Transgender Swimmers: The Rules for Inclusion and Fairness

Photo Courtesy: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

By David Rieder.

In sports, two standards are desired above all else: an even playing field and an equal-opportunity for participation. Seems pretty clear-cut, but maybe not anymore, not with the growing recognition of transgender athletes.

Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their birth sex. In other words, their biology at birth does not match how the person presents themselves to the world, and in some cases transgender individuals undergo medical procedures so that they better match their expressed gender.

Over the past several years, society has begun to accept transgender individuals, even if discrimination is unfortunately still common. But just as one’s sexual orientation does not affect their ability to function in society, neither does one’s gender expression.

But in most sports, swimming included, competition is divided straight down the middle—female and male. That setup came from a time when gender was considered binary. What now?

For USA Swimming, the answer so far has been inclusion. The organization has posted recommended guidelines encouraging clubs to allow transgender swimmers to compete in the events of the gender they prefer.

underwater-dive-orange-bowl-classic-2017 (1)

Photo Courtesy: Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau

That protocol, designed specifically for minors, differs from both the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee, which sets standards for which gender events transgender athletes may compete in. All of those policies operate under one assumption: that male hormones lend a competitive advantage.

Transgender males—i.e., females at birth who are transitioning or have transitioned to male—may compete as either a female or a male, but if the individual begins taking hormones (i.e., testosterone), participation is limited to male events only.

But transgender females, the thinking goes, could have an advantage competing in women’s events. Hence, the NCAA and IOC require that anyone who wants to compete in a women’s event must have hormone levels below a certain threshold. So in order for a transgender female to compete in a women’s event, she must have received significant medical treatment.

In IOC competition, transgender females must demonstrate that their testosterone levels have been below a certain point for a full year in order to compete as a female. In the NCAA, one year of female hormone therapy is considered sufficient for a transgender woman to compete on a women’s team.

“Research suggests that androgen deprivation and cross sex hormone treatment in male-to-female transsexuals reduces muscle mass,” writes Dr. Eric Vilain of Gender-Based Biology and Chief Medical Genetics Department of Pediatrics at UCLA in the NCAA’s Transgender Inclusion Handbook. “Accordingly, one year of hormone therapy is an appropriate transitional time before a male-to-female student-athlete competes on a women’s team.”

But USA Swimming has not imposed that sort of restriction, and the organization tries to allow transgender athletes their choice to compete as a male or a female, regardless of sex at birth or what hormones they have taken.

“The current approach that we’ve taken is to not require athletes who identify as transgender—and specifically transgender females—to show this hormone or testosterone threshold,” said Susan Woessner, USA Swimming’s Director of Safe Sport, “We just felt like we haven’t been in the position or had the expertise to require a minor who can’t legally consent to undergo medical treatment.”

There’s no clear precedent for determining where a minor transgender female should be allowed to compete, Woessner explained. There would be no competitive advantage for a transgender female prior to puberty, and there’s no way to determine when an individual will go through puberty.

Still, USA Swimming does not consider the matter solved.

Jul 18, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Joanna Maranhao of Brazil (top) dives in at the start of the women's swimming 200m individual medley preliminary heats during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Pan Am Aquatics UTS Centre and Field House. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel/USA TODAY Sports

“In September, at the USA Swimming Board of Directors meeting, the board commissioned a task force of experts in the field and swimming people to examine this issue, particularly the competitive issue,” Woessner explained. “Their No. 1 question is, ‘How do we be inclusive and also be fair?’ So that’s an ongoing effort right now.”

And then there’s the issue of suits—what should transgender athletes wear in competition? For the past eight years, the issue of what is allowed has been definitive: men can wear suits that stretch from their hips to their knees, and women’s suits from shoulders to knees.

How about transgender swimmers, though? Say, for instance, that a transgender male still has developed breasts but wants to compete in a men’s event?

“USA Swimming rules also allow for a swimsuit waiver, and waivers can be provided for a number of reasons—medical, religious or faith-based in terms of modesty of coverage and then transgender identity is also included in reasons you might be granted a swimsuit waiver,” Woessner said.

In the aforementioned case of a transitioning transgender male, it would be expected that a swimmer applies for and receives a swimsuit waiver to comply with USA Swimming’s decency rule, which requires coverage of all private parts.

“If you have developed breasts, whether those are on a female body or a transgender male body, they need to be covered to be in compliance with those rules,” Woessner said, explaining that transgender males would require “medical or surgical intervention” to otherwise comply with the decency rule.

With transgender still a relatively new concept in mainstream discourse, some of these policies could surely change over the next several years in an effort to provide a better balance between inclusiveness and competitive fairness. But it’s the widespread effort to be inclusive that Woessner finds most heartwarming.

“We’ve had questions over the past four or five years on this, and I’m very proud to tell you that the questions we’ve gotten, whether they’re from families or from coaches or from clubs, are like, ‘I have this kiddo. How do we be inclusive?’” she said. “It’s been really wonderful to see clubs figure out how to be inclusive of all kids.”


    • Jay Gutierrez

      Not ridiculous in the slightest.

    • Scott Miller

      This is great news, Inclusion… 😀

    • avatar
      Istvan Lippai, PhD


  1. Camille Cassatt

    It is never fair for a biological male to compete as a female, especially if you’ve already competed as a male. A biological male has different physiology. No surgery can completely transform a human from one gender to another even if it appears so on the surface. The brains are even different.

    • Jay Gutierrez

      You’ve got lots of research to do…

    • Buster Smith

      There is a reason why time cut offs are different for men and women. A born man swimming as a woman will always be an advantage. I agree Camille

    • Morgan E Belding

      Jay Gutierrez please elaborate with citations.

    • Bill Easter

      No surgery can change DNA.

  2. Michie Anderson

    I wonder if USA Swimming has consulted with any transgender advocacy groups regarding the development of rules around swimmers who are transgender.

    • avatar

      Because we really need to take into account 0.6 of every population, variation, flavor, situation, variable.

      This is absurdity, run amuck.

  3. Ian Grunewald

    What I like about this that USA swimming is saying it doesn’t have all the answers, but they are listening to people and trying to balance fairness and inclusion

    • avatar

      I agree. To me, that’s the best message in the article.

  4. avatar
    Jenna Powell

    Fair play to USA Swimming for coming up with these ways to allow transgender swimmers to compete. The IOC and other bodies will soon figure out their own rules for transgender swimmers, they’ve already done that for runners.
    I think the swimwear waiver is a great idea, not just for trans male swimmers but also for male swimmers who may develop conditions where they feel the need to cover their torso. Gynaecomastia springs to mind.
    Not requiring young trans swimmers to have to prove hormone levels, because under 18s aren’t going to have surgical procedures to ensure low testosterone levels is also good. If you were to allow hormone testing of transgender youths then, in the spirit of equality, you should test the hormone levels of all swimmers because it’s entirely possible for some females to have higher testosterone levels than their peers, in which case shouldn’t that advantage be taken into account.

  5. Cheryl Zwijacz

    Like in track and field?!

  6. avatar

    Maybe we should allow women who still choose to be women to take androgen hormones when they know they will be competing with a biologic male in order to even the playing field?

  7. Peter Mooney

    Absolute joke. They shouldn’t be allowed compete unless there’s a completely separate category for them.

    • Amelia Patterson

      Louise Blennerhassett Evan Burns

  8. Andrew McCulloh

    All for inclusion – inclusivity should not come at the expense of a level playing field for women. Frankly, that is the only consideration. We don’t care about trans males competing fairly, only trans women. Anyone that has gone through puberty as a male will have an advantage. If you have not transitioned from a male to a female yet, under no circumstances is that a fair competition. I’d lean more towards a 5 year hormone therapy timeline after a complete transition to start considering it “fair”.

  9. Buster Smith

    Keep it the same OR say we all compete against each other and women will just have to deal with the results. Those are the only fair Inclusive options.

  10. Connie Wolf Shaw

    No place for inclusion in the sport of swimming. There are clear differences between sexes competing against each other. No assumption, it’s a fact. NCAA and Olympics have this right.

  11. Ildiko Morris

    There should be a separate competition for them. This is an area where the line should be drawn.

  12. avatar

    absolute disgrace. if gender and sex are truly seperate, then biological sex MUST be used to maintain a sporting binary of fairness, with acceptance of social gender expression for social lives AWAY from the sporting field

    • avatar

      You are correct. The test should be one of chromosomal sex–XX is female, XY is male. Any chromosomal abnormalities may be judged on an individual basis, taking into account hormones, muscle mass, etc.

      Basing decisions about physical competition on “gender identity” which is a psychological, internal, subjective “sense,” is absurd. Why don’t we base it on political viewpoint?

      We’re in such a hurry to avoid insulting someone who suffers from a personal delusion, that we’re willing to throw all logic and reason out the window.

  13. Bill Easter

    This topic is pretty easy to figure out. If you were born with XX then you are a female and should compete with other females. If you were born XY then you should be competing with the Men. DNA can not be changed, and contrary to popular belief, you can not change your sex.

  14. Reina Hoffman

    I’m curious to know if Jay and Nick were swimmers. If they were, they must have gotten their ass kicked by girls to ascribe to that philosophy. Prime example: the first transgender Harvard student who changed to a male but is biologically female. The rules for NCAA stated ok, you have to swim with the men. Lost every race. Why? Because good male swimmers will always be faster than girls. Curious as to why they think otherwise. I am all for tolerance and acceptance but what they are saying is b.s.. Prove it with facts before making assumptions.

    • avatar
      Mike Rogers

      Sounds like you are referring to Schuyler Bailar at Harvard. As a point of fact, he is currently ranked in the 50th percentile in D1 (faster than half of D1 men – all of whom are CIS-gender male athletes), and in the 75th percentile in the entire NCAA (faster than 75% of all D1/D2/D3 swimmers). He hasn’t come in last in a race since his first season and this season he even came in first in his latest heat.

  15. Krisztina Napolitano

    Create their own class. It is not fair for my daughter to be competing against somebody who will be more muscular and taller. Not all transgender will be taller than a girl, but most will. This does not mean that I have any negative opinions about transgender. I am very supportive if that is what makes them happy, but a boy who becomes a girl will have advantages over a girl. Again, not all the time, but most times. It also works the other way around. A girl on human growth hormones will have unfair advantages against the boys who are not allowed to be on human growth hormones.

  16. Rick Parker

    There is no such thing as transgender. There is hormone therapy and surgical mutilation but there is no changing DNA.