There has been a great deal of attention paid recently to the subject of trans people competing in elite sport, triggered by the change in the International Olympic Committee’s rules around eligibility, and more recently the news that two trans women could compete for Team GB in Rio later this summer.

Alas, any talk of trans people (particularly trans women) in sport inevitably unleashes an extremely unsightly torrent of transmisogyny – indeed, usually allied to a fair dollop of good old fashioned misogyny too.  Women’s sport has always been followed around by more than its fair share of wonderfully erudite commentators making jokes about East German shotputters, and the racist, misogynist diatribes directed at successful elite athletes such as Serena Williams are straight out of the 19th century.

The announcement earlier this month that two trans women could be named in Team GB for this year’s Olympics was greeted with similar disdain.  British newspapers (who don’t have a particularly enviable record for treating transgender people with much respect) quickly latched onto the story, and although they mostly pulled their punches, the commentariat did not.  Indeed, there was disturbingly little sympathy from even the transgender community, as the BBC interviewed a few trans women at Sparkle last weekend, obtaining some ‘great’ quotes such as “men are just stronger than women”.

Of course, trans people in elite sport is nothing new – it’s just that previously, they have not come out until they’ve finished competing.  Aside from Caitlyn Jenner, of course, we have Balian Buschbaum (an Olympian, no less) and Andreas Krieger, and many more in various sports (CN for some problematic language in that link).  Still competing, we have Chris Mosier, a US athlete, is also hoping to compete in the Olympic Games.

We are told that these two British women have been around & competing in their sports for some time, and transitioned a long time ago.  It seems that there has been no controversy up to now, so why the sudden problem?  This highlights an issue in the governance of gender in sport.  Allow me to be frank – trans people are already competing as their real genders, in all sorts of sport, all over the world.  The fact is, they just aren’t telling people.  Because, you know, we’re everywhere.  It’s just that quite often you have no idea they’re trans & so for the lucky ones who pass as cis, participating whilst not disclosing is an option.  Given the incredible lengths sporting bodies make us go to in order to obtain official dispensation to compete at even the lowest levels of sport, it’s no wonder that people just do it in stealth.  Why should you stop participating for 3 or 4 years and undergo invasive testing and questioning, just to come 17th in the odd club run or swim event, in which there are no prizes and you have to pay to compete?

Three women playing football, one of whom is trans

Trans people are often barred from even entry level sport

Once we get to the higher echelons of sport, there’s a sensible imperative to ‘do it properly’, as the potential rewards are higher, and the competition is serious.  This makes sense given the science we have at our disposal at the moment, as a level playing field is of course in the interests of everyone, trans or cis. The ‘health & safety’ arguments, however, are grossly offensive, and fall down as soon as you realise that generally organisations are quite happy for a trans man who is not on testosterone to compete with cis men, but not for a trans woman who IS on HRT to compete with cis women.

The science has long been telling us that there isn’t some automatic, inbuilt biological sporting advantage that being a trans woman gives us over a cis woman.  What there is, of course, is a possible series of advantages that could just as easily exist for a cis woman, but that become socially unacceptable when enjoyed by a trans woman.  For example, me being 6ft 1 is unfair because of my assigned gender at birth.  If another woman playing for my football team is 6ft 1, she is just tall.  The other day, I got into an argument about what would happen if Usain Bolt came out as trans and transitioned.  My answer was that he’d lose 3 years of his career, and then afterwards (assuming he wasn’t then too old), there is every chance that he might win in women’s sport, because – guess what – he’s pretty good at running, and someone who is that good at running might well win even after transition!  That’s not an unfair advantage, that’s just how sport works.  At the elite level, they ALL have inbuilt biological advantages, that’s why they are elite athletes.

What sport needs to do now, as a matter of urgency, is decide how it wants to structure itself for the future.  Research is increasingly confirming that sex is not as binary as society has always wanted to believe, something that sporting governing bodies have been running away from for too long & must now face.  The over-representation of intersex women at the sharp end of competitive sport suggests that there is something still to be understood about the nature of sporting advantage, so whilst we must continue to research, we must also deal with the here & now and shape policy based on our current knowledge.  This is what the IOC have done, and it’s crucial that national associations and bodies adopt this as soon as possible.  What we cannot do is continue to bar people from their loves & livelihoods on the basis of prejudice about what it is to be a man or a woman, and the sooner we see an end to the sort of dreadful treatment meted out to women like Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand, the better. 

To compound matters. the current organisation of sport is also almost completely exclusive of non-binary identities, or of people who cannot or do not wish to medically transition.  We must find ways for all people to participate.  For the vast majority of us, sport is something we just want to play for fun.  We’re not professionals, we’re not going to the Olympics – we just want to have a kickabout or a round of golf and not have to provide years of blood tests and descriptions of our genitalia to officials who have more important things to worry about.


Read part 2 of this article, about the physiology of inclusion in sport


by Natalie Washington (@transsomething)

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