Sports and the Two Sides of Feminism

The inclusion of transgender women in sports competitions must not come at the expense of cisgender women.

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Women’s sports are for women—but are they really? Should women’s sports encompass all individuals who experience their gender as feminine, regardless of their birth sex? In the wake of the “woke” era into which America has entered, these questions have seeped into women’s sports, politicizing the competition. As society has become increasingly accepting of different sexual orientations, cultural expressions, and people staying true to how they experience gender, a multitude of new opportunities have been created for a broader range of people to be included in traditionally exclusive activities like professional sports. The rise of transgender athletes has thus generated concern about the even playing field in women’s sports and the violation of it by the inclusion of trans women. While the participation of transgender athletes in the Olympic games and professional sports should be celebrated as a milestone, it is also surrounded by controversy. 

The most prominent issue has become fairness toward biological female athletes when competing against transgender women. This topic has taken to the streets and social media and has been reflected in some local policies preventing transgender athletes from competing with their preferred gender. As a result, there have been many voices disagreeing and rallying behind the different sides of feminism represented: the issue of cisgender women being absolutely recognized in their sport versus the idea that a woman is a woman, regardless. 

Title IX, a federal law established in 1972, maintains that institutions which receive federal funding cannot discriminate in athletics and other education-related services and activities based on sex. However, it was proposed in July 2022 by the Education Department that Title IX’s definition of sex-based discrimination be changed to cover discrimination based on gender identity, expression, and sexuality. After such a widespread public reaction—from strong support to strong opposition—the date for the release of changes continued to be pushed back. Despite this, federal courts, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Justice recognize Title IX’s protection of transgender athletes against discrimination. While attempting to uphold equality, reforms like this fail to protect women and fair competition in the athletic empire. Though this is an incredibly complex and intricate topic, it is primarily essential that the rights and achievements of female athletes are properly recognized, even if it means competing separately from transgender athletes. 

This debate, centered around whether it is fair for cisgender females to compete against transgender females, inevitably raises the question: what is fair? By definition, “fair” refers to competition or interaction without one player having an inherent advantage or facing unjust discrimination. As the facts have it, male bodies have inherent advantages over female bodies of the same height and weight. These inequalities are rooted in the fact that women’s hearts are four times smaller than male hearts, female lungs are 10-12 percent smaller than male lungs, and the male skeletal structure, on average, is bigger than that of a female. These differences intrinsically translate to the higher athletic potential and capabilities that men possess. It is because of these biological differences that all levels of sports have both a men’s and a women’s division. From middle-school teams to the Olympic games themselves, men and women have always competed separately. 

However, the NCAA has ruled that transgender women are permitted to compete on the women’s team after completing the one year minimum time of testosterone suppression treatment. These kinds of treatments, which one can undergo to transition to their preferred gender, like hormone therapy, behavioral therapy, and varying surgeries, are not completely effective. If hormone therapy was able to achieve the desired testosterone balance of a biological female, it could not fully reverse some of the advantages the male body holds. 

The National Library of Medicine released a study titled “Transwoman Elite Athletes: Their Extra Percentage Relative to Female Physiology,” written by Alison K. Heather, who affirmed this very point and said, “Estrogen therapy does not reformat the male skeletal structure.” The article discusses how certain advantages of the male structure cannot be minimized to fully mimic the female body. Heather also highlights that many treatments are ineffective and that many trans women fail to reach their desired, lowered levels of testosterone. Additionally, “Only 49 [percent] of transgender women showed suppressed testosterone concentrations after six months or more of estrogen [therapy].” Thus, as testosterone drives muscle mass, it is clear that transgender female athletes will always face biological advantages over cisgender women. 

By extension, during high-stakes athletic competitions, the principle of “fair” competition is violated by the participation of transgender women in women’s events. It is important to take into account the long history of discrimination transgender people have faced and the fact that their further ostracization in sports would also violate the principle of “fair.” However, it remains unfair to cisgender women (who have recently lost world titles to transgender athletes), as trans athletes are breaking records that an ordinary female body is not capable of. Though creating a new division for trans athletes may be incredibly complex, it would provide a level playing field for both parties. 

Avi Silverberg, a male Canadian powerlifter, mocked the way in which athletes are forced to compete against those who are biologically advantaged by claiming to identify as female and thus proceeding to enter and win the women’s competition. Silverberg broke the previous record in the bench press, previously held by a trans woman, by almost 100 pounds. Nobody was shocked. His victory was both expected and discredited in many people’s minds, as validating this new record would not be representative of women’s capabilities. Silverberg’s actions amplify the absurdity of expecting women to compete against trans women, who will always embody the physical and athletic advantages of men. Despite this, people are deemed transphobic for calling out the way in which these competitions rob women of their deserved recognition. 

Another prime example of the inherent unfairness between biological males and cisgender female athletes is the controversy surrounding college swimmer Lia Thomas. First and foremost, it is important to acknowledge Thomas’s momentous achievement of being the first openly transgender athlete to win a NCAA Division I national championship. However, there have been many issues surrounding her victory. In the final heat, Thomas tied with Riley Gaines in the 200-yard freestyle, down to the last hundredth of a second—an occurrence extremely rare in competitive swimming. In the end, it was decided by officials that Thomas was to receive the trophy while Gaines was left trophiless. Gaines shared her emotions after the race, which gained a lot of popularity. She felt robbed of a win that would have been extraordinary for a cisgender woman. She has become one of the leading voices for cisgender women, working to protect Title IX and defend women’s rights. Gaines was a speaker at a “We Won’t Back Down” rally outside the NCAA convention. “Female athletes work our entire lives to compete in sports, only to have the NCAA destroy our even playing field. This devalues female athletes and women in general,” Gaines said. Continuing to speak up, Gaines expressed the unfairness of the situation to Stuart Varney on FOX Television show “Varney & Co.” “How are we not seeing the blatant discrimination that we are facing on the basis of sex, which is, of course, what everything Title IX was created to protect? We are, as women, being discriminated on the basis of sex,” she said. After the extensive journey women have undertaken to achieve the same rights and opportunities as men, Gaines is illuminating that women are still being discriminated against because men can now infiltrate women’s sports and claim victory. When evaluating the race between Gaines and Thomas, it is crucial to consider that Thomas, swimming at the University of Pennsylvania, had been ranked 554th in the NCAA men’s division for the 200-yard freestyle during her time on the men’s team. Then, during her 2021-2022 season on the women’s team, she was ranked fifth in that same event. The controversy continued to build until, finally, the public sector became involved and eventually outraged upon discovering that Thomas, when previously identifying as male, had failed to rank among the top men. Yet, as a transitioned female, she was able to win recognition over her cisgender competitors. Thomas, just like everyone else in this sport, worked incredibly hard for her achievements and deserves recognition. However, the problem lies in the fact that her recognition came at the expense of another cisgender woman.This can essentially be boiled down to a conflict between the two sides of feminism: the issue of cisgender women being recognized in their sport versus the idea that in all cases, a woman is a woman. While it would be ideal for transgender athletes to be able to compete and participate in the sports to which they have dedicated their lives, it must not be at the expense of other women’s achievements. Creating a level playing field should come before the social and political issues that have stigmatized any sort of separation by gender identity.