The idea that men might be masquerading as women in order to win medals in elite sport has been bouncing around for decades. Women athletes were subjected to genital inspections in the mid-20th century, and at the heart of this effort was the idea that their athleticism made them look “man-like”, subverting expectations of femininity.
Gender verification by way of chromosome tests was introduced by the International Association of Athletics Federation (now known as World Athletics) in response to the fear of impostors, as well as intersex athletes. Numerous female athletes have been dragged through the humiliating process of sex testing. “I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” South African runner Caster Semenya wrote regarding the tests she was subjected to.
The science itself is far from settled. Medical transition such as hormone replacement therapy can have a range of effects on a person’s body, and while some effects of puberty can remain, such as larger lungs and longer bones, these vary widely from individual to individual, and are not what FINA is focused on.
In other words, a level playing field is illusory and entirely dependent on which things we as a society decide to focus on. It just so happens that in this current zeitgeist, the focus falls on demonising and othering trans people, under the guise of “fairness”.
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Decisions like FINA’s are never made in isolation — they tend to ripple into broader society, and rather quickly at that. We’ve now seen other sporting bodies such as the International Rugby League, FIFA, and World Athletics express support for FINA’s decision. These are just continuations of the ongoing narrative that trans people, simply due to their gender, do not belong in certain spaces, including bathrooms, nightlife venues, and domestic violence shelters. Like the sporting bodies now falling into line behind FINA, some of these gender-segregated spaces may now also enforce similar rules that exclude trans people, and trans women in particular.
In recent months, trans people have been under relentless attack. More than 150 anti-trans bills have been tabled in US states just this year, with numerous bills signed into law that ban trans girls from playing in girls sports, and most chillingly, trans children in Alabama and Texas can now be taken away from parents that provide gender-affirming care, which can reduce suicidality among trans youth by as much as 73%.
Australia has also seen a steady increase in mainstream platforming of trans-exclusionary views. Research by Alexandra García and Joshua Badge showed that in the years 2019 and 2020, articles about trans people in Australian media frequently featured harmful and false themes such as the “dangers” of children transitioning or the “imagined ‘erosion’ of women’s rights”.
And of course there was Katherine Deves, Scott Morrison’s hand-picked candidate for Warringah at the recent federal election, whose anti-trans ideology was the only notable feature of her campaign. Despite (or maybe because of) that, Deves was a regular media fixture, even landing a front-page Sydney Morning Herald interview.
The material impact of these conversations may slip from view — trans people are far more vulnerable than any other group. We live in poverty at elevated rates, experience higher levels of violence, and face daily harassment and discrimination, including being turned away from healthcare. These difficulties are compounded if you are a person of colour or disabled. But now is the time for voices of authority to stand in favour of diversity, inclusion and, most importantly, for the safety and wellbeing of trans people.
FINA’s decision will most immediately impact Lia Thomas, who in March became the first openly trans athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in any sport, with a gold medal in the women’s 500-yard freestyle. Contrary to popular belief that a trans woman like herself would dominate, Thomas’ times across the different events at the championship indicate she was competing fairly among her peers, finishing fifth and eighth in her other races.
Her swimming career, since transitioning, has been dogged by transphobic media commentary, but this may be the most disheartening turn of events thus far — just three weeks ago, Thomas said: “It’s been a goal of mine to swim at Olympic trials for a very long time, and I would love to see that through.” Instead, she has been punished for her achievement. FINA has effectively signalled to trans people that we are not allowed to succeed; even if we are somehow able to overcome the many barriers trans people face, we will be swiftly cauterised.
It remains to be seen whether the science will justify these policy decisions (though I doubt it will — nature is hardly as simple as some like to think). But history should teach us that the humiliating and alienating effect of exclusionary policy targeting athletes like Semenya and Thomas is far worse for us all than whatever impact their physiological differences may have on what “fairness” we think sport has.