Breaking the barriers: F to M transgender student athletes

Current NCAA rules allow athletes to compete based off their sex as stated by their state issued identification, yet each state has different regulations regarding how to legally change ones gender. Some require body augmentation through surgery and/or variations in estrogen and testosterone levels based on the individual’s preferred sex or gender; this is regardless of that testosterone is listed as banned NCAA substance.

“My license says female, so I have to play on a female team and my estrogen levels and my testosterone levels have to be within the ranges for normal or acceptable for a female bodied person,” Merric says.

Aside from the NCAA, in 2004 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) produced the other most well documented policy regarding transgender athletes. Many high schools and colleges looking for answers have used the Olympic rules, even though most school’s athletes are not professionals. The Olympic documentation is a criterion that determines the eligibility of transgender athletes. The two most debated regulations of the policy are: 1) that genital reconstruction gives a competitive advantage, and 2) that after beginning estrogen therapy a transgendered woman has to wait two years for her testosterone levels to decrease, eliminating any advantage when playing among biologically female-bodied women.

“It would be helpful [to have federal rules] because it would give people guidelines and rules of this is how to do things,” says Merric. “But it’s a more complicated issue because what is out there right now is the Olympic [Policy].”

The most recent argument was presented in On The Team, a press release published October 4, 2010 in conjunction with the Women’s Sports Foundation and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. In the report medical experts found flaws in the IOC policy: genital reconstructive surgery does not influence athlete’s abilities and that any advantage a transgender girl might have from testosterone will disappear about a year of taking estrogen regularly.

“We talked about what’s fair- we were really concerned about what’s fair for the transgender athlete and what’s fair for the other student athletes and the competitive equity, that was a big consideration,” says Mount Holyoke College’s Athletic Director Laurie Priest, who helped write On The Team. “We’ve had Division III athletes who are transgender but were low key, our sports programs aren’t that big, so it’s not such a big deal.”

“I do understand the issues that the [IOC] aims toward, not necessarily making it more comfortable, but just also the use of juicing or making [competition] fair with testosterone levels,” Merric explains. “[Lacrosse is] as much a part of me and who I am, as my gender identity is. When I’m in the crease, the circle around the goal, it’s the one place I don’t feel uncomfortable; it’s the one place I feel like I fit.”

Merric began playing lacrosse goalkeeper seven years ago as a way to overcome his depression and low self esteem, but after coming out as a transgender man lacrosse has become a source of stress. In order to obey NCAA regulations that will keep both him and his team eligible for championship competition, Merric has compromised his identity: refusing to legally change his gender and take testosterone until after completing his senior season of lacrosse.

“There were times, a lot [the] beginning of this summer, when I was struggling with it…Do I really want to wait?” says Merric. “This crazy urge just came over me to quit lacrosse and start taking T[estosterone],” he wrote in his blog this past July.

Steve, a student-athlete at Mount Holyoke, will begin taking testosterone treatment this January. As a club sport-only athlete, NCAA regulations do not apply to him. Therefore the Mount Holyoke’s Ice Hockey team will allow him to continue playing, especially since they are not participating in a league.

Rugby is on the other hand a different story for Steve. “Because I’m choosing to transition now, and take testosterone, rugby is such a physical sport that it would be an unsafe thing to have me on the field,” Steve explains. “It would be having someone with muscular structure of a male tackling people that don’t have that same structure, and it wouldn’t be fair to other people.”

Despite conclusions about the competitive concerns of transgender athletes, the NCAA and IOC policies have not changed.


Note: Some names have been changed or withheld to protect identities.

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