Readers Roundtable: The Impact of Trans Runners on Women’s Running

Transwomen are women runners.  Now that awareness is rising will there be changes in women’s running?

Do we non-transgendered people have a right to care about Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn Jenner? While I am happy that because of Caitlyn more transgender people feel empowered and perhaps less afraid to be themselves, I do wonder what transgender-acceptance means for the world of competitive sports.

I distinctly remember what happened to Caster Semenya who won some gold medals in the women’s 800 meters at the World Athletics Championships in 2009 but was forced to undergo genetic testing to determine whether or not she was a man because of her masculine appearance. She was eventually cleared to run as a woman.  I know this is different from being transgender, but the outrage was horrendous.  Can we expect the same treatment to transgender individuals?

Personally I don’t feel the need to know the gender of the people I race with.  I focus on my race and my pace. But do most people think that way? I don’t want any of us to have to have to prove we are who we say we are.

So is it fair for transgender women to race against ciswomen? Do those who once had the advantage over women by being born male have a competitive advantage after making their transition? Or will there be an ‘other’ category like there is when we are asked to identify our race? Will we all have to prove our gender if we are fortunate to win prize money or place in the top of any race, or will our appearance be enough? Or will gender tests be given to the elite runners alongside drug tests? What exactly what would those tests prove? How would they be administered? Would athletes take them (consider the uproar caused by Dr. Renee Richards when she refused to take a chromosome test at the U.S. Open)?   At what point during her transition would a transgendered woman be on an equal playing field with her ciswomen counterparts?

What do you think? Should transwomen like Caitlyn Jenner be allowed to compete as women in sports unconditionally, with conditions, or not at all?  As always, we’ll take your answers (to any of the questions raised in this post) in the comments.

I eat miles for breakfast, or occasionally for a snack later in the day. Self proclaimed 50+ and fabulous poster child, US Army vet, college professor, avid runner, yoga enthusiast, guest columnist, and I've used Olay since I was 17 so they should use me in at least one of their ads!

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  1. So I have a friend who is a transgender woman and here the the little that I know from talking to her and reading her blog; I hope that it can be of help here: first, when a person is transitioning from male to female (and for the rest of time after that transition has occurred) they must take testosterone blockers. As a result of these medications trans women actually have significantly (really significantly) lower levels of testosterone than cis women have. This leads to my second point, which is that as a result of these drugs most trans women see a significant decline in their running paces after transition. This friend of mine is training harder than she trained pre-transition but her marathon pace is currently over 1 minute/mile slower than it was pre-transition.

    Given those medical/chemical/pharmacological facts, I would never “worry” about racing in a field that has both trans and cis women in the field. I personally try to not “worry” about anyone in the field frankly, but in truth if I was going to get all worked up about some population it would be all the folks who, even though they aren’t elites or pros, seem to be availing themselves of sketchy supplements to give them an edge on race day. They have the unfair advantage, not the trans women.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I never really pay attention and probably would not even recognize a trans woman and I am fine with that. I am just interested in having this conversation just to see what others think.

  2. The IOC’s policy says only those who have:
    1. undergone sex reassignment surgery
    2. had hormone treatments for at least two years, and
    3. received legal recognition of their transitioned sex,
    can participate consistent with their gender identities (IOC, 2003). NOTE: also adopted by the USA Track & Field. (!policies-by-organization/c1vyj)
    While the third part isn’t important for me, the first two parts make sense.

    As for their inclusion in the racing field…there are plenty of women (trans and cis) who are faster than me, so all it would be is another competitor pushing me to do my best and race my hardest.

    1. IOC and IAAF have different rules for eligibility by transgender women. USATF in the united states follows the IOC rules. The IAAF rules do not require sex reassignment surgery or years of hormone treatment by transgender women. The high school and college athletic associations adopted even more lenient rules.

  3. So how does that work for the race administration? There are categories. You may not care who is running next to you, but not disclosing certain information interferes with how races are judged….

  4. I have some questions:

    1. What exactly is gender reassignment surgery for these purposes? Wouldn’t the only thing that matters be removing sex hormone producing organs like ovaries or testes? Because for athletics, how you pee shouldn’t matter, amiright?

    2. Specifically in the case of transwomen, are there any other advantages a transwoman would carry over from being born with male sex organs after transition? Eg greater aerobic capacity (larger lungs and heart)? Not having a monthly wacked out hormone dump? If so, are these balanced out by the disadvantage of having to deal with the hassle (understatement of the century?) of gender reassignment?

    3. At one point should USATF or the IOC or IAAF or whoever make inquiries into a woman’s gender identity? All women? By appearance? Hormone levels. I guess, should transathletes be required to disclose their gender status to athletic authorities at some point?

    Great topic!

  5. So is the issue more that we’re concerned about women using T to dope? I believe the hormone therapies used by many trans people take care of that as Allie said above. So once that isn’t an issue, what’s the next question? Are we concerned that trans women have a stronger muscular system than ciswomen? Are we concerned that they are somehow better suited to our sport than we are because they went through male puberty?

  6. Here is the thought experiment: Before Grandma’s Marathon, there were 164 elite women on the Olympic trials qualifier list. And yet we don’t know of any transgender women on the list. The newsworthy controversy from finding such a woman would provide the incentive to scrutinize the list. In fact, when I had this discussion with Joanna Harper a few months ago around the time she published a paper on the topic, she knew of no truly elite transgender runners. Anecdotally, we would expect that if transgender runners truly had some sort of advantage, they would float to the top of the sport.

  7. I feel that, Jasmine. I like Chipotle’s original question: she phrased it as “Do we non-transgendered people have a right to care,” but I’ll take it and rephrase it as I read it: what’s the point in caring when it seems to be a nonissue?

  8. I agree that if trans women truly had an advantage and there wasn’t a huge stigma attached to trans status, then there’d be at least a few national level trans women runners. Given that there is a huge stigma, though, it’s not as clear. First, if a trans woman runner “passes,” then there’s a big chance they won’t be out. Second, a trans woman runner might purposefully avoid the spotlight by holding back in training/racing to avoid any scrutiny. For me, the first case is true, and thankfully, I don’t have enough talent for the second case to be an issue. I don’t want the kind of attention Fallon Fox received (or Castor Semenya!), and I don’t want people googling my name to see that I’m at the center of an athletic controversy.
    But, also anecdotally, when I line up to race with cis women, I don’t feel I have any advantage since I know that there’s many cis women around my age or younger (34) who are around my speed (19:30s 5k/1:32 HM/3:18 M) don’t train as much as I do (consistent 50-60+ miles a week and workouts for a few years).
    In sports like basketball and volleyball where having a larger skeletal frame is an advantage, I can see trans women as having some advantage, but not for running.

    1. I hate the thought of someone sandbagging herself to avoid scrutiny! I ultimately think you’re right but I think a lot of people don’t understand the biology at work and assume there are advantages but don’t necessarily think about the corresponding disadvantages that pretty much result in a wash at best.

  9. Don’t you think it is discriminatory to still have the sexes (or genders) performing in separate competitions? None of this would matter if there was only one race and one set of winners.

  10. I never thought about that. Interesting question. I think having a male and a female winner levels the playing field. Or at the very least allows both genders to win.