Joanna Harper helps SI understand, value transgender athletes

Joanna Harper

W55 Joanna Harper, whose special status is well-known among her running peers, writes on Carmel Barnum’s site about helping a Sports Illustrated writer do justice to other transgender athletes — men who become women and vice versa. (See it here.) Joanna isn’t the first transgender athlete in masters track. I met a woman (formerly a man) at Maine nationals in the late 1990s. She ran the 200 against my wife and told me her story over an hour in a remote section of the bleachers. Masters track is friendly to trans because we all are trans — people doing what their heart says is right against all societal traditions. Joanna’s just another lady runner to me. That’s how it should be.
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May 29, 2012

35 Responses

  1. Fidel - May 29, 2012

    I only know Joanna as a lady runner and a fellow achilles rupture victim. She’s a great person and a very giving and passionate runner.

  2. Anthony Treacher - May 30, 2012

    Ken is so Politically Correct that sometimes one wants to scream out loud.

    OK, do please call me a bigot – if I were a female athlete, I would not accept competing against a female person who was previously/is still a genetic male, as for instance determined by the Barr body chromosome test and/or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis for SRY gene locus.

    But I am not a female. So let’s hear from our female masters athletes on this.

  3. Joanna Harper - May 30, 2012

    Just like Anthony, I too would love to hear from other women, and I’m not afraid of disagreement.
    I would ask that anyone responding have read both the SI story and my own blog, and use their real name, preferably first and last.

    However, Anthony’s reference to genetics is off base. Chromosomes do not directly affect performance, and have not been used as a basis to determine eligibility for women’s sport for almost 20 years.

    The current IAAF standard for eligibility is based solely on testosterone level, and mine is slightly below average for all women.

    Joanna

  4. Milan Jamrich - May 30, 2012

    There is more than one way to look at this. Imagine Dragutin Topic would change his gender.

  5. Ocean Everlsey - May 30, 2012

    This indeed is a sensitive subject.

    I admire any one that follows their heart to become what ever they truly want to be in life.

    After reading the article on Joanna Harper, I can only applaud the courage that it took for her to become a transgender woman.

    With all due respect, if a person is born a man my opinion is that he should “not” be able to score against a woman even if they transitioned into becoming a transgender woman. I am open to the idea of a transgender women running against natural women with the times being posted on the men’s ranking.

    The transgenders personality, contribution to the sport, social or work status, should not waiver what is fair in athletic competition.

  6. Joanna Harper - May 30, 2012

    Ocean:
    I agree 100% that rules for competition should be based on fairness. Both the IAAF and I think that having all people with female hormone levels competing against one another is fair.

    Let me give you an example:

    In the 2009 USATF masters meet I ran the 1500 meters and placed second in the W50 category. My time of 5:33 would have been almost 20 seconds in arrears of the 22nd and last place male finisher. Once upon a time, I was a collegiate distance runner who regularly won races. My talent and training would be more associated with the result as it was listed, rather than the one that you might suggest.

    BTW I didn’t transition to become a transgender female. I was born that way. I was misgendered by my obstetrician (it was an easy mistake to make). I did transition from an athlete with male hormone levels to one with female hormone levels.

  7. Joanna Harper - May 30, 2012

    Milan:

    Yours is a most perceptive comment. It is wise to look at each event in athletics individually.

    While explosiveness, speed and leaping ability are all substantially decreased for athletes who change their hormone levels from male to female, height is not. Thus, I believe that the high jump, of all track and field events, would be the one most likely to show an advantage for transitioning athletes. I haven’t seen data from any high jumpers who have competed in two genders, but would love to.

    Dragutin Topic is the most successful master’s high jumper who ever lived. If he were to transition, he would become the most successful female master’s high jumper of all time. Do you think that would be unfair?

  8. Milan Jamrich - May 31, 2012

    Joanna,

    clearly the example of Dragutin Topic is extreme, but if he would change his gender, he would be instantly the best female high jumper of all times (not just masters). There would be nobody who could possibly beat him for decades. It would totally destroy the high jump competition. Having said that, I am not against transgender people or against transgender people competing. And I fully understand that genetics is strongly involved in gender issues. However, I feel that in addition to the “social” perspective, we should look at it also from the “sport” perspective. Possibly, a special category need to be created. Any suggestion will have its critics, but it is probably a good thing that this issue is being discussed.

  9. Weia Reinboud - May 31, 2012

    Milan, after two or three years he would have lost much muscles, much power, all testosteron, gained in fat etcetera. Much of his extraordinary jumps of today are dependant on his testosteron level.

  10. Rich Wallace - May 31, 2012

    Weia is absolutely right. I have a good friend who transitioned from male to female a couple of years ago. He was a very good masters swimmer and a decent distance runner, and found, as expected, a considerable drop-off in performance after becoming a woman. The transition is difficult under the best of circumstances, and I applaud any athlete who continues to find joy in competing. (By the way, my friend joined a women’s roller derby team!) Way to go, Joanna.

  11. Milan Jamrich - May 31, 2012

    Weia,

    I know what you are saying, but many would argue that female transgender athletes would have an advantage by a male past. The process of transition is not instant and may depend on the treatment. I believe right now you cannot compete on college teams for the first 12 months after initiating anti-testosterone therapy (for male to female transgender).

  12. Weia Reinboud - May 31, 2012

    I thought it was two years after surgery, there must be an IOC or IAAF rule somewhere…

  13. Weia Reinboud - May 31, 2012

    http://www.iaaf.org/mm/Document/imported/42028.pdf
    Chapter C, quite stringent individual tests.

  14. Rich Wallace - May 31, 2012

    here’s an inspiring article and video about the woman I mentioned above:

    http://www.sctimes.com/article/20111113/NEWS01/111130003/The-courage-continue

  15. Mark Cleary - May 31, 2012

    I remember when my athlete Debbie Lee then 50-54 ran cross country Nationals in Ohio and she finished 3rd behind Joanna and another trans gender lady from the Bay area. It made me wonder idf it was fair for women to have to compete against women who in the past were men.My thought at the time was anyone who used to be male would have had the years with the additional testosterone to train as a man and race as a man–there really is no substitute for experience-so I think they do have an advantage in the end. It would be interesting to hear from more women-but most of them I would venture to say would not want to risk being seen as politically (incorrect). It is a very interesting topic for debate, but I doubt we will ever know what is actually fair.

  16. Mary Harada - May 31, 2012

    Unless the race was tactical – what exactly does “years of experience training and racing as a man” provide as an advantage in an x-c race? I fail to see the logic of your comment Mark.
    I am unaware that men have some special training and racing advantage over women – are they “more competitive” than women, train harder and smarter than women?
    If you read Joanna’s blog she states that she is age grading about the same now that she is a woman as she did as a male. She did not say that she now age grades higher and is out running women in her age group.

  17. Joanna Harper - May 31, 2012

    Everyone:

    I’m glad to see that this story is generating lots of thoughtful comments. I’ll try to deal with most of them here.

    First off the IOC published rules in 2004 allow transwomen to compete against other women once they had completed surgery and waited two years. Many organizations, including USATF adopted these rules. While this ruling was a big step forward, there were two major flaws with it. It doesn’t take two years to lose the athletic advantage caused by previous testosterone exposure, and the starting point should be the beginning of hormone therapy, not any surgery date. The NCAA recommendations allow transwomen to compete after one year of hormones. In 2011 the IAAF came out with rules saying that any woman who was legally and hormonally female could compete in women’s events. The catch for transgender women is that it can take years to become legally accepted as female. So the rules depend on which organization governs your sport.

    Many, if not most people believe, that male athletes are superior to female ones, above and beyond the advantages afforded by higher testosterone levels. Hence we get opinions such as Milan and Mark, who think that competing at high levels as male will somehow translate to a competitive advantage, once the testosterone is gone. This attitude is not backed by any factual evidence, and many people such as Mary think that this attitude is demeaning to women.

    I can tell you that before my transition, I looked at age graded tables in order to see how fast a woman who scored the same as me would run, and I thought there was no way I would slow down that much. But I was wrong, and I think both Milan and Mark are also wrong to suggest that any successful male athlete would dominate women’s sport, without testosterone. In fact I would issue a challenge to any male athlete reading here.

    I will purchase and supply you with enough drugs; a testosterone suppressor and estrogen, to make you hormonally female for one year. We can track your performances over the year, and also take frequent blood draws. I believe that you will be absolutely astounded by how much you will lose over the year. I also think it would be a terrific experiment.

    On the flip side, I have data, from myself and five other transgender athletes, which suggest that distance runners, at least, compete at approximately the same level in both genders, once the hormone therapy kicks in. I don’t claim that this data is conclusive proof, but it is better than baseless conjecture.

    Rich: Please pass on my congratulations to Gina. I wish her all the best.

    Weia: It’s nice to hear from you. The document you supplied gives a nice summary of the history of gender testing, and the IOC rules. It does not, however, represent current IAAF policy. I will supply a link to the current IAAF policy in the morning.

    Mark: In the Ohio race you mention, Debbie actually placed 4th and not 3rd in the age group. Two women from the Bay area finished in front of her. Are you claiming that both of them are transgender or only one of them?

  18. Joanna Harper - May 31, 2012

    Here is the link to the current IAAF rules.

    http://www.iaaf.org/aboutiaaf/news/newsid=59883.html

    Here is an article which summarizes them

    http://blog.women-running-together.com/?p=3114

  19. Joanna Harper - June 1, 2012

    To continue on then, transgender women have previously been exposed to higher levels of testosterone than other women. Is there a lingering effect of this previous hormone exposure?
    Well to start with, transgender women are larger, on average, and specifically taller than other women. There are sports or events within given sports, where this difference should be an advantage. Hence my statement that the high jump would be the track and field event most likely to be advantageous to transwomen.
    But even in the high jump it is certainly true that the tallest competitor is not always the winner. Blanka Vlasic has been beaten many times over by shorter jumpers. Without hard data it is impossible to make sweeping statements, thus I would love to see some results from high jumpers who have competed in both genders.
    What about strength you might ask. Aren’t transgender women stronger than other women? A peer reviewed paper found a muscle mass difference between transgender women and other women, but did not specifically measure strength. Even the muscle mass difference was small, and transgender women were much closer to other women than to men.
    There has not been any study to indicate that transgender women outperform other women, and there is evidence to show that they perform similarly to all women. As Mark said, we will probably never know for certain.
    I would suggest, however, that people should base their opinions on facts and not on ungrounded suspicion.

  20. Milan Jamrich - June 1, 2012

    “Many, if not most people believe, that male athletes are superior to female ones, above and beyond the advantages afforded by higher testosterone levels. Hence we get opinions such as Milan and Mark, who think that competing at high levels as male will somehow translate to a competitive advantage, once the testosterone is gone. This attitude is not backed by any factual evidence, and many people such as Mary think that this attitude is demeaning to women.”

    Well, there is nothing insulting in confirming the fact that male athletes generally have higher performance than women. This is generally accepted and that is why we separate two genders in most of the sports. In high jump, the world record for men is more than a foot better than for women.

    As far as I know there is no large, systemic study that would show how quickly the male athlete looses the advantage over female athletes after testosterone suppression treatment. I imagine that this would be quite individual, depending on the age, workout schedule etc. While anecdotal information can be interesting, we probably need a systemic study, but I realize that it might be difficult to get enough people for this study.

    The Australian transgender site claims: “Unfortunately, sport doctors cannot agree to what extent, if any, female transgender athletes would be advantaged by a male past. Dr Brian Sando, senior medical director for the Australian Olympic team, says a lot depends on whether a transgender had trained heavily between his adolescent growth stage and the sex-change operation.”

    I am just looking at the facts, it is not my intention to insult anybody, but I realize that for transgender athletes this is an important and emotional issue. However, if we are to be involved in a meaningful discussion of this issue, we need to be able to state the facts and doubts about certain issues.

  21. Milan Jamrich - June 1, 2012

    A question has been raised whether the difference in performance is simple due to testosterone level. Well, it is certainly not as simple as the level of testosterone at a given time. Most likely it is the cumulative exposure over the decades. Several female athletes were taking steroids in the past and reached better performances than women that were not taking steroids. However, their performance still did not match the performance of male athletes. So it is unlikely to be as simple as to be on testosterone for a couple of years. I am not sure we know whether the entire difference in performance level between males and females is only due to the testosterone level.
    It kind of reminds me of the discussions in 1970th when many people were the opinion that the difference between man and woman is only how you are raise as a child.

  22. Joanna Harper - June 1, 2012

    Milan:
    You are correct when you say that men’s and women’s sport is divided for a reason, and that reason is testosterone. Once the testosterone is gone, the advantage is gone……… for the most part.

    Yes I agree that a large scale study would be best. I can also assure you that it will never happen.

    You discount both my experience and the experiences of many other transgender women because of the lack of controls. Yet your own bias shows through quite clearly.

    You assume that transgender women have a significant advantage based on zero factual evidence. And you reject the only existing evidence which shows otherwise.

    I’m not sure what else I can say, other than that I don’t take any of this personally. I would gladly sit down with you in Lisle and discuss this further.

  23. Joanna Harper - June 1, 2012

    Mark:

    Previously, you claimed that another transgneder woman beat Debbie at club XC in Ohio. I would like very much to see a retraction of that claim.

    You create a false image of transwomen dominating sport, when it simply isn’t true.

    Please respond here.

  24. A Master's Runner - June 2, 2012

    Anybody who has ever read my previous posts to this board knows that I’m probably the least PC poster around.

    What is the matter with you people? ALL of you people, I mean, with apologies to the actual exceptions.

    Selection of competitors to groups is based on a fundamental attempt to give entrants the opportunity to participate in an event in which they can be competitive with other competitors.

    Entrants should of course be able to forego such an opportunity should they desire.

    This device has a sound basis within the values of sport, one of the most important values of which is participation itself–so we offer opportunities for self-segregation according to gender, age, disability–all dimensions that can have a rather large effect on performance…and performance level is what it is all about, as even in international meets, there can be “A” and “B” races in the same event.

    In some situations, that selection is not left to the entrants, but is required of all entrants, for the benefit of all competitors participating.

    The point is this: within the range of natural variation, there is a level at which every individual will be competitive, and in masters t&f, they should be able to select their own level of competition as they choose, without specific consideration of gender, age, disability, etc..

    I have run a race in which I was competing, as a 40+ yr-old man, against 18 year-old males, collegiate-level women, and a standout masters female. We all participated and finished according to our ability. I happened to win, and the masters woman finished last. We got together and laughed about it all, and it was a great race.

    Before the race, some official made sure to tell us that whatever we ran wasn’t available for ratification, as the race was too mixed-up, or something like that. Nobody cared at all, including myself. It was another one of those races where, looking back, I would have been 2nd in the standings you guys list on this board. Did I care? Absolutely not. Do I care today? Absolutely not. Why not? Because I was there to run, to compete, to participate. There were college women in that race who beat the HS guys. Nobody cared.

    One thing I think is important is full disclosure. Declaring a level of performance like a seed time is insufficient, in my opinion–your competitors deserve the respect to know who they are competing against, then if they have a problem, they can self-select out of the race.

    I would avail myself of the opportunity to beat Joanna in a race, should it present itself!

  25. Milan Jamrich - June 2, 2012

    Joanna, I think you said it best: ” You are correct when you say that men’s and women’s sport is divided for a reason, and that reason is testosterone. Once the testosterone is gone, the advantage is gone……… for the most part.”

    Yes, for the most part, but it would be hard to argue that the advantage is gone completely. As you said, transgender women are taller and larger than other women. I would think that as a GROUP in some events taller and larger athletes perform better than shorter, skinnier athletes.
    Anyway, this is my personal opinion. I am not affected by this issue and it would be good to hear from non-trangender women that are affected.
    Joanna, I wish you good luck. I have high respect for you as a person, but we just might have to disagree on some issues until conclusive scientific evidence is provided. Then, I am certainly willing to change my opinion. Are you?

  26. Kelly - June 4, 2012

    Age-grading isn’t completely accurate as the data for older women, for example, is relatively sparse.

    The SI article points to Joanna’s decline in half marathon performance — over a 50 sec/mile slow down in the same race as proof of the dramatic difference after the sex reassignment. But if you use the age-grading for those race the 2003 male time for a 46 year old was 77.84 % and the 2005 female time for a 48 year old was 79.38%. Further in 2011, Joanna’s time of 1:33:39 for a half marathon at 53 age-graded out to 85%.

    What kind of conclusions can you draw? The example used two times for the same course, but there may have been other factors involved such as relative fitness, weather, competition, etc.

    Personally, I think age-grading is weird – does it make sense to age-grade better as you are older, but less fit, than your personal bests if you were truly fit then? Just because you age-graded at a certain level at one point in time – is it reasonable to expect that you’d stay the same? It seems like some people never do approach their youthful age-grades. Too many variables to make a solid conclusion based on age-grading, I think.

    I have absolutely NO desire to engage in a debate with Joanna over the internet or in person and I don’t know any female masters competitors who would.

  27. Joanna Harper - June 4, 2012

    Kelly:

    I agree with you on two things. First, I agree that age grading is not 100% conclusive, and I said so in my most recent blog. Second, I agree that there is less women’s data to use than men’s data. So that is why it is important to use the most recent and up to date age grading tables.

    I believe that you used the 2006 tables to calculate my age graded performances instead of the 2010 tables. The latter tables give me a 77.5% on my half marathon at age 48 (amazing close to the 77.8% I put up at age 46), and an 82.7% on the half marathon I ran at age 53 (which was in 2010 not 2011). Since you brought up the subject, my most recent half marathon 1:40:09 at age 55 age grades to 79.4%.

    I was healthy and very fit in 2010, and the course was easier than either the course I ran at age 48, or the one I just ran. So there is no great mystery as to why that age grade was higher. My all time best half marathon of 1:08:28 in my mid twenties age grades to 86.5%.

    I think that anyone who looked at my age graded pefromances with an unbiased eye would agree that they point to a relatively consistent level of performance.

  28. Kelly - June 4, 2012

    It’s also been my experience that the men’s races in general are far deeper and thus 5th place age-graded for me is usually higher than 5th place age-grade for women, even though the much older women place at the very top percentages. I’ve placed 5th with a 81% while 5th in the men’s was 91%. Sometimes it’s closer, but a woman scoring in the mid-80s has a much better placement than a guy in the 80%.

    Also, I don’t think you can “retro-fit” the age-grading. If the performance was pre-2010 standards (and I don’t know where you’d find those tables – I just used the one from Pete’s old site), then I think you need to use those standards and not the newer ones. If you ran it in 2003, then the 2003 standards should apply. I was in error using 2006′s.

    It seems like you are skewing the results.

    I think age-grading is fun, but I don’t really think it means much and especially doesn’t mean much comparing men’s times to women’s. The differences in sample sizes make too much of a difference. The comparison is not convincing to me.

  29. Stein - December 11, 2013

    Joanna, you write ”You are correct when you say that men’s and women’s sport is divided for a reason, and that reason is testosterone. Once the testosterone is gone, the advantage is gone……… for the most part.”

    I think that “most part” is in general underestimated.

    In my country there is a cyclist who wins many women’s competitions. She used to be a man and for that reason her lung capacity is much larger than that of her competitors. Her testosterone level and the resulting muscle force may be equal to her competitors now, but she can simply absorb more oxygen.

    Besides a larger lung capacity, men have much longer arms than women. In events like discus throw and shot put, arm length is crucial in achieving good results. Reduction of testosterone does not reduce arm length. I must therefore conclude that I am not in favor of letting former men compete with women. However, if former men do compete with women, they should make their situation clear. I can imagine this a difficult point for many.

  30. Joanna - February 6, 2014

    Stein:

    I no longer look at this post very often, so I am responding belatedly to your post.

    First off which country do you live in? Also would you care to name this cyclist?

    The ability to absorb oxygen is mostly a function of hematocrit levels. That is why cyclists blood dope, take EPO, etc. A transwoman who is hormonally female will have female levels of hemoglobin; hence she will NOT absorb more oxygen than her competitors.

    Simply because a transgender athlete wins a competition does not mean that it is unfair for her to compete in it.

  31. Stein - February 7, 2014

    Hi Joanna, the name of the cyclist is Natalie van Gogh and she is from the Netherlands. A lot has been written about her in the newspapers, because many of her competitors say it is unfair that she competes. She looks quite masculin.

    Oxygen absorption is indeed a function of hematocrit levels, but not mostly, as you write. If your lungs were extremely small, you would absorb almost no oxygen, even for the highest possible hematocrit levels. Oxygen absorption is proportional to lung capacity. If the hematocrit level is the same, but your lungs are larger, you can simply absorb more oxygen. Men have larger lungs than women and lungs don’t shrink when testosterone disappears.

    I don’t mind that former men compete in women’s events, but when there is prize money or in championships, I think they should voluntarily withdraw. I think the difference between men and women is more than just the level of their hormones.

  32. Joanna - February 7, 2014

    Stein:

    I did a quick check on Natalie – I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of her before – and she has been a succesful cyclist, but she certainly doesn’t dominate the sport. She loses far more than she wins, from what I can see.

    It doesn’t really matter what you or her competitors say about her. Every sporting organization, including the UCI, which has studied the matter in the last ten years has concluded that is appropriate to allow trans women to compete against other women.

    It is true that there are a variety of physical factors which affect V02 max, but simple lung capacity is only one of them. I am 100% certain that VO2 max declines sharply upon commencement of hormone therapy – I lived it. It would be great to do a controlled experiment, and measure VO2 max and other factors directly, but it is unlikely to happen.

    The bottom line is that the inclusion of transwomen into women’s sport does not appreciably alter the playing field that exists for female athletes.

  33. Stein - February 7, 2014

    Joanna, I had to google Natalie to learn her name, because I had only heard the story a few years ago from a cyclist friend. She had lost a race against Natalie, who had just started cycling at that time. She and her team members were not amused and we had quite an interesting discussion about whether it was fair. Now that I see Natalie’s photo on internet, I am not surprized about their indignation.

    Men have higher hemoglobin values than women, so it is perfectly normal that your VO2 max went down after your transition. But I assume your lung capacity did not change.

    If the policy of sporting organizations is the bottom line, I think we might as well close this discussion. My bottom line is that you can’t turn men into women by just changing a few hormone levels. They will never become comparable on an anatomic level. From that point of view, competing against women will never be fair. However, from a social point of view, I do think that it would good to let them compete. But that was not the discussion topic here.

  34. Joanna - February 10, 2014

    Stein:

    Let me try this one last time.

    You and many others seem to think that the question of fair is entirely black or white. Furthermore, you have the notion that you know that it can’t be fair to allow transgender women to compete against other women because they are different – and you see this difference as meaning that trans women are unfairly advantaged.

    Certainly trans women might have some potential advantages over cisgender women in sport. But they have disadvantages as well. Several people, including at least one exercise physiologist, think that when it comes to endurance sports, transwomen are disadvantaged, due to a larger frame with a smaller engine (human engines are very much fueled by hormones).

    I think that looking at potential advantages or disadvantages in mostly fruitless and divisive. The important question is whether or not trans women can compete equitably with other women. My study, which is referred to in the SI article, attempts to answer this question for distance runners, by measuring race times before and after transition, and applying a well known analytic method (i.e. age grading) to try to come up with an answer. The resulting paper is currently under review by a scientific journal.

    I realize that it is difficult to overcome the immediate reaction of “she looks more masculine, therefore it must be unfair”, but one really must deep digger.

    And one should also realize that all of us are endowed with different athletic abilities, and hence any sporting contest will be inherently unfair on some level. You cannot expect universal fairness in sport.

    It is, however, important to create rules with fairness in mind. I am certain that it is fairer to allow trans women to compete against other women than to prohibit such competition.

  35. Stein - February 10, 2014

    Joanna,

    I agree that transgender women may even have disadvantages in some sports. Long distance running may be one of them, due to the large frame. However, in other sports a large frame is a huge advantage. Men have taller arms and larger hand and feet. Did you ever swim wearing flippers? Did you notice how much faster you could swim? Right! That is exactly why transgender women have a huge advantage in swimming events. Compared to women, men are wearing flippers!

    It would be good for your article to discuss more than one type of sports, e.g. running and swimming. Probably, your conclusion will be that the (dis)advantage depends strongly on the type of sports.

    It is true that all of us are endowed with different athletic abilities. A talented woman will easily run faster than a mediocre man. But is that an argument to let men and women compete together…?

    I can imagine transgender women prefer to compete against other women. They want to be one of them! But -for some types of sports, and especially on a high level- there will always be unhappy competitors who will say they lost in an unfair way.

    I wish you good luck with your article and hope to read it soon!

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