Several executive orders were issued by the President of the United State of America, Joe Biden, when he took office in 2021. Among them was one based on the prevention of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation of student-athletes. This move was celebrated by many LGBTQ+ activists across the United States as it meant that transgender athletes, especially trans females, were now eligible to enter female sports at the high school and collegiate levels. If any institution, especially those receiving federal funding, refused admittance to these athletes, they would face administrative sanctions.
This move received criticism from medical physiologists, sporting pundits and natural-born female athletes on whom the decree would have the most impact. However, trans female participation in women’s collegiate sport is not a new development, as it has been allowed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) since 2011.
The most notable case is that of CeCe Telfer, a trans woman on the Franklin Pierce University track team, who qualified for the 2019 NCAA Women’s Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships. CeCe finished first in the 400-metre hurdles finals at the 30-inch women’s division height. Her height was cited as a disadvantage in the hurdles. Telfer maintains that being born male did not grant her an advantage in her events and states that “... there are people who say I have the benefit of testosterone. But no: I have no benefit. I’m on hormone suppression, it doesn’t help. It’s another disadvantage.”
Her coaches reported that she lost muscle mass and speed while undergoing testosterone suppression therapy and so had no advantage.
This, however, may not be completely true, as no study has reported muscle loss greater than 12% with testosterone suppression, even after three years of hormone therapy. Males have approximately 40% greater muscle mass than females, so even with testosterone suppression, trans women athletes may still have a 28% muscle mass advantage over females. Another study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has suggested that the 12-month treatments for trans women, proposed by World Athletics and the International Olympics Committee, were not sufficient due to trans women still being 12% faster than biological women after two years of treatment. Therefore, on a physiological basis, it appears that trans females do have a biological and hence sporting advantage over cis females. Despite these facts, to foster a spirit of inclusivity, trans athletes are admitted into female sports.
Trans athletes are matriculating into the professional sports arena and the world sports governing bodies are making accommodations. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) (2015) guidelines allow trans women to compete in the women’s division once their testosterone is held below 10 nmol/L. This is significantly higher than that of cis-women, hence unfair, but it is allowed.
Trinidad and Tobago, Bahamas and Jamaica have produced numerous world-class female athletes over the years, especially in sprinting events. Now, with the International Olympic Committee, along with other sporting bodies, allowing trans females to participate in women’s sports, it must be asked, how long will these Caribbean nations remain world beaters?
The title of Olympic or World champion comes with not only the prestige of being named the best, but with personal benefits such as multi-million-dollar endorsement deals, international recognition and fame. It is also a branding opportunity for the country or club from which these athletes hail. Though this phenomenon has not yet affected us much in the Caribbean, it would be naive to think that it will not happen sometime in the future. Countries and teams will do whatever it takes to win, even if it means admitting trans athletes to their contingent, because frankly, it is legal, and no rules are being broken.
The case of Ms Telfer was deliberately highlighted, as she lived in Jamaica up to age 12 before her family eventually settled in the United States. Transphobia and homophobia are still rampant in Jamaica and if she had remained in the island, the opportunity to participate in sports as she is would never have materialised. Because of current cultural and religious beliefs in the Caribbean, trans athletes would more likely be off-tracked than be allowed on the field.
The question to be asked is whether the Caribbean is prepared to put biases aside and allow trans athletes to represent their country internationally. Like it or not, other nations will do anything to take the titles we now hold. The world and sports are evolving. Are we in the Caribbean willing to change with it?
Inca Brady is a medical doctor practicing in Jamaica and is a Graduate Student in the Faculty of Sport at the University of the West Indies.