Competitive Advantage and Transgender People

by | March 13, 2017, 7:00am 10

1. A speedy cutter streaks down the field, effortlessly outpacing their defender for a score.

2. A tall handler goes upline and comfortably grabs the disc above their defender.

3. A man and a woman go up for a disc, the guy easily skying the girl. He is taller, stronger, and has better ups.

All of these are examples of “competitive advantage,” but only one leads us to have separate divisions for men and women, and gender matchups in mixed. While fairly straightforward in some respects, the issue of competitive advantage, particularly concerning men versus women, becomes complicated when considering transgender individuals who are coming out on an ever-increasing basis.

I am one of those individuals. My name is Jenna Weiner, and I am a transgender woman currently playing with the University of Nevada, Reno’s women’s team as a graduate student. I previously played with UC Berkeley’s men’s B team as Jon Weiner, but have since begun and undergone my transition in the last nine months. As one of the likely few transgender women in ultimate, I felt it worthwhile to address issues that I’ve seen and experienced, as well as the policies that guide transgender people in ultimate.

Sports were once solely under the purview of straight, cisgender people. Members of the LGBTQ+ community were few and far between and even among those, most were closeted. But with increased openness and acceptance, more and more LGBTQ+ folk are participating openly in sports, bringing new challenges with them to sports policy. Ultimate has started wrestling with these questions, with Skyd articles by Corey Alexander and Tony Leonardo as two examples of this. Among these questions is how to best be inclusive of transgender people while still being sensitive to issues of competitive advantage, particularly when it comes to trans women.

What is Competitive Advantage?

What am I talking about when I say “competitive advantage?” Competitive advantage is any edge that one competitor has on another, with a particular emphasis on advantages that are differentiating between athletes. These competitive advantages include differences in speed and height as well as differences in gender.

Due to testosterone, men are generally stronger and faster than their women counterparts, giving them a distinct competitive advantage against women. This is one of the key reasons why sports are most often split between men’s and women’s, as the physical advantages men have tend to make direct competition unfair.

So what happens when someone is born a man, but identifies as a woman (trans woman), or is born a woman but identifies as a man (trans man)? What competitive advantages or disadvantages do they have and how can sports associations be inclusive while still being fair?

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University of Nevada, Reno’s women’s team, Black Ice.

Current Transgender Sports Policies

To this end, many sports associations have regulations and policies delineating eligibility requirements and their plans to best include transgender people. The NCAA has a policy, as does the IOC, and the WFDF (World Flying Disc Federation) and USAU both have their own policies.

These policies are intended to be inclusive of trans athletes while still being fair concerning competitive advantage, which is particularly an issue for transgender women. Trans women who have gone through puberty, due to being born male, have the competitive advantage of testosterone and the increased speed and muscle mass that comes with that. However, when we undergo hormone replacement therapy (HRT), this advantage diminishes to nothing over time.

My HRT regimen consists of 4 pills a day; two are spironolactone, a testosterone blocker that reduces my testosterone levels to around those of cisgender women, and two are estradiol, which is a form of estrogen to replace the testosterone and feminize my body. Among changes I’ve experienced in the approximately 9 months I’ve been on HRT include losses of speed, stamina, and acceleration, making playing with men’s team and matching up against men untenable. These changes have reduced my competitive advantage against women and I expect that these changes will continue as I continue HRT.

Organizational policies are centered on these changes and the time it takes for HRT to have enough of an effect to be fair in regards to competitive advantage. The current understanding is that a year of HRT is enough time for this to be the case, so both the NCAA and USAU allow for trans women to be fully eligible after one full year of testosterone blocker treatment. The IOC and the WFDF have stricter policies that are designed for elite, international competition and not everyday local participation.

Do Those Policies Get It Right?

For myself, a year will be more than enough time for HRT to near eliminate any competitive advantage that I may have had being born male. For others though, it may not be. HRT affects different people differently and this diversity must be accounted for in policies.

Flexible policies are a necessity with this complicated and ultimately very personal issue. But one big question that arises when considering these policies is why we legislate trans women’s participation in sports in particular, and why we legislate it so narrowly. As I hoped to present earlier, clear competitive advantages exist between cisgender athletes and there will always be players who are far and away better than their competitors. Yet with cisgender individuals, there is no regulation, there is no testing, just simply an understanding that some athletes are better than others. Why shouldn’t that same idea apply to trans people, particularly trans women?

I will grant, as mentioned previously, that men do generally have competitive advantages from their increased testosterone levels and the accompanying speed and muscle mass that comes with that. However, that problem doesn’t go away as soon as a trans woman hits a year on HRT, nor does it directly correlate with testosterone levels as designated by the IOC and WFDF.

There must be better ways that we can test for competitive advantage that allows for clarity and flexibility for trans athletes, as well as fairness for themselves and their cisgender competitors.

One possibility could be a required physical by a physician that gives a determination of whether someone is cleared to be fair to compete, although this of course comes with its own set of issues. Another complication is any potential challenges to a trans person’s participation, as there needs to be some way to respond to complaints about unfair competitive advantage.

Simply having a year deadline may be good enough in some cases but in others it may be lacking. These issues are complex and not easily answered, but they are necessary to consider and address for the sake of trans athletes’ participation in sports and fairness to them and their competitors.

Trans Policy in Ultimate

Looking forward, these questions need to be examined by the ultimate community. The WFDF recently updated their transgender policies and USAU is in the process of updating theirs, and these issues should be kept in mind when deciding how to best legislate transgender policy. The best policy will ensure competitive fairness while not making it near impossible for trans people to participate in ultimate at every level.

While I have discussed many different questions and issues in this article, I am just one trans woman in a small segment of the ultimate community. There are other trans people in ultimate who have their own experiences and thoughts and there will only continue to be more in the months and years going forward. Ultimate and sports more generally need to have honest dialogues about the place trans people have, and how to best make flexible policies that are both fair and inclusive. These conversations are not easy or simple, but are necessary for the good of the sport, and I for one am confident in ultimate’s ability to have them and create open, inclusive, and fair policies for all.

Have any questions or opinions about anything I talked about? Feel free to leave comments below to continue this discussion and contribute to the growing discourse around transgender people in ultimate.

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  • Corey Alexander

    Jenna thank you for adding another super valuable perspective to the conversation! I truly believe we are blessed in ultimate that we have the platform to have these discussions and to create this discourse and I’m genuinely excited for development of inclusive policies that reflect our ability, advantages and disadvantages as trans athletes without the use of an arbitrary timeline! So good!

  • Thank you for this article. I have forwarded it to the applicable WFDF officer to send you a dedicated response. What is the best way to reach you? You can reach me at rob.mcleod@wfdf.org.

  • Michelle McCarthy

    Fellow ultimate player here who is a trans women! Happy to see it getting more exposure!

  • I’m interested in this discussion and want to engage with more perspectives I may not understand. I do agree that there needs to be more thought going into current policies that are in place and that sports in general have not gotten it right yet. While they are working on it, I wanted to get an opinion from someone who feels they may experience unfairness if divisions were to be divided by birth sex rather than gender. What specific circumstances, in that hypothetical scenario, would be unfair for players identifying as one gender, but playing as their birth sex?

    Also I’m interested to know if anyone who identifies as a gender outside cisgender has thoughts on the gender equity conversation and whether current discussion is inclusive all genders. I recently read an article listing over 50 genders people identify with and I wanted to know if the context of the discussion is what defines the word gender. Are there a couple meanings here that I may be blurring? Maybe sometimes it means strictly man or woman and other times it refers to cis, trans, a-gender, etc.?

    Thanks for helping me understand in advance of any response! Hopefully I can learn a bit more here.

    • Jenna Weiner

      Hi Patrick, thanks for joining the discussion! Regarding your first question, there are a couple main examples where it may be unfair to athletes for people to be restricted to playing as their birth sex. For trans women like myself, playing directly against men becomes very difficult as HRT reduces our muscle mass and speed. For trans men, their testosterone would make it unfair for them against women as was the case with Mack Beggs, a trans guy in Texas who was forced to wrestle against girls because of the policies at his high school.

      When we’re talking about gender, it can get very complicated! There is a full spectrum of genders and gender expressions and it can be difficult to include everyone equally. I kept my article primarily focused on cis-gender and trans-gender individuals, as well as referring to people mostly on the binary, to keep things simpler, but we should definitely do our best to include people of all genders and all sexes. Hopefully having some of these discussions can help with the progress towards being fully inclusive!

      I hope I was able to answer your questions and please don’t hesitate to ask if something wasn’t clear or if there are further questions. Thanks for reading!

      • Your article and response is quite clear. I see where it could become unfair. However, I don’t know much about HRT other than the info you’ve expressed, such as reducing physical abilities, but I did look it up. It had quite a lot of medical and bio terminology which made it very hard to comprehend. I’d follow up with whether HRT is necessary for all trans women/men. What choices would lead a transgender to go without HRT?

        To your second point I agree, it can get very complicated. I think we can and should get to a point where everyone is able to participate and feel included. The gender equity conversation is probably another discussion for the GEAG, but my question would be how 50+ genders could be represented on a roster of 27. I’ll try to stick to the first point of discussion since the article touches more on that subject.

        • Corey Alexander

          As with all milestones in the transition process HRT is simply an avenue a trans person may take in order to have their gender expression/appearance be congruent with their gender identity. The medical transition process varies immensely and there is no one size fits all story line for trans individuals. For some people HRT may be an absolute necessity as part of their transition, I know it was for me, others I know have opted not to take if for a variety of reasons (some medical, personal, psychological etc). This grey area makes inclusion in a binary sport difficult but I think we approach it well when we apply principles of SOTG to our games.

          I don’t think your question of whether or not 50 genders could be represented on a roster of 27 is particularly clear? It confuses me but I’m definitely keen to engage further on the concept of ultimate inclusion

          • I completely agree with Sprit Of The Game shaping our approach. It’s a big draw for why I play the sport and how I handle my engagements outside of the sport. It’s what makes me feel comfortable discussing such taboo subjects with ultimate players.

            I understand where others might come from to undergo HRT for appearance and expressive reasons, and may need to get more specific and personal for further questions rather than generalizations of such a diverse community. From what I’ve gathered so far, my initial reaction when discussing HRT would be to encourage transgenders to forego HRT and be individuals that try to exemplify being comfortable in the way the body was originally formed. That way, in this hypothetical situation, players would not have the worries of competitive advantage and could compete with their birth sex, but still be accepted as the gender they identify with among their birth sex group. I’m still open to hearing issues this scenario would bring up and interested to hear whether this is an approach taken within the transgender community?

            The question regarding representing everyone on the roster is in my head like this: The Gender Equity Action Group in ultimate is working towards equal opportunity and exposure among other things within our sport to be shared among male and female, without including other genders. Let’s say equity is made equal among both male and females. Now where do we stand with the other genders. Shouldn’t we include them in the conversation. For this type of discussion it may be more suitable to title their agendas to be birth sex based rather than gender based. This way it doesn’t get confused with the multitudes of genders.

          • Reed McIntosh

            Hello Patrick. I am jumping in as a non-binary ultimate player. I was assigned female at birth, but I don’t identify as a man or a woman, and, unlike some nonbinary people, I hope to begin HRT someday.

            For many genderqueer people, HRT is a medical necessity. There’s a special kind of trauma in living with a body that doesn’t reflect your deepest conceptualizations of yourself, and many, many transgender people do everything in their power to rid their bodies of that which was imposed upon them. Oftentimes, attempts to simply accept our bodies result in catastrophic failure, as evidenced by the incredibly high suicide rates of the transgender community. It is a matter of safety: not only safety from yourself, but safety from others.

            Ultimate players tend to be a pretty accepting bunch, but in the context of today’s political climate, “passing” as one’s true gender is a life-or-death matter. Simply grouping transgender individuals with teams of their birth sex would instantaneously out them to everyone involved, and everyone watching, and it is very easy to find someone who is violent against trans people.

            It’s a very similar situation to the great Queer Bathroom debate. If you force transgender women and other queer, feminine, assigned-male-at-birth people to use the men’s bathroom, they become highly vulnerable to attacks. Forcing trans women to play on men’s teams would put many trans women in a very dangerous situation. In the first sixty days of 2017, seven transgender people have already gotten killed. Trans folks don’t need anyone else outing them to the public, even in the relative tolerance of ultimate frisbee games.

            Not only that, but trans people play on the gender of their true identities for a reason– it is infinitely more comfortable for them to play ultimate with people who identify similarly to the way that they do and have similar life experiences and values to them.

            In addition, a wealth of scientific evidence points to the fact that biological sex is anything but a binary. Dividing teams by biological sex would be nonsensical. I encourage you to do your own research into biological sex, but here are links to a few reputably-sourced articles about the topic:

            http://www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943
            http://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2015/02/24/sex-biology-redefined-genes-dont-indicate-binary-sexes/

            While there might be generalizable differences between the physical abilities of men and women, the relationship between biological sex, gender identity and athletic ability is incredibly complex, and we can really only organize plans for transgender athletes on an individual basis.

            What Wiener was emphasizing resonated with my experiences as a trans person– “clear competitive advantages exist between cisgender athletes and there will always be players who are far and away better than their competitor.” I know many transgender women who have not begun HRT yet, and they have much less athletic ability than your average male. I know many transgender men who have not begun HRT yet, and they have much more athletic ability than your average female. “With cisgender individuals, there is no regulation, there is no testing, just simply an understanding that some athletes are better than others. Why shouldn’t that same idea apply to trans people, particularly trans women?”

            I am friend to multitudes of people, with multitudes of different gender identities. I think that the easiest solution to this issue is more non-gendered and mixed teams, in addition to men’s and women’s teams. Just let everyone play, and those who do want to play only with women or only with men can do as they wish; and those who want to play mixed can have the opportunity to do so. If you allow everyone to participate as they see fit, you can bypass the issue of competitive advantage entirely. For me, being nonbinary, mixed leagues saved my life. Mixed leagues are why and how I can play ultimate, and I encourage trans people to join them, and cisgender people and administrators to create them.

  • nrojb

    Sorry if you already touched on this, but do you think a testosterone “count” is a good way to delineate between the genders?