the first place. The Olympic Charter itself recognizes that “playing sport is a human right and that every individual should have the opportunity to practice sport, without discrimination of any kind”.
While we are talking about a level playing field, we also need to discuss how forcing trans and intersex women to lower their testosterone levels affects them both physically and psychologically.
And how it affects their basic rights to privacy and dignity, as the whole procedure is medically intrusive and causes significant health problems. Reducing the chances of winning cisgender people, in themselves a contested claim, cannot outweigh the rights and freedoms of trans and intersex athletes.
Respecting the gender identity of women and guaranteeing their sports rights is not a contradictory process but a dialectical one. Maybe the competition is a zero sum game, where someone loses so that someone can win. But social dynamics are not zero-sum. We are all losers if one of us is disenfranchised.