Transgender Athletes Do Not Threaten Women's Sports | Opinion

As a transsexual woman and fervent soccer player (and fan), the idea that someone would transition just to succeed in women's sports because they couldn't do so in men's sports is absurd. It does female athletes a massive disservice, assuming the inherent inferiority of any cis woman to any trans woman or cis man. And it pays no attention to the fact that transitioning is long, physically and psychologically grueling. Gender dysphoria may not have any indisputable or immutable criteria, but no one begins reassignment on a whim—in fact, gender identity clinics rigorously screen against this.

I kept playing soccer after transition, but once I reached the point of two years after surgery, aged 32, having had HRT to put my testosterone and estrogen levels within a "normal female range," I decided to carry on with a men's team (admittedly in an LGBT+ league), preferring that discord to the inevitable attention and abuse that would come with playing for a women's club. When I did play, casually, with cis women, I found my advantages were not hormonal—I was less quick and less strong than many of my new teammates—but cultural. Having been raised male, I'd had far more coaching, having not been discouraged or excluded from soccer at a young age like some of them. Consequently, I had advantages in its less physical and more teachable aspects: passing, moving off the ball and shooting.

The question of whether transgender athletes threaten women's sports comes up periodically—specifically, whenever a trans woman has any modicum of success. It persists even though none of the few transsexual women who have been allowed to participate in women's competitions over the last 50 years, and especially since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) first published guidelines on the subject in 2004, have ever gone on to dominate them; and even though, as in the case of South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, the ferocity of demands for the exclusion of women—trans or not—with high testosterone levels has worrying implications for anyone who does not meet conventional, conservative standards of femininity.

The separation between men and women's sports is deeply linked to our society's other ways of regimenting gender; it can be traced back to Victorian Britain's preconceptions about the need for male and female spheres with associated gender stereotypes, which led (for example) to the English Football Association declaring soccer "unsuitable for women" in 1921 and banning it for what ended up being half a century.

But the particular issue of transgender athletes has occupied sports leagues for only about 40 years, ever since the U.S. Tennis Association barred transsexual player Renée Richards from the U.S. Open in 1976, citing a hitherto unprecedented woman-at-birth policy. They borrowed this terminology from second-wave feminist circles, which were then embroiled in fierce debates about whether to allow transsexual women into women-only spaces, and about how to border and police the category of "woman." In Richards' case, anxieties that she would be "naturally" stronger, fitter or better than cisgender women were unfounded: She won a New York Supreme Court case in 1977, allowing her to compete, and lost in straight sets in the first round of the ensuing tournament. Despite this, Richards' was one case that influenced the IOC guidelines, which state that "transsexual and transgender" athletes must have legal gender recognition—ruling out anyone from countries that do not allow this—as well as hormone therapy in order to "minimize gender-related advantages," as well as proof of living two years in their "newly-assigned gender" after surgery.

Notable subsequent developments included Mianne Bagger competing on the Ladies European Tour (highest finish: 35th in 2005) and 47-year-old Martine Delaney playing for Claremont United in an Australian women's soccer league. After Delaney scored six goals at a low level, opponents put in complaints to Soccer Tasmania and the Football Federation of Australia. The governing bodies, which had adopted the IOC guidelines, allowed Delaney to play on, but she continued against a backdrop of player, supporter and media hostility that was wildly disproportionate to the low level at which she was competing.

Caster Semenya racing in 2019
Caster Semenya racing in 2019 Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Delaney's experiences provoke further thought. Sports such as soccer, golf or tennis obviously differ from track and field events, which are mostly a simple test of physical attributes like pace and strength. However, while physical variations within the men's and women's categories, and the matter of how athletes utilize them, have always been integral to their appeal, two specific things have raised anxieties over the last 16 years. One is the revision of the IOC guidelines to remove the surgical requirement, acknowledging that HRT is sufficient to level out any hormonal differences between cis and trans people at an adult level. The other is the emergence of Caster Semenya, who won the 800-meter at the World Championship in 2009 but was then suspended while her testosterone levels were investigated.

The responses to Semenya, then and since, have been astonishingly cruel—and have sometimes spilled into more overt transphobia, even though she does not identify as trans but has hyperandrogenist, which entails an overproduction of male hormones. To limit these conversations—about Semenya and trans women—to sport and its governing bodies' laws is important, but it's important to recognize that they take place within a transphobic society and a media culture that endlessly undermines the validity of trans identities and people. The recent Swiss court ruling against Semenya, stating she must lower her testosterone level "through medication or surgery" if she wishes to compete at next year's rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, could not have happened without this loud, relentless hostility toward trans people and those who do not conform to gender stereotypes.

So, what is to be done? More so than in the past, women are being encouraged to take up a wider range of sports from a younger age, with more investment and television coverage. This will continue to improve standards and change perceptions, gradually leveling out the inequalities that lead some commentators to identify trans women as a threat. The IOC, and other sporting bodies that take the IOC's lead, should continue to assess on a case-by-case basis—and perhaps draw up firmer guidelines where necessary, working with endocrinologists and other experts. But there is a bigger picture, a deeper ethos to consider in all this.

The decade-long shift from pundits insisting that Semenya wasn't really a woman to the legal demand for her to adjust her hormone levels is the result not just of an overblown moral panic, but also the rise of an international far Right that is, among other things, making efforts to rehabilitate eugenics. Even as "gender-critical" pundits fulminate against trans bodies as "unnatural" (while remaining quite happy to, say, drive a car rather than a horse), some, such as Toby Young, talk about "progressive eugenics"—with its extreme but predictable conclusion that there are objective qualitative standards for how human bodies should look and behave, and deviations should be suppressed. In this context, allowing the issue of a tiny number of trans woman athletes to become a vector for such ideas re-entering the political mainstream seems far more threatening, to me, than the limited progress of the likes of Mianne Bagger, Martine Delaney or Renée Richards.

Juliet Jacques is an English writer and filmmaker.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.