Trans women’s participation in sport is an election issue. This is what the science says

If you’ve been following the federal election campaign, you’d be forgiven for thinking trans women’s participation in sport is the biggest issue facing the nation.

Over the past week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his controversial “captain’s pick” for Warringah, Katherine Deves, have been drawn into an increasingly ugly debate about a private member’s bill by Liberal senator Claire Chandler which seeks to ban transwomen from participating in women’s sport by refusing to recognise them as women.

Katherine Deves is running for the seat of Warringah in the federal election. (Supplied: Liberal National Party)

Deves, in particular, has been rebuked for a range of extremist comments, including video that has surfaced of her likening her lobbying on the issue to standing up against the Holocaust.

Although Morrison has said the Coalition “does not have any plans” to sponsor such a bill, he has previously labelled it “terrific” and said he shares Deves’s and Chandler’s views on trans participation in sport.

But while those who believe trans women should be excluded from sport have defended their right to “free speech”, little airtime has been given to examining the science behind the claims being made.

So what does the science say about trans women and sport?

Do trans women have a ‘biological advantage’ over cisgender women?

Ada Cheung is a principal research fellow in endocrinology at Austin Health and leads the Trans Health Research program in partnership with the University of Melbourne.


She says medical transitions have a range of complicated impacts on the body which throw into doubt claims about trans women having a “biological advantage” in sport.

Trans women, she says, will often start taking a form of estrogen as well as testosterone blockers to increase their estrogen and decrease their testosterone levels to a more “typical female range”.

“When they do that, they get physical changes to their muscle and fat, so they typically gain fat and lose muscle,” she says, citing a study she co-authored in 2021.

More recent research to come out of the Trans Health Research program, she adds, shows trans women also have lower bone density than cisgender men.

She refers to another study, which followed a group of trans women undergoing hormone therapy over a three-year period, and showed that their muscle mass, power and strength decreased.

“But that particular study only involved 19 women, and they didn’t have an adequate control group to compare with,” cautions Cheung.

However Cheung, who also treats trans clients as a doctor, says anecdotal evidence does not support the theory trans athletes have an “advantage”.

“My patients tell me they don’t [have an advantage], my patients tell me they lose strength and can’t do the physical work that they used to,” she says.

“But I can’t tell you [for certain] because the science just hasn’t been done, which is what we (the researchers) are trying to fix.”

A woman wearing a cap looks at the camera
Laurel Hubbard was the first openly trans woman to compete at the Olympic Games. (Getty Images: Laurence Griffiths)

On the idea that trans women might pose a safety threat to cisgender women, however, Cheung is emphatic.

“There is no data to suggest that safety [for cisgender women] is worse when trans women are competing,” she says.

Cheung says that is partly because so few trans women play sport or exercise in the first place.

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