Debates over transgender athletes rage on, with new state bans and rules for Olympians, NCAA sports
Ashley O’Connor, who was biologically male at birth but identifies as female, decided to compete in badminton as a girl during her senior year of high school in Downers Grove, Illinois. There was no team for boys, and a female friend and badminton player “practically bullied me into joining” the girls’ team. O’Connor, who is 18 and taking hormone replacement therapy for her gender transition, recalled that “it was easily one of the best decisions I have ever made.”
She believes there are many reasons why it’s important for transgender people to have the option of playing sports on the team of their choice. “It provides a sense of community,” said O’Connor, now a first-year student concentrating in psychology at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
“It’s a great way to get a workout, which is good for physical and mental health,” she added. She also enjoyed the opportunity to be competitive, learn about her strengths and weaknesses, and just be normal. “Trans people have friends and trans people want to play sports with their friends, especially in adolescence,” she said.
However, in 18 states, many of which are politically conservative, laws prohibit transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an independent, nonprofit think tank based in Boulder, Colo., that focuses on the rights of LGBTQ people. The first ban was passed in Idaho in 2020, although federal district judges have halted this legislation and a similar law in West Virginia from taking effect.
Proponents of the bans caution that transgender females would have an unfair biological advantage in competitive school sports with other girls or women as a result of being born as stronger males, potentially usurping the athletic accomplishments of other athletes.
“The future of women’s sports is at risk, and the equal rights of female athletes is being infringed,” said Penny Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, a legislative action committee in D.C. that seeks to impact culture to promote religious values.
“As the tidal wave of gender activism consumes sports from the Olympics on down, a backlash is being felt as parents are furious about the disregard for their daughters who have worked very hard to achieve success as athletes,” Nance added. “Former athletes, whose records are being shattered, are demanding answers.”
Meanwhile, opponents of the bans contend that they bar transgender athletes from playing sports with friends and learning the value of teamwork and other life lessons. These laws target transgender girls most often in kindergarten through high school but sometimes in college as well. Many local schools and state athletic associations already have their own guidelines “to both protect transgender people and ensure a level playing field for all athletes,” according to the Movement Advancement Project’s website. But statewide bans take precedence over these policies.
"It’s easy to sympathize on some level with arguments on both sides, and it’s likely going to be impossible to make everyone happy,” said Liz Joy, a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.
In January, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), based in Indianapolis, tried to sort out the controversy by implementing a new policy. It requires transgender students participating in female sports to prove that they’ve been taking treatments to suppress testosterone for at least one year before competition, as well as demonstrating that their testosterone level is sufficiently low, depending on the sport, through a blood test.
Then, in August, the NCAA clarified that these athletes also must take another blood test six months after their season has started that shows their testosterone levels aren’t too high. Additional guidelines will take effect next August.
Even with these requirements, “there is no plan that is going to be considered equitable and fair to all,” said Bradley Anawalt, an endocrinologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Biologically, he noted, there is still some evidence that a transgender female who initiates hormone therapy with estrogen and drops her testosterone to very low levels may have some advantage over other females, based on characteristics such as hand and foot size, height and perhaps strength.
Liz Joy, a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, agrees that allowing transgender athletes to compete on teams of their self-identifying gender poses challenges. “It’s easy to sympathize on some level with arguments on both sides, and it’s likely going to be impossible to make everyone happy,” said Joy, a physician and senior medical director of wellness and nutrition at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, Utah. While advocating for inclusion, she added that “sport was incredibly important in my life. I just want everyone to be able to benefit from it.”
One solution may be to allow transgender youth to play sports in a way that aligns with their gender identity until a certain age and before an elite level. “There are minimal or no potential financial stakes for most youth sports before age 13 or 14, and you do not have a lot of separation in athlete performance between most boys and girls until about age 13,” said Anwalt, who was a reviewer of the Endocrine Society’s national guidelines on transgender care.
Myron Genel, a professor emeritus and former chief of pediatric endocrinology at Yale School of Medicine, said it’s difficult to argue that height gives transgender females an edge because in some sports tall women already dominate over their shorter counterparts.
He added that the decision to allow transgender females to compete with other girls or women could hinge on when athletes began taking testosterone blockers. “If the process of conversion from male to female has been undertaken in the early stages of puberty, from my perspective, they have very little unique advantage,” said Genel, who advised the International Olympic Committee (IOC), based in Switzerland, on testosterone limits for transgender athletes.
Because young athletes’ bodies are still developing, “the differences in natural abilities are so massive that they would overwhelm any advantage a transgender athlete might have,” said Thomas H. Murray, president emeritus of The Hastings Center, a pioneering bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York, and author of the book “Good Sport,” which focuses on the ethics and values in the Olympics and other competitions.
“There’s no good reason to limit the participation of transgender athletes in the sports where male athletes don’t have an advantage over women,” such as sailing, archery and shooting events, Murray said. “The burden of proof rests on those who want to restrict participation by transgender athletes. They must show that in this sport, at this level of competition, transgender athletes have a conspicuous advantage.”
Last year, the IOC issued a new framework emphasizing that the Olympic rules related to transgender participation should be specific to each sport. “This is an evolving topic and there has been—as it will continue to be—new research coming out and new developments informing our approach,” and there’s currently no consensus on how testosterone affects performance across all sports, an IOC spokesperson told Leaps.org.
Many of the new laws prohibiting transgender people from competing in sports consistent with their gender identity specifically apply to transgender females. Yet, some experts say the issue also affects transgender males, nonbinary and intersex athletes.
“There has been quite a bit of attention paid to transgender females and their participation in biological female sports and almost minimal focus on transgender male competition in male sports or in any sports,” said Katherine Drabiak, associate professor of public health law and medical ethics at University of South Florida in Tampa. In fact, “transgender men, because they were born female, would be at a disadvantage of having less lean body mass, less strength and less muscular area as a general category compared to a biological male.”
While discussing transgender students’ participation in sports, it’s important to call attention to the toll that anti-transgender legislation can take on these young people’s well-being, said Jonah DeChants, a research scientist at The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ youth. Recent polling found that 85 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said that debates around anti-transgender laws had a negative impact on their mental health.
“The reality is simple: Most transgender girls want to play sports for the same reasons as any student—to benefit their health, to have fun, and to build connection with friends,” DeChants said. According to a new peer-reviewed qualitative study by researchers at The Trevor Project, many trans girls who participated in sports experienced harassment and stigma based on their gender identity, which can contribute to poor mental health outcomes and suicide risk.
In addition to badminton, O'Connor played other sports such as volleyball, and she plans to become an assistant coach or manager of her old high school's badminton team.
However, DeChants added, research also shows that young people who reported living in an accepting community, had access to LGBTQ-affirming spaces, or had social support from family and friends reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide in the past year. “We urge coaches, educators and school administrators to seek LGBTQ-cultural competency training, implement zero tolerance policies for anti-trans bullying, and create safe, affirming environments for all transgender students on and off the field,” DeChants said.
O’Connor said her experiences on the athletic scene have been mostly positive. The politics of her community lean somewhat liberal, and she thinks it’s probably more supportive than some other areas of the country, though she noted the local library has received threats for hosting LGBTQ events. In addition to badminton, she also played baseball, lacrosse, volleyball, basketball and hockey. In the spring, she plans to become an assistant coach or manager for the girls’ badminton team at her old high school.
“When I played badminton, I never got any direct backlash from any coaches, competitors or teammates,” she said. “I had a few other teammates that identified as trans or nonbinary, [and] nearly all of the people I ever interacted with were super pleasant and treated me like any other normal person.” She added that transgender athletes “have aspirations. We have wants and needs. We have dreams. And at the end of the day, we just want to live our lives and be happy like everyone else.”
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.