Running and Fairness For Trans Athletes

We like to believe that our sport is fair and accessible for everyone. One athlete examines how we might make sure it actually is.

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Over the last couple years, I’ve spent countless moments feeling heartbroken as I watched trans athletes become silenced spectators in sensationalized debates about our rights, reality and existence. 

Most of these debates have centered on supposed physical advantages that transgender runners–in particular, trans women–have in running events. These debates often use the same one or two studies, with limited numbers of participants, to argue that trans women cannot fairly compete against cisgender women. This is hardly enough research to claim as irrefutable evidence that trans women have a physical advantage. 

Something about this debate captures us. Perhaps it’s the fact that as runners, many of us are defined by competition; advantages and disadvantages have high emotional costs. Maybe it’s our deep need to keep running the egalitarian sport we imagine it to be–anyone can run, can become great, as long as fairness is not compromised.

But perhaps what captures us most about the transgender runner debate is that it serves as a red herring; focusing on “physical advantage” distracts us from a more pressing social justice issue at hand: that competitions are not fair for transgender runners. Transgender runners experience countless challenges that make running a difficult sport to participate in, let alone compete in. 

Despite these disadvantages, many people still cry “unfair” if a trans person achieves a podium finish at a race, which raises two difficult questions: “What is fair?” and “Who is competition fair for?”

Challenges Trans People Face 

First, we need to acknowledge that no one shows up to race out of thin air. Each of us brings a lifetime’s worth of past, present and future when we arrive at the start line. There is a mix of social, political and personal factors that follows us to any race.  Our bodies remember, adapt and respond to not only training but our lives. For trans athletes, that includes a lifetime of red tape, disparities and discrimination.

I am aware that my experience as a transmasculine, able-bodied, mixed-race but white-passing person from a working/middle-class background does not and cannot speak for all trans experiences. Trans runners who are also people of color, Indigenous, disabled, poor or marginalized in other ways may experience intersecting and compounding forms of oppression. I acknowledge the privileges I hold and how these privileges shape this conversation on discrimination and disparity.

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Accessing safe, informed and competent healthcare–from physicians to physical therapists to surgeons–can be a tremendous hardship as a trans person. One study found that almost one quarter of trans participants avoided or postponed accessing healthcare due to anticipated discrimination. Postponing or avoiding care can have major consequences for runners–little niggles can become chronic conditions.

Body work is vulnerable and personal. I dread finding new professionals to treat running injuries. The fear of my body signaling “error” in peoples’ perceptions of my gender is not only humiliating, but frightening too. This fear of exposure and a loss of safety has kept me from getting timely help with so many running injuries I’ve lost count. 

Trans runners may also encounter something called “gender dysphoria”. Gender dysphoria is a term that describes the feelings of distress, discomfort and anxiety that trans people feel about their bodies. Trans people may have ways of relieving gender dysphoria (clothing, medical care, counseling, voice-training). However, not all trans people can access these tools. When someone is experiencing dysphoria, they may find it difficult to freely and confidently move their body. In that case, just imagine how hard running must be.

Up to one in four Americans, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders, struggles with mental health. Those struggles are valid and should be normalized. What’s unacceptable is allowing marginalized identities like transgender communities to continue to suffer from disproportionate mental health outcomes despite knowing there are remedies to ease that pain. 

Trans people are significantly more likely to have a mental health diagnosis than cisgender people. These can range from mood and anxiety disorders to PTSD and self harm, substance abuse and eating disorders. For many, exercise is a form of mental self care. For transgender runners already dealing with mental health challenges, running can seem less like an exercise in mental health upkeep and more like an impossible feat of simply getting out the door. 

Trans runners have to deal with levels of discomfort and suffering that extend far beyond the typical runner’s woes. Often, it feels like our race started before we even arrived at the start line. 

What is Equity?

We’ve established that being a transgender runner has it’s disadvantages. Yet many folks continue to argue that trans runners have an advantage–that competing against cisgender runners is unfair. Again, I ask, “Fair for whom?” If someone’s definition of “fair” privileges their identity (i.e. cisgender people), I am skeptical. Fairness based on privilege is not equity; it’s an injustice. We cannot call running fair until it’s just as fair for transgender runners as it is for cisgender runners. 

Equity helps us understand what we consider to be fair. It means ensuring that everyone gets as many tools and resources as they need to succeed. When we view competitive fairness from an equity perspective, we recognize that trans runners encounter disadvantages that cisgender runners do not, and therefore need different types or amounts of support to achieve similar levels of success.

Viewing the participation of transgender runners from an equity perspective, the running community should be actively seeking ways to make running more accessible to trans people, instead of making it harder for us to excel. 

So far in 2021, 250 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures–69 were attempts to bar trans youth from participating on sports teams that aligned with their gender identity. Eight of these bills have passed in Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Montana and West Virginia. This is one reason 2021 is being called the worst year for anti-trans legislation in American history.

Underscoring these bans are news articles that widen existing divides on trans rights and fuel further vitriol against trans people. Worse still, most of these articles about trans athletes are written by cisgender people for cisgender audiences. Trans people are being robbed of a voice–our words of experience, resilience and encouragement are erased. 

What sort of representation and athletic future do these bans and divisions create for trans people? Personally, it’s not one I find empowering or motivating. 

Red Tape In Racing

Parts of the running community are trying to create more inclusive policies. Races such as the Western States 100 and Run Rabbit Run have implemented transgender athlete policies. The Western States policy even states its intended goal of “ensuring fair and inclusive practices that respect the personal rights and dignity of transgender entrants.” While grounded in good intention, these policies are still threaded with red tape that gate-keep the rights and dignity of trans participants.

Central to these trans athlete policies are hormone level requirements. Participants are asked to prove they are “undergoing continuous, medically supervised hormone treatment for gender transition for at least one year.” This requirement presupposes that all trans people want to or  have access to medical forms of transitioning. Let’s remember that trans people already face barriers to accessing all forms of healthcare and hormone treatment is no different. Starting or not starting hormone treatment is a personal decision that should not be penalized by race requirements. 

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These races also require trans athletes to provide evidence of their transgender identity if they make the podium, intend to race competitively or have their gender challenged by another participant. This requirement is possibly the most damaging of all. 

First, this requirement reinforces the gender-policing power that cisgender people already have in determining the validity or authenticity of trans peoples’ identities. Cisgender participants and organizers are permitted to be suspicious of trans bodies and expose trans runners as “not really being x gender.” Such misguided logic underpins the dangerous myth that trans people are “tricking” society into believing they are a certain gender.

Requiring trans runners to provide evidence of being transgender (i.e. medical documentation) can be traumatizing for a community that is already victim to rampant physical violence and societal discrimination. Being asked to provide proof that one’s gender is different to their sex assigned at birth can trigger dysphoria, threaten the level of safety often provided by “passing”, and remind trans people of difficult experiences of having to prove they were suffering enough to warrant gender-affirming care. For trans people who have not medically transitioned, there may not be any “evidence” at all.

Having policies considering the existence of trans runners is a step in the right direction. However, inclusive policies cannot ensure fairness for trans runners if they are based in skepticism about trans identities and bodies. When trans people say who they are, they deserve to be believed without question.

Fairer Futures 

An equitable future requires action from both cisgender and transgender runners. It requires connection, collective action and communication amongst and across organizations and communities. 

To understand what fairness means for transgender runners, cisgender runners must educate themselves about trans experiences and challenge those who spread skepticism and discriminatory ideas about trans people. This article can serve as a starting point for that educational journey, but more learning must follow. 

Cisgender runners, especially race directors or club organizers, need to consult with trans people in creating race policies and procedures–nothing about us without us. Furthermore, the trans people involved in consultation must be from diverse backgrounds. Relying on only white, able-bodied, middle class athletes to give the “trans perspective” ignores the multiple identities and needs that trans people can embody. 

And for transgender runners, the message is simple:  keep going. Keep imagining brighter running futures. What would the running community look like if trans people were celebrated for their identity? Trans excellence is real and present. We have every right to belong and race without bounds. This is tiring work, and it’s not our community’s sole responsibility to create change.  So be sure to take care of yourself  and connect with other trans runners and allies. Encourage each other, celebrate wins, and ask the hard questions together. Trans people deserve nothing less than greatness.

Lee (they/he) is a transmasculine person who currently resides in Aotearoa, New Zealand, where they work to support and advocate for the wellbeing and rights of LGBTQIA+ youth. Lee has spent years running–a daily exercise in finding joy, peace and possibility in their body and gender. 

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