The Trials of Trans Athletics

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Twice the talented transgender wrestler Mack Beggs won the Texas state championship — and twice he faced backlash and booing. Beggs is a trans man — a man who was originally labeled female at birth. Though he wants to compete with other men, state officials refuse to respect his identity and limit him to the women’s division. Today’s trans youth are thankfully afforded a better experience than those of us born even a generation ago, but much remains the same. Student athletes may graduate, but the same widespread misunderstanding about trans people keeps flunking along indefinitely.

Fencing, not wrestling, is my combat sport of choice. During my athletic career, I stayed in the closet, anxiously aware of who I was but afraid how others would treat me if I expressed it. These fears deepened when a fencer from one of our rival teams came out as a trans man. The heartening outpouring of support came coupled with even more controversy and judgment.

Thanks to human nature, these issues inevitably summon a legion of unknowledgeable “armchair experts” seeking to weigh in — and not for a wrestling match. Thanks to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, they will put a lot of misplaced confidence behind these opinions. What they cockily chock up to “basic science” is, in fact, far more nuanced than what you are taught in AP Bio.

Five years ago, I began hormone replacement therapy, a combination of estrogen and a drug that blocks testosterone. These ensure my blood levels of these hormones are within typical levels for women. My body experienced radical changes as a result. Those that criticize trans people often rush to speak of “genetics” or “chromosomes,” but those are only responsible for the reproductive system. Most of what we think of as physically “male” or “female” is determined purely by hormones — what biology calls secondary sexual characteristics.

Barring conditions like androgen insensitivity syndrome, everyone is capable of developing either set — and hormone replacement deliberately induces this. There are limitations, of course, such as not being able to reverse bone growth or lengthening of vocal cords. Most characteristics, however, switch given enough time on hormones, even subtler ones like body odor and skin softness. Muscle mass is profoundly affected.

However, one of the most common misconceptions about Mack is a simple failure of reading comprehension — or, as is more likely in a lot of cases, a tendency to not read articles and react purely based on the headline and image on their feed. They wrongly assume Mack is a trans woman and try to insult him by calling him a man, ironically honoring his gender in the process.

But it speaks to a worrying, deeper problem: a comparative lack of representation for trans men. When people see “transgender,” so many automatically assume a trans woman — that is a woman that was assigned male at birth. This one reason why Mack’s story is so important — we need more visible men in the trans community.

But even those who understand Mack’s situation are not without their concerns — such as that testosterone is a “performance-enhancing drug,” leading some to call for him, and by proxy all trans people on testosterone, to be banned from competitive sports altogether. However, the World Anti-Doping Agency supports the use of medically prescribed testosterone if it does not lead to atypically high blood levels. Injecting testosterone does not give it magical properties. At those dosages, it is no more “performance-enhancing” than if it were produced by the body.

Blocking that endogenous testosterone production quickly withers what strength it bestows. Within months of starting hormone replacement, my muscles were rapidly atrophying. Early on, I caught myself off guard on a few occasions with how much I struggled to lift things that would be easy even at my most out-of-shape before transitioning.

When discussing trans women athletes, such as MMA fighter Fallon Fox, a strength advantage is wrongly assumed to be there. Scrutiny of trans people leads to double-standards of “evidence.” Broken orbitals are fairly common in women’s MMA, but when Fox inflicted one on an opponent, critics cited it as proof of unnatural strength. Any athletic victory on the part of trans women will inevitably be met with a wave of skepticism and scorn — you can even witness this in the reactions of those who wrongly assumed Mack is a trans woman.

Some trans people forgo hormone replacement due to medical risk or even mere personal choice. We should explicitly not regard it as a requirement for someone’s identity to be respected — even if it is a relevant factor to consider in sports competitions.

The real enemy of fair competition here is not trans athletes, but ignorance. If everyone, or at very least the officials in Texas’ University Interscholastic League, simply respected Mack’s identity, this situation would have never arisen. But even as more competitions — even the Olympics — adopt trans-inclusive policies, it’s clear there is still a marathon to be run when it comes to public understanding.

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