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Cycling champ lays the case for trans inclusion in women’s sports

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Sport is a human right. Trans women are women. Let us compete with women.

Rachel McKinnon sports a rainbow on her cycling speedsuit.
Ivan Rupes

You may have heard by now, but on Saturday, Oct. 13, I won a Masters Track Cycling World Championship in the women’s 35-44 sprint event. I also briefly held the world record in the 200-meter sprint qualifying event, although it was broken by the final rider a mere 10 minutes later. I’m immensely proud of my accomplishment. I’ve received an overwhelming level of support and media attention.

But not all of it has been positive. In fact, I’d say the negative comments have outweighed the positive by about 3,000 to one. As an activist, I jokingly say that I’ve “leveled up” by having Alex Jones scream about me on InfoWars, and other Right Wing reactionaries go apoplectic about my win.

Why, though? Because I’m a trans woman.

You might think that trans women’s rights have come a long way in the past 15 years. And to some extent you’re right. But in other ways, nearly nothing has changed. With the rise of social media, it may even be worse.

The last out trans woman to win an individual world championship (also in cycling, but the downhill event) did so before the rise of social media and instant access to people. It also wasn’t worldwide headline news for her to win—it went largely unnoticed.

Maybe you think that it’s a new, unsettled question whether it’s fair for trans women to compete. It’s a common question. But there’s nothing new about it. The International Olympic Committee released its first policy explicitly allowing trans athletes to compete in 2003. Back then, the requirements were extreme and included the need for genital surgery.

The IOC updated their policy in 2015 to recognize that this was unfair to trans people. Now, trans women must be able to demonstrate that their endogenous—internal, naturally produced—testosterone is below a given level for at least 12 months (10nmol/L, if you’re interested), and that they must do so throughout their competitive years.

This still strikes some as unfair: Aren’t men on average stronger and faster than women? Sure. no one denies that. But does this mean that you consider trans women ‘men’? Also, although men are on average taller, stronger, faster than women, those are only averages. There is massive overlap between men and women: There is a far greater variance between the smallest, weakest, slowest man, and the biggest, strongest, fastest man than there is between the average man and woman. Moreover, a 2017 study by Bermon and Garnier shows that there is no relationship between endogenous testosterone and performance.

“Woah!” You say. But if there’s no relationship between testosterone and performance, why do they require trans women to reduce theirs, and why is taking testosterone banned as doping?

When you take testosterone that your body doesn’t produce itself, that’s exogenous testosterone. We have excellent evidence that there’s a strong relationship between exogenous testosterone and performance. That’s why it’s banned and considered doping.

But we’re talking about endogenous—internal, naturally produced—testosterone. That’s different.

The chemical structure isn’t different in a way that matters. What matters is that each of our bodies is used to a given level. Some elite men athletes are within or even below the average female range of endogenous testosterone. Some are higher than the average for men. But there’s no relationship between endogenous testosterone and performance.

However, when you add more to a body than it’s used to (through exogenous testosterone doping), the body gets bigger, stronger, faster. When you remove a body’s ability to produce or use its own endogenous testosterone, through surgery, cancer, an accident, or medication, then the body is getting less than it’s used to, and its performance declines.

Trans women are required to reduce their endogenous testosterone because it’s (wrongly) believed that men’s average performance being better than women is due overwhelmingly to endogenous testosterone. But that’s the policy. Here’s a lecture I gave in Berlin in July on the issue:

I happen to be a philosophy professor and I teach courses on trans* studies, including a course this semester on Gender and Sport focusing entirely on the question of whether trans women should be permitted to compete with women.

The structure of sport is important. The IOC Charter acts like the constitution for any Olympics-eligible sport, such as my sport of cycling. Its fourth Fundamental Principle of Olympism begins, “The practice of sport is a human right.” They mean competitive sport. Yes, a human right.

The international sports federations, in my case the Union Cycliste International (UCI), must have rules that are at least as permissive as the IOC’s. If a UCI rule contravenes an IOC rule, an athlete can file a case with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which acts as the international supreme court for sport. So many acronyms, I know.

A recent CAS decision on the intersex woman sprinter Dutee Chand is important to trans athletes as well. Sports do not have a test for what sex or gender you are. Chromosomes don’t work (biology is more complicated than just XY = men, XX = women), and neither does testosterone levels. Instead, athletes must compete as either men or women. And we are required to compete in the gender that we are legally recognized as.

I am legally recognized—by both Canada and the United States—as a woman. Every piece of identification I have says ‘F’ on it, including my birth certificate. I also must be able to prove that I meet the current IOC and UCI policies. I have also been subjected to in-competition anti-doping tests, including after my world championship win.

Some ask: Why don’t we have a separate trans (woman) category? A few reasons.

First, there are so few of us that we’d generally be the only one competing. I’m the only trans woman track cyclist at this level of elite international competition (I was ranked 90th in the sprint event in the UCI Elite World Rankings in June).

Second, it means that we are legally recognized as women but not treated like all other women. We would be treated as an ‘other’ class of women. And that kind of ‘separate but equal’ is not equal. It is inherently unjust.

In the tens of thousands of world championship medals for Olympics-eligible sports awarded in the last few years, I am the only trans woman to win one. The fear that we will ‘take over’ sport and spell the ‘end of women’s sport’ is hyperbolic fear-mongering. It’s the very definition of transphobia—and transmisogyny to be specific.

We’ve been allowed to compete since 2003, with fewer restrictions since 2015. Not a single Olympic medal has been won by a trans person.

Sport is a human right. Trans women are women. Let us compete with women.

Rachel McKinnon is a cyclist, as well as an assistant professor at the College of Charleston. You can follow her on Twitter @rachelvmckinnon, or on Instagram @rachelvmckinnon.