Trans-athletes’ in women’s sports: Equalising or discriminating?

Gender inequality, social stereotypes, taboos, lack of media exposure-funding and for many more reasons women’s sports have always been a very contentious and challenging issue. Women’s sports have always been considered less fun and challenging compared to men’s sports. And tol date, female athletes are fighting against gender inequality in sports. But in the time where gender transitioning has become a very sensitive issue, policies pertaining to transgender participation in sports, especially in women’s sports, has led heated debate on whether including trans athletes in sports is gender equalisation or another massive discrimination against women athletes?

Transgender athletes’ participation in sex segregated sports has been an extremely controversial issue. Although some supported trans athletes’ participation in sports, the majority pointed to the biological advantages of trans-athlete’, precisely on women’s sports. Over 20 years, the controversy kept getting more intense because of the rising number of transgender athletes participating on women’s sports and winning titles.

Fast forward to 2002, there were protests and petitions signed by mostly females, asking for trans-biker Michelle Dumaresq to be disqualified from competing in women’s category. She eventually won the right to compete and won the 2003 Canadian National Championships. New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, first openly transgender women to compete on Olympics, won World Masters Games title in 2017 and a silver in the World Championships. Her win sparked accusations of unfairness in sports as well as support. Canadian cyclist Veronica Ivy was first transgender woman to win UCI Women’s Masters Track World Championship in 2018. After her win, Ivy started receiving hateful comments and death threats.

In March 2022, Lia Thomas, an American swimmer, became the first transgender woman ever to win NCCA swimming championship, three years after Cece Telfer, the first transgender athlete to win NCCA title. As the current uprising gender-based talk sensitivity, after Lia Thomas’s win, she became a lightening rod for the entire decade long controversy on transgender athletes’ participation in sports.

Lia Thomas has been the most controversial trans-athlete of all. Her reaching this new milestone gained more criticism than support. People were already infuriated claiming Lia Thomas had an unfair biological advantage but the debate intensified as people searched up her ranks on men’s sports before transitioning. During competing as a member of the men’s team, Lia ranked 554th in the 200 free-style, 65th in the 500 freestyle and 32nd in the 1650 freestyle. But after the transition, she moved to fifth, first and eighth in those respective events on the women’s deck. There was even a widespread rumor that Lia ranked 426th in Men’s sport before ruling women’s sports, albeit there was no such official report on this rank.

Although to fit in in the NCAA requirements, Lia did lower her testosterone to participate in women’s category, people still pointed out other biological advantages as body density, lung capacity, heart capacity and other features or simply Lia being a biological man. To address the accusations, interviewed by Juju Chang, Lia stated,

“Trans people don't transition for athletics. We transition to be happy, authentic and our true selves. Transitioning to get an advantage is not something that ever factors in to our decisions.”                                                                                                       

Although Lia and a lot of experts believe, trans women are and will certainly not take over women’s sports, the majority female athletes confess otherwise. Last year, BBC interviewed two female athletes who kept their identity anonymous to avoid the social media backlashes.

“You can see all the world records, they are so much further and faster, whatever you want to use than female world records and that should be the evidence itself because trans women are biologically male. So, they are at an advantage. There is so much more that differentiates men and women and so much more benefits that males have than just testosterone.”

Additionally, even most of the trans community are against of this. Caitlyn Jenner, a high profiled former Olympic athlete, opposed trans women in women’s sport claiming it unfair. She stated,

“This is a question of fairness, that's why I oppose biological boys who are trans competing in girls' sports in school. It just isn't fair. And we have to protect girls' sports in our schools.”

There were multiple protests and petition on saving women’s sports and multiple opposition to disqualify trans athletes from women sports. Transgender athletes’ participation policies on women’s sports have been either tightened or banned. On March 2023, World Athletics banned transgender women from competing in female sporting events. Critics claimed this ban to be both fair and unfair as ‘there is no such evidence of biological advantages’. World Athletics has also admitted that there had been lack of researches on trans athletes.

The World Athletics Council wrote in a press statement, "Decisions are always difficult when they involve conflicting needs and rights between different groups, but we continue to take the view that we must maintain fairness for female athletes above all other considerations."


Will this ban save women sports or make this situation much more intricate than it already is? Both trans women athletes and women have the right to participate on sports, but sex segregated categories have put sports in ‘Include or Exclude’ debate.

One of the biggest reasons for trans athletes gaining support for participation in women’s sports is, some people agree that trans women are women and excluding transgender athletes from women sports is women rights violation or some support the idea except when it comes to sports.

However, some people adamantly oppose trans-athletes’ participation because trans women are biologically male and males do have significantly more biological advantages than females such as developing longer and denser bones, more muscle tissue, strength, speed, height, and greater lung capacity. Post puberty transitioned women do have these advantages.  

Sports must take gender sensitivity into account and come up with much more innovative solutions than simply upsetting one entire group in order to maintain equality and fairness.

To ensure equality, we can not deny the biological disparities between men and women and this is why men and women have different tee boxes in golf, different three-point arcs in basketball, different net heights in volleyball and different hurdle heights in track.

Now this issue begs for a lot of complex questions. Firstly, there are a few trans-athletes in women sports, so will adding a new category with such a small number of trans athletes to the various sport categories help to ensure equality? Secondly, there have been medical reports indicating that pre-puberty transition has no biological advantages over trans-athletes who went through male puberty, so is it justified to exclude them from women’s sports as well?   

Additionally, the problem extends beyond biological advantages to include women's safety and comfort. How can the environment accommodate trans women when female athletes must practice, travel, and engage in other social activities that concern their privacy? What happens if they are not comfortable with it?

Women's sports were separated from men's sports to protect fairness at the first place, but they continue to strive for equality because another community has also asked for their rights. The complexity of the issue forces us to repeatedly face the choice of accepting some unfairness by including trans people in women's sports or trying to achieve fairness by excluding them. Sports can currently only achieve equality by discriminating against one group. The following sharp and perplexing perspectives on trans women playing women's sports point to a dearth of information, study, and instruction on sex-segregated sports and trans athletes.

Sports must take gender sensitivity into account and come up with much more innovative solutions than simply upsetting one entire group in order to maintain equality and fairness.

* Ayesha Humayra Waresa studies Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka.