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Transgender people in professional sports: It’s a human rights issue

Source: Rachel V Mckinnon / Facebook

When you Google Dr. Rachel McKinnon, you’d expect to see the front page of your search littered with articles about how she’s the first ever transgender woman to win the UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championship.

Most of the headlines are rightly positive and supportive. However, you are met with some headlines that try and paint this story in a negative light, all with slightly different wording, but essentially saying the same thing: “Critics accuse Dr. Rachel McKinnon of cheating after taking gold in women’s competition“. See examples of this here and here .

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I am a big cycling fan. As you’ve probably gathered from my article writing history, I am mostly a team sports kind of guy. I’ll occasionally watch tennis, or every 4 years some track and field as well as swimming, but for the most part, team sports is my thing.

I have, however, noticed that there has been a wave of hate that has come McKinnon’s way, most notably from the third place rider, Jennifer Wagner, who deemed that McKinnon’s participation was unfair .

Now, I know that the topic of the participation of MTF (male-to-female) transgender individuals in professional sports is a highly controversial topic. Recent stories that spring to mind include wrestler Mack Beggs and AFL player Hannah Mouncey . The Olympics have a hard-lined stance on allowing MTF transgender individuals to participate as a female in the games, stating that females who were born male still have too large an advantage in competition, even with testosterone suppression medication. This stance varies from sport to sport and is dependant on the regulatory body that governs it.

I’m no scientist. I cannot definitively say whether being born male gives you an unfair advantage post-transition. I’ve seen some arguments stating that if a transgender woman’s testosterone is below a certain level, then it’s a level playing field, whilst others state that the developmental advantages of having higher testosterone during formative years still benefits the athlete, even post-transition.

I can definitively say however, that this is a human rights issue. We’re in a society that only recently has started to accept transgender individuals as equals, and even on that front we definitely have a long way to still go. Transphobia is something that is engrained subconsciously in a lot of individuals. As a cis, white male with a fairly privileged upbringing, I cannot even pretend to imagine the struggles of growing up in a hetero-normative society, knowing full well that I was born the wrong sex. By excluding transgender women from playing sport as the gender they identify as, we are encouraging exclusion and are essentially saying that they do not deserve the same rights as cisgender individuals.

Individuals of African and African-American descent dominate some of the most popular sports in the world (basketball, american football and athletics come to mind), in large part due to their genetic makeup . Science has proven that they harbour a distinct athletic advantage, due to a higher number of fast twitch muscle fibers, 30–40% more enzymes involved in phosphagenic and glycolytic metabolic pathways, and higher bone density than their Caucasian counterparts. Yet, due to racism and systematic oppression in the western world, African-American individuals were not allowed to compete in the same sporting leagues as individuals of Caucasian descent for a disturbingly long time.

In this author’s opinion, discriminating against transgender individuals for potential genetic advantages would be akin to discriminating against individuals of a different ethnicity for the exact same reason. Yet, the latter would rightly cause a public outcry, but somehow society is divided on the former.

As for the third placed Jennifer Wagner, one has to wonder whether she would have complained the way she did had she won the race. She knew that Dr. Rachel McKinnon was racing and that the regulatory body had allowed her participation, so it’s not as if she was blindsided by it. To an outsider, it reeks to me as a fall back excuse, to make herself feel better for not achieving her desired outcome that she worked so hard for.

I’m not going to pretend that I have the answer. As much as the human body fascinates me, I’m no endocrinologist. I can’t quantify any advantage that a MTF transgender woman may have at the highest level of sport. I’ll leave that to medical professionals and regulatory bodies. I can, however, sympathize with the fact that transgender women just wanted to be treated like equals and have the same rights as their cisgender counterparts. Bombarding an athlete with hateful messages after her greatest athletic achievement makes me realise that despite our progress as a society, we still have a long way to go.