Nuance is the first casualty in the complex debate about trans athletes

“I think unfortunately it’s easier not to have any sort of nuanced discussion, so the average punter will simply see it terms of ‘penis or vagina’. And if that’s the level we get stuck at, then that’s pointless. You need to realize that gender is a spectrum and gender identity takes many forms.”

The most notable recent case in Australian sport was that of AFL player Hannah Mouncey, who was precluded from entering the draft in 2017. She was eligible in 2018 under the AFL’s new gender diversity policy but withdrew, citing the mental and physical toll it had taken and later threatened legal action.

Overseas, the success of American swimmer Lia Thomas and matter of Emily Bridges, a British cyclist, became flashpoints at the elite levels of sport about equity, fairness and whether the movable feast of gender guidelines were up to the task.

Thomas, who transitioned from a male collegiate swimmer to compete as a woman in the recent NCAA Championships, broke a slew of domestic records before winning the 500 yards freestyle amid a storm of controversy, even though minor medal winners like Tokyo Olympian Erica Sullivan publicly backed her right to compete.

Bridges was barred from competing at the final hour by the UCI, cycling’s governing body, ruling her out of the British National Omnium Championships earlier this month. Bridges had previously set junior men’s records before transitioning.

There had been rumblings about a boycott from female riders, many of whom believe anyone who had gone through puberty as a male retained an inherent advantage, even if Bridges was able to show she was under the UCI’s testosterone limits (currently five nmol/L per years).

Debate about both cases has been fierce. Sonia O’Sullivan, the great Irish distance runner, has been among those saying athletes transitioning after puberty retained size and strength advantages that could not be sufficiently dampened by therapy to reduce testosterone levels.

The playing field can never be level if they suited up, she said, and the integrity of women’s sports needed to be guarded to ensure parity and equality.

“For me the only solution is to front up on the matter, not sit on the fence here, and decide that transgender athletes cannot be allowed into women’s events. We need to be certain about this,” O’Sullivan wrote in The Irish Times.

“It all comes back to the reasons why we have a women’s sporting category in the first place. It’s so that women can compete against the same gender, at the same level. It’s why in most sports women can’t compete against men, unless maybe when they’re riding a horse, when it’s as much about skill as strength and power.”

O’Sullivan’s stance has many supporters. Yet, both the Thomas and Bridges cases are outliers when it comes to the numbers and impact of transgender athletes at the highest levels of sport. Transgender athletes have been allowed to compete at the Olympics since 2004 and none have yet featured on a podium.

Laurel Hubbard competes at the Tokyo Olympics in the women's over 87kg weightlifting category.

Laurel Hubbard competes at the Tokyo Olympics in the women’s over 87kg weightlifting category.Credit:AP

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard was one of the biggest stories of the 2021 Games in Tokyo. With the world’s media clambering for seats to cover her category, she went on to finish last.

“There have been a few cases that have seen a lot of attention on this area,” says Alex Anthony, a Melbourne sports lawyer who has written about the importance of sport getting ahead of the curve on gender inclusion. “You have the example of someone competing as a male athlete who wasn’t that successful and transitions and is doing well in female sport.

“That plays into a lot of people’s concerns, but I don’t think it’s hugely worrying that male-identifying athletes would transition just to win at female sport.

“But it is very relevant to be thinking about this because there will be more and more transgender athletes coming along, hopefully. That’s a hugely important reason for sports and sporting bodies to be looking into it and make sure they are being inclusive.”

Anthony says sports must be nimble and ready to adapt to the science and research. The IOC updated its gender policy after the Beijing Winter Olympics, reducing the importance of set testosterone levels and ensuring women were not subjected to intrusive or unnecessary medical testing.

That in turn was rebuked as being too soft by bodies like World Athletics, World Triathlon and International Cycling Union, who, like any sport federation, are free to create and implement their own gender inclusion framework. The IOC, much like Sport Australia, cannot force sports to adopt their recommended regulations.

But in trying to project the problems of elite sport onto a community setting, advocates say, the only people suffering are trans athletes who simply want to find a way to participate. For all of the posting by officials in governing bodies, the reality can be very different at a grassroots level.

“What we need to remember is when we are talking about community sport, we are talking about someone wanting to go down to the local tennis club or play a social netball game. The people not wanting that to happen are literally not wanting trans people to exist in a sporting environment,” says Ryan Storr, who co-founded Proud2Play, the peak LGBTIQ+ body for engagement in sport in Victoria.

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“Trying to ban someone from community sport, it does not sit anywhere in terms of legal aspects. It’s purely ideological.

“Unfortunately, in the crossfire when it becomes a political football, are transgender children. I cannot tell you how many calls I get each week to support the families and parents of transgender children who can’t access or play sport. There are still serious problems where they are being actively excluded.”

Storr remains frustrated at the hysteria being encouraged by the issue becoming a political one in Australia, especially when the policy bedrock is already so strong, and insists women’s sport has far greater issues at hand, most of which receive little widespread coverage.

“Sport is not being flooded with trans people playing sport. Many of them hate it because it has been so toxic. So when we do get trans people wanting to play sport, we try to make it happen to some degree.

“There are very, very few trans people who play sport. It’s a small issue. People are saying it’s going to end women’s sport. In terms of the issues in women’s sport, it’s not front and center. There are issues around funding, homophobic comments, substandard facilities, sexual harassment and abuse.

“Gymnastics Australia had an independent review, so did Swimming Australia. That highlighted some major issues and significant problems and that just didn’t get anywhere near as much attention. In terms of the evidence we have, there are things that are going to stop women playing sport, but it isn’t this one.”

Ordway says sport at the community level must always start with “yes” and go backwards from there, working through any safety or issues around physical parity if they arise.

“You should start at ‘yes’ for inclusion at community level sport, always. If you think about trans people but just broader gender identity issues, there are some of the most vulnerable people in the community, with frighteningly high suicide rates.”

She also sees merit in set time periods of inactivity for transitioning athletes in the more competitive realms of sport, as much for the own health and wellbeing as for any concern about fairness and the potential of some inherent advantage.

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“That seems to be sensible, where there is a period of time after transition. That gives doctors to assess relative fairness, I guess, which is the other baseline principle.

“But the question now is can trans people ever win? Or will we just keep moving the goal posts, so they can never achieve success at the highest level?”

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