Meet the Leading Expert on Trans Athletes - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Meet the Leading Expert on Trans Athletes

Meet the Leading Expert on Trans Athletes

By Libby Coleman


Because the personal is scientific.  

By Libby Coleman

In under a year, medical physicist and runner Joanna Harper saw the effects of her gender transition. An avid runner, she was now 12 percent slower. Like any good scientist, she devised an experiment—eight male-to-female transgender runners, most of them showing the same results as she. After one year of testosterone suppression, she found, the subjects had testosterone levels below those of cisgender women; seven of the eight subjects experienced a substantial reduction in running speed upon transition. The runners were just as competitive in the women’s division as they had been in the men’s division.

Harper’s research is uniquely positioned to change our understanding of the intersection between gender, sports and science. A contributor to The Washington Post and an author partway through her own book on gender and sports, she has also advised the International Olympic Committee on its regulations that determine whether athletes qualify as male or female. Where to draw the line? Harper performs a balancing act — women, she acknowledges, have to compete on a reasonably level playing field, and men are biologically faster. But, she says, it’s important to craft a rule that includes minority groups like transgender and intersex women, allowing them to compete as female athletes. If their testosterone reduces to “normal” female levels, she believes they should be able to qualify as women.  

There is still a widespread belief that transgender female athletes have an inherent advantage over other female competitors. Harper’s out to challenge it. In partnership with major researchers like University of Brighton’s Yannis Pitsiladis, best known for his quest to create the perfect athlete, and Maria José Martínez-Patiño, published in The American Journal of Bioethics and known for her 1986 Olympic dismissal for failing a gender test. Their collective research focuses on testosterone levels and their effect on performance. Harper calls the inclusion of a trans person on a research team studying trans issues “somewhat novel. Scientists don’t generally let the lab rats run the experiments, right?” Pitsiladis says working with Martínez-Patiño and Harper is like having a “dream team.” 

She harbored two desires for her future self: to be a woman and a physicist. 

Recent high-profile intersex and transgender athletes have put long-established regulatory questions back on the table. India’s Dutee Chand, a 20-year-old sprinter, was barred from competing in 2014 women’s events when she tested positive for hyperandrogenism, a condition in which a woman’s body produces higher levels of testosterone than usual. Harper assisted the International Association of Athletics Federations by serving as a witness in the case. In 2009, South African Olympian Caster Semenya, a dominant force in middle-distance running, was suspected of hyperandrogenism and even called a man by competitors; the claim was never proven. Now, however, researchers like Harper have a chance to change policy. After Chand, the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended the IAAF’s track and field hyperandrogenism regulations until 2017, unless there is better scientific support for these rules.

While growing up in Parry Sound, Ontario, Harper recalls that, at 6 or 7, she asked a male friend, “Do you ever think maybe you’d want to be a woman?” His look made Harper realize she’d said something very, very wrong. “I don’t remember speaking to anyone else about it” — until 2004, when she began hormone therapy. 

Born to a nurse and a high school teacher, Harper displayed an early aptitude for math and physics. She harbored two desires for her future self: to be a woman and a physicist. She ran cross-country in college at University of Western Ontario, posting a 2-hour, 23-minute marathon (the record for men is a shade over 2 hours). In 1990, Harper found her way to Portland, Oregon, and became chief medical physicist at her hospital group for 18 years.

In 2004, Harper told running friend Mark Mochon the plan to transition. “I was completely floored when [Joanna] hemmed and hawed and had a hard time getting it out,” Mochon, perhaps the sixth person she told, says. Harper started hormone therapy (a testosterone blocker and estrogen) and transitioned. Within weeks, Harper’s running pace slowed. “In 2007, I found that another trans woman had experienced the same thing, so I knew that wasn’t just me,” she says. She gathered data and published one of the few papers regarding testosterone and performance. Harper, who received top surgery (one of three surgeries) in 2005, still runs, joking to women in her running club who complain of being flat-chested that she has just the surgeon for them, says her running friend Angela Lindbo. 

A lot has changed in less than a century for intersex and transgender athletes. Until 1928, women were barred from competing in track and field at the Olympics. In the ’30s, track and field was ground zero for a controversy surrounding intersex athletes: Some league leaders worried that men might masquerade as women, and complained about the possibility of “hermaphrodites” running. By 1948, some leagues required women to certify they were indeed female with doctor’s notes. But distrust ran deep. International organizations soon took over as “objective” observers. First, doctors tested women for external genitalia; then came a chromosome test.

In 2004, the IOC implemented rules that allowed transgender women to compete, on certain conditions. They had to demonstrate required surgery and two years of hormone usage. “By 2016, those regulations had become very dated,” Harper says. In advance of Rio, the committee removed the surgical recommendations, replacing the requirement by limiting testosterone levels. Because it’s impossible to surgically change one’s birth gender in much of the world, the IOC will allow athletes who identify as female and have a low enough testosterone level to run with women. 

Change may come slowly, Harper notes, but that’s OK. Speed isn’t everything.  

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