Testosterone and the NCAA

“But… you’re taking testosterone… and you’re allowed to compete??? Doesn’t that give you an advantage??”

“Wait, but aren’t female athletes, like… not as good as male athletes? Aren’t you way slower than all the other guys? Or are you just crazy fast?”

Okay. Let’s talk about these frequently asked questions…

First, let me say that I am not a doctor and do not speak for the NCAA. These comments are my interpretations. But suffice it to say that I have done a fair bit of research through the process of being fully authorized by the NCAA as a D1 athlete with a waiver for testosterone therapy.

So, let’s start out with rules and regulations. I am currently competing on Harvard Men’s Swimming and Diving team in the NCAA Division 1 where the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) sets the guildines. They have a policy for transgender people called the “NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes” published in 2011 shortly after Kye Allums, the first openly transgender collegiate athlete in the NCAA, came out in 2010. The policy has two parts: one for transmen, and the other for transwomen. (See my page regarding trans* related vocabulary/trans-related terminology.)

If you are a transman, you can do one of three things:

  1. You may compete as ‘female’ (you are allowed to be openly trans) on the women’s team and refrain from taking testosterone – this is what Kye Allums did;
  2. You may compete as male on a men’s or co-ed team and refrain from taking testosterone; and lastly,
  3. You may take testosterone and therefore must compete as male on the men’s team. (This is what I’m doing.) You may NOT take testosterone and compete as a woman. (See later discussion for reasoning.)

If you are a transwoman, you may do one of two things:

  1. You may compete as male on the men’s team and take whatever transitional treatments you wish to take (for transwomen, hormones do not include testosterone), or
  2. You may compete as female after undergoing at least one year of documented hormone treatment (either estrogen or testosterone-suppression therapy.) You may NOT compete as female without undergoing at least one year of testosterone suppression therapy.

The NCAA has created this policy to make competition as fair and as inclusive as possible. Testosterone has many effects on the body – but athletically these are the important changes:

  • Increases your red blood cell count; theoretically increasing oxygen capacity and therefore stamina/endurance
  • Increases the ability for your body to create muscle. (There is a huge misconception that taking testosterone simply creates muscle on its own; THIS IS FALSE. You must exercise the muscles to build them. Testosterone aids in the building – it doesn’t create muscle out of nothing. Many people also believe it will cause one to lose weight. This is also FALSE. On its own, testosterone will actually greatly facilitate weight gain.)

That’s really it. So taking testosterone as a female to male transgender person is not like taking some sort of super power drug that’s supposed to make you better, stronger, faster, etc. For me, as a female-born person, it just brings my testosterone levels up to the level of an average guy. Me taking testosterone also has nothing to do with my athletics. I did not take it in order to be competitive with other men in the pool. I chose to take testosterone because I wanted to feel more comfortable in my body – it’s purpose was internal; self-discovery oriented.

(Note: when I refer to levels, I’m not referring to a specific number – it’s a range. Typically adult males have a testosterone count anywhere from 300 to 1000 ng/dL, but most males my age stay between 500-700ng/dL (whereas the adult female has less than 100.)

Conversely, the purpose of estrogen and/or testosterone-suppression therapy for transwomen is to reduce testosterone levels to a normal female range – because transwomen without these treatments will most likely have much higher testosterone levels (those of a biological male), theoretically providing her with a biological advantage over ciswomen.

That brings us to the competition part: I have no advantage over any cisgender male. As aforementioned, my testosterone medication is not designed to make me have more testosterone than an average man. It is designed to raise my total testosterone level to that of an average guy (which might actually be lower than that of the typical elite male athlete) – at least biochemically. And of course, all of this is theoretical; there are next to no studies on trans athletes. Which leads to the question of my position on a men’s team: right now, I have a pretty large disadvantage to most of the guys I swim against. While I’ve always identified as male and I’ve always been me, I’ve only been physically transitioning for eight months – I’ve only been biochemically male for ¾ of a year. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a really, really short period of time. The cisguys I compete against have lived in their biochemically male bodies their entire lives. They’ve effectively ‘been on testosterone’ for 5-9 years – which is substantially more than my eight months. I’m just starting puberty; they’ve all but finished.

Other trans athletes that I know of:

  • Jay Pulitano (first openly transgender swimmer to compete as the gender with which he identifies)
  • Chris Mosier (first transgender athlete on Team USA; also ftm)

I hope this explains a bit more about sports and being trans and my experience with both!

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