The Guardian • Issue #2062


Women, sport, and fairness

  • by AS
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2062
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In recent years the issue of trans participation in sport has become increasingly contentious. Sports governing bodies around the world have begun adopting policies that limit or outright deny trans people from participating in sport. Most often the controversy is in regards to Trans women but Trans men are also frequently denied the ability to compete in accordance with their gender identity. In 2022 World Aquatics, the peak international swimming federation, adopted a policy that prohibits trans women from competing in women’s professional swimming unless they can prove they have not gone through male puberty. World Rugby introduced a similar policy in 2020 citing the potential for increased risk of injury for cis woman athletes when tackled by trans women. (Cis refers to someone having same gender as identified at birth.) In addition, the rules require any trans man who seeks to compete in the male category to confirm they have the appropriate physical ability to compete without unacceptable risk. What this confirmation involves is not specified.

When it comes to trans women, the typical justification for exclusion is that they would have an unfair advantage over their cis counterparts. I will address each of these arguments in turn.

While its true that people who have experienced male puberty do have a significant advantage, it is important to think about the actual causes of this advantage. The physiological effects of male puberty such as increased strength and height as well as bone structure undoubtedly contribute to the 10 per cent difference in performance. However, little attention is paid to the sociological differences that could account for some of the difference. Society places more emphasis on male sporting achievement and provides more funding for men’s sport. Most people who experience male puberty will benefit from this regardless of their future gender identity. A longitudinal study of Australian children shows that 9-year-old boys still have a significant advantage in athletic performance despite not experiencing puberty. This indicates that socialisation may provide more of an advantage than is commonly assumed.

Critics of trans inclusion in competition will often argue the hormone replacement therapy that trans women undergo does not have a significant effect and cannot change things such as bone structure or lung capacity. These critics often ignore the changes to do occur as a result of the absence of testosterone such as decreased muscle mass, decreased blood oxygen, decreased endurance, and decreased ability to recovery from injury. All of these changes must surely make up a significant portion of the 10 per cent difference between male and female athletic performance. This is generally acknowledged in the reverse in which athletes who take synthetic testosterone as a performance enhancing drug are deemed to have an unfair advantage. Are we to believe that the absence of the same substance will not significantly worsen performance?

For these reasons it is likely that the performance gap between trans and cis women is less than 10 per cent. However, proponents of exclusion would argue that any difference constitutes an unfair advantage and point to things like height and bone structure as characteristics that remain the same with hormone replacement therapy. The problem with this is that these characteristics are “gendered” when it comes to trans women but neutral when applied to cis women. For example, no one disputes that people who have gone through male puberty are on average taller than people who have not, but when this is applied to individuals, tall trans women are considered to have an unfair advantage whereas someone like Cate Campbell at 6’1” is just lucky. The reality is that every sex-based characteristic exists on a continuum and most elite female athletes are in some way more “male-like” than the average woman. This is rarely considered unfair. Elite sport is not fair to begin with. In the west, elite athletes are genetic freaks who get massive amounts of funding and support from their country’s sporting organisations, compared with the limited resources athletes from developing countries receive. This is of course never considered unfair but a trans woman winning a race always is. “Fairness” is often understood based on the existing power structures of our world.

In the past when I have discussed trans participation in sport with people opposed to it once they run out of arguments about fairness it has been my experience that they say that the inclusion of trans people would destroy women’s sport. To this I typically ask why. Why can’t trans women win? Why would that destroy women’s sport? Invariably, they have to sheepishly admit they don’t consider trans women to be fully women.

This issue did not come from nowhere. When same-sex marriage was legalised in the US, reactionary Christian organisations began trying to reverse it. They needed a wedge issue to re-litigate LGBT rights. They understood that directly attacking trans people would likely backfire and create sympathy, so instead they focused on a niche issue the wider public lacks understanding of. These organisations understood that if you can put an asterisk next to trans women’s womanhood in one arena, that it provides an entryway for further attacks on their rights. So it is that many of the states that put limitations on trans participation in sport have now passed bans on trans healthcare. Some states are beginning to attack gay rights as well.

One of the most frustrating things about this debate is that although the focus on science and the degree to which an advantage exists is important, very little time is spend engaging with trans people to understand our concerns. Obviously, I can’t speak for all trans women but the most important issues for me are that trans women are never called men or implied to be men, that trans women have a fair go to compete, and that trans women do not experience any discrimination or prejudice. I think one way that this could be achieved is if we got rid of gender-based categories and instead created categories based on athlete physiology. It of course would not be a perfect system but it would be much preferable to our current one.

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