The trailblazer

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Science  27 Jul 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6400, pp. 322-325
DOI: 10.1126/science.361.6400.322

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The testosterone that courses through men's bodies after puberty triggers and maintains a slew of physical changes. That hormone-fueled transformation confers certain athletic advantages, and men can typically run faster, lift more weight, and throw harder and farther than women. Sporting events are therefore usually split into male and female categories. But that division of the sexes, which has existed for as long as women have competed as athletes, forces an important question: Who, at least from an athletic standpoint, is female? Many people believe transgender women have athletic advantages over non-transgender women because of their previous exposure to higher male levels of testosterone. But Joanna Harper, a medical physicist, has been challenging that assumption with data. In 2015, she published the first study of transgender athletes' performances, finding that they appeared to have no advantage. Although Harper investigated only a few transgender athletes for that initial study, Eric Vilain of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., a geneticist who specializes in gender-based biology, calls it "groundbreaking." Harper now advises sporting bodies on the role of testosterone and is conducting news studies on athletes as they transition genders.

  • * Katherine Kornei is a science journalist in Portland, Oregon.