Which way for UK sport?
UK sports governing bodies are currently torn between two diametrically opposed positions on transgender inclusion. In September 2021 the UK sports establishment took a bold step towards restoring fairness for women and girls, when the UK Sports Council Equality Group (SCEG) launched revised guidance on transgender inclusion in sport. As expected, it clearly states what we’ve always known: testosterone suppression doesn’t make it fair for males to play and compete with females. The real route to making sport more inclusive is Open and Female.
But only a few weeks later, the IOC headed in the opposite direction with its long-awaited statement, for which we had also been consulted. It’s a miserable failure, suggesting there should be no presumption of performance advantage between the sexes. Perhaps not really believing its own statement, it suggests a third way: that each sport should make its own trans inclusion rule.
World Athletics is doing just that, leading a group of international sports federations (IFs) developing their own policy. But its priority is to keep male DSD athletes out of elite female competition, with trans policy along for the ride. Fair Play For Women spoke up for women when this group met in 2019, but were not invited when they reconvened in 2021. Trans athletes were represented by Joanna Harper, a transgender academic whose ongoing PhD studying the effects of testosterone suppression on transitioning male athletes is funded by the IOC. (This has its own problems.) The IFs group is expected to release a statement shortly confirming that testosterone suppression is still the right solution for both athletes with disorders of sex development (DSDs) and male athletes who identify as transgender.
Why are international federations still pushing testosterone suppression?
The UK’s Sport Councils are unequivocal that there is no known mechanism by which male performance advantage can be eliminated, and that requiring males to suppress their naturally-produced testosterone is therefore a pointless rule. But World Athletics is primarily concerned with the problem of DSD athletes. All three medals in the 800m at the Rio Olympics in 2016 went to DSD athletes (Caster Semenya of South Africa, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Wambui of Kenya). These athletes, registered female at birth in developing countries with limited healthcare systems, were later discovered to be chromosomally male (XY) and to have benefited from testosterone-driven male puberty. World Athletics went to the Court of Arbitration in Sport and won a ruling which keeps such athletes out of women’s races from 400m to 1500m unless they suppress their testosterone. (The CAS ruling refers to ‘athletes with 46 XY DSD who have a natural testosterone level of above 5 nmol/L, and who experience a “material androgenizing effect” from that enhanced testosterone level’). But the WA lead to protect female athletics from male DSD competitors, a specific problem for international athletics, has the knock-on effect of including transgender athletes on the same basis. Why? Because the physical performance advantage of DSD athletes like Semenya is much the same as that of any other males. So WA sees no scientific or legal basis for treating them differently.
Why don’t World Athletics require trans athletes to be legally female?
WA’s problem with DSD athletes is that they are males who were incorrectly registered female at birth. So legal sex makes no difference. Having concluded that 46XY DSD athletes are biologically and legally much the same as transgender, WA’s approach treats them the same; it doesn’t consider their legally-registered sex at all. In any case, they know that self-ID is increasingly making it easy for males to reregister as female. The UK’s SCEG knows this too. That’s why their Open and Female proposal is based on asking for sex at birth, not for legal sex.
Two big problems for UK sport
The first problem is one of scale. The universe of people registered female at birth who have a male DSD and are virilised at puberty is small. It simply doesn’t happen in well-developed healthcare systems like the UK. But if anyone observed and registered male at birth can claim to be a woman, even after a male puberty, then female sport is opened up to a vastly greater number. It becomes a big problem for female participation, and not just at elite levels where there are DSD athletes from developing countries. It affects most sports, across all levels, because anyone can be trans. At Tokyo, the trans athletes were from the USA, Canada and New Zealand.
There’s a practical problem too. Anti-doping practices are standard for all athletes in elite sport, so testosterone suppression can be monitored. Everywhere else, we act on trust. Most sports have no mechanism for monitoring compliance below elite levels. Indeed, most sports don’t even know which competitors registered as female are actually male with a transgender identity. In practice this means grass roots and even semi-professional sport is on a self-ID basis, with full-bodied males playing in women’s cricket, rugby, football and other sports, in the UK and elsewhere.
UK or international: which will prevail?
UK NGBs now have to decide whether to follow the lead of their IF or to operate within the framework provided by UK law and the UK sports councils who fund them. We don’t have a DSD problem here but we do have a rapidly growing transgender population, mostly males with no sex ambiguity at birth. The SCEG report sets out a good option for their inclusion in sport, using an Open category. The report clearly says it is lawful to ask people to declare their sex at birth. This would be sufficient to address fairness for females in UK sport. Since registration with NGBs is all by self-declaration, this can operate within current systems, and it’s arguably more inclusive than a mechanism that perpetuates male and female categories and makes extra demands of trans athletes. We hope that UK NGBs will be brave enough to follow that approach, and not fall in behind IFs whose policy was made to address a different problem.
We’re speaking up for women
We’ve launched a campaign to talk to every NGB we can, to ensure they properly consider the new guidance. So far we have contacted over fifty NGBs in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We’ve met with half a dozen, and have more meetings planned. There is a long way to go, but the UK has taken a stand and given us something positive to point others to.