Transgender women in sport: Are they really a ‘threat’ to female sport?


Rachel McKinnon (centre) pictured with Jen Wagner-Assali (right), who called her victory “unfair”

Rachel McKinnon estimates she has received more than 100,000 hate messages on Twitter since she won her UCI Masters Track World Championship title in October.

The 36-year-old Canadian’s victory was controversial in some quarters because she is a transgender woman competing in female sport, albeit in the 35-44-year-old category.

Jen Wagner-Assali, who finished third, called it “unfair” and wants cycling’s international governing body to change its rules.

Others have said further examples may “threaten” the participation of women in sport – a view described as “sensationalist” by transgender racing driver Charlie Martin, and as “transphobic” by McKinnon.

It is a sensitive topic, which poses some difficult questions about how gender is seen in sport, and some “dangerous” ones – according to transgender handball player Hannah Mouncey – about the fundamental right of athletes to participate in sport.

Rachel McKinnon says the majority of female cyclists have been supportive towards her, including Carolien van Herrikhuyzen

What’s the issue?

Despite the hate messages, which McKinnon says outweigh positive ones by 3,000-1, and despite the harassment she received as a road cyclist before she switched to the track and the “painful” training prior to winning the world title, she says it was “totally worth it”.

“When you win a cycling World Championship, you get to wear the rainbow jersey forever,” she says.

But there are those who say McKinnon should never have been on the podium in California in the first place.

Critics say it is unfair to have a trans woman competing in female sport with a biologically male body, though McKinnon says that view goes against point four of the International Olympic Committee charter, which says: “The practice of sport is a human right.”

The theory goes that because men can count on physiological advantages that on average make them bigger, faster and stronger, trans women will also benefit, making competition unfair.

Some also say male hormones such as testosterone being present in trans women’s bodies since birth give them a boost.

Nicola Williams, of Fair Play for Women – a group established to represent women’s voices “in the rush to reform transgender laws”, believes trans women should not participate in female-only sport until more evidence is gathered.

But McKinnon, an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and trans activist, believes much of the criticism is without foundation.

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How does the body change after transition?

Transgender women take the female hormone oestrogen and testosterone-blockers before having any surgery, and continue to take oestrogen after their transition.

McKinnon, who transitioned in her late-20s, says that results in “pretty radical physiological changes”, with muscle mass, strength and speed all reduced. It also, claims McKinnon, “compounds ageing”.

In essence, she maintains, it puts them on a similar level to women of the same size, and there are set limits to the amount of testosterone transgender athletes can have in their bodies before they compete. That is an issue currently being debated in women’s athletics.

But McKinnon claims the same research being used as the basis for the decision on permissible testosterone levels in athletes also suggests naturally occurring testosterone makes a minimal difference to performance compared to when it is taken through doping, for example.

And McKinnon, who was a road cyclist before she switched to the track in 2017, says her power output was “dead centre average for women”.

She also pointed out, after she won her world title in California, that Wagner-Assali had beaten her in 10 of 12 previous events.

What about the advantages of a bigger body?

Hannah Mouncey (far right) with her Australian women’s handball team-mates

It is not hard to pick out Hannah Mouncey in a picture of the Australian women’s handball team. She is bigger and taller than the rest of the players.

Last year, Mouncey – the only transgender woman in the squad – was banned from being nominated for the women’s Australian Rules draft because of the disparity in size between her and her opponents.

In response, she said: