Guest Columnist

John Richard Schrock


Sports and Transgender Students

 

  The assertion that transgender students pose a threat to fairness in sports reflects a lack of understanding of human gender development. There are four major factors involved: chromosomes, anatomy, hormones and brain development. For the majority of humans, these all align. If you inherit an XY combination, you develop male anatomy, produce more testosterone and will have a brain that makes you feel you are masculine. If you inherit XX chromosomes, you develop female anatomy, produce more estrogens, and feel you are feminine.
 
    —Usually. But for a small number of persons, these combinations do not align. 
    Both males and females normally produce low levels of testosterone in their adrenal glands. And fat tissue produces some estrogens in both males and females. So while testes and ovaries are the main sources for those hormones, all of us have both.  Therefore perfectly "normal" males and females operate within a range of these hormones. Males with high testosterone will likely have broader shoulders, a heavier beard, more musculature and be more aggressive, while lower but still adequate levels will result in less musculature, body hair, etc. Different sports require different male musculature and body frames. Competition for runners selects out a different body than competition in wrestling or football. 

    Females likewise vary in levels of estrogens, producing a range of female body proportions with generally narrow shoulders, broad hips, smooth skin, etc. Those with narrower hips are likely to excel in running speed and be selected in those sports. 
 
    However, discovery of human mental development has been more recent. Over two decades ago, examination of differences in postmortem brain samples from "normal" males and females and with samples from transsexuals revealed a major difference. A region (termed BSTc) was twice as large in males as in females. The exception was male-to-female (MtF) transsexuals, who despite having chromosomes, anatomy and hormones of a male, had the smaller BSTc brain region of normal females. And they "felt" female, a feeling they strongly held by age six, well before puberty. Additional research showed the female-to-male (FtM) transsexuals likewise had a male BSTc.

    Our feeling of being male or female is "gender." It is biological. It is permanent. A person does not decide to one day be male and the next day female. And it is not necessarily related to romantic interests that begin later at puberty. One interesting result of the brain research was that male homosexuals had a male BSTc region. This is why today, science uses separate terms for sexuality and gender.
 
    In well-educated European countries, many parents who realize their child has a gender identity that does not match their anatomy will begin their child on surgery and hormone therapy in order to help their child live a post-puberty life aligned with their brain. When conducted at an early age, the result is an adult with the body frame, musculature, vocal cords, skin texture and other characteristics matching their gender identity. In these cases, there is no "advantage" carried over from their initial anatomy and no supposedly unfair advantage in sports participation. 
    In the U.S., it is more common for parents to constrain their child to continue to develop contrary to their brain gender. In some cases, a child may be placed on "puberty blockers" that attempt to suppress body development, supposedly until the child is old enough to make a decision for himself or herself. Puberty blockers are prescription medications that act equivalent to gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), an important hormone involved in development of both males and females. For those identified male at birth, GnRH analogues decrease facial and body hair, prevent some voice deepening, and limit growth of genitalia. For those labeled female at birth, it limits breast development and delays menstruation. While this "buys time," it can also reduce the ability to develop fully male or female features.  

    But when transition occurs early, the resulting male or female adult is anatomically no different from normal adults and presents no unfairness in sports or other activities. Indeed, as with many other children, participation in sports can be an important social and psychological confirmation of who they are. This has been recognized by over 500 college athletes who have signed on to a letter to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, acting in solidarity with transgender student-athletes, and opposing their proposed suppression by nearly two dozen state legislatures.