Dr. Jaime Schultz
“First of all, I think what's important to do is to separate transgender or transitioned athletes from athletes who have differences of sex development, or what we might call intersex. So these are two different situations, but what ties them together is testosterone.”
The show this week features an insightful interview with Dr. Jaime Schultz, an associate professor of Kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in the history of women's sports. Schultz joins HWTP Sports Talk and speaks with David about her reporting on a new sports policy that appears to discriminate against female athletes with hyperandrogenism – including South African track star Caster Semenya – as well as other testosterone-related sports policies that have state-by-state implications for transgender athletes.
For two young transgender girls (who are also state champs), the girls’ club is not welcoming
David starts the discussion with the case of two 16-year-old transgender athletes who made national headlines this month. Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood are track and field stars in their state of Connecticut, recently coming in 1st and 2nd place at the state girls’ championship, respectively. They were both assigned male at birth, but live as females and are undergoing hormone therapy for their bodies to reflect this.
Miller and Yearwood have been able to officially compete as girls because Connecticut’s governing body of interscholastic sports enables students to participate in athletics based on their gender identity. In their case, though this rule has affirmed their gender identities by allowing their participation in the girls’ division, it has also opened up Miller and Yearwood to a floodgate of criticism from competitors and parents who see them as having an unfair physical advantage over other (cisgender) female athletes.
Critics believe that since Miller and Yearwood were born into male bodies, they should be competing in sports competitions for males. This is essentially based on the concept that boys naturally possess much higher levels of testosterone than girls, therefore giving any male-born person a physical advantage over females.
Some have even begun petitioning the state to change its current rules, so Miller and Yearwood would presumably have to compete against boys or not compete at all.
“For critics who question their place in girls’ sport...based on your philosophy and where you stand on what sport should be for, that changes the tenor of our discussion,” Schultz says.
“It’s a question of science, and it’s also a question of identity, and it all just gets really complicated.”
Further complicating things: ”Different states have different regulations for transgender athletes,” she adds.
For a transgender boy at the top of his high school wrestling career, the boys’ club was off-limits
Whereas rules in Connecticut allow students to participate in sports based on their gender identity, rules in Texas are quite the opposite. In Texas, students are required to compete as the sex stamped on their birth certificate.
Schultz brought up the case of Mack Beggs, a 17-year-old star wrestler in Texas who has been on the receiving end of another testosterone-related controversy.
Beggs was born biologically female, but lives as a male and began taking testosterone treatments in 2015. He fell in love with wrestling, and was determined to be at the top of his sport in high school. But when Beggs requested to compete with other boys, the state said no.
“Beggs wanted to compete as a boy…but Texas said, you can’t do that, you have to compete as a girl because that’s what it says on your birth certificate,” Schultz says.
Beggs was ordered to continue competing as a girl, and last year became the first transgender participant to win a Class 6A girls’ state championship in Texas high school wrestling.
But being forced to compete as a female regardless of his male gender identity made his very existence in the division an extremely contentious issue. He often got booed, people said hurtful things to and about him, he developed a reputation, and he became the (divisive) talk of the town.
Beggs was even at one point charged with allegations of doping because he was taking synthetic testosterone for his hormone treatments, Schultz says, although it was prescribed by his doctor and his school district had determined his testosterone to be well below the allowed level.
“You can see how Texas sort of hamstrung itself by these rules,” Schultz says. “Nobody is breaking the rules here. They are competing in line with what the state organization has said who can compete...so it might seem unfair, but nobody's breaking the rules,” she says.
. . .
Historically, athletic events have always been split into the two main categories of men’s sports and women’s sports. As a result, an athlete’s eligibility to compete in such events becomes directly related to their apparent ability to fit neatly into either of the two categories (male or female). But what happens when not everyone can fit so neatly into one of those boxes, even when they desperately would like to so they can keep playing their professional sport?
Caster Semenya and defining “femaleness” in sports
Caster Semenya is a two-time Olympic champion, three-time world champion, and a track and field hero in her home country of South Africa. But because of the way athletic institutions define and measure the concept of “maleness” as a lack of “femaleness,” a new policy has been slated for implementation later this year that could cut Semenya’s astonishingly successful running career short.
Semenya is a woman with a condition called hyperandrogenism, which means she has an abnormally high level of testosterone. As a result, Semenya has been subjected to harsh treatment, including medical “gender tests” and stigma brought on by speculation about her sexual characteristics and reproductive organs.
“This is kind of the direction that most sports organizations are headed...that we're using testosterone levels as a way to define who can compete as a woman. So it's defining femaleness,” Schultz says.
“Now, for men, it doesn't much matter to them really. Men naturally have a much more expansive range of testosterone.”
The IAAF has been using testosterone as a measure to verify female athletes’ eligibility since the 1980s, apparently managing instances of hyperandrogenism and intersex athletes quietly on a case-by-case basis for decades before ever establishing it as policy. Then, in 2011, the IAAF announced an upper limit for testosterone levels.
A court case in 2015 had that policy suspended for about two years, after it was ruled that there was not yet enough evidence to prove that additional testosterone gave women a performance advantage in sports. Earlier this year, however, that evidence was submitted – and the court apparently found it quite compelling.
IAAF regulations: discrimination in the pursuit of fairness?
In a decision that Semenya has called “unlawful” and said she plans to fight, the Court of Arbitration for Sport recently ruled that starting in November 2018, the new policy on hyperandrogenism will indeed be enforced for women who race in track events from 400 meters up to the mile. This would include Semenya, who especially excels in the women’s 800 and 1,500.
The regulations could very well result in female runners who exhibit naturally high testosterone levels being forced to either change events entirely, compete against men, take hormone-suppressing medication, or even undergo surgery if they want to continue competing against women.
Meanwhile, the idea that there might be a gendered double standard remains on the table when it comes to how women are treated in sports; little attention appears to be paid to men with low testosterone or trans male athletes competing in men’s events, and men are not screened for high levels of naturally-occurring testosterone, as women now are. This has led many to believe that some existing policies, including that of the IAAF, are discriminatory against women.
Through something called a therapeutic use exemption, Schultz says, “if [men] have a documented condition that gives them low testosterone, they can supplement” their testosterone with synthetic testosterone.
“Women don't have that same option,” Schultz says. “If a woman falls below the reference range for testosterone, she doesn't have that same opportunity to supplement her testosterone.”
In terms of weighing the scientific and ethical rationales for regulating women with hyperandrogenism in elite sports, a scientific article published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in 2015 came to this conclusion:
“Regulating women with clinical and biological hyperandrogenism is an invitation to criticism because biological parameters of sex are not neatly divided into only two categories in the real world. It is, however, the responsibility of the sports-governing bodies to do their best to guarantee a level playing field to all athletes.”
The article goes on to recommend that sports-governing bodies should, at the very least, formulate policies that are more sensitive toward possible cases of hyperandrogenism. This could include a heightened prioritization of privacy, informed consent, and the provision of psychological support for athletes with a disorder of sex development.
As Schultz writes in her story – unless this decision from IAAF changes or is somehow overturned – “We may be left with a sport without Caster Semenya, or at least the same Caster Semenya who continues to set new standards of excellence in women’s track and field.”
Listen to the full conversation below, and read Schultz’s article for The Conversation here.