Trans-identifying males have been granted access to female sport with little concern for the impact on women
There was outrage and astonishment when the Telegraph reported that the England and Wales Cricket Board allows adult males to play cricket against teenage girls if they say they are women. Surely it’s common sense that this isn’t safe and it certainly isn’t fair. But this has been going on for years.
How did we end up here? The International Olympic Committee decided in 2003 that males who had changed their legal sex to female and been through sex reassignment surgery (SRS), as it was then known, should be allowed to compete as if they were women. They thought it would mainly affect women’s masters sport since transition at that time was mainly by older males. By implication, older women don’t matter in sport but older transwomen do. By 2016 they’d decided that requiring full SRS could be a human rights violation so suppressing testosterone would do instead. The need for a legal sex change was dropped too.
In parallel, the UK Sports Councils Equality Group (SCEG) produced guidance that trans-identifying people should be accepted into the sex category that matched their claimed identity. Females could compete in men’s categories without restriction, of course. Males should reduce their testosterone so as to reduce their male advantage. Almost all national governing bodies (NGBs) across the sixty or so sports in the UK adopted these rules. Boxing was a rare exception. Other combat sports like wrestling and judo seemingly saw no problem. Across UK sport, policies stated that anyone could access the changing rooms that matched their gender identity and anyone who didn’t like the resulting loss of privacy could come changed. Yes you read that right. Trans-identifying males had priority. Women who didn’t like it could stay out of the female changing rooms.
For the past five years we have been raising the alarm about this. Until recently, no one wanted to hear. Even at conferences celebrating women’s sport, we were told that this issue was toxic. Those who raised it were shunned. Senior people in sport governing bodies told us we were scaremongering and needed to be educated. One chief exec asked, ominously, whether my employer knew what I was doing.
Finally in 2020 the sports councils commissioned a review of their transgender guidance. This time it was done not by a diversity consultant but by a specialist sports medicine team. They consulted more widely too, listening not just to trans lobby groups as before but to coaches and players of both sexes, and to groups like ours who expressed women’s concerns. They found that the science was crystal clear but that there was widespread fear about objecting. The guidance says there is no balancing fairness for women and girls with transgender inclusion in the female category. It proposes alternative ways to ensure inclusion for all while restoring fairness for females. Their report also describes the atmosphere of intimidation and fear around this issue. They said it was important that this time all relevant stakeholders should be consulted when NGBs looked at their policies. This includes women. We can’t speak for all women but we can speak for those who’ve been intimidated into silence.
Since the new SCEG guidance was published in September 2021, Fair Play For Women has sought meetings with NGBs to make sure they are reviewing their policies. Some are still unwilling to talk to us, but we’ve met with around forty across England, Scotland and Wales.
Among the many justifications for retaining unfair policies we’ve heard: the commitment of transwomen to their identity; women don’t care about winning (presumably they’re referring to the female ones); society is changing and so should we. None of this changes the basic human dimorphism that justifies female-only sport. Without categories based on age, sex and disability, all champions would be young adult males.
But most people, with the exception of a few Equality Diversity and Inclusion officers, now see that the mantra “Transwomen are women” cannot be applied in sport without negative consequences. The SCEG science review blew testosterone suppression out of the water. We had thought that by now most NGBs would have reviewed their policies and reinstated a protected category for females. Rugby union and rugby league have done so on safety grounds. Of course, the male advantage that makes it unsafe also makes it unfair. But only a few, notably British Triathlon and England Volleyball, have dared to say so.
It boils down to two main obstacles. Some people claim that this is a small issue, that in their sport there are not many transwomen, i.e. post-pubertal males with a trans identity. Therefore the unfairness can, indeed must, be tolerated, for the sake of those few. The truth is that sports don’t know how many they have. Reporting the presence of a trans player is strongly discouraged. This has been made synonymous with pointing out their true sex. British Cycling’s code of conduct seems to suggest that to question a trans person’s identity would be a disciplinary matter. But we hear of instances all over the UK across multiple sports. We know it is a growing problem, and that every male player affects many females around them. In English athletics right now we know of ten adult males taking points and prizes in women’s road races. We know of several cyclists across road and track racing, cyclocross and mountain biking who are taking podium places. Every time one of them races in a women’s event they displace every female who finishes behind them. In English football, where the women’s game is finally becoming a viable career option, there are around fifty males, some in their thirties and past their best, playing in women’s teams. A thirty-something male was selected as goalkeeper for the British Universities team. Testosterone suppression does not shrink that goal-filling adult male frame. There was a separate men’s team. This was a place that a female should have had.
The final obstacle, the one cited in a recent statement by UK Athletics, is the risk of being sued, with the associated expense. They’ve declared that female events should be restricted to those born female. The events currently called men’s can become Open: anyone of any identity, and either sex, can compete in them. They’ll still be dominated by men so there’s no need to restrict entry. But they want assurance from the government that this is lawful and that they won’t be left out of pocket in defending it. The Equality and Human Rights Commission responded robustly the same day, though without a cast-iron guarantee. When the RFU reverted to female-only for women’s contact rugby, there were threats of legal action, though none has yet appeared. Last year World Aquatics followed World Rugby and World Boxing in restoring a female category, so far without problems. Trans-identifying males were granted access to female sport on the flimsiest scientific evidence, and without concern for the impact on women. Everyone knows the right thing to do. They just need to find the moral fibre to do it.
A shorter version of this article was published in the Daily Telegraph on 21 February 2023.