Guide to Gender Inclusion and Diversity in Sports for Transgender Athletes

Transgender athletes benefit from inclusion in team sports like this group of high school soccer players in pregame huddle.

In the U.K. in 2019, a transgender rugby player’s teammates were concerned she could injure other players because of her physical strength, so she decided to have her testosterone levels medically lowered. Also in 2019, at a Connecticut high school, parents of three biologically female track athletes complained that competing against transgender teammates with high testosterone levels could cost their daughters scholarships by making it more difficult for them to score well at the finish line.

Such divisive issues related to transgender athletes are becoming increasingly common. In September 2019, the Guardian’s Sean Ingle reported on the struggles of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to establish guidelines for transgender athletes before the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. According to Ingle’s report, scientists disagree about what level of testosterone should be permitted in athletes who have transitioned from male to female.

Even for global athletic organizations like the IOC, finding a way to establish gender inclusion guidelines that respect diversity and transgender identity can be a complicated process. Public awareness is growing about the unique needs and challenges transgender athletes can face, but not all teams, facilities, or sports organizations have developed inclusion policies to ensure these athletic competitors are welcome.

Creating and maintaining an effective gender inclusion and diversity policy in sports allows transgender athletes to know their contributions in sports are valued and their teammates and fans respect their gender identity. Those who aspire to be leaders in sports and athletics need to appreciate the unique challenges transgender athletes often face as well as how to build inclusive and supportive environments for these individuals.

Transgender Athletes: Facts and Statistics

Before sports leaders can evaluate techniques and tools to help build inclusive environments for transgender athletes, they need to understand these athletes and the challenges they face, including everyday issues such as access to the sex-segregated locker room that aligns with their gender identity, as well as the concept of gender equity.

Gender equity, briefly defined, is the fair treatment of both women and men according to their respective needs, according to Pipeline Equity, Inc. In sports, an example of gender equality could be allowing a female student to join the high school football team that was previously composed of entirely male student athletes. The female student is not losing out on an opportunity to participate in sports because of her gender.

An example of gender equity in sports could be that same female student receiving equal treatment on the playing field, such as players not going too soft or too hard on her, or receiving treatment that is different but is still in accordance with that student’s needs. A common concern about gender equity in sports is that if a transgender athlete does join a male or female sports team, it may unlevel the playing field for both. However, in college sports, the 2011 NCAA Policy on Transgender Inclusion “is aimed at allowing student-athletes to participate in competition in accordance with their gender identity while maintaining the relative balance of competitive equity among sports teams.” For example, under certain circumstances, a trans-male is able to participate on a collegiate male basketball team, “but is no longer eligible to compete on a women’s team without changing the team status to a mixed team. A mixed team is eligible only for men’s championships.”

Some may argue that allowing transgender students to use a locker room that aligns with their gender identity could open them to unwarranted harassment from their peers. However, citing research from Media Matters, Vox noted how “17 school districts around the country with protections for trans people, which collectively cover more than 600,000 students, had no problems with harassment in bathrooms or locker rooms after implementing their policies.” This does not necessarily mean that transgender students may not face bullying or harassment in a locker room, but that the issue may not be as widespread as believed.

Not allowing or enabling transgender students to use locker rooms that associate with their identity can potentially lead to misunderstandings regarding these individuals and their struggles. This is why empathy is crucial to understanding transgender athletes and individuals.

Gaining insight and empathy can start with schools implementing an inclusive policy regarding the participation of transgender athletes and LGBT individuals in sports. Importantly, however, not all schools can create their own policies due to restrictions imposed by state laws and guidelines on LGBT and transgender participation in sports.

In the college sports landscape, conversations regarding transgender athletes typically generate a strong response. An article from the NCAA notes that even though the college/university environment itself is often welcoming to individuals of various sexual and gender identities, that same inclusiveness isn’t always shared among college sports teams. The NCAA article evaluated a previous study about this topic and noted that in response to questions about diversity, many athletes “denied that LGBT individuals were members of their teams or expressed negative reactions to the idea of having LGBT team members. The overall message from the findings was that hostility toward gay men and lesbians exists on nearly all teams and at all the case study sites.” The article also notes how these negative attitudes and harsh locker room realities can generate health and personal issues as well as interpersonal conflicts for transgender and other LGBT individuals that can affect their sports performance and their lives. Substance abuse, depression, and even suicide can result.

Gender inclusion has also sparked controversy in professional sports. Sports Illustrated sheds light on tennis player Renée Richards, who “is believed to have been the first transgender woman to play a pro sport.” After undergoing gender reassignment surgery, Richards sued to play at the U.S. Open. Some of the concerns and criticisms of Richards’s inclusion at the 1977 U.S. Open are mirrored today in other sports. In Olympic sports, for example, a common gender equity criticism is that male athletes who have undergone gender reassignment surgery will have a physical advantage over the other women they compete against. And discussion is still ongoing about how much an athlete’s testosterone or estrogen levels can affect their performance on the field as well as about the best ways for athletic organizations and officiating committees in charge of evaluating diversity in sports to avoid discriminating against transgender athletes.

For example, Caster Semenya is a top South African runner. Semanya has intersex traits. “Intersex” refers to people “born with some biological characteristics that are considered ‘female’ and others that are considered ‘male,’” according to Planned Parenthood. Because she is intersex, Semenya faces potential punishment or restrictions on competing from the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, if she does not meet regulations regarding lowering her testosterone level. A higher testosterone level can be considered by some to be an unfair advantage for Semanya and not effective gender equity, as women who are not intersex or transgender often do not have comparable testosterone levels.

Semenya has pursued legal action against such restrictions and punishments in the past, according to the Associated Press. The fact is, not many transgender athletes compete openly at the professional level. Semenya’s case is well documented, but others with similar experiences may hesitate to come forward because of the perceived stigma and lack of open discussion of transgender issues in sports. This can leave policymakers without much concrete data on which to base their creation of inclusive transgender policies in sports.

Diversity and Gender Inclusion Resources

Transgender athletes face many challenges, including overcoming stereotypical attitudes about gender. Devising inclusive diversity policies and procedures to address their unique needs is also challenging. Thankfully, there are resources that can help.

K-12 Athletic Department Resources

Specific policies about transgender athletes in sports vary by state. Transathlete, a website with extensive information and resources on transgender athletes and policies across multiple sports and organizations, notes how states like California, Colorado, and Florida enable transgender individuals to participate in sports at K-12 schools. In states like Texas, a student’s birth certificate is used to determine their gender for participation in school sports. In Ohio, there are more specific guidelines regarding hormone treatments and an individual’s participation on a team.

School athletic departments must abide by state laws, but if they wish to include transgender athletes in a way that respects their diversity, they can start by building gender inclusive environments where transgender people’s identities are respected and appreciated. This includes establishing strict guidelines regarding discrimination and harassment as well as providing educational resources regarding vocabulary. For example, the American Alliance of Museums offers inclusion resources for gender and LGBT topics, such as the differences between certain gender-related terms. Inclusion can also include making athletic departments and schools aware of state laws regarding transgender participation in sports.

An article from NEA Today provides insights into the benefits of educating students and teachers about the importance of including LGBT individuals in sports and beyond. The article details the positive changes that have taken place in some parts of the country after broader LGBT educational and awareness initiatives were implemented.

Collegiate Team and Organization Resources

The NCAA provides a helpful resource from its 2018 Inclusion Forum that illustrates key concepts regarding identity and inclusion for transgender athletes. Information detailed in the resource ranges from explanations of the differences between sex and gender, to recommendations for transgender athletes who are and are not undergoing hormonal treatment, to common myths and misconceptions. The NCAA also provides a more extensive handbook regarding inclusion of transgender student athletes.

Although broader guidelines and resources are available from the NCAA, policies regarding inclusion of transgender athletes as well as LGBT individuals across all of campus may vary from school to school. This is why it is important for athletic administrators to make student athletes and other members of the athletic organization aware of both the importance of inclusion and diversity in sports and the fact that there are guidelines in place to ensure that diversity and inclusion thrive.

Professional Team Resources

Transathlete notes that the National Women’s Hockey League became “the first women’s professional sports league to have a formal policy in place regarding the participation of transgender and non-binary athletes” after releasing its policy in December 2016. In the league’s policy, there are extensive guidelines regarding who is able to participate as well as details regarding the process for how a transgender athlete may participate. Transathlete notes, however, that to their knowledge, no “men’s professional sports leagues have formal policies on the participation of transgender athletes.”

Additional Athletic Organizations Resources

As mentioned previously, the International Olympic Committee is reevaluating certain policies regarding transgender athletes and their participation in the Olympic Games. In 2015, the IOC published information regarding its guidelines concerning sex reassignment and hyperandrogenism. Transathlete offers a comprehensive list of transgender inclusion policies for various world sports organizations.

Additional Information on Transgender Athletes

Inclusive policies for transgender athletes are a great leap forward for many sports organizations, but inclusion involves much more.

Building Awareness of Transgender Athletes

Even when transgender athletes are allowed to participate in sports at the K-12, collegiate, or professional level, they still deal with discrimination and lack of acceptance or understanding from their peers. Athletic administrators and leaders who want to build a strong and inclusive transgender athlete policies will need to ensure that all team members are sensitive to the struggles of transgender athletes.

This effort can include creating educational initiatives to give insights into the contributions of transgender athletes and the benefits of diversity in sports. For example, GLSEN provides a helpful resource regarding LGBT, gender, and pronoun usage, as well as how to use gender-neutral language.

Future Opportunities and Challenges for Transgender Athletes

As noted earlier, inclusivity at K-12 athletics organizations in schools can depend on state law. For example, a transgender student in one state may encounter few to no barriers participating in a sport and instead be embraced by the team and larger school community. However, a similar student who tries to participate in the same sport in another state might be hindered by administrative red tape or barred from playing entirely.

Thus, even when there are initiatives in place that allow and even encourage the participation of transgender athletes, the debate continues about making changes to policies concerning these athletes.

Learning About the Transgender Athlete Community

The rules and requirements for how or if transgender athletes can participate in sports vary. But athletes, students, and athletic organizations can benefit from learning about the history of this issue. GLSEN provides an extensive timeline of notable LGBT events, contributions, and achievements.

Athletic administrators and leaders can shine a light on transgender athletes, their positive contributions to sports, and their past and present struggles. When leaders have a better understanding of sports ethics, administration, and management, it is easier to build inclusive environments that embrace all athletes.

Sources

American Alliance of Museums, “Trans Inclusion: Shedding Light on Gender Transition and Inclusion in the Workplace.”
Associated Press, “Defending Champion Caster Semenya Sidelined at Worlds”
GLSEN, “LGBTQ History Timeline Reference”
GLSEN, “Pronouns: A Resource for Educators”
The Guardian, “IOC Delays New Transgender Guidelines After Scientists Fail to Agree”
International Olympic Committee, IOC Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism – November 2015
Media Matters, National Women’s Hockey League, “NWHL Creates Policy on Participation of Transgender Athletes”
NCAA, 2018 NCAA Inclusion Forum
NCAA, “NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes”
NCAA, “Mind, Body and Sport: Harassment and Discrimination—LGBTQ Student-Athletes”
NEA Today, “Students and Educators Work Together to Create Inclusive Environments for LGBTQ Students”
Ohio High School Athletic Association, Transgender Policy
Pipeline, “Gender Equity Vs. Gender Equality: What’s the Distinction?”
Planned Parenthood, “What’s Intersex?”
Sports Illustrated, “She’s a Transgender Pioneer, but Renée Richards Prefers to Stay Out of the Spotlight”
Transathlete Transathlete, Professional Sports Leagues
Vox, “Myth #3: Letting trans people use the bathroom or locker room matching their gender identity is dangerous”