In the past year Fair Play For Women have met with more than fifty sport governing bodies, mostly in the UK, plus a few world federations, about their transgender inclusion policies. It’s now beyond question that those are incompatible with fairness in female sport. A handful have published revised policies, as detailed below. Many more are reviewing theirs. But it’s been fifteen months since that guidance came out, and still most sports in the UK allow males who say they are women to participate and compete in female sport at all levels. Here’s what’s going on.
The first battle is to get their attention
After the Sports Council Equality Group (SCEG) published its new guidance in September 2021, we emailed the many organisations which make the rules on sport in the UK. We wanted to know how they planned to respond to the new guidance, since it said clearly that allowing people into the sex category of their choice was incompatible with fairness in female sport. Most needed multiple emails before responding. Some did not reply at all. Through sheer persistence we were able to set up meetings, mostly online.
Who’s making the decisions?
We emailed chief executives, chairs and safeguarding leads. When a chief executive agreed to meet with us, with or without colleagues present, these were generally constructive and engaged conversations. Some chief executives delegated to a head of policy, governance or safeguarding, and these also tended to be useful meetings. Those where we were passed on to an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) person were the least constructive. In every case, policies are then referred to the board for approval. In a few cases they go to an AGM or a council for a final vote. Smaller sports tend to make faster decisions, with some of the largest sports moving very slowly.
Is this a problem of men making decisions about female sport?
Our experience is that role and experience are much more significant that whether the decision-maker is male or female. The SCEG project report bears this out, describing two sorts of people, those immersed in sport and those focused on equality, diversity and inclusion or social justice. The original policies for male transgender inclusion in female sport at the IOC back in 2003 were made by men, it’s true, but we see females, particularly in EDI roles, advocating for transgender inclusion in female sport and that women just need to accept it, while we have seen some men take a strong stand for fairness in female sport.
The SCEG guidance prompted governing bodies to see that this policy area is one in which women need to be consulted too, rather than only those representing trans interests, as was the case until now. But within sports, we see sportswomen still afraid to object. Some female athletes are in favour, particularly those in universities, while those against are silenced or silence themselves. Male athletes across the board tend to see the unfairness but seldom comment. Some men are indifferent, since they are unaffected, while others feel it is not their place to get involved.
What are the issues?
It is now widely accepted that testosterone suppression does not remove the male performance advantage gained at puberty. No one argues that it is a level playing field. Instead, there is an implicit acceptance that the claimed identity of trans-identifying people is relevant in sport and that some compromise must be found to enable them to play as they identify. The impact on fairness in female sport seems to be a secondary consideration.
Chief executives are the most likely to recognise that the old policies are unfair and need to be revised. They set the tone, so their lead is vital. But there are all sorts of concerns about how to move away from policies that have been in place for some years.
Despite their job title, EDI people seem wedded to the inclusion of trans-identifying people with no interest in the possible impact on or exclusion of women and girls. It’s as if they can only consider one group at a time. These people seemed less open-minded to any consideration that there were conflicting needs to be weighed up. A few were highly critical of Fair Play For Women for raising the issues, using words like “scaremongering” and “harmful”.
The common thread is that women and girls seem to come last. There is an expectation that we can tolerate some unfairness for the sake of another group, trans-identifying males. There is also fear about making a change. The glacial pace of these policy reviews is in sharp contrast to the cavalier manner in which they were created in 2013-16. Trans groups only were consulted and testosterone suppression policies adopted without evidence they worked and without a mechanism to monitor them. Now that there is clear evidence that testosterone suppression does not work, some people are arguing that we need more evidence, especially at elite levels. Here’s why that will never work. and here’s why it’s a nonsense argument. Others are suggesting the complete opposite, that we need fairness at elite levels but can be more “inclusive” elsewhere. That is simply saying male inclusion is unfair but they lack the courage to address it across the board. This distinction between elite and grass roots is arbitrary and impossible to determine. We aim to show that fairness has to be at all levels. Women and girls in grassroots sport deserve fairness just as much as anyone else in sport. Without that, the performance pathway to elite women’s sport will not exist.
Progress so far
British Triathlon conducted a rigorous and transparent process, consulting formally with a range of stakeholders including Fair Play For Women and arriving at a sex-based policy with two categories of competition, Open and Female. This is one of the options suggested in the SCEG guidance, as it ensures there is a place for everyone. The Open category does not require any declaration of sex or gender identity, so anyone can participate without restriction. Female is the protected category for those who have not benefited from male puberty.
The RFU, WRU and IRFU, which govern English, Welsh and Irish rugby union, all finally followed their international federation, World Rugby, in reverting to sex-based teams. Scottish Rugby has yet to do so. Rugby League in the UK changed its policy in line with rugby union and with its own international federation. All of these did so on safety grounds, though of course whatever makes it unsafe also makes it unfair.
Other NGBs which have reverted to a policy based on sex rather than gender identity include England Volleyball and British Ski and Wakeboard. Others such as British Rowing have issued a revised version of their existing policy based on testosterone suppression, with tighter limits. On first glance this looks like a step in the right direction, but it solves none of the problems of the previous policy: male advantage remains, and in practice there is no ability to check compliance, so it is in effect a self-identification policy. Its approach to juniors and to “non-binary” is also utterly mind-boggling. The England and Wales Cricket Board has an explicit self-ID policy. A year ago we sent them evidence of concern and problems with this policy from their own players, coaches and parents of junior players, and discussed it with them. The policy remains, and now the ECB is refusing to engage with Fair Play For Women at all.
The largest participation sports in the UK, swimming, athletics, cycling and football, are conducting policy reviews, which seem to be taking many months. Some other NGBs have told us they are initiating policy reviews in 2023. They are in no hurry to restore fairness in female sport, it seems.
The international scene
World Rugby adopted sex-based teams in 2020 after its careful review. International Rugby Football League followed suit this summer, along with UK’s Rugby Football League. The boldest move was by FINA, the international governing body of swimming, after the Lia Thomas debacle in the USA. Thomas had made noises about competing in the Olympics for the USA. While there were hundreds of faster swimmers in the USA alone, Thomas, a male, was a credible contender if allowed to compete against women. In June FINA issued a new policy which does not permit anyone who has been through male puberty to compete in women’s events, ending Thomas’s chances of an international swimming debut.
The UK had its own Lia Thomas in Emily Bridges, the Welsh male cyclist, a British record-holder as a junior, who sought selection for the Wales women’s team in the 2022 Commonwealth Games. This prompted a significant backlash, and British Cycling suspended its rules so that Bridges was not able to replace a racing licence that said Male with one that said Female. This has not stopped other male cyclists who already had Female race licences from racing and winning in UK events. In response to Bridges, the international governing body for cycling, UCI, issued a new policy requiring testosterone suppression to a lower level and for a longer time – 2.5 nmol/L for 24 months instead of the previous 5 nMol for 12 months. Like the British Rowing policy, this recognises that testosterone plays a role in male performance advantage, but like that policy it focuses on circulating testosterone in adult males instead of recognising the irreversible changes wrought on the male body by testosterone-fuelled processes during puberty, as the FINA policy does. It is likely that Bridges will meet the new threshold in early 2023.
We are working with other campaign groups around the world, pooling our knowledge and collaborating on specific sports. The International Consortium on Female Sport is launching in January 2023, with Fair Play For Women as a founding member.
How is this affecting female sport?
Some NGBS will say there is no problem in their sport, or that there are only a few trans players so it’s ok. But Fair Play For Women has been contacted by dozens of women across many different sports telling us how one trans-identifying male affects them, sometimes affecting their whole team. In our conversations with NGBs we point out this disparity. Since most of them are not tracking trans players and there is a climate of fear around mentioning it, NGBs simply don’t know how many there are or the effect they may be having. We have heard of a whole team pushed out of their league for deciding that their team would be female only. We have worked to get some understanding of this into the media, as well as reporting it to the NGBs. If people are driven by sympathy for trans players, we want them to have some of the same concern for women and girls who are losing their opportunities for fair sport.
When will people speak up?
The SCEG project report describes the climate of fear around this topic. We have spoken to current Olympians who are afraid to say what they believe, that it is not fair to allow males into their competitions. The SCEG guidance should have made it easier for them to say this, but the fear of losing sponsors or being labelled bigoted remains. We will continue to speak on their behalf.
Why are we still talking about testosterone suppression?
Testosterone suppression is discredited but it will not go away. There are too many vested interests in defending it. Those who are determined to allow males who claim to be women into female sport see it as the “fair” way to do so. Others are making a career out of studying it. World Athletics has its own reason, the defence of its CAS ruling against the DSD runner Caster Semenya. This is influencing many other international federations and giving a false legitimacy to testosterone suppression as a leveller. NGBs, afraid of being sued, point to their international federation to justify their own failure to respond to the UK’s SCEG guidance.
What happens next?
2023 will see new or revised policies from UK and international federations. The big question is who gets sued, and by whom? World Rugby’s policy is two years old now and they have not been sued, but as it is safety-based rather than fairness other federations may not find this sufficiently reassuring. If FINA is not sued for its sex-based policy, or if it is sued and wins, others may find courage. But winning takes time and money. World Athletics has spent perhaps a million pounds on its court cases over the years, and they’re not done yet. Semenya is now taking them to the European Court of Human Rights. Hence NGBs prefer to avoid legal action even if their case is strong. It was legal action by trans-identifying males, in Europe and in Canada, that prompted sports bodies to create transgender inclusion rules. Until NGBs and International Federations are forced to weigh up the risks of legal action from females, they may continue to prioritise transgender demands.
What can you do?
You can make a difference, by raising awareness of the problem, and by making it clear that women do not accept the compromise to fairness that has been forced on us. Write to the people who govern your sport – or your children’s – and to your MP.
Sport timeline: how did we get here?