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In ISU visit, expert on trans athlete rights says the record books disprove claims of a competitive advantage

Canadian soccer player Quinn, left, in 2021 became the first-ever openly transgender and nonbinary athlete not only to win gold but to medal at all in the Olympic Games.
Fernando Vergara
Canadian soccer player Quinn, left, in 2021 became the first-ever openly transgender and nonbinary athlete not only to win gold but to medal at all in the Olympic Games.

Equal rights for transgender people have been fought for across the United States for decades. And in the past few years, the right to compete in sports has faced particular scrutiny.

It’s an issue that Dr. Veronica Ivy has faced personally. Ivy earned her Ph.D. in philosophy in 2012 and is an expert in athlete rights. She’s an athlete herself, becoming the first transgender world champion in track cycling, in 2018. The day before that, she set the world record in the 200-meter sprint for women 35-39 years old. With her triumphs came harassment, including from Donald Trump Jr., with claims that people like her are ruining women’s sports.

Ivy, who was scheduled to speak Monday night virtually at Illinois State University, has a simple definition for what she and others face in conversations regarding transgender athletes today.

“Transphobia is an irrational fear of trans women, and what we are seeing is an irrational fear of trans women regarding women’s sport,” Ivy said. “People say things like, ‘Allowing trans women to compete with women in women’s sport is going to do things like destroy women’s sport’… this idea that trans women are suddenly going to take over women’s sport is just false on the facts.”

Veronica Ivy
Dr. Veronica Ivy is an expert on trans and intersex athlete rights.

Ivy notes trans women have been openly allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2004. She said over 54,000 Olympians competed before the first transgender woman qualified in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. That was weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, who qualified in women’s heavyweight competition. No transgender athlete had ever won a gold medal until Quinn of the Canadian women’s soccer team won in the same Olympics.

The conversation usually centers on whether transgender women and girls have an unfair advantage in sports over cisgender women — a term used for those who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth. The levels of testosterone in a given athlete is often cited as the difference. The higher the levels, the better the athlete – according to those who argue trans athletes have an unfair advantage.

But Ivy says it’s not that simple.

“We have very good evidence that there is no relationship between natural, unaltered, internal, endogenous testosterone and performance. We do know that there is a very clear relationship between changing your natural testosterone levels and performance,” Ivy said. “When you add to your body’s natural testosterone, you tend to get bigger, stronger, faster. But it’s not the level you’ve changed it to, it’s that you’ve increased your natural levels.”

Ivy says the relationship between altering testosterone levels works both ways.

“This works the flip side, too. If you take your natural levels and you decrease them, you tend to get slower. So, the simple answer is that there is no evidence that trans athletes have an unfair competitive advantage, or even a competitive advantage at that … the amount of testosterone your body naturally produces has no impact on your sport performance compared to another person,” Ivy said.

Transgender athletes in sport remain in the spotlight, with Lia Thomas becoming the first transgender woman to win a Division I championship in any NCAA sport last month. Her win, along with successes seen by Laurel Hubbard and Ivy herself, has increased conversation about the topic.

But despite the highest level of awareness and discussion of trans athletes’ rights in sport, Ivy sees more harm than good coming from the conversation.

“It’s entirely more harmful and toxic. The conversations we’re having are not about making sport more inclusive. They’re about making them more rigidly exclusive,” Ivy said.

She says the toxicity comes not from a place of concern for women’s sport, but outright transphobia.

“The people who are most angry about trans women in women’s sport do not care one little bit about women’s sport,” Ivy said. “If the only time that you care about women’s issues or women’s sport is to oppose trans women, you don’t actually care about women. You’re just transphobic.”

Ivy was scheduled to be a keynote speaker Monday at Illinois State University’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Symposium. One of her key beliefs, and what she’ll be speaking about, is that sport is a human right. Ivy says it’s clear sport is a right because the International Olympic Committee says so.

“They have seven fundamental principles of Olympism. And the fourth principle says, ‘Participation in sport is a human right’, and they mean competitive sport, so not just recreational. So, when people say, ‘How do you know it’s a human right?’ I’m like, ‘It’s because they say it is,’” Ivy said.

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Jack Podlesnik is a student reporter and announcer at WGLT. He joined the station in 2021.