By Donna Lopiano and Mariah Burton Nelson
To include or to exclude? That’s the question at the core of the debate about transgender women in sports. But that’s a binary way of thinking about a nonbinary situation. It presumes only two types of people: men and women. People are more diverse than that.
We propose a third option since trans women themselves transcend our traditional way of thinking about how individuals fit in either female or male biological categories. The fact that trans girls and women were born with biologically male bodies means that even after taking hormones or undergoing surgery or both, they don’t fit neatly into female or male categories, biologically speaking. In sports, those categories matter.
So, our policies should not be binary either. We need a creative solution.
Fair competition is why separate women’s sports were created. Competitive sport (which does not include recreational sports, physical education, or intramurals) is ultimately a physical test in which post-puberty males possess significant advantages. During puberty, boys generally develop longer and denser bones, more muscle tissue, more strength, more speed, greater height, and greater lung capacity than girls. These differences provide men with a performance advantage that ranges from 8 to 50 percent. This is why men and women have different tee boxes in golf; different three-point arcs in basketball; different net heights in volleyball; and different hurdle heights in track.
Performance advantages (including musculoskeletal features and lung capacity) persist even after transgender women suppress testosterone levels or surgically change their bodies.
“What’s fair is fair!” tweeted trans activist Caitlin Jenner, praising the recent decision by swimming’s world governing body (FINA) to ban from women’s competitions people who have gone through male puberty. “If you go through male puberty you should not be able to take medals away from females. Period,” wrote Jenner, who won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympic men’s decathlon.
Yet trans girls and women must not be relegated to the sidelines. These brave athletes, who come out as trans despite widespread discrimination and even threats of violence against them, must be welcomed onto women’s teams. Considering their grace and determination under pressure, who wouldn’t want trans women as teammates?
On one side of the binary debate are those who believe trans women should be excluded to be fair to cisgender women. When signing Florida’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, Governor Ron DeSantis said, “I want… every girl in Florida to compete on an even playing field.” Seventeen other states also ban transgender women athletes from competing on girls’ and women’s sports teams.
On the other side are those who believe trans women must be allowed to compete without conditions. They argue that there are relatively few trans women athletes, so their inclusion on women’s teams won’t have an appreciable impact. They argue that trans girls are a vulnerable minority, as illustrated by a higher-than-average suicide rate. Anti-trans sports bills “represent a cruel effort to further stigmatize and discriminate against LGBTQ+ people across the country,” according to the Human Rights Campaign.
But including performance-advantaged trans women at the expense of cisgender women (who also face persistent discrimination) would violate the core reason for separate women’s competitions.
So, the question is: How can we include trans women without hurting cisgender women, both of whom deserve fair and safe competition?
Our nonbinary solution is called the Women’s Sports Umbrella. Under this umbrella, all people who identify as female would be invited to try out for women’s sports teams, with one caveat: Competition.
The vast majority of team experience revolves around such things as practice, meetings, weightlifting, team travel, and social activities. There is no reason why this environment should not include all who identify as female.
Trans women who transitioned before male puberty do not have a performance advantage; they would be allowed to compete on women’s teams without any restrictions if they so choose. However, in individual sports, trans women who have gone through male puberty would be allowed to practice, travel, and socialize with women’s teams if they want to, but they would be scored separately. For example, the University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas would still swim in team meets and postseason women’s championships, but her times would be recorded in a separate, trans category.
In team sports, trans women who possess the post-puberty performance advantage could also practice, travel, and socialize with their female teammates – then would compete in a trans category. If there are insufficient numbers of trans women to field teams, all-district or all-conference teams could be formed. In contact sports such as basketball and rugby, this model would also prevent cisgender women from being injured by larger, denser, post-male-puberty bodies.
Under the Women’s Sports Umbrella, the legal justification for a separate female sports category – relevant physical and physiological differences between the biological sexes – would be preserved.
An essential aspect would be training coaches, administrators, and athletes in diversity, equity, and inclusion so that separate scoring results would be equally respected and valued by all team members, just as they currently are for lightweight rowers; different weight classes of wrestlers; junior varsity and varsity teams; athletes with disabilities; and athletes in different age groups.
Achievements of transgender and other athletes would be equally celebrated. Biological differences – along with differences in gender-identity, race, culture, religion, and sexual orientation – would be accepted as natural human variations.
The Women’s Sports Umbrella also provides solutions for others who fall outside the female/male binary: intersex, nonbinary, and gender-fluid people. These athletes would compete in the transgender scoring category only if they choose to join a women’s team and possess the male-puberty performance advantage.
Like any compromise, the Women’s Sports Umbrella will not make everyone happy. Open-minded administrators, coaches, and trans and non-trans athletes would need to work together to fine-tune the best possible options for each sport to modify the specifics over time. But this model offers a starting point. It transcends the misguided either/or binary. It welcomes everyone to the greatest extent possible and requires non-identical treatment of the fewest possible number of people. It helps us envision a sporting arena where all who identify as women would experience an equitable, safe, and appropriate playing field. It’s both inclusive and fair.
Mariah Burton Nelson is a former Stanford and professional basketball player and the author of The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football and six other books. She also co-authored Staying in Bounds: An NCAA Model Policy to Prevent Inappropriate Relationships Between Student-Athletes and Athletics Department Personnel. She can be reached on Facebook or Instagram @MariahBurtonNelson or her website, MariahBurtonNelson.com.