As the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics, Laurel Hubbard, 43, is poised to make history this summer in Toyko.
Born a male, Hubbard set junior records competing against men in the M105+ division in her home country of New Zealand in 1998 before transitioning in 2013. As a woman, she’s won two gold medals at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa and a gold at the Roma 2020 World Cup in Italy. Now competing against female lifters in the +87kg (192 pounds) category, she’s ranked 15th in the world.
But not everyone is celebrating her achievements.
Anna Van Bellinghen, a Belgian weightlifter who’ll be competing against Hubbard this summer, recently told Olympic news site InsidetheGames that Hubbard’s inclusion “feels like a bad joke.”
Anyone training in weightlifting at a high level “knows this to be true in their bones,” Van Bellinghen added. “This particular situation is unfair to the sport and to the athletes.”
The rights of transgender athletes have been a political hot potato of late, with more than a hundred bills preventing transgender females from competing in women’s sports being filed in state legislatures across the US. In Florida last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act into law, banning transgender women and girls from participating in sports that align with their gender identity.
Traci Koster, a Republican state representative, defended the law by evoking her 6-year-old daughter, saying she did it to “ensure her an equal playing field.” Meanwhile, GLAAD spokesperson Serena Sonoma has called 2021 “a record year for anti-trans legislation.”
Now, a new book “T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us” (Henry Holt and Co), out Tuesday, is poised to stir up the hornet’s nest even further. In it, author and Harvard biologist Carole Hooven reveals that those born male have “testosterone levels around twenty-five times those of pubertal females,” giving them “an athletic advantage over people who have not experienced male puberty.”
“Prior to puberty, boys and girls don’t differ much in strength, speed or power,” Hooven told The Post.
But that all changes at around age 12, when boys start to pull ahead.
“At age 15, boys beat girls in the 30-meter dash by more than four seconds on average,” Hooven said. “They will be able to throw much farther, and with more accuracy.”
All that testosterone also dramatically increases their muscle mass and strength, and young men will start to outperform women in athletic activities, Hooven claims, by anywhere from 10 to 50 percent.
“On average, especially among men and women who train equally hard, the effects of testosterone give men an athletic edge,” says Hooven.
“All other things being equal, transwomen like Laurel Hubbard, who have undergone typical male puberty, retain much but not all of their athletic advantages over people born female.”
In the past, pointing out “the testosterone advantage” didn’t used to bewasn’t so controversial. In 2010, Israeli physicist Ira Hammerman investigated the differences between male and female elite athletes, in contests ranging from running to swimming, over half a century. He found that the women’s times were consistently 10 percent below those of their male peers.
“The marathon world record for women is two hours and fourteen minutes, around twelve minutes slower than the world record for men,” Hooven writes.
This sex gap in performance means that in many events, “thousands of male athletes are ahead of the very best female,” Hooven writes.
“In 2019, about 2,500 men, almost one-third of the total number of men competing worldwide in the IAAF 100-meter event, beat the fastest women’s time. Without segregation, it’s not just that men would win — women would never even qualify for the competitions in the first place.”
But today, the idea that transwomen and “natal” women are different conflicts with current progressive thinking that transgender people don’t just deserve equal treatment to those born with their gender identity, they are biologically equal as well.
Some have gone so far as to argue that the athletic difference between people born male and female stems from psychological, rather than biological, reasons.
Speaking to the BBC in 2018, Nottingham Trent University psychologist Beth Jones said that “women cap their capability psychologically because they are competing against other women. If they feel they’re then competing against men, perhaps they would up their performance and be competing on more of that level.”
Veronica Ivy, a transgender woman, activist, philosophy professor, and competitive cyclist — she became the first transgender world track cycling champion in 2018 — has argued that there’s “no relationship between unaltered endogenous testosterone and sports performance” and calls it “a myth.”
She’s also claimed that “the gap in performance between elite men and women is closing in every sport. As the men are improving and new records are being set, the women’s records are being set faster.”
But Hooven disagrees.
“Ivy is mistaken,” she writes in her book. “Whatever the cause, the gap is not closing.”
In 2019, two former Wimbledon champions, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, got caught up in opposite sides of the debate. Navratilova argued in a London Times op-ed that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sporting tournaments was “insane and cheating.” King came to her defense on Twitter but argued that science should be “the true arbiter” on whether transgender women could compete fairly in women’s sports.
When John McEnroe suggested in a 2017 interview that Serena Williams would only be ranked 700th in the world “if she played in the men’s circuit,” he was widely criticized.
But just four years earlier, Williams appeared on David Letterman’s “Late Night” and said basically the same thing.
“If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6–0, 6–0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes,” she told Letterman. “The men are a lot faster and they serve harder, they hit harder, it’s just a different game. I love to play women’s tennis. I only want to play girls, because I don’t want to be embarrassed.”
Hubbard is the first to take advantage of new regulations passed by the International Olympic Committee in 2015, which require transgender athletes competing in women’s events to reduce their testosterone levels below ten nanomoles per liter for at least a year before their competition. It’s a dramatic shift from the previous rules, which required trans athletes to have gender reassignment surgery and several years of hormone therapy before competing.
World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field athletics, established its own rules in 2019, requiring transgender female athletes to lower their testosterone levels within six months of competition.
But at the same time, a new study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that even one year of testosterone reduction therapy might not be enough to minimize the athletic advantage.
Timothy Roberts, the study’s lead author and the director of the adolescent medicine training program at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., told The Post that it took “two years for the average transgender woman’s performance in sit-ups or push-ups performed in one minute to decline to the level of the average cis-gender woman. This advantage was smaller than the advantage present before starting hormones, but it was still there.”
“Experts and activists debate the question of just how much strength and muscle volume drop after testosterone-suppressing medication,” Hooven says. “But evidence shows that male-typical levels of muscle mass and strength are not completely lost. In some trans women, no muscle at all is lost.”
High testosterone levels have even prevented some “natal” females from competing in women’s sport. Caster Semenya, the South African sprinter and two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters, was born a woman but barred from competing in the upcoming Olympics because of her high natural testosterone. To compete, Semenya would be required to use medication to reduce her testosterone levels below five nanomoles per liter of blood, which she has refused to do. She’s currently appealing the decision.
Michael Bahrke, who has studied steroids and co-edited the book “Performance-Enhancing Substances in Sport and Exercise,” said not all sports give a testosterone advantage. While athletes who rely on muscular strength and endurance, like weightlifters and track-and-field stars, get a boost from testosterone, others, who compete at curling, golf and stock car racing, for example, need superior hand-eye coordination, flexibility, and/or body composition to rise to succeed.
Still, the testosterone advantage, however small, is something Hooven says can’t be ignored. So what’s the solution for trans female athletes?
In 2019, researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand proposed that transwomen athletes compete in their own category, essentially creating a third division for trans and intersex females, to remove any unfair benefit.
Hooven, meanwhile, says she has “no solution.”
“I don’t know how to solve this problem,” she says. “But I do understand that it must be very difficult to identify as a woman, love and excel at sports, but not be able to compete in the women’s category.”
Whatever the answer, she says we must consider the human rights perspective, but science should play an important role.
“Scientific facts can inform our decisions,” Hooven says, “and when it comes to sports, should weigh heavily.”