Diving into the debate over trans athletes
Lucas Draper, 21, is not someone you would want to challenge at the gym. Just watching his sit-up routine is enough to hurt your abs. Draper is a junior on the men’s swimming and diving team at Oberlin College in Ohio.
“I was in the water before I could walk,” he told correspondent Lee Cowan. “I started swimming competitively around the age of nine.”
Draper came here to compete from Australia. But after breaking his hand he decided that this season he would compete on the men’s diving team, instead, although you might not recognize him from afar, wearing a women’s swimsuit .
“So I always wear the women’s costume, because I haven’t had any kind of surgery,” Draper said. “I would love to at some point.”
The woman costume hides what a man costume does not hide. Until last year, Draper competed on Oberlin’s Women’s team. Last November, he began a regimen of testosterone therapy as part of his transition to male.
“I was a tomboy from the moment I could walk,” Draper said. “I always felt a bit lost and a bit like I didn’t fit in.”
He says he is happier now than he ever was.
Cowan asked. “This is your first season competing as a man. How are you feeling so far?”
“It feels good.”
Draper’s transition has been supported by her coaches and teammates at Oberlin, but that kind of acceptance isn’t enjoyed by all transgender athletes, especially trans women.
Lia Thomas, 22, is arguably one of the most controversial yet accomplished trans college swimmers competing today. For three years she swam on the men’s team at the University of Pennsylvania, but after taking some time off, she came back this season to swim with the women – and she became a phenomenon. In a sport often defined by fractions of a second, Thomas is sometimes so far ahead that she waits for her competitors to catch up.
NCAA rules require transgender athletes to undergo testosterone suppression therapy for one year before competition. Lia Thomas has been working there twice as long.
And although her time has slowed since swimming as a man, her winning streak has sparked a firestorm on how to balance fairness and inclusion.
Dr. Michael Joyner is a physiologist who studies human athletic performance at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. “In many sports, men are, you know, 10% or 20% better on average,” he said. “And if you look at the most elite performers, the men are far, far and ahead of what the women are capable of.”
“And that’s where the issue of fairness comes in?” asked Cowan.
After studying Lia Thomas’s time from man to man, Joyner said she was an outlier statistically: “The emerging evidence is that there are inherited effects of testosterone, particularly [for] people who went through puberty as men and were exposed to testosterone for long periods of time.”
He expects that Thomas’ testosterone suppressants have effectively lowered his hormone levels to those of cisgender women – these are women whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.
But Joyner says hormone therapy can’t reverse everything: “The size is probably not reversible, the size of the hand, the size of the foot. Some of the problems with muscle mass, lung size and other things will probably never go away completely, if at all.”
Joanna Harper, a visiting researcher who studies transgender sports performance at Loughborough University in England, said: “Trans women will retain advantages. But are these advantages large enough to prevent meaningful competition? Not at all clear .”
She wonders if the advantages that trans women can have can also come with disadvantages: “The larger bodies of trans women are now fueled by reduced muscle mass, reduced aerobic capacity. This can lead to disadvantages in areas such as speed, recovery, endurance, etc.”
Her published studies are among the few to have been done on trans athletes, an area she became interested in as a competitive runner when she began her own transition from male to female in 2004.
“Within nine months of starting hormone therapy, I was running 12% slower,” she said, “and that’s the difference between serious male distance runners and serious female distance runners. As a scientist, I was intrigued.”
She is now in the process of conducting a longer-term study of trans athletes.
Cowan asked, “Has anyone really done this yet, on this scale?”
“On any scale,” replied Harper.
This is partly because transgender people only make up about 1% of the population. Elite trans athletes are only a tiny fraction of that.
That said, many competitive swimmers say we don’t need exhaustive studies to decipher what they say is completely obvious.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who won three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, said: “To have someone competing who has this unfair advantage, even if they don’t win, it always corrupts the ground. They think women should just walk up and say, ‘Here you go. You take these spots.'”
She now runs Champion Women, an advocacy group for women’s equality in athletics.
“Lia Thomas has already had a huge impact on women’s sport,” Hogshead-Makar said. “When Lia is in the final, it means another woman will not reach the final.”
Cowan asked, “You’re not against trans athletes, you’re just against trans women competing in the women’s category?”
“Right. When it comes to competitive sports, that’s where I would draw the line. I think transgender people really struggle in society, and I want it to be easier. But we can’t asking women to give up what we’ve worked so hard for, so transgender women can compete.”
This argument has already forced some changes. Mid-season this year, the NCAA announced it was dropping its rules that had allowed trans athletes to compete since 2011. It will now leave it up to the governing bodies of each sport to set their own rules in the future. .
At the legislative level, laws that prohibit trans women and girls from participating in sports are increasingly common; 22 states have introduced bills like this this year alone.
Schuyler Bailar was the first openly trans man in Division 1 swimming. He is now an advocate for transgender inclusion. “These bills are devastating,” Bailar told Cowan. “They tell trans kids they don’t belong, even those who don’t want to play sports, because it says, ‘Hey, you don’t belong’, in one of the main activities that kids participate.”
“Is there any common ground in this debate?” asked Cowan.
“I don’t think there’s room to say, ‘Yeah, I’m asserting your identity, but I don’t do that in sport,’ Bailar replied. “You can’t split me in half and make to appear my transited and my masculinity here, and not here.”
He’s been cheering on Lia Thomas all season, but he’s worried if she gets kicked out of the sport, where does that end? “When is a woman too big or her hands too big? When is a woman not woman enough?”
“Does she come in with an advantage?” Cowan asked.
“I think biodiversity exists everywhere,” Bailar said, “and the reality is that people win and lose all the time, and no one sees that as unfair, until it’s a marginalized person, especially a black or brown woman and/or a trans woman.”
All eyes were on Lia Thomas recently at the NCAA National Finals, where she broke no records, but became the first known transgender athlete to win a Division I championship. As some celebrated, d others were angry. Obviously, the debate is far from over.
As for Lucas Draper, he really isn’t sure of the answer, but his willingness to dive into the debate is at least a start to finding a solution.
“People who identify as transgender are very much in the minority, and people just don’t understand where people like me are coming from,” Draper said.
“Where do you come from?”
“I just wanna be me,” he replied. “And me, it’s not my private parts. It’s who I am inside.”
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Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Publisher: Ed Givnish.