Can they play? Transgender athletes face barriers to compete

April 12, 2022

The involvement of transgender athletes in sports has long been a controversial topic ranging from school to college to the Olympics. Policies have historically restricted these athletes from competing. Amid a national culture war over transgender rights, as states consider regulation and lawmakers claim sides, sports leagues face increasing pressure to take a stance.

Amid controversy, athletes seek inclusion

As she held up the NCAA Division I national championship trophy with one hand, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas made a peace sign with the other. On March 17, she swam the 500-yard freestyle in 33.24 seconds, winning by almost two seconds. However, the crowd was unusually silent as Thomas took the podium, because, for the first time, a transgender woman stood in first place. As reporters interviewed Thomas about her win, members of the crowd yelled “cheater” and “shame” at the champion. Outside the aquatic center, a small group of people held signs, protesting Thomas’ participation, chanting “Save women’s sports.”

Thomas’s story is part of the larger national debate about transgender athletes’ participation in sports, specifically transgender women. There aren’t any openly transgender athletes currently playing on U-High teams, but many students feel impacted by the national discourse, and the school is beginning to consider how to build a policy to accomodate transgender athletes. 


Why is including transgender athletes in womens’ sports controversial?

As more transgender women have moved to join women’s sports teams, critics argue that their inclusion disadvantages cisgender women athletes. Some student athletes worry about their ability to succeed in their sports if they were to play against transgender competitors. 

“Competition is a big part of why I run. There is this kind of thrill you get from even the idea of winning,” Sophia Park, a senior on the track and field team, said. “Without talking about really thoughtful rules, a lot of people like me could lose the ability to have a chance.”

Another cross country runner, Maya Mubayi, echoed Sophia’s concerns about competitive fairness. Both runners emphasized that they believe transgender athletes deserve to be included in a way that prioritizes transgender athletes’ comfort, but at the same time, Maya and Sophia feel that a good solution will be difficult to reach.

“It’s really important to feel like you can be successful in sports, so this kind of situation just really needs to be handled carefully,” Maya said.

People with higher testosterone levels can have athletic advantages. Athletes with higher levels of testosterone generally have less body fat, more muscle mass, higher bone density and an increased capacity to carry oxygen in their blood. 

While sex assigned at birth impacts testosterone levels, hormone levels aren’t binary. Some people have hormone levels that are naturally outside of what is considered typical for their assigned sex at birth, and this variance is especially prevalent among professional athletes.

This whole talking point just perpetuates the idea that all women need to fit into one mold.”

— Martin Oliver

The impact of testosterone can also be effectively reversed through hormone therapy. While experts disagree on the exact amount of time on hormone therapy needed to fully resemble the typical hormonal makeup of a particular sex, most studies agree that prolonged hormone therapy can almost fully emulate how the hormones would manifest in a cisgender person.

Some differences caused by an athlete’s sex assigned at birth aren’t impacted by hormone therapy. People assigned male at birth are more likely to grow taller, have broader shoulders, have larger hands and feet, as well as larger hearts and lungs after puberty. These changes are not consistently reversible. 

Martin Oliver, a transgender junior, doesn’t view these factors as meaningful dividers.

“Cis women all have vastly different bodies in the first place, especially athletes. There are cis women over 6 feet, so why can’t trans women be tall?” Martin said. “This whole talking point just perpetuates the idea that all women need to fit into one mold.”


What response has the debate surrounding transgender athletes prompted nationally?

The conversation has quickly become highly politicized. Since 2020, 12 states have passed laws in quick secession that restrict transgender athletes’ ability to participate in school sports consistent with their gender identity.

Restricting transgender youths’ involvement with sports could have grave consequences. Transgender and nonbinary youth already report more than four times greater rates of suicide attempts than their cisgender peers, according to 2021 research.

“It’s hard to know that there are people in the world who are working really hard to hurt people like me,” Martin said. “Excluding trans kids from normal activities, treating them like they don’t belong, that’s really a death sentence. I’m lucky enough not to live in a state where these laws are passing, but even still, it really does hurt to think about.”

Many cisgender athletes have criticized the hateful response and stood up in support of their transgender competitors. Earlier this year, over 300 NCAA swimmers signed an open letter to the NCAA in support of including Lia Thomas and other transgender swimmers. Some athletes at U-High also criticize the negative public response.

“People have said a lot of horrible horrible things to transgender athletes,” Maya said. “I definitely think politics and hate should not be a part of this conversation. We need to have peaceful communication.”

Martin also feels what could have been a productive dialogue has become a vessel for hate. 

“A lot of the rhetoric about ‘protecting women’s sports’ is rooted in transphobia and misogyny. I mean, if you really want to make sports fair for women, not allowing trans women to join is not how you do that. You do that by paying women’s teams the same amount as men’s teams; you do that by creating equitable opportunities for athletes from all different kinds of backgrounds; you do that by encouraging young girls to play sports, but no one is passing laws to make those things happen.”


How would U-High accommodate trangender athletes?

Currently, there aren’t any publicly transgender athletes on U-High sports teams, but the school wants to be prepared to accommodate transgender athletes in the future.

“We should be proactive, ” U-High swimming coach Kate Chronic said. “There could be students that want to say something, but are scared because they don’t know how they would be received. Having an outlined policy could make it easier for those students.”

Athletics Director David Ribbens said some administrators are starting to think about how the school would create a policy. He said that any decision would be deliberated by a large group of people and would aim to support and include all athletes. Assistant Athletics Director Laura Gill said U-High’s community standards would have to be reflected in any decision reached.

I can’t imagine feeling like you’re in the wrong body and like everyone sees you the wrong way. Our first reaction should be to look at how we can give support, but instead, a lot of people have responded by causing even more pain.”

— Kate Chronic

“Any policy would be written with the school’s mission in mind,” Ms. Gill said. “Athletics adhere to the same mission of being supportive and inclusive.”

A policy would have to account for many variables. Ms. Chronic and Mr. Ribbens both said that details like uniforms, locker rooms, student and coach education, and student anonymity would all have to be considered in creating rules. Any policy would also have to consider other organizations’ policies, including the IHSA policy.

Ms. Chronic feels student mental health should be the priority of any policy about transgender athletes. 

“It’s so upsetting to see transgender people, who are really going through so much pain already, berated and excluded,” Ms. Chronic said. 

Acknowledging previous upheaval surrounding athletes’ sex or sexual orientation, Ms. Chronic hopes transgender athletes will become more widely accepted, but she belives it might be a long process.

“I can’t imagine feeling like you’re in the wrong body and like everyone sees you the wrong way. Our first reaction should be to look at how we can give support, but instead, a lot of people have responded by causing even more pain.”

Transgender female athletes must be included, permitted to compete

It’s a sunny day, a slight breeze blows, and the turf field I’m standing on is near perfection. The referee blows his whistle and the game is on. I’m transported to another world as my teammates and I execute crisp passes, our cleats flying and our encouraging voices floating through the air. As we continue to play great soccer together, I think about how lucky I am to be a part of this team of talented girls. I feel like I could take on the world. 

Meena Lee

This empowering feeling of being on a team is irreplaceable. Yet, across the country numerous bills are being considered that would rob transgender athletes, particularly trans girls, from this opportunity. According to the American Psychological Association, at least 36 states introduced anti-transgender student athlete bills since 2021. So far 10 states have enacted a variety of such legislation. 

There is no reason to exclude transgender girls, especially at the middle and high school levels, from the incredibly valuable and rewarding experience of being on a girls sports team. 

Some argue that transgender athletes can have the same team experience by participating on the teams that match the sex they were assigned at birth. However, forcing transgender girls to play on boys teams invalidates their transgender identity and is nowhere near providing a gender-affirming experience for them. If a transgender athlete does not feel validated on their team, it is unreasonable to believe it could be a safe, let alone empowering, environment for them. 

Proponents of these bills claim that transgender girls have an advantage over their cisgender counterparts due to testosterone levels or other physiological differences. Not only have many of these scientific reasonings been proven false, this argument fails to recognize the varying levels of athletic ability that exist even among cisgender girls. Some girls may be taller or have a better ability to gain muscle mass, yet these advantages are perceived to be more “natural” or “normal” than any potential differences or advantages of a transgender girl. 

Forcing transgender girls to play on boys teams invalidates their transgender identity and is nowhere near providing a gender-affirming experience for them.”

— Meena Lee

This claim also fails to address the horrible discrimination that transgender youth often face. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published by the Trevor Project, transgender youth have reported much higher rates of depression, victimization and suicidality than their cisgender peers. According to research from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 78% of transgender or gender-noncomforming students in grades K-12 reported harassment. Thus, it is both ignorant and hurtful to claim transgender athletes have an advantage by being transgender. 

Finally, the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee both allow transgender athletes to participate on teams that match their gender identity, given that they follow certain rules and regulations about hormone levels. In contrast, bills that target transgender athletes in high school and middle school completely ban them from competing on a team that matches their gender identity. High school and middle school athletics should not be stricter than the most elite athletic organizations. 

High school sports are more about promoting well-being, relationships with peers, learning social-emotional skills and just letting kids have fun. U-High’s no-cut policy demonstrates this philosophy perfectly. Every child should be given the opportunity to be a part of a team and feel invincible.

Paving the way: Transgender and intersex athletes shape history

Renee Richards

In 1975, tennis player Renee Richards underwent a publicized gender-affirming surgery. After being formally barred from playing in the professional women’s league by the United States Tennis Association, Richards spearheaded a court case which eventually led to a New York Supreme Court decision ruling in favor of her right to compete as a woman. Her case set a precedent for future cases.


Maria José Martínez Patiño

Maria José Martínez-Patiño was an Olympic hurdler and one of the first women affected by sex verification testing in sports. While she had always identified as female, the old chromatin-based system of gender testing eliminated her from competing when she was found to possess XY chromosomes. After fighting the loss of her IAAF license, she competed in the 1988 Summer Olympics.


Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya is a two-time Olympic gold medal winning middle-distance runner. She is intersex and posesses XY chromosomes. In 2019, new World Athletics rules prevented women with testosterone levels above 5nmol/L from competing in certain track events unless they consumed testosterone-suppressing medications. In response, Semeyna filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights. The appeal was rejected.


Laurel Hubbard

Laurel Hubbard is a weightlifter and in 2021 was the first openly transgender woman to compete in the Olympic Games. Hubbard’s competition was met with criticism on an international scale, though she met all eligibility requirements to compete. Hubbard was selected to compete in 2020, with transgender athletes being permitted to participate since 2004. Hubbard did not obtain Olympic medals.


Lia Thomas

Lia Thomas is a swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania. Her case has spearheaded recent controversy over transgender participation in college-level sports. After undergoing hormone replacement therapy, she has broken records in collegiate swimming for a variety of events including 100, 200 and 300-yard freestyle. In March 2022, she became the first transgender woman in any sport to win a NCAA Division I national championship. 

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Comments (3)

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  • A

    a studentApr 16, 2022 at 10:25 pm

    As a fellow student at Lab, it is distressing to see the Midway overlook an equally legitimate argument *for* sex based restrictions in athletics. Although this issue is correctly phrased as a debate, why is one side diminished to “hate”? It’s pretty cheap way of championing inclusivity- to portray those you disagree with as hateful and demonic. As for the opinion piece, It is embarrassing to witness the conflation of gender identity (a social component of how we present ourselves) and sex (an immutable, biological trait). It undermines the validity of the piece.

    Overall, I second your support of transgender individuals and their right to express who they are with dignity. On the smaller scale, I would be happy to see controversy treated fairly.

    • T

      The MidwayApr 19, 2022 at 2:51 pm

      Thank you for your comment; we appreciate your engagement. The reference to hateful comments are attributed to quotes from students sharing their opinions. They do not reflect editorialization from the part of the Midway.

  • D

    D StulbergApr 14, 2022 at 5:53 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful reporting on transgender athletes and your commitment to inclusion at Lab.