08/04/2019 11:38 EDT

Canadian Researcher Aims To Separate Fact From Fiction About Transgender Athletes

The research looks into how hormone therapy affects muscles.

Raven* is a semi-professional soccer player from Vancouver who has made a hard choice. To keep playing the sport they love, they can’t take hormones that would affirm their gender identity.

“I wouldn’t be able to compete if I went on testosterone,” Raven, 22, who uses he and they pronouns, explains (For this story, Raven asked we use they, them, and their to reference them). “I have to sacrifice that to keep playing.”

Transgender athletes make up a small fraction of those in competitive sport. There has never been an openly trans athlete at the Olympics. And yet, their right to play has been scrutinized, with sport authorities instituting guidelines that restrict their participation.   

Courtesy of Raven
Currently a free agent, Raven played for Kvinner Elite in Norway.

The work of a woman from Parry Sound, Ont. could change how transgender athletes are regulated. Canadian researcher Joanna Harper will be heading the world’s biggest study into transgender athletes, a project based out of Loughborough University in the U.K.

The university previously published a study on trans policies, where it reported that many guidelines were based on unsubstantiated beliefs that trans women athletes have a hormonal advantage.

Harper, who is a trans woman and also an adviser for the International Olympics Committee (IOC), hopes her research will assist sport policymakers in creating rules that are based on scientific evidence, rather than arbitrary judgement on who can fit into male and female categories.

She’ll be following up to 20 trans athlete participants, studying the effects of hormone therapy on their muscles and cardiovascular system.

“Until we have several of these larger-scale studies done worldwide, it’s hard to be truly definitive on anything,” she told CBC

Harper’s research is part of a growing number of projects on trans athletes. As part of its call for research submissions in March, the IOC announced it was interested in funding those that studied transgender individuals in sport.

Sport guidelines on trans athletes 

Some policies require no testing or minimum hormone requirements, like that of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES). The centre’s policy considers an athlete eligible based just on what gender they report. Under U Sports, trans athletes playing varsity for Canadian universities and colleges can choose to play for either teams that correspond with the gender they were assigned at birth or the gender they identify with. But, when it comes to international sports authorities, that’s not the case.

For instance, trans athletes have been permitted by the IOC since 2003. While trans athletes competing in men’s categories face no restrictions, the IOC has enforced an upper limit for testosterone levels in women athletes that greatly affects trans women. Currently, their bodies cannot exceed 10 nanomoles per litre and they must take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for at least a year.

When it comes testosterone levels, cisgender women usually cap at around two nanomoles per litre. Cisgender men can be up to 10 times higher, reaching up to 32 nanomoles per litre.

Women athletes who don’t meet these requirements, the IOC states that they can apply to complete in “male competition.” Those that do may be subject to testing throughout their time in sport. Not complying can result in a year-long suspension. Previously, trans women athletes had to have surgery and take HRT for two years before they could complete. 

Much of the reasoning behind these hormone-based policies hinges on the belief that trans women have more testosterone and therefore have better athletic performance. 


The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)’s rules for testosterone levels in women runners are drastically lower, at five nanomoles per litre. It’s speculated that IAAF’s hormonal guidelines were put in place to encumber track champion Caster Semenya, including speculation by the runner herself.

Semenya is not trans, but the South African woman has been subjected to intense scrutiny for achieving record-breaking times in her races. Semenya appealed the IAAF’s previously lower limits, and the Swedish Supreme Court ruled in favour of Semenya and ordered the IAAF to suspend their rules. The court later reversed its decision, effectively stopping her from defending her world title later in September.  

I wouldn’t be able to compete if I went on testosterone. I have to sacrifice that to keep playing.Raven

The belief that testosterone is the main factor in a trans athlete’s performance is not backed by research. A 2008 Canadian study by AthletesCAN found there have been no exercise tests conducted on trans athletes. It stayed that way until 2015, when Joanna Harper measured the fitness levels of eight trans women runners.

Her preliminary findings revealed that, contrary to common belief, her subjects didn’t have an advantage at all. A trans distance runner herself, she discovered that the findings paralleled her own experience: after medically transitioning, their run times were slower. 

Writing for HuffPost, Harper has debunked the assumption that trans women and cis women can’t compete fairly together, citing the effects of hormone therapy on trans bodies. 

“One can imagine a large car with a small engine competing against a small car with a small engine, and that summarizes the playing field,” she wrote.

She believes creating hormone policies that are based in evidence will balance the need for scientific research and respectful gender identity. 

“Before initiation of hormone therapy, trans women have all of the advantages of male athletes, so I do not believe that gender identity alone should be the gateway to allowing transgender athletes into elite level competition,” she wrote for The Guardian.

Trans participation in sports: not up for debate

A study of cisgender women Olympians found that a majority thought trans women shouldn’t compete in their categories. Trans exclusion has been a sentiment shared by notable cisgender sportswomen, like tennis player Martina Navratilova who asserted trans players were “cheating.” Navratilova later apologized for her comments and went on to co-produce a BBC documentary that interviews trans athletes to make amends, but it’s received criticism for framing the subject as one up for debate.  

Unlike Harper, other trans athletes don’t believe hormone regulation is the way forward. 

Dr. Rachel Mckinnon is a competitive trans cyclist. In a paper she co-authored, she argues that biological restrictions and physical traits aren’t what governing bodies should use to determine who gets to compete. 

Watch: How Boxing Changed This Trans Man’s View On Masculinity. Story continues below.

“The idea that we need to protect women’s sport from other women … is itself inherently discriminatory. No testosterone policy will ever work. They should respect an athlete’s legally recognized sex or gender,” McKinnon said in a CBC segment.

The hormonal advantage argument is one that Mckinnon believes is being misrepresented. 

“If you look at elite athletics, every single elite athlete has some kind of genetic mutation that makes them amazing at their sport. Michael Phelps, his joint structure and body proportion, make him a like a fish, which is awesome. But we shouldn’t say that he has an unfair competitive advantage,” Mckinnon told Velon News.

“The question is not whether there is a competitive advantage, the question is whether there is an unfair advantage. Sports is about competitive advantages. We have coaching and equipment and training, nutrition, rest — all of these things are meant to produce competitive advantages over other people. Just because there is a competitive advantage doesn’t make it unfair.” 

After speaking out against Navratilova’s initial comments and making headlines for winning a worlds title, Mckinnon has been targeted by transphobic comments. She’s used Twitter as a platform to point out the flaws behind many stances, such as those that fail to see how hard work plays a bigger role in her wins and losses.

Gender euphoria on the field 

Transitioning isn’t a linear path from one gender to another. As such, many athletes’ identities don’t neatly fall in line with the gender binary that sex-segregated sports follows.

Another issue with hormone-based gender guidelines is the effect they can have on an athlete’s choice to medically transition. Like in Raven’s case; with hormones out of the question, they decided to undergo top surgery earlier this year to alleviate their discomfort in their body. It was a way to make the compromise on testosterone for soccer feel less heavy. 

Courtesy of Raven
Raven says their Norwegian teammates and coaching staff were supportive when they came out as trans.

Raven notices that, although well-meaning, cis people often ask them questions about their body that feel invasive.

“It’s common for trans people, but it’s concentrated in sports,” Raven said. “For me, talking about hormones is really anxiety-inducing, because it’s something I actively have to sacrifice every day to keep playing.” 

Raven admits they they aren’t sure where they stand on whether hormone policies should determine a trans person’s right to play. But they are hopeful that Harper’s research will have a positive impact and debunk existing assumptions about trans bodies, especially since the project is led by a trans researcher.  

If more data can help make sports more supportive, they’re all for it. Especially when positive attitudes have made such a difference for them already.

When Raven moved to Europe to play, they came out as trans-masculine to their teammates in Norway. The gender euphoria (a feeling of joy when one’s presentation matches their identity) they felt as an out trans person who is accepted by those around them meant that they were playing soccer better than ever.

“I didn’t have as much weight on my shoulders, [it was] one less stress I could control,” they said. “You’re already dealing with so much dysphoria, when you alleviate it a bit, it does make it easier to relax on the field.” 

*Raven is referred to by their first name only for safety reasons.