Should We Restrict Transgender Sports Participation?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


June 29, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.

Caitlyn Jenner — formerly Bruce Jenner, Olympic athlete, and now candidate for governor of California — underwent transition from male to female and has received a large amount of publicity. She may be the most prominent transgender person in America. She has come out recently on a very controversial subject, which is the ability of transgender athletes to compete in sports.

This is primarily an area where people are much more concerned about men who transition to women and then still want to compete, feeling that they might have an unfair advantage. Transitioning doesn't necessarily change your physiology completely. You still have more muscle mass. There may be advantages in various sports for people who once were males and now want to compete as females.

Caitlyn says, "No way, they shouldn't be allowed to do it," and many people agree. Many states are trying to pass laws to prohibit transgender athletes from competing in their new gender orientation. They want them to either compete in their former gender orientation or maybe not at all.

Some of this debate reminds me about the use of restrooms. Some states were trying to say that even if you had transitioned, you couldn't go into the restroom for your new gender; you had to go to the restroom you used prior to transitioning.

We have to take a different attitude toward sports and participation. For many sports, you don't gain an advantage even if you have transitioned from male to female. There are certainly precision sports, like shooting and archery, where I don't think gender matters much in terms of dexterity or the fine-tuned motor skills that lead you to be good at those sports. The idea that there would be a general ban seems, to me, to make no sense.

The moral principle we want to go after is whether there is an unfair advantage. Can you compete against others but have a biological advantage that just isn't right? The issue is tricky because we also know that for both males and females, there are some people who have higher hormone levels. Some people are born with genes that give them more muscle.

In other words, there are natural differences and a range of biologies for men and for women. We don't sort them out other than sometimes by weight — we do have weight classes in boxing and wrestling. Generally speaking, we don't identify women with naturally high testosterone and ban them from competing against women with lower testosterone.

I think what we're after here is determining what sports might provide an unfair advantage across the board. To tell you the truth, I can't think of many. I'm open to arguments that, if it turns out through allowing competition across sports, again and again, certain athletes keep winning who are in the category of transgender, we should revisit the issue and revise the rules.

Until we see that basically we have a clustering of people in weightlifting or shot putting or something that really just advantages those who've undergone the transition, I would not have an across-the-board ban.

The other reality is that sports are also about participation. For most sports at, say, the elementary or junior high level, you can have everybody competing. It isn't just about winning. It's also about being part of a community, and I think we should respect that value.

It may matter at the Olympics, or maybe it matters for high school state championships, as to who has a biological advantage that isn't the result of training or effort.

Lastly, medicine can do some rebalancing. You can, if you will, give more hormones or other interventions that might make competition a bit more even. That weight distinction is one to keep in mind, where we divide up categories and we don't ask people who are very small to box, wrestle, or weightlift against people who are biologically much bigger. We do allow some categorization within a sport based upon advantage.

That's what we want to get after in terms of the ethics. It isn't that we should be, as Caitlyn Jenner seems to think, prohibiting everything across the board. I think that's just trying to kowtow to the politics of a tough issue.

There are several issues remaining: Where's the advantage? Is there an advantage? At what age do we care about these advantages? For certain sports, we may have to ultimately decide to rebalance by reclassifying who can compete.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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