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May 28, 2012
Playing fields have long been segregated on the basis of sex. But what happens to the athletes whose physiology doesn't match their gender identity? Against whom do they compete? What obstacles do they face? And how are they being treated by sports' governing bodies?
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May 28, 2012

The Transgender Athlete

Playing fields have long been segregated on the basis of sex. But what happens to the athletes whose physiology doesn't match their gender identity? Against whom do they compete? What obstacles do they face? And how are they being treated by sports' governing bodies?

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For the first month of gestation, everyone is female. After six weeks embryos with a particular male gene, almost always found on the Y chromosome, develop testicles, activating the cells responsible for testosterone production and the accompanying athletic disparity between men and women. Testosterone, which surges during male puberty, is the engine powering an array of a man's competitive advantages: greater height and weight, higher bone density, increased muscle mass and a greater proportion of oxygen-carrying red cells in the blood. Contrast this with estrogen's effects (accumulated fat on widened hips), and it is sensible enough to segregate athletes by sex. But the existence of openly transgender athletes complicates the question of who belongs where.

In 2004 the International Olympic Committee ventured the first answer, ruling that any trans athlete who wants to compete against those not of their birth sex must undergo sex reassignment surgery and then two years of hormone therapy—either testosterone supplementation (to go from female to male) or testosterone suppression (to go from male to female). But last August the NCAA, which had previously deferred to government-issued documentation for gender classification, released a 38-page handbook that took a different approach. Guided by a think tank held with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) in '09, the organization decided against requiring surgeries, which typically cost five figures and aren't covered by insurance. Genitalia, the NCAA concluded, do not impact athletic performance.

In a further departure from the IOC rules, NCAA guidelines stipulate that trans females need to undergo only one year of testosterone suppression before they can compete against women; trans males can receive a medical exemption to take testosterone under a doctor's supervision but can no longer compete on a women's team.

Following the NCAA's lead, a handful of colleges have created their own transgender inclusion policies. Bates was among the first, in April 2011. This year major-conference schools such as Cal and Syracuse have done the same. "The data are saying, if you haven't dealt with this issue, as a campus the odds are good that you will," says Ryan Cobb, an assistant athletic director at Cal. Adds Helen Carroll, the NCLR's sports project director and a former women's basketball coach at UNC Asheville, "As a result of Kye coming out, a lot of athletic directors looked around and thought, What would I have done if that happened on a team at my school? And they had no idea."

In the matters of toilets, changing areas and showers, NCAA guidelines recommend that athletes be allowed to use whatever fits their gender identity (and that, before away games, school officials consult the athlete and then confidentially notify the host school to ensure "access to facilities that are comfortable and safe"). Allums, after coming out, kept using the same locker room as his teammates. "I was like, I've been here for three years, why should I leave now?" he says. At Bates, Godsey was given his own makeshift locker room—a converted cement room with a door. "The school felt that it would be best and less confusing if I had my own space," Godsey says. "Did it suck? Yeah, it sucked. I didn't like it. I wasn't bonding with my team."

Yet for all that discomfort and backlash—of being referred to as female by P.A. announcers, of being called she-male or tranny on the road—neither Godsey nor Allums embodies the true third rail of the gender equity debate in team sports. Says the NCAA's Morrison, "We have not yet had someone born male who identifies as female and wants to participate on a women's team."

There is no published medical data on precisely how long it takes to negate the athletic advantages of a lifetime of testosterone exposure. But one athlete has tackled the question in a personal way. Medical physicist Joanna Harper, 55, who was born male, began hormone therapy in order to transition to female in August '04. Harper had been competing as a male age-group distance runner for years, and she carefully documented the impact that suppressing testosterone and taking estrogen had on her running. "I thought I would get slower gradually," Harper says. Instead she started losing speed and strength within three weeks. "I felt the same when I ran," she says. "I just couldn't go as fast." In February, Harper won the 55-to-59 age group at the women's national cross-country championship in St. Louis, but she is a shadow of her former athletic self. As a man in 2003, Harper ran the Helvetia Half-Marathon in Portland in 1:23:11; in '05, as a woman, she finished the same race in 1:34:01, a difference of nearly 50 seconds per mile.

Factoring in age and gender-graded performance standards, though, Harper is almost exactly as good a female runner as she was as a male—and it took less than a year of hormone therapy to get that way. Data that Harper has collected from a half dozen other male-to-female runners tell a similar story. "It doesn't answer definitively the question of whether I have an advantage or not," she says. "But it's certainly strong evidence that my performances in both genders are approximately equal."

Still, no injection can undo certain physical characteristics. Lindsey Walker, a 7'1" trans female from Cleveland, was known as Drew when she played basketball at Central Michigan from 2004--05 to '06--07. Walker did not publicly come out until after college, but she suffered all the same. "I didn't expect to lose all my friends," says Walker, who still has a tattoo bearing the initials of several former teammates on her back. "There were times I thought about suicide." But what if she'd transitioned at Central Michigan and become the starting center on the Chippewas' women's team? What if Walker, who has had five years of hormone treatments and is saving up for surgery, decides to try out for the 2016 Olympic team—something she says she's "definitely considered"? Her size, almost unheard of in women's hoops, would test the delicate balance between inclusion and competitive equity.

That's a radical case, but as society becomes more tolerant of transgender athletes, it's likely that more will come out at an earlier age. The NCLR has been working with one young, openly transgender soccer player and her family. Eleven-year-old Jazz (whose last name and state have been withheld by SI at the request of her parents) was born male and was diagnosed with gender identity disorder at age three. At five, after further evaluation—"It was critical to learn everything we could," says her father, Greg—she began to live as a girl. "Jazz blossomed once permitted to transition and hasn't wavered in six years," Greg says. "She is a happy, well-adjusted child who enjoys life and embraces her individuality."

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