Discussion of transgender women in sports

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the College of Charleston Rachel McKinnon, Ph.D. specializes in epistemology, the philosophy of language and trans studies. On Friday, Jan. 19, she presented her talk titled “Including Trans Athletes in Sports.”

In addition to her numerous accolades in academia, McKinnon is also a competitive cyclist and the co-founder, president and chairwoman of the non-profit Foxy Moxy Racing. According to the website, her organization’s mission is to promote “trans and gender non-conforming inclusive sport through positive and unapologetic visibility in competitive cycling.”

In her talk, McKinnon addressed the debate over endogenous—or naturally produced—testosterone in female-identifying athletes. Through legal, ethical and statistical arguments, she explained how capping the amount of endogenous testosterone a female-identifying athlete can have in her body is unfair, and therefore should not be allowed.

She began with the case of Olympic athlete Dutee Chand, an intersex woman runner from India who had a high amount of endogenous testosterone. Chand’s country banned her from running competitively unless she had the source of testosterone removed from her body or unless she took hormone suppressants. So, Chand took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which is essentially the ‘Supreme Court for Sports.’

Because her country was discriminating based on a physical trait, which is against certain international human rights laws, Chand won the case and was able to complete as a female runner.

While the CAS’s ruling was a win for trans athletes, it was not a end-all-be-all, because CAS rulings do not set precedent.

This is why, for future situations, McKinnon argued that the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) charter itself could be used to justify the participation of trans athletes, even with high levels of endogenous testosterone.

“In the IOC charter, sport participation is a human right. It is really clear,” McKinnon explained.

Because sports participation is considered a human right, that leads to problems when there are endogenous testosterone limits. The problem stems from another rule set out by the IOC charter: there are only two categories for competition, male and female.

McKinnon explained how if there is a limit for female athletes, then those athletes who have more endogenous testosterone than allowed could not compete at all. These women would then be barred from any participation in sport and therefore deprived of what the IOC views as a human right.

However, many people argue that athletes with hyperandrogenism have a leg-up against their “normal” competitors. This seems obvious because on average, male athletes have a 10 to 12 percent advantage over female athletes, but it turns out testosterone is not the reason behind it.

In a study conducted by the opponents to Chand, percent of endogenous testosterone above or below average in the top three competitors in each sport was measured. There was surprisingly no link between endogenous testosterone and performance in sports. Therefore, explained McKinnon, it is unfair to exclude athletes with high levels of endogenous testosterone.

McKinnon concluded that capping the amount of endogenous testosterone allowed in women to compete is unfair, immoral and against the IOC charter. It targets transwomen, an already disproportionately disadvantaged group. In barring transwomen from competing in sports, these women are being deprived of a human right.