Ever wondered how women’s sport got into this mess with transgender inclusion? How did a blatantly unfair policy come about and why has it persisted for so long? Feminist Helen Saxby explains all in this guest post.
In 2015 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) published new guidelines for transgender inclusion in sport, which greatly reduced the previous barriers to males competing in female competition. Former athlete Joanna Harper who, according to the report ‘happens to be trans’, was a major voice in the decision making process, presenting evidence to the committee based on a study of just eight trans athletes. On the strength of this flawed evidence the IOC banished the requirement for sex reassignment surgery and two years of lowered testosterone. Instead, a man could now simply declare his ‘gender identity’ was that of a woman and reduce his testosterone level to 10 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) for a period of one year before competing. The new guidelines came too late to have any impact on the Rio Olympics of 2016, but made the headlines in 2018 when the Commonwealth Games were held on the Gold Coast.
The controversy surrounded a transgender weightlifter called Laurel Hubbard, a male representing New Zealand in the women’s super-heavyweight category, who had previously won two silver medals at the World Championships in 2017. Hubbard failed in the end to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games, due to injury, but the publicity had served to highlight the IOC’s decision-making processes and prompt some criticism and investigation.
The realisation that there was no representation of the rights of female athletes anywhere in the IOC’s process was shocking to many women.
In March 2018 I attended a meeting in Brighton entitled ‘Beyond Fairness: the biology of inclusion for transgender and intersex athletes.’ The meeting was organised by Professor Yannis Pitsiladis of Brighton University, and it platformed Joanna Harper as guest speaker. I wrote about this meeting here and detailed the unevidenced and biased presentation which so angered the group of feminists with whom I attended. The pushback at that meeting, and in subsequent correspondence with Professor Pitsiladis, seemed to represent the first time there had been any direct criticism of Harper’s inadequate evidential influence, because it clearly came as a shock.
The following month it was reported in the Sunday Times and in Pink News that the IOC had halved its testosterone recommendation in a move which would restrict trans inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Joanna Harper claimed some credit for this change to the rules, although a trusted source told us it came about as a direct result of the unexpected backlash at the Brighton meeting. Despite the feeling that a small difference had been made, the result was actually a little meaningless. The normal range of testosterone for females is less than 2nmol/L so the new limit of 5nmol/L for males was still much too high, as well as ignoring the lasting benefits of going through male puberty. It was all beginning to look a little arbitrary.
In 2019 World Athletics (then known as the International Association of Athletics Federations or IAAF) held a meeting on trans inclusion, which was attended by Dr Nicola Williams of Fair Play For Women.
In a hostile environment she proved to be a lone voice speaking on behalf of women’s sports.
The IAAF then published a press release on transgender eligibility in sport, in which they recommended the new lower level of testosterone as a starting point for individual sports to research and draft their own rules. It was almost as if the buck had been passed by the IOC to the IAAF who had then passed it on to the individual sports federations. Fair Play For Women issued a response to the statement, welcoming the commitment to looking at scientific evidence and formulating fair policies.
That same year saw the voices of some top elite athletes join the debate. Women like Martina Navratilova in the US and Sharron Davies in the UK helped to raise awareness of the unfair burden of ‘inclusion’ on women in sport. The abuse they were subjected to in return was a lesson to any woman currently competing of what might be at stake if they spoke up. It was instructive that to begin with it was only women already retired from their sport who felt able to stick their heads above the parapet. In July 2019 Woman’s Place UK and Fair Play For Women held a joint meeting in London called ‘A Woman’s Place is on the Podium’ which dealt specifically with the subject of a level playing field for women in sport. The speakers were Nicola Williams, Sharron Davies, Victoria Hood and Emma Hilton. In the audience was Daley Thompson, one of the first male athletes to speak up in support of women’s sports.
In September that year Fair Play For Women wrote a letter to the IOC and Sharron Davies organised the signatures of sixty top athletes and scientists, urging a suspension of the transgender guidelines in the light of new scientific evidence, until more evidence had been gathered.
In February 2020 World Rugby took the initiative of organising a workshop to look closely at all the evidence available regarding the biological differences between males and females and the potential effect on sporting achievement.
It was the largest (and to date, only) conference of its kind, taking into account as it did scientific, medical, legal, social and ethical considerations. As such there were representatives from women’s interests (Fair Play For Women) and trans interests (Gendered Intelligence). A trans scientist (Joanna Harper) was matched by a female scientist (Dr Emma Hilton) and evidence was heard from neutral experts in all the relevant fields. World Rugby produced its report in October 2020 and the results were unequivocal: the advantages conferred by male puberty present a risk to safety and fairness for women which are hardly reduced by any hormone treatment in transition. It would be neither fair nor safe to allow male athletes to compete against female athletes, whatever their gender identity. Fair Play For Women wrote a considered response to the draft guidelines. Joanna Harper was interviewed by Outsports and was slightly less considered:
“Well, frankly, I think they had their minds made up, before they called the meeting,” Harper said.
The trans lobby groups (notably Stonewall in the UK and ACLU and Outsports in the US) went into overdrive in their condemnation of World Rugby and the alleged ‘banning of trans people from sport’. Despite the evidence showing 20-30% greater risk of serious injury to women in contact sports, our largest LGBT charity encouraged rugby unions across the world to ignore the guidelines, and England Rugby did just that. Their transgender policy stipulates the lower level of testosterone (5 nmol/L) but does not take into account that it is a testosterone-driven puberty which is responsible for the disparity between males and females, and it completely ignores the safety implications. It seemed it was perfectly acceptable for trans groups and supporters to treat women as collateral damage in the quest for trans ‘inclusion’.
In March 2020 the IOC put out a statement to say that new guidelines for transgender inclusion would be made available after the Tokyo games. Due to the Covid 19 restrictions and the subsequent postponement of the games these new guidelines have been delayed by a year. The statement said the IOC had listened to ‘hundreds of athletes, doctors and human rights experts’ but the efforts of women’s groups in the UK and around the world, as well as scientists and female athletes and coaches, meant that this time there was much more evidence of conflicting rights which could not be so easily resolved or ignored. It was reported by the Guardian that the draft guidelines, in which the testosterone levels were supposed to be halved, were now to be shelved, with responsibility being passed on to individual sporting bodies to make their own rules.
In December 2020 a paper was published by Hilton and Lundberg which presented comprehensive scientific evidence of male performance advantage:
“These data overwhelmingly confirm that testosterone-driven puberty, as the driving force of development of male secondary sex characteristics, underpins sporting advantages that are so large no female could reasonably hope to succeed without sex segregation in most sporting competitions.”
New research by our old friend Joanna Harper conceded that a sporting advantage was retained by males identifying as trans, even after three years of hormone therapy. Interviewed about this evidence Harper was predictably reluctant to draw any firm conclusions.
In May 2021 Fair Play For Women wrote to World Athletics to put the case for the new scientific evidence, as a contribution to their ‘global conversation’ about the future of their sport.
The Tokyo Olympics was finally given the go-ahead for July 2021 and Laurel Hubbard qualified to represent New Zealand in the women’s super-heavyweight weightlifting competition. In a statement which perfectly illustrates the fact that consulting ‘human rights experts’ no longer necessarily means you have consulted ‘women’s rights experts’, the IOC publicly praised Hubbard’s ‘courage and tenacity’ and proclaimed that everyone knows that ‘transwomen are women’. The tone of the IOC’s medical and science director, Richard Budgett, came across as annoyed and irritated that things had become so unnecessarily complicated:
“To put it in a nutshell, the IOC had a scientific consensus back in 2015,” he said.
It’s easy to get a scientific consensus of course when you don’t invite any dissenting voices to the table. It seems that the success of women in the last few years in defending women’s sports may have a direct correlation to just exactly how irritated the medical and science director of the IOC appears to be.
A further report from the Guardian’s Sean Ingle brought an admission from the IOC that the trans guidelines are not fit for purpose. Far from admitting that the science was lacking, however, once again Budgett made his own bias absolutely clear:
“There is some research, but it depends on whether you are coming from the view of inclusion as the first priority or absolute fairness to the nth degree being the priority,” he said. “If you don’t want to take any risks at all that anyone might have an advantage, then you just stop everybody. If you are prepared to extrapolate from the evidence there is, and consider the fact the have been no openly transgender women at the top level until now, I think the threat to women’s sport has probably been overstated.”
This seems to be an astonishingly entry-level statement from someone who has purportedly been examining the evidence since 2015.
The IOC 2015 trans guidelines were introduced very quickly, with totally inadequate ‘evidence’, behind closed doors. These guidelines have allowed a male weightlifter in 2021 to take the opportunity of a lifetime away from a female competitor. One missed opportunity for a woman is one too many when the way to keep competition fair is blindingly obvious to almost everyone who looks.
It is frustrating to hear the IOC complain about the complexity and difficulty of the decisions which have to be made in order to take into account fairness for everybody.
The subtext here is that it was clearly so much simpler when they didn’t have to listen to women. There were already rules in place which protected women’s sports of course: reserve women’s sports for females. The onus should have been on trans advocates to prove that any changes would not disadvantage an already disadvantaged group, and this proof should have been mandatory before any changes were made. It should not have been up to women to try and roll back a done deal, achieved without their participation.
Many women have been vilified, smeared and attacked for standing up for female athletes and defending the rights of women to compete on a level playing field. The IOC have had years to take a considered look at all the evidence and to come to a decision which would protect the rights of everyone. They might have started this process earlier if they had not wasted so much energy fending off women, and they might have sounded less confused about the whole thing if they had approached all the evidence right from the start in good faith and with an open mind.
It should have been completely unnecessary for women to have to fight this battle, in which we are being forced to reinvent the wheel. The Tokyo Olympics has brought a whole new audience to the issue and the IOC will be held to account if they don’t get it right this time.
by Helen Saxby
On Twitter: @helensaxby11