Inside the new NWHL transgender policy, setting pro sports precedent

BROOKLYN, NY - OCTOBER 25: An official NWHL puck sits in an ice bucket prior to the game between the New York Riveters and the Connecticut Whale of the National Womens Hockey League on October 25, 2015 in Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, NY – OCTOBER 25: An official NWHL puck sits in an ice bucket prior to the game between the New York Riveters and the Connecticut Whale of the National Womens Hockey League on October 25, 2015 in Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the National Women’s Hockey League unveiled a ground breaking policy for the inclusion of transgender athletes. This the first professional sport league – male or female – to create a policy specifically for transgender athletes.

The purpose of the policy is outlined as, “The NWHL recognizes all forms of gender expression. Therefore, the NWHL supports athletes choosing to express their gender beyond the binary of female and male. The NWHL will use the eligibility guidelines set out in this policy in order to ensure a fair and level playing field for all participants.”

Written in conjunction with the You Can Play Project (YCP) and National Center for Lesbian Rights (NLCR), the league based the policy on the International Olympic Committee’s revamped guidelines incorporating the ‘latest scientific and legal attitudes’ surrounding transgender athletes. In years prior, the IOC required athletes to have undergone sexual reassignment surgery in order to compete as their self-identified gender. This is no longer the case.

The guidelines for the NWHL’s policy cover all transgender athletes:

Considering the most up-to-date medical and expert information available at the time of the implementation of this policy, participation is open to:

1 – People designated female at birth, regardless of their gender identity.

1.1 The athlete may not take testosterone hormone therapy. Athletes transitioning to male who undergo hormone therapy will be ineligible to compete.

2 – Those who transition from male to female are eligible to compete under the following conditions:

2.1. The athlete has declared that her gender identity is female. The declaration cannot be changed, for sporting purposes, for a minimum of four years.

2.2. The athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum is within typical limits of women athletes.

2.3. The athlete’s total testosterone level in serum must remain in the typical range of women athletes throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category.

2.4. Compliance with these conditions may be monitored by testing. In the event of non-compliance, the athlete’s eligibility in the league will be suspended for 12 months.

A couple things to point out:

— For athletes who are transitioning to male, they cannot take testosterone hormone therapy while active in the league. This is not something new to the NWHL.

This past October, Buffalo Beauts forward Harrison Browne became the first transgender athlete in professional team sports. In an interview with Puck Daddy, Browne indicated he would not take testosterone until after his playing days are complete because the hormone is considered a performance enhancer.

Browne was not involved in the creation of the policy. However, he did tell the New York Times, “I think it’s very inclusive. I don’t think it’s discriminatory at all. I think it’s very fair.”

Photo via Troy Parla
Photo via Troy Parla

— For athletes transitioning to female, they are faced with more guidelines in order to compete; such as having to declare their gender identity for at least four years, and under go testing to ensure testosterone levels are within a ‘typical’ range for female athletes where non-compliance can result in a 12-month suspension.

The reasons for this aren’t cut and dry.

From the New York Times:

Joanna Harper is a medical physicist at Providence Portland Medical Center in Portland, Ore., who has studied transgender distance runners. A transgender woman, she has advised the I.O.C. on its gender guidelines.

“Transgender women will have advantages,” she said, noting that transgender women had never dominated in any sport. “Specifically, transgender women are taller, larger, they have more muscle mass. Those are all facts.”

Still, Harper compared a transgender woman with suppressed testosterone to a large model car with a small engine. She would be competing against a smaller car with a smaller engine, and might not enjoy the advantages often assumed.

“In hockey, getting up and down the ice, there may be disadvantages that a transgender woman may have,” she said, noting that the best hockey players, male or female, had not always been the biggest and strongest. “Just because a transgender woman is bigger doesn’t necessarily mean what you may think. It’s much more complicated.”

One of the key parts of the policy outlines definitions of terms that we as a society are still learning to use appropriately as we create an inclusive culture for all in the LGBTQ community.

a) Gender identity is each person’s sense of belonging to a particular gender, such as woman, man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum. Current science recognizes that gender identity is innate or fixed at a young age and strongly indicates that gender identity has a biological basis. A person’s gender identity may be the same as or different from their birth-assigned sex. When a person’s gender identity is different from that person’s birth-assigned sex, gender identity is determinative of that person’s sex.

b) Gender expression is how a person publicly presents their gender. This can include behavior and outward appearance such as dress, hair, make-up, body language and voice. A person’s chosen name and pronoun are also common ways of expressing gender.

c) Trans or transgender is a term that refers to a person whose gender identity, or affirmed sex, that is different from the sex they were assigned or assumed to be at birth.

Change happens slowly, but this is a big step for sports.

Chris Mosier, Vice President, Program Development & Community Relations for You Can Play put it best, “It comes down to respect – when we respect a player’s identity, name, and pronoun, we are creating a space where athletes can show up as their authentic self, allowing them to be better players, teammates, and leaders.”

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Jen Neale is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at or follow her on Twitter!