by Daphna Whitmore
Fallon Fox became a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter in 2013 and won her first fight in two minutes and the next fight in 39 seconds. A few days later Fox came out as a trans woman after being contacted by a reporter who told her “I know”. Fox had kept her trans status a secret from her trainer and her opponents. She stated it was a private medical matter and that the women she was competing against did not need to know.
Fox went on to win several more professional fights, beating Tamikka Brents in a TKO in two-and-a-half minutes. Brents was concussed, with a smashed eye socket and needed seven staples to the head. Brents described the fight:
“I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it’s because she was born a man or not because I’m not a doctor. I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right… I still disagree with Fox fighting. Any other job or career I say have a go at it, but when it comes to a combat sport I think it just isn’t fair.”
There are gender and weight classes in sports to ensure fairness and to reduce the risks. So where does that leave trans women in sports competitions?
Martial arts commentator Joe Rogan believes Fox wasn’t winning because she was a good fighter, “she was manhandling the women”. Fallon Fox argued that she won her fights fairly, and cited her loss to fighter Ashlee Evans Smith as proof she was physically mid-range for a woman athlete.
Fox’s loss to Ashlee Evan Smith proves his point, says Rogan. “Fox is not good, she was just winning because she was a man.” Rogan points out that Fallon’s gender reassignment operation “doesn’t shave down your bone density. It doesn’t change. You look at a man’s hands, and you look at a woman’s hands, and they’re built different. They’re just thicker. They’re stronger. Your wrists are thicker. Your elbows are thicker. Your joints are thicker. Just the mechanical function of punching, a man can do it much harder than a woman can, period.”
The number of trans women competing in womens sports is small but notable. Earlier this year trans woman Laurel Hubbard competed for New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games after winning a string of international weight lifting competitions including gold at the Australian Open. Trans woman Kate Weatherly in February this year won the elite women’s division in New Zealand’s downhill mountain bike national championships. And this month Rachel McKinnon, a Canadian trans woman cyclist, won the UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championship.
If trans women’s sporting outcomes were spread from back of the field to front of the field there would be little concern. However when a tiny minority of participants scoop top spots repeatedly the question of fairness naturally arises.
In 2016, the International Olympic Committee established that female-to-male athletes are allowed to compete without restriction, but male-to-female athletes are required to undergo hormone therapy. Many sporting bodies now follow the IOC guidelines.
Was the IOC’s decision backed by science? Otago University professor in physiology Alison Heather believes there was a rush to include transgender athletes in male and female categories without adequate research.
The IOC rules that trans women must have testosterone levels of 10nmol/l. Normal reference ranges for women are less than 2nmol/l while the male reference range is 7-29nmol/l. (Labtests.co.nz)
Alison Heather points out “It hasn’t been studied, but logical science will tell you someone who has three times more testosterone has the advantage physically. We need to do more research before arguing either way.”
Hormone treatment and surgery changes phenotype (external appearance) but does not change the length of bones and many other physiological differences if the gender reassignment is after puberty.
On average men have larger and longer bones than women. They have greater bone density and a heavier skeleton can support more muscle. In trans women bone density is not lost when testosterone is lowered as oestrogen supplements they take protect existing bone.
Men also have thicker skulls and jaws, broader shoulders and larger hands. These are significant advantages in combat sports. Narrower hips make for faster more efficient running. These differences are still present after gender reassignment.
On average men have greater muscle mass and tougher ligaments. They have more fast-twitch muscle fibre which generate greater force and speed. Men also have faster reaction times for auditory and visual stimuli. They have more androgen (male hormone) receptors on muscles cells which is an advantage even when testosterone levels are lowered. For trans women who were formerly male athletes there is also muscle memory from muscle stimulus and skills learnt while being male. The mental advantage of having previously achieved at a high level is well recognised and was discussed at the time Laurel Hubbard was competing as she had been a competitive lifter as a young man.
There are also cardiovascular differences that remain. On average men have a 25 percent greater lung capacity. Even when men and women are matched for height and age there is a 10 to 12 percent difference in lung capacity as womens’ physiques are shaped to allow abdominal displacement in pregnancy. Men have larger hearts, with thicker heart muscle and greater blood volume output. They have higher red blood cell numbers with greater oxygen carrying capacity.
There are some sports where sex differences have less impact such as horse racing and equestrian events. Long-distance ocean swimming is another where the gap between men and women narrows where women’s higher body fat can be an advantage in cold water.
Across most sports sex difference is a reality. The gap is such that in 1998 a male tennis player, Karsten Braasch, who was ranked 203rd easily beat the Williams sisters: Serena 6-1, then Venus 6-2.
The gap in sport performance narrowed over the 20th century as women made headway in breaking down the barriers to participating in sports. The gap has not closed however, and has remained virtually static for three decades. In running from 100 meters to the 10,000 meters the gap between elite male and female performers is around 11 percent. In the long jump women are 19 percent behind men. Overall the male-female gap ranges from 5.5% (800-m freestyle swimming) to 36.8% (weight lifting).
Trans activists argue against any distinctions between trans women and those born female. They also maintain that hormone therapy ensures that trans women are not physically advantaged. Their argument is that people are what they claim to be and that gender identity is destiny and biological sex is a flawed concept. Some argue that ‘biological sex’ is a social construct used to defend transmisogyny.
As things stand the objective physical differences in sport cannot be swept away by proclamation and hormone supplements. Categories for sex, weight, age, and disabled are well established and accepted in sports competitions. It is time for transgender athletes to be able to compete in a way that allows full participation without trampling on women’s sport.