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Opinion: Why are we banning trans women from sports?

In the past week, various elite sports associations have restricted, banned, or are considering banning transgender women from competing in women’s sporting events. These include World Athletics, the International Swimming Federation (FINA), the International Cycling Union, the World Netball Federation, and the International Rugby League.

One of the major reasons for this is because of the view that transgender women supposedly will have a physical advantage because they have biological male bodies. Statistically, male bodies are on average taller, and stronger than female bodies. 

Some cis-gendered female athletes and many others in sports therefore believe that the participation of trans women in women’s sports is unfair. 

While statistically, that is true ‘on average’, the range of body characteristics of biological male and female bodies varies considerably and overlaps.  What’s more, the scientific research around any advantage transgender women may have in sports is sparse, and controversial. Simply put, there hasn’t been enough detailed or long-term research conducted on this issue to make a definitive conclusion on this. 

At this stage, there is no evidence to suggest that transgender athletes are performing better than cisgender women in elite sports or that they pose any threat. What’s more, there are already some restrictions on transgender participation in the form of limits on testosterone levels in the blood. 

What concerns me are the blanket bans we are now seeing. The message these actions are putting out to the world is that trans people do not belong in sports. Banning trans athletes is much more dangerous than any arguments about ‘fairness’ in sport – they openly target a very vulnerable group of people who already suffer horrific violence, discrimination, and misunderstanding all across the world. 

Sport is supposed to be about inclusion and participation, but of course, its history is full of racism and sexism. The ancient Olympic Games were open only to free males, and women had to fight to be included in its modern reincarnation. 

Elite sport these days is only partly about physical prowess. It has become a big business that attracts a lot of power and at times corruption, and sexual abuse. In some countries, children are taken from families and put through agonising training schedules in order to bring glory to their homelands. 

I believe in sport, even though I’m not really a sports fan. It can unite us, it can bring out the best in human endeavours, but it can also bring out the worst aspects of human nature. 

This week, American professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe criticised the treatment of transgender athletes in sport and said she was 100% supportive of trans inclusion. This is from an athlete who has pushed vehemently, and successfully,  for women soccer players to have the same pay and status as men’s soccer in the US. If an elite sportsperson as she feels no concern over trans inclusion, why do others? 

I realise that this issue is complex, but at the heart of this issue are real people who want to participate. When we look at how the world discriminates against transgender people, and how in places like the US, politicians are actively targeting LGBTQ people, isn’t banning people from sports the wrong thing to do.

Things like that filter down. First, it is elite sport, but it’s starting to happen in schools as well in America and other places. Surely sport should be about opening up opportunities.

Since there isn’t enough compelling research on this topic, isn’t there an opportunity here to encourage transgender into sports, and let’s see what that participation leads to? After all, it may well lead to better outcomes for us all.

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