On March 23rd Seb Coe, the president of World Athletics, surprised almost everyone by announcing that transgender women – that is, males who identify as women – will be banned from female competition from the end of the month.
In January their draft proposal was to stick with testosterone suppression, despite the clear evidence it does not remove male advantage and therefore cannot make it fair. This is their approach for DSD athletes like Caster Semenya, males who were registered female at birth but who went through male puberty. World Athletics was more worried about DSD than transgender, because women have already lost Olympic medals to male DSD runners. But the potential population of transgender athletes is vastly greater than DSD. We had argued that a different policy was needed for trans-identifying males, and that it would be wise to create the policy ahead of the problem.
This is a game-changer, because World Athletics sets the standard for many other sports. In 2019 they convened a meeting on the issue for around a dozen international sports federations, in which testosterone suppression was endorsed as the way forward. At that meeting, Dr Nicola Williams was the sole voice opposing the policy, in a decidedly hostile atmosphere. We have not let up since then, campaigning at national and world level across multiple sports. But as long as World Athletics stuck with testosterone suppression, others could point to it as “best practice”.
Now, best practice is to prioritise fairness in women’s sport, by restricting the female category to those born female. This is a policy which aligns with the scientific evidence and with common sense.
What happens now?
The new policy comes into force within days. At world level, many of those international federations like World Rowing and UCI (cycling) which followed World Athletics in 2019 must now reconsider their policies. This is likely to lead to a domino effect, especially in the UK where equality law already supports sex-based sport. UK Athletics is likely to follow World Athletics in short order, having already said they favour Open and Female. Those UK sports governing bodies (NGBs) which held back, citing their international federation’s policy, may soon find that their world federation policy aligns with the UK Sports Council Equality Group guidance in 2021. That should make the decision very easy.
Some other governing bodies will wait and see if anyone sues. So far, no one has sued World Rugby or World Aquatics, nor any of the UK governing bodies who have reverted to sex at birth for their female category. These include British Triathlon and England Volleyball, as well as rugby union and league. Several other sports including football, rowing and cycling are engaged in reviews of their own, some at world level and some at UK level. World Triathlon has set up a working group on the issue after challenge from British Triathlon and others. Since two of the three disciplines in triathlon are now sex-based, it’s hard to see how they can argue it is fair to allow athletes who have been through male puberty to race against women.
The job is not done yet
We continue to meet with NGBs across the UK. We cannot disclose details, since it is important that people working in sport know that they can trust us. Expect to see more revised policies soon.
Meanwhile we are working in other areas, as always. Two with a particular focus right now are
1. Data collection – making sure sex means sex, male or female, in all the places where it matters, and
2. Media reporting, keeping the pressure up for accurate and honest reporting of sex not gender identity, and especially working to stop the reporting of male crimes as being by women.
Compromised or corrupted data practices can be hard to spot, but accurate recording of who is male and who is female is critical to the future of the sex-based rights of women and girls. It matters for data overall, and also for managing things like single-sex wards and services. There is still a lot of work to be done in these areas.