Sport should be open to everyone. Sporting competitions should be fair, and seen to be fair. Two simple goals that sound totally non-controversial, but which are at a centre of a storm that’s shaking apart the sporting world.
In general, sporting authorities are very keen on being trans-inclusive. It’s totally in keeping with their philosophy of what sport is for. They would like to find a way of enabling trans women to compete at all levels of women’s sport that is fair to cis women athletes. Meanwhile, they’re being bombarded by a clamour of voices saying that this fundamentally isn’t possible, that inclusion – even if they pay lip service to it as being an honourable goal – can only be achieved at the expense of women. A lot of this noise comes from a place that is trans hostile, but it can’t all be dismissed so easily.
There are some serious arguments here that deserve our consideration.
First, a call for a bit of perspective. For a cis sportswoman, the worst thing that could happen is that at some point in her career she’ll be beaten or have a record taken away by a trans athlete. As in any sport, if you lose, you dust yourself off to fight again another day. For trans sportswomen, on the other hand, this is existential. For them, the right to play sport without being discriminated against is life-enhancing. It gives a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, it can expand their social circle, and it’s much better for their mental health than being left out and feeling excluded.
Trans women athletes are not cheats. This is a common slander. They all transitioned to resolve their inner conflicts, not as a sporting career move, but because this was how they wanted to live their life. Risks and sacrifices are often involved: for Jamaican born CeCé Telfer, transitioning meant losing all support from her mother and her family. And what kind of a cheat would subject themselves to treatment that they knew would make their performance worse? (To make things even wilder, trans male athletes take performance-enhancing treatment in the form of testosterone, but few people have any problem with this.) In doing this, they followed all the rules set by the various sporting authorities.
Another argument that always comes up is that “no one’s saying that trans people can’t play sports, only that trans women can’t compete with women”. The fact is, such rules do exclude trans women from participating in sport in a way that’s safe and comfortable for them. It’s no accident that trans people tend to do fewer sports and physical activity than cis-gendered people. Sports are supposed to be about improving wellbeing, but it’s not going to help anyone’s wellbeing if they face being outed and othered, forced into spaces where they don’t belong, and potentially put at risk of harassment.
What does the science say?
In sport, people never really start from an equal footing. Many elite athletes are born with unusual physical characteristics which give them a competitive advantage: an obvious one being the height of basketball players. And that’s before we start factoring in things like social class, access to training, access to good equipment, and so on.
If we want to talk about threats to women’s sport then why not start with lack of access to funding, to prime TV coverage, and to the best coaching and equipment at all levels. And of course lower pay.
This said, I’ve got no problem with eligibility criteria for sport, as long as those criteria are proportionate, and there’s a genuine reason for them to exist. The new IOC framework says that eligibility criteria are justified
(a) When preventing any athlete within a category gaining an “unfair and disproportionate competitive advantage”
(b) When preventing a risk to the physical safety of other athletes, and
(c) Preventing athletes from entering a competition on the basis of a claimed gender identity that is different from that which they normally use.
A requirement that, at an absolute minimum, trans women be on hormonal treatment before entering any high-level women’s competitions seems entirely reasonable. Testosterone drives the improvement in male performance levels that we see in puberty. Suppressing testosterone in trans women tends to reduce their performance levels. But by how much?
Hormone treatment changes our bodies in some ways, but not in others. There is a small but not dramatic loss of muscle mass, and little or no loss of bone mass. There are very few published studies on how all this actually affects athletic performance. Of particular interest is Roberts, Smalley & Ahrendt (2021).
The authors of the study retrospectively analysed the service records of transgender men and women who began hormone treatment while serving in the US Air Force. The USAF requires personnel to undergo an annual physical fitness assessment. The study looked at how performance varied from the last assessment prior to taking hormones, through to 30 months after taking hormones; and also compared these with the average scores of cis servicemen and women. For numbers of push-ups and sit-ups in one minute, trans women retained some performance advantage over cis women after one year, but this had disappeared after two years. For the 1.5 mile run, the times of trans women got slower, but after 2 years they still significantly outperformed cis women.
According to the authors, these findings suggest that the rules for elite athletic competition should be changed, so as to require two years of testosterone suppression instead of one before trans women are allowed to compete.
Before anyone gets too excited about this: it’s just one study. Because it was retrospective, the testing wasn’t set up in a controlled way. The participants weren’t on the kind of training regimes that elite athletes are on, so we don’t know how that specialised training might affect the data. And crucially, the implications of the findings vary between different disciplines and event categories.
Dr Timothy Roberts, one of the study authors, explained in an interview why the report restricted its comments to elite sport: “At the elite level, having that little bit extra that comes from testosterone exposure probably matters. At the youth level or at the recreational sport level, it probably matters a lot less.”
Who sets the rules?
In dozens of American states, politicians have been trying to rewrite the rules governing transgender participation in sport. All claim that they have science on their side. The truth is that the campaigns aren’t driven by science. They’re driven by culture wars, transphobia, and vote chasing, and fed by a media that’s constantly trying to whip up sentiment against the tiny few out of thousands of transmen and women who’ve achieved a degree of high-level sporting success.
When lawmakers act to exclude trans women from women’s sport without a mandate to do so from sports governing bodies, and without compelling scientific evidence of the necessity for this, this is plain old fashioned discrimination. I applaud USA Cycling for having the courage to call this out –
“In light of recent discriminatory anti-transgender legislation in Arkansas and several other states where USA Cycling and UCI events are being held, USA Cycling wishes to reaffirm its position on the subject of inclusion in cycling events: the practice of sport should be available to everyone. USA Cycling is unequivocally opposed to any legislative efforts that aim to limit an athlete’s access to competition.“
Sports governing bodies themselves have an iniquitous past history when it comes to sex testing of athletes. The new framework document adopted by the IOC in 2021 seeks to learn the lessons from past mistakes. So they say now that the goals of inclusion and non-discrimination should be at the heart of any policy; that any sex testing should be non-invasive; and that athletes should never be pressured to undergo medically unnecessary treatment in order to meet eligibility criteria.
The new IOC framework doesn’t set any rules on eligibility. Instead, it leaves it up to each sport and the governing body to determine who can compete. It calls on them to make their determinations on the basis of the principles set out by the IOC, and on the basis of research-based evidence. This is fine on paper, but there’s an obvious difficulty. According to Joanne Harper, a prominent advocate for trans inclusion, “It is unreasonable to ask sporting federations to have robust, peer-reviewed research prior to placing any restrictions on transgender athletes in elite sports. Such research is years or maybe decades away from completion.”
For all the IOC’s highfalutin principles, their decision not to set any baseline rules is dangerous. It leaves the door open to sporting authorities to introduce more exclusionary measures. And I’m afraid that we’ll be seeing a lot of this in the coming years, as it’s an easy option, especially in the current political climate.
The UK is a case in point.
A few weeks earlier, UK Sports Councils had published new guidance on “Transgender Inclusion” which has made many transgender athletes very worried about being excluded. The Sports Councils had commissioned a review of the existing policy, which showed that many sports had policies against discrimination on the basis of gender; and also of published research, which came to the conclusion that parity couldn’t be achieved through limited periods of testosterone suppression.
The guidance puts the onus on the authorities for each sport to set their own priorities and to decide when and if trans women should be barred from competing with other women. Those that choose to exclude are given the green light, told that this is both legal and ethical. As an alternative to transgender inclusion, it suggests the creation of “open categories” in which athletes of any sex could compete.
This is a recipe for segregation.
It will sever social networks and stigmatise groups of athletes. And as trans footballer Nathalie Washington argues, how would it even work. “Practically speaking, where are we going to find 150 trans footballers in Hampshire or Wiltshire to participate in a league? There just isn’t the density of trans people. So what that means is those people will not be able to take part in the sport that they love.”
A foretaste – perhaps – of what’s to come is the new policy introduced by USA Swimming on February 1st 2022. The policy introduces new restrictions for elite competition (schools and colleges are still able to adopt a more inclusive approach unless of course state legislators or judges say that they can’t). Under the policy, trans women athletes seeking to compete in elite events must provide (a) evidence that testosterone has been reduced to required levels continuously for at least 36 months, and (b) evidence that they don’t have any residual competitive advantage over female competitors arising from male puberty, to the satisfaction of an independent Panel.
At the least, this guidance will make it very difficult for American trans women swimmers to compete in international competition in the future; and it doesn’t help either that it’s being introduced without warning, and with immediate effect. By putting the onus on athletes to produce evidence showing that they’re eligible, the policy contravenes the new IOC principles, which state that “unless evidence determines otherwise, athletes should not be deemed to have an unfair or disproportionate competitive advantage”. USA Swimming haven’t produced any new evidence to show that three years of hormone treatment is a reasonable requirement; or how performance in swimming is affected by hormone treatment.
This is a difficult subject on which fair-minded people may disagree. It’s not helpful to label anyone who supports more restrictive legislation a transphobe, any more than it is to label trans women athletes as cheats. There is too much heat and emotion generated whenever the subject comes up, and that needs to stop.
If you prevent trans women from competing as women without good cause, that’s discrimination, and in some circumstances, it may be unlawful. Laws for example that compel people to compete in the category according to their gender assigned at birth are clearly violations of human rights. USA Swimming though is on much more solid legal ground. While we may question their commitment to the IOC principles, they can reasonably argue that there’s a basis for what they’re doing because scientific studies tend to show that a significant competitive advantage persists even after a period of hormone treatment.
I don’t know whether the USA Swimming policy was shaped, as the press seems to think, by the level of concerns being raised about Lia Thomas. Her race times have been pored over by the media in much detail, but what conclusions should be drawn from them is still very much up for debate. Her times this season, as compared to three years ago before she started taking hormone therapy, are down by 2.6% for the 200 freestyle, 5.9% for the 500, 7.5% for the 1,000 and 7.2% for the 1,650. She’s higher in the women’s rankings than she used to be in the men’s rankings, but she’s not set any national records. And who’s to say how much training and motivation has played a part in making her more competitive.
No end to the controversy is in sight.
Getting better evidence, and a better understanding of the evidence, is of course important; but just as important as this is making the case for a genuinely inclusive approach that enables everyone to enhance their lives through sport, competing as their lived gender, while minimising any perceived unfairness.
© Linda Wall 2022