Readers Roundtable: Transgender, Intersex, and What it Means to be a Woman Runner?

Caster Semenya at a recent competition.
Caster Semenya at a recent competition.

As a general rule, women have a natural disadvantage to men in running; the best women cannot compete with the best men. This is why women runners compete against other women and men against men. But when it comes to sex, the anatomy we’re born with, and gender, the social role we adopt, it’s not always clear that a person fits neatly into one of two boxes: man or woman.

The obvious case is transgender athletes: athletes who were born with the anatomy of one sex, but whose gender identity is aligned with the other, resulting in their transition from their sex at birth to the other. Transgender athletes may transition medically, surgically, or both. At what point is a transgender woman biologically woman enough to compete as a woman? In the past, governing bodies of sport have required surgery before a transwoman could compete in a women’s race. Recently, the International Olympic Committee has said it plans to move towards a ceiling of testosterone levels for women athletes, because higher levels of testosterone in men is the main reason men are generally faster than women runners.

But a ceiling on testosterone levels could knock some women out of international competition, women like Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand. Both were born with female genitalia, but also with rare genetic conditions that cause a natural elevation of their testosterone levels. This condition is generally known as intersex. Recent rulings by the international governing body of track and field, IAAF, have allowed Caster Semenya to compete without taking medication to block her testosterone levels and she has been dominating the international scene in the 800 meters. Should intersex athletes like Caster be allowed to compete in women’s races without taking testosterone blockers?

While it has yet to establish binding rules, the IOC has proposed that transgender women be allowed to compete in women’s competitions if their testoserone levels fall within a range typical of ciswomen and requires the same of intersex athletes, meaning the IOC would require intersex women to take medical or surgical steps to lower their testosterone or be forced to compete as men or not at all.

What say you? When should transwomen and intersex women be allowed to compete? 

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. I don’t think trans/intersex women should ever be able to compete against women. In all the efforts to make things equal for trans/intersex people, women are once again being put at a disadvantage and having opportunities stolen from them.

    1. I think I know what you’re saying, but aren’t transwomen and intersex women still women? What about them? Also, while women with intersex characteristics definitely have an advantage, it’s not clear that transwomen do ( But even intersex women, they aren’t doping. Isn’t naturally high levels of testosterone for runners, akin to height for basketball players?

      1. II’m fine with everyone doing what they want and living their lives. Cool. But im not willing to blindly accept that everyone has perfectly pure intentions on switching which gender to compete against. Especially with big prize money and a trip to the olympics at stake. In my opinion, this shafts way too many people to be worth it.

        1. I definitely get what you are saying, but I also don’t believe that a man would be willing or able (you literally have to get doctors and therapists to sign off on everything from what I understand) to change gender simply for the glory of beating women and succeeding when they might not have as a man in the sport. Undergoing something like a gender transition is such a huge mental and physical undertaking, that will change the outcome of the rest of your life and those around you- while I do think there are some really shady people in the world, I’d have a hard time believing someone would go through all that (and spend ALL of their money) just to make some more money and maybe get a medal around their neck.

          1. That’s a good point Barley.
            Even if their motives are good, the thought of this happening literally makes me want to cry. I (and every other woman) will never ever have a chance to go to the Olympics, win a national title, etc and that breaks my heart.

            I know I have the unpopular opinion…don’t hate me! I just don’t agree with this at all.

          2. Thanks for sharing it! We can’t have a good discussion if we all agree. Plus, that’s boring as shit 🙂

        2. I understand how you feel, Spearmint, and I’ve thought of this myself. This is such a complex situation and I’m glad Salty started the discussion. I’m on the fence. I really try to advocate for anyone who identifies as a woman. This is new for me, I will admit, and I am not an expert. I have no idea how transwomen or intersex feel, so try as I might, I cannot fully understand the struggles that they face. But on the atheltic side, I’ve thought about competitive female runners and the unfairness that women would face if a transwoman beat her in competition. BUT transwomen face disadvantages everyday. And I respect transwomen as women. I think Salty is right, that there should be a testosterone standard. For a large percentage of the field to train hard to compete with a small percentage of the trans athletes who have the ability biologically? I don’t have a solution. And wouldn’t this go for trans men as well? That poses a severe disadvantage for competitive trans men. I completely get you, Spearmint. I wish it were easier!

  2. Hmm… sounds like the IOC is seeking to effectively create low & high testosterone groups (similar to weight categories in other sports). Perhaps those who fit their proposed “women” (i.e., low T) category should also be allowed to raise their testosterone levels to the established threshold – as long as you’re within these limits, you’re good.

  3. Tricky question. I think there should be limiting testosterone groups, for both genders (both should be tesed). But then does that open the door for supplement use to maximum your T-level within the approved zone, and if so, should that be an legal opportunity? Now it starts to sound a bit like horseracing where the horse and rider are assigned certain saddle weights.

    1. Or like boxing with its weight classes. That idea makes perfect sense to me in theory, but then comes the question of how many classes there can/should be. And that leads to the further question of how many of races (and awards) the sport can support. It still sounds the most fair to me to allow athletes to compete against their physically similar peers, but I know it’s not easy at all.

  4. What about men with naturally low-occurring testosterone (Ryan Hall has indicated his was very low, one reason for his dropping out of competitive running)? Would they be categorized with women with similar levels? I don’t believe testosterone testing alone is not the answer (if even a viable solution). The body’s metabolic and hormonal processes are too complex to put into one or another simple box. I believe the National Senior Games requires birth certificate to verify whether male or female and this is becoming more common. Strong advocates on both sides of the issue and not certain where I currently stand as the evidence is too indeterminate, making political and social something that has strong biological/psychological components. Here’s an example of transgender high school girl in Alaska running and winning at girls’ meet. In Alaska EACH high school has discretion to make determination of whether or not transgender women may compete with “birth certificate” women. Piece meal action is probably the worst outcome.

    1. That sucks. It sucks for the transathlete and it sucks for everyone that there aren’t clear rules. And I love how that protester lady pretends to be all about women’s right as she bashes the transgender athlete. When it involves kids, it really requires some clear rules to protect everyone involved.

  5. There are so many issues! On transwomen and testosterone, I think most transwomen are more concerned with transitioning effectively way more than they’re concerned about there athletic performance – so they’d likely aim for the testosterone level that facilitated transitioning over athletic performance, which would likely be on the lower end of the spectrum. I think there needs to be a standard for transwomen to meet to compete as women. I’m no expert on the subject, so not sure what exactly that should be.

  6. This is such a complex topic but a good one to start important conversations. While I don’t think we should restrict any women from competing, I do think there are standards that need to be in place to prevent unfairness towards any women(or men) in the sport. The problem is, that finding a single standard (such as Testosterone levels) is not nearly enough when dealing with the many facets that come with being an athlete, let alone an intersex or trans athlete. I know of some trans women who have transitioned and went on to further their running success and continue to improve. I also know of some trans women who have struggled to find some sense of normalcy with running even after transition. Suffice to say, it isn’t just about Testosterone levels. I won’t pretend to know enough (or even the bare minimum) about it all, but I know no one can possibly think it’s as simple as ONE thing.

    As Salty mentioned in a reply comment to Spearmint, wouldn’t the higher T levels in some women be liken to height or other “simple” genetic traits that we are born with? I’m short, does that mean if I wanted to play basketball I could make a case that all super tall people need to find a way to be shorter to make the playing field more even? When it comes to Test. levels, those women who are intersex didn’t have a choice in the matter so is it really fair to exclude them because of something they couldn’t control? With Trans women, not all want to or have the financial means in order to fully transition (physically)- so are we to punish those who are “less fortunate” in that regard? I am all for creating fairness for trans in this world, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy to find a good way to determine who is eligible and who is not in this regards. Because, like anything I’m sure that the people who are left to make these decisions, are not experienced (read: not trans or intersex) or not educated enough to make legitimate calls on the matter. Look at how much trouble our government is having making decisions about BATHROOMS, let alone high level competition for runners with prizes and money on the line.

  7. I don’t think current T levels begin to tell the whole story… a transwoman who gets her T down to a level so she can compete against women still has other physical differences/advantages from her body having formed/grown with male hormones, including muscular and skeletal differences that current T levels won’t/can’t affect (sturdier bones with more muscle attachments, stronger muscle fibers in different ratios, etc). True fairness might just be adding a third trans category, though I assume the number of transathletes that get to this level of competition is fairly small… Any stats on that? How many people are we talking about here?

  8. I get that People are worried about trans women having an advantage. But I have read that they undergo hormone treatments during transition!! I don’t know if it’s enough to even the field! As far as intersex women are concerned I find it unfair to force them to undergo treatment in order to compete or to exclude them from competition. It’s not like they chose this. Trans women who haven’t gone through treatment can,still compete against men(I think). I remember the humiliating process Caster Semenya had to go through after winning the 2009 world championships! Same thing happened to Chand! Having people ask are you a boy or a girl and being subjected to gender tests is humiliating enough! Most, if not all, world records were made by women with very high testosterone levels(80s-90s doping) and IAAF kept them! Some of them are still standing! As far as trans women are concerned I’m still not convinced that they do not have an advantage but I really do see them as women! Though since none of them has achieved times that are closer to male than female records shouldn’t that count for something? As in maybe after,all they don’t have that much of an advantage??

  9. This may be an unpopular opinion but it seems to me that if a biological male identifies himself as a woman, and wants to transition, then they should accept that they should not be allowed to compete with biologically born women. Nothing will ever be 100% “fair” across the board, and we have a hard time accepting that in today’s society where equality is desired for everyone. We need to accept that some things in this world are not fair, otherwise it seems inevitable the progress women have made in gaining athletic respect will have been for nothing.

    1. Thanks for sharing that opinion. You are definitely not alone in it and you’ve expressed it articulately and civilly. I’m not sure I can personally accept that there are never circumstances that transwomen should be allowed to compete in women’s races, but I also see where you’re coming from.

  10. Thank you for this article! Huge, huge fan of Caster Semenya ever since she was dragged through the media mud years ago. She and other intersex athletes have followed the rules the IAAF and IOC have set out for them, including hormone therapy when it was required. Right now, it’s not required that they have their T levels lowered artificially so competing unaltered is not breaking the rules. I know it isn’t a perfect solution to just let them compete as is, but I totally support them. They just want to compete with the gifts they were born with. Watch this documentary for a more personal view of Caster’s struggles:

  11. Regardless of what line we draw here (e.g., Testosterone levels), this is a “femininity” test. It breaks my heart to think of putting someone who has likely already struggled to assert her gender identity (or even to publicly identify as a woman) through another set of tests to then prove she is woman “enough.” Unless there are statistics that indicate otherwise, I find it very hard to believe that many men would use the lack of a “femininity” bar so they could compete as a woman (and win as a woman). Masculinity is so tied up with “appropriate” masculine behaviors, that this would be reprehensible to most men even without the unethical aspects of a fraudulent victory. We cannot compare this to doping. While there may have been countries/individuals (and may still be) that have tried to do this, I think those cases are as rare as the false allegations of rape that we seem to hear so much more about in the media – public opinion often conflates media coverage with the norm when reality is quite different.

    On a larger scale, American women (and really, this happens globally in different ways), are forced to prove their femininity in order to be successful. Media campaigns promote an ideal successful woman as first looking and acting a certain way (especially in traditionally masculine roles, such as upper management). We are constantly bombarded with messages that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t skinny enough to be truly successful, and until we are a certain way, our successes in other areas of life are meaningless. As women, I hope we can contradict those messages in all aspects of life, including athletics, and choose not to subtly or overtly promote femininity “requirements.” Eating disorders continue to haunt American women, men still make more money, fewer women than men enter and graduate from STEM programs: these are issues I am worried about.

    A trans or intersex woman winning a gold medal? I would, 100%, support her and never dare to question whether or not she deserved it because of any biological difference or supposed advantage. As a comment said above, nothing is 100% equal. Even in the cases of purported fraud, I think the more important issue is eliminating any suggestion that women need to prove their “womanhood” to anyone but themselves.

    1. In my heart of hearts I believe this to be true, but … BUT … I can also understand how some women are sensitive to any threat to their abilities to compete fairly too. It’s obviously a really tough question that touches on a lot of hot button issues.

      1. Yes, I absolutely see what you are saying. I also want to see women, especially the female runners I know (or follow) to do well on an even playing field. But, that being said, I feel like there is an even bigger picture here the concerns gender identity and the constant pressure on women to prove that they are “feminine” enough *first* before anything else. While I am sympathetic to the individual athlete’s plight here, I am more sympathetic to what I see as a global women’s issue.

    2. Bravo, Cilantro!

      IMO, let any trans or intersex woman compete with cis-gender women. If there were several and if it could it be shown empirically that they have a distinct advantage (there has been no study to show that they do; we’re simply inferring that they do based on studies looking at testosterone levels), then it may warrant having a separate category, but there aren’t that many of them competing at that level.