Image design by Vinicius Tavares for DWF

This piece was originally published on Divided We Fall, which AllSides rates as mixed. It was written by Teresa Smallwood, Postdoctoral Fellow & Associate Director, Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative, and Mariah Burton Nelson, Former professional athlete and Women’s Sports Policy Working Group member.

Transgender Athletes: Hypostatic Union or Smoke Screen?

By Teresa Smallwood – Postdoctoral Fellow & Associate Director, Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative

I am convinced that transgender women and girls are, in fact, women and girls. No other characterization of their nature is a fair assessment. Thus, it is unjustified to regard them as two separate entities—transgender and women—for sports competition. At the core of the national debate about transgender competitors is a debilitating prejudice that ignores their humanity.

Disregard for Humanity Has Historical Precedents

Unfortunately, this disregard has historical precedents. The most notable attempt to view individuals as less than a whole person happened in early Christian theology. The controversial idea of a hypostatic union held that two distinct natures mysteriously joined in Jesus Christ: divine and human. This debate lasted for centuries. It ended in the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). The council declared that the two natures of Christ are “concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.” In simpler terms, Jesus is one without division or separation. 

In contemporary times, historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois recognized the psychological impact of the two natures idea. In 1903, he introduced the concept of double consciousness to refer to the internal ‘twoness’ experienced by Black Americans because of their oppression and devaluation in a white-dominated society. De Bois wrote, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…”

Science Demonstrates Transgender Athletes Should Compete

In the debate about transgender athletes, this question lingers because myths overshadow the facts. Some entities are attempting to separate the maleness from the femaleness of transgender athletes to assess their ability based on birth gender before sex reassignment surgery. This parsing overlooks the obvious: these athletes are females. They should not be excluded.

Dr. Eric Vilain, who is a fellow of the American College of Medical Genetics, serves on the International Olympic Committee’s Medical Commission, and sits on the Board of Scientific Counselors for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), believes there are “no good faith reasons to limit transgender women’s participation in sports, especially at the high school level” and that laws blocking trans athletes… generally aren’t based in scientific evidence, but instead “target women who have either a different biology or simply look different.”

Research is proving that those differences do not translate to advantages for trans athletes. Joanna Harper, a medical physicist and Researcher at Loughborough University, wrote the groundbreaking study “Race Times for Transgender Athletes.” She found that “largely as a result of their vastly reduced testosterone levels, transgender women lose strength, speed, and virtually every other component of athletic ability…Human biology does not neatly divide into two categories. For instance, some people have neither a 46,XY nor a 46,XX karyotype. Additionally, some people are born with a 46,XY pattern, but with mutations which cause them to be assigned female gender at birth,” Harper wrote. Girls and women commonly have two X chromosomes (46,XX karyotype), and boys and men typically have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome (46,XY karyotype)  

Transgender Athletes are a Win for Humanity

While the research has a solid foundation, I am arguing for a human approach to this debate rather than a scientific one. The world needs more acceptance and less divisiveness. Transgender women and girls deserve the freedom to be themselves. They should be able to compete in sports. Permitting transgender women and girl athletes to have unbridled participation in sports is one step we can take as a nation to signify the equality of every human being in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Hiding behind the smoke screen of two natures is a ruse designed to shield intentions to deny transgender persons their full humanity. It takes courage to walk in one’s true self-identity. Du Bois recognized that “to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another.” This awareness should not be hindered by pseudo-scientific pronouncements that fail to meet the fundamental degrees of certainty. Anything less minimizes our assessment of who is human and who has the right to perform their humanity free from scrutiny.

Female Sports With Trans Athletes Defies Logic

By Mariah Burton Nelson – Former professional athlete and Women’s Sports Policy Working Group member

Dear Ms. Smallwood: I, too, want transgender women to enjoy dignity, grace, and respect. I want them to have equal access to healthcare, housing, employment, and sports. We seem to only disagree about how to define equal access in sports.

Let’s think about this from the perspective of female athletes: people born female and identify as female. Title IX passed 51 years ago and radically expanded sports opportunities for girls and women. Yet, boys still enjoy one million more high school sports opportunities than girls. Male college athletes still have 60,000 more sports opportunities than women.

Physical Differences Cannot Be Ignored

Now the women’s sports community is facing a situation where a group of people who were born male but identify as women want to compete in women’s sports. They call themselves women, ask to be referred to as women, and often dress like stereotypical women. But they still have male bodies. As everyone knows, male bodies are different from female bodies. Due to an infusion of testosterone at puberty, men become, on average, taller, stronger, faster, and heavier than women. They develop bigger hearts, lungs, hands, and skulls. In sports, such differences matter (except in rare cases such as equestrian events). 

Even when trans women modify their bodies via surgery or testosterone suppression, performance advantages persist. No such modifications make a person shorter or shrink their hearts, lungs, hands, or skulls. 

Should these people be allowed to compete against women? I respect that transwomen want to play on the women’s team in every sense. But we must remember that despite what they call themselves and despite what they believe about their gender, their bodies are male. So, the question becomes: Should men be allowed to compete against women? In my opinion, the answer is no.

We have female and male sports categories to ensure fair and safe competitions. Women’s events feature lower hurdles and volleyball nets, smaller basketballs, and golf tees closer to the hole. These accommodations address women’s shorter stature and relatively lesser strength.

Female Athletes Make a Public Appeal 

Champion female athletes are speaking out. Swimmers Riley Gaines, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Donna de Varona, Summer Sanders, and Sharron Davies; surfer Bethany Hamilton; triathlete Lauren Bondly; rower Mary O’Connor; discus thrower Kirsty Law; wheelchair rugby player Kylie Grimes; runner Mara Yamaguchi; tennis player Kim Shasby Jones, and others are appealing to the public’s common sense. In a 2019 op-ed, Martina Navratilova wrote,  “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women.” 

In an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court this month, 67 female athletes, parents, and coaches wrote, “College women’s teams do not play against college men’s teams; the high school girls’ basketball team does not play against the boys’ basketball team… This kind of competition is not allowed because we understand the result would almost always serve to humiliate women. It is not real or fair competition. We know the outcome because the numbers, science, and physical realities predict it with concrete assurance. A far less talented and skilled male will soundly beat a female.” 

Some transwomen (including Caitlin Jenner and Corinna Cohn) are also urging sound judgment. Political commentator Blaire White said, “It defies logic” to allow transwomen to compete against female athletes.

How to Provide Transgender Athletes with Equal Access to Sports

Alternatives to consider include instituting separate scoring systems, replacing the men’s category with an open category that welcomes everyone regardless of gender identity, or creating new categories for transwomen. 

Such categories now accommodate people with disabilities. For example, in the past, a wheelchair user would remain on the sidelines since it would not be safe or fair to welcome her onto a regular basketball team. But we’ve made great progress in providing opportunities for people with disabilities to compete against their peers. 

New categories have also been created to accommodate older athletes. In masters swimming, athletes are divided by sex and age: 40-44, 45-49, and so on. As a swimmer, I remember when U.S. Masters Swimming, which had been defining the oldest women’s category as 95-and-over, added a category for 100-104-year-old women. Centenarians had complained, unhappy about competing against those fast women in their late nineties!

In sports, fairness means competing against people who share one’s biological sex, age group, ability level, weight class, and/or other relevant physical characteristics. Inclusion means finding alternatives to accommodate everyone who wants to play. As a society, we have devised creative ways to include all sorts of people without disadvantaging others. Surely, we can do the same for and with transgender athletes.


Whose Logic Is Deciding the Fate of Transgender Athletes?

By Teresa Smallwood – Postdoctoral Fellow & Associate Director, Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative

Ms. Burton Nelson maintains that giving people the grace to be themselves is not logical. I am curious as to whose logic draws that conclusion. Is it philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes or John Locke who were instrumental in developing the social contract, the agreement underlying civil society? Is it Aquinas who makes liberum arbitrium—free will—a necessary condition for moral responsibility? Is it the humanism of Confucius that is centered on the improvement of humans and the collective community? Is it Epicurus who made free will a central philosophical issue? Or is the lack of grace on this issue just another way our culture has attacked another’s point of view and rendered it implausible? This same fallacious reasoning is evident in this country’s discourse about critical race theory. 

Once again, I focus on my premise: transgender women and girls are women and girls. They must be treated as such in athletic competition. They should not be excluded. The Women’s Sports Foundation says it best, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

I read Martina Navratilova’s 2019 opinion article, “The rules on trans athletes reward cheats and punish the innocent.” I recall feeling euphoric when she defected to America in 1975 at 18. She lost her match in Forest Hills, New York, but, as a article noted, she “won a new life…the future was hers.” She competed as an American, and her success in tennis is laudable. Navratilova not only competed with women but with men as well in mixed doubles. In her last tournament, she teamed with fellow American Bob Bryan to win the U.S. Open mixed doubles in 2006. I did not read one instance where she questioned her partner’s and opponent’s anatomy. No cries of cheating were hurled, and no regrets were espoused about playing against and with male athletes. Why? Because in the spirit of competition, she found a balance. We can find a balance that does not objectify transgender women and girls. They, too, deserve a future that is theirs. 

On the World Athletic Stage, Fairness Wins

By Mariah Burton Nelson – Former professional athlete and Women’s Sports Policy Working Group member

Ms. Smallwood, your example of mixed doubles illustrates my point. On average, men and women possess physical differences that affect competitive performance. Men have significantly greater strength, speed, size, and ability to generate force. The average speed of a serve in men’s professional tennis is 120 miles per hour. For women, the average speed is 105 miles per hour. That’s why mixed-doubles competitions require each team to field one woman and one man. Never two men against a man and a woman. Why? Because the pair with two men would have an advantage. It would not be fair.

In 2022, World Aquatics (the governing body for swimming, diving, and other water sports, formerly known as FINA) acknowledged the immutable differences between women and men with a rules change that excludes people who have experienced male puberty from women’s events. Last week, World Athletics (the governing body for track and field and all running events) followed suit. World Athletics Council President Sebastian Coe said: “Decisions are always difficult when they involve conflicting needs and rights between different groups, but we continue to take the view that we must maintain fairness for female athletes above all other considerations. We will be guided in this by the science around physical performance and male advantage which will inevitably develop over the coming years. As more evidence becomes available, we will review our position, but we believe the integrity of the female category in athletics is paramount.”

You mentioned Martina Navratilova. You may recall that in the spirit of inclusion, Navratilova welcomed trans tennis player Renée Richards, who was then in her forties, onto the women’s professional tour in the 1970s. Yet over time, Richards changed her mind about transwomen competing against female athletes. “I know if I’d had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me,” she told the New York Times. “And so, I’ve reconsidered my opinion.” 

Navratilova’s perspective has evolved, too. “I supported Renée in the seventies because I thought she was a one-off. Little did I know that swimming, track, cycling, rowing, weightlifting, lacrosse, field hockey, basketball, volleyball, rugby, and even disc golf, believe it or not, would be struggling with this issue today, with transwomen (biological males) insisting on their ‘right’ to play in the female category. The female category was created to provide opportunities for women to compete fairly. It was always intended to exclude males. We need to keep on excluding them, even when those biological males identify as women and even when they complain. Fair is fair.”