Professional golfer Mianne Bagger’s biggest challenge this year was winning the right to step out onto the green. In her quest to find acceptance in professional competition, Bagger has overcome the initial resistance of both golf’s governing agencies and other female pros who worried that Bagger would have an inherent physiological advantage. That’s because, although Bagger has played golf since she was eight years old, she only turned pro in 2003–10 years after what she calls “a transsexual past.”
The first well-known transsexual athlete was Rene Richards, whose autobiography Second Serve became a movie staring Vanessa Redgrave. Following her sex reassignment surgery in 1975, Richards she was spotted playing tennis in the women’s division of a local tournament, and outed by a reporter. Engulfed by press coverage and notoriety, Richards sought to join the women’s tennis tour, but was rebuffed.
Richards took her case to the courts, where in a groundbreaking1977 judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that she was legally a woman and could compete as such. Then in her forties, Richards went on to play professionally for five years, win one singles title and coach Martina Navratilova to that tennis great’s first Wimbledon win. Despite Richards’ trail blazing efforts, much of the competitive sports world remained closed to transgendered athletes for another three decades.
Bans on transgendered athletes began to fall in 2004 with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) ruling that transsexual athletes be allowed to compete under strict guidelines. Those that have undergone sex reassignment and associated hormone therapy prior to puberty can now compete without restriction. Those who transition after puberty are eligible only if surgical anatomical changes have been completed (including external genitalia and removal of hormone producing gonads or ovaries); they can prove legal recognition of their new sex; and they’ve undergone hormonal therapy for at least two years.
Not meant to be discriminatory, these requirements will make complying easier for male-to-female transsexuals (MTFs) than female-to-male transsexuals (FTMs). Many FTMs do not have the imperfect, complicated and expensive genital surgeries such and thus would be ineligible. Those that live in states or nations that don’t allow a person to change their sex on official documentation, would also be excluded. Intersexed, transgender, or genderqueer individuals who may not have had, nor want, the IOC-required surgical anatomical changes or hormone therapy are still subject to disqualification.
Media coverage of the IOC’s decision focused primarily on men’s “clear” advantage over women, which many pundits doubted would be sufficiently decreased by sex reassignment.
“If we were in fact merely males with cosmetic surgery, with the strength of males, of course that would be unacceptable,” Bagger concedes. “But that’s not the case.”
Although Mianne Bagger didn’t play much golf during her transition, she says, “When I did start playing back again there were differences in my game. I certainly don’t hit the ball as far as I used to.”
Of course, to really answer the question of whether transgendered athletes foster potential advantages or liabilities, further research clearly needs to be done—for example to compare post-transition MTFs and FTMs with bio-born members of their sex. That would require significant funding, and such funding has been notoriously absent when it comes to studying transsexual and transgendered individuals. Whether they are athletes or not, trans women (and men) are sadly still considered a fringe community with little to tell researchers about the rest of the world.
For now we’ll have to settle for watching athletes like Bagger compete alongside other women in their sport—and fight for the right to continue doing so.