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Opinion We need to be able to talk about trans athletes and women’s sports

Penn's Lia Thomas swims in a meet against Dartmouth and Yale at Sheerr Pool in Philadelphia on Jan. 8. (Kylie Cooper)
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Whenever the question of transgender athletes arises, a shroud of delicacy descends over elite institutions. Recently, Swimming World spoke of “the Lia Thomas situation,” as if Thomas were a diplomatic incident, rather than a college swimmer.

For those not familiar, here’s the situation: Thomas competed for the University of Pennsylvania men’s team for three seasons, doing pretty well, although not well enough to hold the school records. Her times have slowed after more than a year of hormonal treatments, yet last month she blew away her competition and set four women’s school records in a single meet.

Other competitors complained — anonymously — in a story by the Daily Mail, raising uncomfortable questions about fairness, inclusion and the future of women’s sports. These questions are so uncomfortable that they often go unaddressed outside of conservative media, though the editor of Swimming World did weigh in.

Elsewhere, most people prefer to find something else to talk about, or else just carefully note that some people, though of course not the writer, feel it is unfair to make cisgender women compete against trans-female athletes. (The situation.) Beneath all the delicacy is the expectation that all this probably won’t matter very much — that elite trans-female athletes will remain rare or that they won’t win too much. But, well, Lia Thomas. At some point, these questions have to be asked, and answered.

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First question, then: Do trans-female athletes really have an advantage? All else equal, probably, if they transitioned after puberty.

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Male puberty makes you taller, confers greater muscle and bone mass, larger heart and lung capacity relative to your size, and more hemoglobin. For cisgender men, this translates to roughly a 6 to 10 percent advantage over biological women in sports such as running and swimming, though the gap can be larger in other domains, and in a few sports female biology actually conveys some advantage.

That 6 to 10 percent might sound modest, but at the elite level, where 1 percent to 2 percent differences can easily make the margin of victory, it’s overwhelming. Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah, the fastest woman in the world, would lose to America’s best high school boys, and the fastest pitch ever recorded by a woman would be unimpressive for many high school baseball teams.

Hormonal treatment abates much of that advantage in trans women, reducing muscle mass, strength and hemoglobin. Yet the best evidence we have suggests that significant differences remain even after three years of hormones. We don’t know whether the gap ever closes completely.

So does that mean any trans woman will beat any cisgender women?

Of course not. These are averages, with much natural variation — elite cisgender women are faster than most men. Thomas was recently beaten in several races by Yale’s Iszac Henig, a trans man who has not yet started testosterone.

That said, the gap between biological males and females is big enough that someone like Thomas, who was only pretty good in men’s competition, can lose quite a bit of strength and speed and still be an all-star at women’s events.

How much that matters depends on information we don’t now have: How big is the gap between transgender and cisgender women, and how long does it last? How many trans-female athletes will we have in a world where the stigma against transition is declining?

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If cases like Thomas are few, it’s relatively easy to make inclusion paramount. But with even a small percentage of elite athletes transitioning after puberty, trans women could conceivably dominate many women’s sports to the point of unavoidable controversy, because there are a lot more “pretty good” athletes who’ve gone through male puberty than all-star athletes who’ve gone through female puberty.

Though even then we might ask: Who cares? Most people will never have what it takes to compete at the elite levels of high school, college or professional sports. That’s not an argument for kicking the genetically blessed out of the league so that those of us who are slower and weaker can experience the thrill of victory. One might add that it is particularly not an argument for kicking out people who face as many other disadvantages in their lives as trans athletes do.

But if you like that answer, you should probably ask whether women’s sports should exist at all. After all, we didn’t create separate leagues to reinforce the special feminine identity of female athletes; if anything, women’s athletics was supposed to break down such divisions. The separation is a nod to biology: After puberty, biological women can’t compete with similarly gifted biological men.

So if we keep finding ourselves in these situations, we’ll need to settle whether we still think it’s important for cisgender women to have a place where at least a few of us can experience the thrill of victory. Maybe that isn’t an important social goal. Or maybe it is, but just not as important a goal as trans inclusion. Either way, that question will have to be asked and answered — out loud, where everyone can hear it.