The recent barring of CeCé Telfer, a trans woman, from participating in the women’s 400 metre hurdles in the US Olympic trials brings to light sporting regulations that are unable to include trans or intersexual people.
The stated reason for barring Telfer [who is Black] is that she did not meet the testosterone level requirements set by World Athletics, the international governing body for track sports. According to their eligibility conditions, the testosterone level must be below 5 nanomoles per litre for a period of 12 months for an athlete to participate in international women’s races of 400 metres to a mile.
Are such endogenous testosterone limits justified in excluding trans or intersexual women from athletic sports?
The primary reason given is that trans or intersex women with a higher testosterone level have an unfair advantage over ciswomen. Proponents cite earlier scientific research to say that cismen have on average an 8-12% performance advantage over ciswomen.
But comparing performance between cismen and ciswomen isn’t relevant here, for the simple reason that trans and intersex women are women because they identify as such. Gender identity refers to our deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with our biological sex assigned at birth or labelled by cis-society.
Regardless, it is also not clear whether the performance gap between the cismen and ciswomen should be attributed to differences in testosterone level as sociological factors such as misogyny and gender oppression also play a role in as much as they tend to discourage athletic development in women and girls?
According to a World Athletics press release, there is “broad medical and scientific consensus” that high levels of endogenous testosterone circulating in athletes can significantly improve their athletic performance. But a review of the scientific literature on testosterone levels and their relationship to athletic performance shows that there is no clear and consistent correlation.
There are credible studies which relate testosterone with better performance, but at the same time there are scientific studies which show a weak connection or none at all. There are also studies which link increased testosterone to worse performance.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that trans women with higher testosterone have some consistent advantage over ciswomen.
In the case of Dutee Chand v. Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the stated position of World Athletics was that hyperandrogenic women have an approximately 3% performance advantage.
But World Athletics permits much greater competitive advantages than this, such as the advantages yielded by height, metabolic levels, socioeconomic privileges, nutrition, training, access to sporting equipment, etc.
For instance, there is no attempt to bar or restrict players with Marfan syndrome. The long limbs and flexible joints related with this syndrome give swimmers, basketball players, and volleyball players a demonstrable edge over other athletes.
If there is no morally relevant difference between the benefits that arise from endogenous testosterone and those which are the outcome of genetic variations, why should testosterone levels be restricted when other such variations determining athletic performance are not?
It is interesting to note here that ciswomen with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and congenital adrenal hyperlapsia (CAH) are exempt from the testosterone level requirements— even though World Athletics maintains that the higher testosterone level in these women gives them a performance advantage.
Such discriminatory standards reinforce the myth that trans and intersex women are not really women, only ciswomen are.
The idea of fairness in sports is an unruly horse. The rationale for not excluding trans and intersexual women must move beyond the idea of fairness. Sports is about meaningful narratives and should include and promote gendered realities. Besides a level playing field, we must ensure the field is accessible to everyone in the first place. The Olympic Charter itself recognises that “playing sports is a human right and every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind”.
While we talk about level playing field , we must also discuss how forcing trans and intersexual women to reduce their testosterone level affects them physically and psychologically.
And how it affects their fundamental rights to privacy and dignity as the whole procedure is medically intrusive and causes significant health issues. Reducing cisgender chances of winning, in itself a contested claim, cannot trump the rights and freedoms of trans and intersexual athletes.
Respecting women’s gender identities and ensuring their sporting rights is not a contradictory but a dialectical process.Perhaps competition is a zero-sum game, where somebody loses so somebody can win. But social dynamics are not zero sum. All of us lose if one of us is deprived of their rights.