Transgender Athletes 101 – Welcome to the Crossfit Games

Call it a box jump towards equality and inclusion. Attending the “Big Gay Happy Hour” Crossfit CEO Greg Glassman announced that transgender athletes can compete as their gender not their assigned sex. (The Olympics allowed transgender athletes to compete back in 2004, but who is counting?) This change can only serve to make Crossfit a more open and accepting sport, and there are plenty of places to read about the amazing individuals who fought hard for this change. (I recommend them.us)

However, this subject brings a lot of people with unpleasant opinions out of the woodwork. Not only unpleasant, but highly uninformed. One policy change is not going to magically fix what’s in the hearts and minds of others. However, we can still try to fight misinformation with real information!

Hang tight folks of all stripes, we’re about to do some learning.

Hormones and the Body

If and when a transgender person decides to go through hormone replacement therapy (as most athletes will), the body is basically going through a second puberty. Remember that awkward time in your life when suddenly everything started changing? If your body was cranking out testosterone your voice dropped and you started growing facial hair. If estrogen was the hormone on tap, you began developing hips and breasts.

These hormones dictate how the body distributes muscle mass and fat mass. Many young transgender people may choose to take hormone blockers at a younger age to put off puberty until they are certain they wish to go through HRT. For older trans people, while the effects of the first puberty cannot be undone, switching the body’s predominant hormone will redirect how the body creates muscle and stores fat.

After about 1-2 years of HRT, the muscle composition of transgender individuals is nearly identical to their cisgender counterparts.

Every individual has a differing level of hormones in their body. It’s just part of natural variation, but in sports it can lead to some very demeaning practices.

Controlling Women

Very rarely will you hear talk about transgender men in these conversations. The primary focus is fear-mongering about trans women and speaking about them as though they are men trying to cheat. (This is not true. Just in case you were wondering.)

In sports, you will often hear about gender testing athletes, but the only athletes who are tested are women — often looking for higher than average testosterone levels. Recent controversies surround two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Caster Semenya. Following her wins, the International Association of Athletics Federations placed a limit on the amount of testosterone female runners can have. Those who exceed those levels would need to take medication to lower them.

These tests are focused solely on determining what makes a woman a woman, and defining it by narrow parameters. Not only is this demeaning to women, but it also scientifically inaccurate.

While most people think that there are only two categories for sex – XX chromosomes for women and XY chromosomes for men, the World Health Organization says this is not the case. Several births per thousand result in individuals with only one sex chromosome (X or Y) or more than two (XXX, XXY, XYY, etc.) There are also instances in which an XX individual may develop the way you would typically expect an XY individual would, and vice versa.

Bodies are weird.

All Bodies Are Different

Michael Phelps has extraordinarily long arms. Usain Bolt has very long legs. Your height can affect how good you are at different power lifts.

We are all different. Some of us have natural advantages that set us up for success. I still never won a sparring match against the 6-foot-tall girl in my class because she could simply pick up her leg and kick me in the face. But no one is proposing that someone is too tall to be a fair taekwondo competitor, last time I checked.

A natural advantage does not make someone unbeatable. Not everyone with long arms swims like Michael Phelps, and chalking someone’s achievements up to biology alone downplays the dedication and determination they put in.

So where do we go from here? I’m not certain I have an answer. I suppose maybe it’s time we took a step back and looked at why we divide our competitions the way we do? How do we make room for intersex and nonbinary individuals in athletics? I know The Out Foundation runs the Power of Pride Competition — the first (and only?) crossfit competition that separates divisions not by gender, but by skill alone.

Maybe I’ve found my first competition. (Hey, Power of Pride, are you coming to New York?)

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