Trans women in AFLW – the misconceptions and a little bit of science

I recently spoke to the Chicks Talking Footy show regarding my previous involvement with the Purple Bombers and co-founding Bulldog Pride.
We discussed my long love affair with sports, whether it’s baseball or gridiron from my hometown of St Louis in the USA, and football here in Australia.
Michelle Sheppard is an award-nominated radio personality and journalist. Image: Dean Arcuri
Who am I? I am a transwoman, who at 40 now, has gone through transition four years ago from male to female (MtF), who is a parent of two daughters, and has been involved in media work as well as workplace diversity and inclusion work.
Now when it comes to transgender issues, I am not a doctor. I run off my own lived experiences and through the many other transgender people I have met and interviewed over the years.
One of the key pieces of feedback I have been given, which I still hold true, is not “to get academic” on people, but to just “keep it simple and tell us what we need to know”.
So let’s give this a try here.
What is so special about Australian rules football?
This is a game that has been a cornerstone of Melbourne culture since the Victorian Football League was established in 1896.
It is a strange paradox – for a game that is played almost exclusively in one part of the globe in Australia, it is able to transcend cultural barriers and ethnic divides and bring communities together.
I personally had a crash course on the culture of “footy” where I learned business deals were made over a pint and a pie, who you “barrack/root” for is unofficially a job interview question to sift out the Collingwood supporters, and it meant a hell of a lot more if you both barracked for the same team.
One of my favourite stories from an interview I did was of a woman from Carlton who called off her engagement to her fiancé who was from Collingwood. Simply put, it’s social class vs social class, and who you follow defines you as an individual on the grand stage.
Now for the first time in 2017 we have a women’s AFL league: AFLW.
It is exciting stuff; it has become an important agenda for change which has had mixed responses from both men and women alike.
Some thought the Australian society wasn’t ready for women playing AFL. In fact, they couldn’t see it happening at all. But despite all that, women are actively recruited by most footy clubs.
This is an amazing achievement when here in 2017, we are still facing a society that is struggling to accept equal pay for woman, lacks sensitivity towards women’s issues, and the only argument a male ally can offer is that “because a woman goes through child birth that they can handle stress”.
Seriously?! What does a normal physiological function have to do with a capacity to deal with stress?
With change in society, it sometimes drips through like a water droplet, one at a time, often with an attempt to tighten the faucet over and over with no luck. But in this case it has started to become a waterfall.
As we have started the conversation for ciswomen in sport, the Herald Sun recently wrote about a transgender player (MtF) trying out for a place on an AFLW list a couple of weeks ago, and the movement for “change” and “equality” has inspired many transgender athletes to join sports teams of their preferred gender that they identify as.
This has been happening not only in Australia but all around the world.
Obviously with this kind of exposure comes just as many misconceptions from the public about transgender athletes and the question is being asked: “Do trans athletes have an unfair advantage in sports?”
Transgender athletes find themselves in a sporting limbo and it is hard to keep track with policies for trans athletes varying at every level of play, from K-12, amateur/state leagues, to professional athletes.
But the reality is that only being out and proud about being transgender has led to the major gains in this space.
Let me first start by saying if someone comes out as transgender, whether they are four years old or 90, they are subjected to a long, drawn-out process that involves several sessions with their General Practitioner, a mental health care professional, followed by being poked and prodded with blood tests to check health levels regularly for the rest of your life.
This isn’t a matter of just wearing skirts to the supermarket and replacing our boy clothes with brighter, girly fashion. If that was the case we would make an absolute ass of ourselves.
So when it comes to sports and transgender athletes, hold tight because here come science.
It is more than likely going to impact women’s sport more than men’s.
The fear is that men who transition to women (MtF) can pose an unfair advantage over cisgender female athletes, but you need to understand chemicals and hormones, and less on the actual flesh. So back to fifth grade body talks.
Testosterone is a man’s primary sex hormone but it is also found in women in lower hormone levels. The drugs used by TRT – often referred to as testosterone replacement therapy – participants and steroid users are actually quite similar, in that they both contain forms of testosterone.
Testosterone increases muscle mass, strength and bone density. That’s why athletes with more “T” in their bodies tend to have a competitive edge over their opponents, and why there is testing for steroid use in sports.
So with this, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) requirements are that transgender women do not pose an unfair advantage in sports as long as their testosterone levels are consistent with those of athletes who were designated female at birth.
This would require regular blood level checks to compete regularly.
The IOC also ruled that gender affirmation surgery was unnecessary, as it made little to no impact on an athlete’s performance.
This is where people get their backs up.
Here is a bit of education: what are the effects estrogen has on the body of a transitioning transgender woman?
Estrogen is the female hormone responsible for female characteristics in a human. The effects are gradual, happening over months and years, but there are wide-ranging changes that take place on the genitalia:
  • Low sex drive
  • erectile dysfunction, erection becomes more difficult or impossible
  • testicles tend to shrink
  • infertility lowered sperm mobility and low sperm-count
  • Penis size tends to get smaller
There are a large number of transwomen, like myself, who do not want to go through gender affirmation surgery for personal reasons.But as a society we seem to focus too much on the “flesh” and not the fuel that is driving it.
So what are the further risks? The risk of things like blood clots, strokes and cancer are minimal, but may be elevated.
But what does losing testosterone mean beyond the effects of the sex organs? Losing strength and having less athletic agility, but the overall positives of transitioning far outweigh the negatives.
Transgender women athletes have less of an edge than most people think.
For example, hormone therapy actually makes male-to-female road runners slower, our height can actually be a disadvantage due to higher centres of gravity, and lower testosterone can increase muscle tears from the bone due to our muscle mass depleting and we tend to have lower levels of testosterone levels than cisgender women.
We are like large cars with engines that are too small.
There is no conclusive data on the total number of transgender athletes who are competing on an elite level. There have been a number of transgender individuals who have qualified for international competitions though.
The harsh truth is that a large number of transgender people have the belief that being “stealth” or “passing”, which is basically hiding in plain sight not revealing their transgender status under any circumstances, improves their opportunities offered to them and minimises discrimination risk.
But being stealth does not help the wider transgender community.
It is important to be open and honest to the world about being transgender, as it helps improve the conversation and build trust with the wider sporting community, and create role models for younger generations.
Under the IOC’s current policy, trans men (women who have transitioned to be men) don’t have to undergo hormone therapy to compete as male athletes. Their testosterone levels, which would give them an athletic advantage, are naturally low.
For trans women (men who have transitioned to be women), however, the IOC scaled back on the length of hormone treatments.
Trans women must undergo at least one year of testosterone suppression, or hormone deprivation therapy, to enter female divisions.
Then, 12 months before even attempting to qualify for an Olympic team, an athlete’s testosterone levels must be below 10 nanomoles/L.
While the IOC’s policy seems straightforward, some experts say it doesn’t prevent the performance bias for trans women athletes because of the effects of a lifetime of testosterone on the body, which means nothing.
Time will tell if trans women are welcomed into the AFLW, and so will science.


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