Mara Gomez; The First Transgender Woman To Play Football Professionally

Writer: Eve

Visual: Anushka

Editor: Lucas

Although there has been slow development in returning sports to a pre-covid state, there has been growth in the progressiveness of gender politics in sports. Last Friday, Argentinian football player Mara Gomez was signed to Athletic Club Villa San Carlos in Buenos Aires province in Argentina. This makes Gomez the first transgender woman ever given the opportunity to play football on a professional level. Her entrance into the team came after a year long battle against regulations for women’s sports concerning possible biological advantages Gomez may have, debates within the Argentinian Football Association, and months of testing and comparing her testosterone levels, and physical ability against cis* female athletes.

Opportunities for trans women and girls in sports have been obstructed time and time again by sports committees, institutions, and fans who believe allowing trans women to compete threatens the integrity and justice of sport. Despite trans women undergoing hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery in which estrogen is given in place of testosterone, it is still widely believed that transgender women retain the biological advantages of their birth sex. A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed that trans women retain a 12% advantage over biological women (in tests such as endurance and speed running, pushups and situps) after undergoing hormone replacement therapy for two years. However, there is evidence of this advantage disappearing after a more extended period of testosterone suppression in many, but not all cases. Researchers summarize the study, suggesting that “more than 12 months of testosterone suppression may be needed to ensure that transgender women do not have an unfair competitive advantage when participating in elite level athletic competition” but that they “may underestimate the advantage in strength that trans women have over cis women … because trans women will have a higher power output than cis women when performing an equivalent number of push-ups” (British Journal of Sports Medicine).

Today, the regulations for trans women in sports differ from sport to sport and organization to organization, specifically regarding testosterone levels. For example, the Olympic Committee, while requesting that sports make independent decisions on regulations, requires testosterone to be below 10 nanomoles per litre, whereas the IAAF( International Athletics Association Foundation) which governs cross country and track and field, has a comparatively drastic requirement of 5nmol/L; a status that must be kept consistent over a period of 12 months. Contrastingly, World Rugby became the first sports federation to decisively ban trans women from competing professionally, citing safety and justice as their justification. 

However, it seems that testosterone levels are not only an indicator of advantage for trans women, but for some cis women with Differences/Disorders in Sex Development (DSD). South African double gold track Olympian Caster Semenya recently lost her appeal battle that would allow her to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. Semenya has abnormally high levels of testosterone that many believe are a result of her possession of XY chromosomes, which would classify her as intersex and would allegedly give her an unfair advantage over non DSD cis female athletes. She, among many others like Indian track star Dutee Chand, have suffered under the IAAF’s crackdown on athletes with DSD. Many have been banned from competing in certain tournaments, having been offered the ultimatum of undergoing hormonal reduction therapy or surgery, or being excluded. This has posed an issue of contention because of the ethics, or seeming lack of ethics, involved. The regulations decided upon are based on non-inclusive race and gender stereotypes. Additionally, if Semenya is indeed intersex, she should still exist within regulations. Instead, we see a confusion between sex and gender. While her sex blurs the lines between male and female, due to the presence of XY chromosomes, she is unequivocally female, having been born as a female with female anatomy and identity. While female athletes with DSD may have heightened levels of testosterone in the blood, female hormone receptors do not respond to testosterone in the same way that male receptors do, making it difficult to quantify the impact of the hormones upon the body. Furthermore, the maximum advantage that trans women or athletes with DSD have is 12% over non DSD cis athletes. Comparatively, Semenya’s time is only 2% faster than that of her peers. This 2% advantage also cannot be confidently attributed to her testosterone, as it may be a product of her psychology, or genetics. Semenya’s circumstance is one among many. 

Undergoing hormone suppression therapy can be harmful, and may also threaten the integrity of the identity of the patient. Athletes rights advocate Paynoshi Mitra comments on this violation saying, “These regulations demean women, make them feel inadequate and coerce them into medical interventions for participation in sports. Modern sport should adapt itself to support inclusion and nondiscrimination rather than perpetuate exclusion and discrimination”. Semenya seems to echo these sentiments in her statement after the Court of Arbitration in Sports final decision, by saying, “ I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am…Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history. I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born.”

Last Thursday, on the 10th of december, Democratic Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Republican Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin introduced the “Protect Women’s Sports Act” a bill that would effectively ban trans women and girls from competitive sports. This is not the first bill of its kind, as Republican Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler introduced the “Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act” to the Senate earlier this year in September, however it was not voted into action. Alex Schmider, the Associate Director of Transgender Representation at GLAAD, an American NGO dedicated to anti-discrimination and defamation of the LGBT community, fired back at Gabbard and Mullin, saying, “Rep. Gabbard’s harmful and unnecessary bill is not about protecting girls and women’s sports. There’s no evidence in the 18 states with policies that allow transgender athletes to participate on teams consistent with their gender identity that inclusion negatively impacts athletic programs. This is more about opportunistic people like Rep. Gabbard who, under false pretense, claim to be protecting girl’s sports to justify discrimination.” Personally, I agree with Schmider’s statements. While the fairness and integrity of professional sports can be debated, withholding and excluding trans women and girls of all ages from public womens sports further polarises the trans community, and as many advocates are stating, is “inherently transphobic”.

Despite the controversy surrounding this issue, Mara Gomez’ entrance into professional football signals a shift towards a more progressive and inclusive future of sports. She is a trailblazer for trans athletes and women and hopefully is the first of more to come. For now, we must hope this is the start of significant change, and must advocate and rally for our ethics and morals to secure it. 

*Cis, the abreviation of ‘Cisgender’,’ is the opposite of ‘Transgender’, and defines those who identify with the gender and sex they are born with. While cis individuals are not transgender, they may or may not identify with other sexual/gender identities within the LGBTQ+ community, such as being gay, lesbian, bisexual, non-binary, etc.

References:

Ahmed, Kaamil. “World Athletics Accused over ‘Abusive Sex Testing’ of Athletes from Global South.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Dec. 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/dec/04/world-athletics-accused-over-abusive-sex-testing-of-athletes-from-global-south. 

Andersson, Jasmine. “The Testosterone Level Allowed for Trans Women Athletes Has Been Cut in Half.” Inews.co.uk, 10 July 2020, inews.co.uk/sport/trans-women-athletes-female-testosterone-levels-iaaf-ruling-350699. 

Carlisle, Madeleine. “Tulsi Gabbard Introduces Bill To Ban Trans Women From Sports.” Time, Time, 11 Dec. 2020, time.com/5920758/tulsi-gabbard-bill-transgender-women-sports/. 

“Frequently Asked Questions about Transgender People.” National Center for Transgender Equality, 4 Sept. 2020, transequality.org/issues/resources/frequently-asked-questions-about-transgender-people. 

Ingle, Sean. “Caster Semenya’s Olympic Hopes Fade as Runner Loses Testosterone Rules Appeal.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 Sept. 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/sep/08/caster-semenya-loses-appeal-against-world-athletics-testosterone-rules. 

Ingle, Sean. “Strength of Trans Women Drops Slightly after Year of Treatment, Research Claims.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Dec. 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/dec/11/transgender-athletes-sports-medicine-study-research. 

Ingle, Sean. “Trans Women Retain 12% Edge in Tests Two Years after Transitioning, Study Finds.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Dec. 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/dec/07/study-suggests-ioc-adjustment-period-for-trans-women-may-be-too-short. 

Mcevoy, Sam. “Mara Gomez Becomes FIRST Transgender Woman to Play at Professional Level.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 7 Dec. 2020, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-9026759/Mara-Gomez-transgender-woman-play-professional-level.html. 

Savulescu, Julian. “Ten Ethical Flaws in the Caster Semenya Decision on Intersex in Sport.” The Conversation, 11 Nov. 2019, theconversation.com/ten-ethical-flaws-in-the-caster-semenya-decision-on-intersex-in-sport-116448.