News and Commentary

Boston Marathon Clarifies Its Controversial Transgender Policy

​Boston Marathon officials have finally “publicly acknowledged” their new policies regarding gender: Men who identify as women can compete against biological women, regardless of whether or not they have taken any steps to officially “transition.”

“We take people at their word,” said Boston Athletic Association President Tom Grilk. “We register people as they specify themselves to be.” Those registering do not have to provide any sort of proof that they are in fact in any sort of “transition” state medically, as required by the Olympics and many professional sports. “Members of the LGBT community have had a lot to deal with over the years, and we’d rather not add to that burden,” said Grilk.

In its report on Boston’s public clarification of its rules, ABC features one man who identifies as a woman who admits to not having undergone any treatment to lower testosterone, which allows men to have a significant athletic advantage over women:

Stevie Romer, a transgender woman from Woodstock, Illinois, says she registered for Boston as a woman because that’s what she is. Although she hasn’t done anything to lower her testosterone levels, Romer legally changed her gender, grew her hair out and started living openly as a woman more than a year ago.

“To be able to experience it as me was really, really important,” she said. “I’ve been a runner since as long as I can remember. I love running, but I just happen to be transgender.”

ABC quotes one doctor from a Boston-based LGBT health and advocacy center who insists that there’s “no physiologic advantage to being assigned male at birth.”

Study after study and real-life results, however, prove otherwise. On average, as Live Strong highlights, men outperform women by around 10% across all athletic events:

The gender gap in athletic performance, as shown in records from Olympic competition, has remained stable since 1983. The mean difference has been about 10 percent between men and women for all events. The mean gap is 10.7 percent for running, 8.9 percent for swimming and 17.5 percent for jumping. When performances improve, the improvements are proportional for each gender. Still, in sports such as running, a woman who is fit and well-trained can outperform a man who is not. In shooting and equestrian competition, where physical balance and mental concentration are essential, women can compete on a par with men.

David Epstein, author of “The Sports Gene,” discusses the biological realities of the athletic differences between genders in a piece published by The Washington Post in 2014. In it, he provides a little background on women’s inclusion in several sports in the middle of the last century which led to a “momentary explosion” in their performance that ultimately plateaued. As Live Strong notes above, since, the ’80s the performance gap between men and women has remained relatively stable, though Epstein points out that men have actually created a little more distance lately:

In terms of top speed in a range of running events, women began leveling off by the 1980s, and their records stagnated after the crackdown on mega-doping of female athletes from some Eastern Bloc nations. The numbers are now unequivocal: Elite women are not catching elite men nor maintaining their position. Men are ever so slightly pulling away.

From the 100 meters to the 10,000 meters, the gap between elite male and female performers generally stands around 11 percent. At the pro level, that’s a chasm. The women’s 100 record would have been too slow by a quarter-second to qualify for entry into the men’s field at the 2012 Olympics. In the 10,000 meters, the women’s world-record performance would be lapped by a man who made the minimum Olympic qualifying standard. Larger gaps occur in throwing and pure explosion events. In the long jump, women are 19 percent behind men. The gap in distance swimming races is smaller — 6 percent in the 800-meter freestyle.

So why do men on average outperform women by such a significant margin? The essential difference is testosterone, but just lowering testosterone levels doesn’t take males’ advantages away because by the time such treatment is implemented, much of the hormone’s work has already been done. Here’s Epstein again:

Thanks in large part to testosterone, men are generally heavier and taller than women. They have longer limbs relative to their height, bigger hearts and lungs, less fat, denser bones, more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, heavier skeletons that support more muscle — 80 percent more in the upper body, on average, which is about the difference between male and female gorillas — and narrower hips that make for more efficient running and decrease the chance of injury.

Despite the biological realities of gender advantage, many of the other major marathons have adopted the same kind of “take people at their word” approach to gender identity as Boston. “Several other major marathons said they have no official policies but are taking a similar approach to Boston,” ABC reports. “Organizers of the Chicago, New York City, London and Los Angeles marathons all said they honor the gender that runners submit during sign-ups.”

ABC notes that the “thorny issue” is slightly complicated at some of these races because they require that participants show IDs giving their same name and gender. “Race officials said they haven’t fielded complaints but will monitor their policies to make sure they’re inclusive.” Meanwhile, biological female runners have found that the embrace of “inclusion” over “fairness” has resulted in an increasingly competitive field.