If there is one controversial topic even within the TransLucent leadership, it is the issue of trans women competing in the female category of sport. So, to be clear, this article is very much “personal” and not our organisation’s policy.
Before my discussion at the University of New England in Maine with Carole Hooven, PhD earlier this month, I thought testosterone-suppressed trans women athletes with potential puberty advantage should not compete with females in elite sports. However, before the discussion with Carole, I did considerable research and even received advice from double Olympic Champion Dame Kelly Holmes OBE.
After my research, I changed my mind.
To be clear, in the UK, the toxicity of the “trans women in sport debate” has been driven by the UK press and, in particular, the Daily Mail, which has a long history of causing outrage, hate and division, often in support of the far-right.
In January 2023, the Daily Mail published an incredible 115 transphobic stories about trans people and last year castigated Lia Thomas because of her solitary win at the NCAA Championships, even though her winning time would not have won her the title in six of the seven previous Championships – and three fifteen and sixteen-year-old cisgender girls swam several seconds faster than Lia in subsequent events.
The Daily Mail was also at the forefront of slandering trans British cyclist Emily Bridges. Emily abided by all the rules but, at the last minute, was cruelly robbed of the chance to compete for Wales at the Commonwealth Games in the cycling omnium event. The omnium consists of four different races and is designed to find the best ‘all-round’ cyclist. It requires many different skills, including being able to “read the race”, and balance, together with rotational and core stability.
Sadly, because of all the media-driven hate, I believe trying to convince the British public that trans women should be able to compete in the female category of elite sports is invariably not “doable”, even though it is, in my opinion, a violation of human rights. Consequently, we must find new ways how trans women can compete with public opinion onboard.
For various reasons, I believe it is important for trans people to be able to participate. It’s not just the mental health benefits, which are well proven, but it can also be a safe space, possibly amongst other LGBT+ athletes, challenging stereotypes and increasing trans visibility.
The issue concerning trans women’s participation is that natal females also have human rights, so there is a conflict. However, the “fairness” issue in sports is debatable – because, for starters, how do we “measure” what is fair? Moreover, most sports have different physical and mental requirements.
In relation to trans women participating in elite women’s sports, we often examine biology, which is also controversial. Both “sides” in this debate claim and counterclaim that the other side’s science is flawed, inappropriate or biased. Break it all down, though, and the fact is just three research programmes have included trans women athletes, with none showing any significant advantage for trans women.
I asked Bing AI the question of why it’s controversial and got this answer:
It is controversial because some people argue that transgender women and girls have an unfair advantage over cisgender women and girls in sports due to factors such as muscle mass, bone density, testosterone levels, and height. Others argue that these factors are not conclusive or consistent and that transgender women and girls face discrimination and exclusion from sport. There is no consensus on how to balance the rights and interests of all athletes.
The trans inclusionary advocates will point to the lack of success of trans women athletes in elite competition over many years of participation, while their opponents will counter, naming the few successful trans athletes saying these are the “tip of an iceberg” and that women’s sport “will be decimated” unless trans women are blanket banned from women’s sports. In reality, the number of trans women in the highest echelon of major sports is exactly zero, none, zilch – so one must wonder why all the fuss unless, of course, the discourse is designed to create transphobia and hate.
Indeed, some transphobic hate groups have successfully intervened and achieved just that – along with a blanket ban of testosterone-suppressed trans women from competing in women’s sports, the most prominent being in Rugby – allegedly a “sport for all” irrespective of body shape and size. Invariably within Rugby, the lightest and most agile player is often half the weight of some of their teammates.
As an organisation, TransLucent has never named an adversary a hate group. Still, we have asked questions regarding one organisation, Fair Play for Women, and indeed, there are many other groups and personalities where questions should be asked. The critical denominator in ascertaining hate is likely just two words “obvious prejudice”.
Others may take a similar tact but not be transphobic, saying, “sex is real”. However, they may not appreciate that to trans people; sex is a highly sensitive subject that has ruined trans people’s lives, mine included. Our gender is our personal belief to our rightful sex.
Biological sex is real, but it can also be argued that being trans is a biological issue. If not, why does hormone therapy work? And there is also the matter of ‘psychological sex’, which is linked to gender identity. Ultimately, we have no significant knowledge about psychological sex, which has no bearing on a sport other than creating a human right.
However, biological sex, not gender, is the denominating factor, why some 70,000 women get raped in the UK every year, why girls in several countries suffer female genital mutilation and why one in ten females is aborted in India because of their sex. By 2030 it is estimated that up to 6.8 million girls in India will have lost their chance of life simply by being a biological female. Biological sex is a root cause of female oppression, something I can only ally too, given my oppression was different – gender dysphoria is far from being fun.
Perhaps both sides in the trans women in women’s sports debate need to appreciate that all winners in every sport have advantages over all competitors and that advantages come in numerous formats; it is not all about biology.
These include- natural ability, equipment, endurance, birthplace, school, university, training facilities, ethnicity, training location, nutrition, coaches, sleep, tactical awareness, vision, dedication, determination, medical care, luck, experience, skill, strength, speed, practice, natural testosterone levels (together with resistor performance) and mentality are just some. Moreover, it is very clear that women with PCOS do have an advantage when competing in sports, but this is conveniently swept under the carpet. One study showed that 37% of the Swedish women’s Olympic team had PCOS, four times higher than would be expected. Additionally, in some sports, any post-puberty advantage may not matter.
The opponents of trans women competing with natal females have mooted that “Open” categories could include trans women and athletes with DSD. We should consider that there are currently significantly more international DSD athletes, especially from Africa and Asia, than elite-level trans women athletes. These women are also often excluded.
The problem with the Open category proposal is it would consist of men with much higher testosterone levels than testosterone-suppressed trans women athletes, likely resulting in a performance difference of around 10% to 25% depending on sport and event, in comparison with trans women and DSD athletes.
In short, men would always win.
When trans women compete in sports at any level, the question of safety is essential, and I do feel other competitors in potential contact sports should have a voice. Still, we now find trans women being effectively banned in non-contact sports such as swimming and, worse still, diving, an event where both sexes could easily compete together.
Reasonable stakeholders (but are there any?) would agree that more scientific research is required – but that needs to be completed on elite trans women athletes in competition, and if they are banned, how can that be achieved? And more to the point, how long would the research take? Given the handful of trans women athletes, it would likely take decades.
One way would be for trans women and DSD athletes to participate in events without being conventionally awarded a medal. For example, a trans woman or DSD athlete could be third in a 400m race, but the natal female in fourth place be awarded the bronze medal. The trans and DSD athletes would also be awarded a bronze medal, possibly in a separate ceremony to celebrate diversity.
I suspect the public would view this idea as both fair and, more importantly, celebrate rather than castigate athletes with DSD and trans women, as happened to Lia Thomas and, to a lesser extent DSD athlete Caster Semenya. The objectors to this idea would argue a trans woman was taking a women’s place, but trans men are usually allowed to compete with men, so swapping places is fair.
Regarding team sports, it should be for sports federations and, more importantly, the players to decide, and concerning Rugby, it would appear most natal female players are happy to play with trans women.
Where possible, fully inclusive track and road events should also be created. These would incorporate men, women, trans people, those with DSD and those with impairments and disabilities. These would be handicapped events based on the athlete’s previous results and times, with the slowest athletes starting first. While this idea may not be possible in shorter-distance races, it is possible with middle and long-distance events.
People should not be excluded because of ‘who they are’.
Sport’s governing bodies need to look at new ways in which those who don’t meet the conventional qualifying criteria can be included – because just now, it is evident that science can’t provide the answers.
Ultimately, sport is a human right ….for everyone.
Authored by Steph Richards