By Laura Pappano
On the surface, Kye Allums – the transgendered male playing on GW women’s basketball team – doesn’t present complications for the NCAA.
Allums is, biologically speaking, female. He has not undergone physical transformation, including hormone therapy, so he can play on the women’s team.
Yet, his announcement, made with obvious relief, is a reminder of how wrenching this issue can be – and that we must get clear on how to include and support transgender athletes.
There are more than a few issues here, but one that wraps up policy makers is about ensuring “fair” competition – which means preserving sex-segregated play even when the sexes being segregated may not be so clear. (Argument for re-thinking sex-segregation in sports, anyone?)
The bottom line: Everyone is afraid of the magical powers of testosterone.
Never mind that estrogen bestows advantages in certain sports (including ultra-endurance running and swimming events), the worry centers on not allowing athletes with “male” helping of hormones or muscles to sneak onto female teams.
(For the record, only one man has admitted to actually doing this, competing in the women’s high jump at the 1936 Olympics. He came in fourth).
The question today, however, is this: What, exactly, is the “male advantage”?
This is not about the presumed – and faulty – belief that every male is bigger, faster, stronger than every female. In fact, there is much within-gender overlap and outliers of both sexes who have physical gifts that some might consider “unfair” if there were only a vehicle for complaining.
The matter here is how one decides that an athlete is “female enough” to compete as a woman. Since 2004, the IOC has allowed transgender male-to-female athletes to compete after undergoing two years of hormone therapy. Recommendations made last month to the NCAA suggest a one-year regimen would cut it. This difference is not like the difference between rules in college and pros in say football – one foot in or two? – but speaks to a basic confusion about the actual effects of hormone therapy on athletic performance. The NCAA officially requires student athletes to compete based on their identifying papers, which Pat Griffin points out, leads to different rules depending on where a students documents are from.
And then, of course, you have the situation last month with Lana Lawless suing the LPGA for the right to compete (Lawless made a male-to-female transformation and underwent two years of hormone therapy). The LPGA requires players to compete as their birth sex.
The range of rules suggests that we don’t really know enough about how sex-based biological differences really matter in sports and what is – or isn’t – an unfair advantage. If we are determined that sports should be sharply divided by gender, we owe it to transgender athletes (many of whom are now seeking sex reassignment treatment at younger ages) to figure it out. Allums may not be pushing – now – but he’s a reminder that it’s time for some clarity and consistency.