A long list of elite sports – swimming, water polo, diving, artistic swimming, high diving and open-water swimming – are affected by new rules that exclude almost all transgender women from competition. The policy, from swimming’s international federation Fina, is the largest ban on trans people’s participation in sport to date.
I am a trans man and a professional athlete in events including the triathlon, and it was immediately clear to me that swimming’s new policy is not based on science, facts or human rights, and that it will deeply harm all women in sport. The impetus for this attack on transgender athletes is instead based on media narratives, hypothetical “what-if” scenarios and stereotypes. Fina’s policy is a solution in search of a problem. It seems likely that other sports will come out with similar decisions. In the UK the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, has said she will urge them to do so.
Policies about trans inclusion have been in place at the highest level of sports for decades with no issue. This ruling is poorly designed and lacks scientific backing, and illustrates that when sports organisations seek to ban transgender people from participation, they can easily find “experts” to support their position while ignoring the realities that exist in participation.
Fina’s new policy requires athletes to transition before the onset of puberty, but with transgender youth’s access to gender-affirming care under threat in many US states and in countries around the world, this is increasingly difficult. And the policy does nothing to protect women’s sports or protect cisgender women in sports; on the contrary, Fina’s new eligibility criteria will mandate invasive testing to decide who is deemed to be a woman, and who isn’t, and allows for any female athlete to be randomly targeted or tested. This policy allows for violations of privacy and bodily autonomy for all female athletes, practices that have been called out by human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and the United Nations office of the high commissioner.
Guidelines on trans inclusion are being examined across many sports – International Rugby League announced this week it would ban trans women from competition under the guise of “fairness”. But if policymakers really cared about fairness in sports, they’d examine the real issues plaguing their organisations. They’d investigate sexual misconduct and corruption allegations and the real inequities in terms of access, funding, development opportunities and media coverage. There are many ways the sports industry, and particularly women’s sports, can be improved; banning transgender athletes is not one of them.
Misinformation is being used as a core element of this attack on fairness and safety. The truth is that transgender women and girls are drastically underrepresented in women’s sports. Recent polls show that 0.6% of Americans identify as transgender. With about 220,000 women competing in NCAA sports last year, that should have amounted to about 1,300 transgender female athletes, but the actual number is negligible. Any policy on our inclusion in sport needs to be based on the reality of our participation, not misguided fears and politics.
Those who do compete are not dominant, nor have they ever dominated in sports. Not a single transgender woman has competed or is currently competing in women’s swimming at Olympic level. Since the first policy for transgender athletes at Olympic level was introduced in 2003, we have seen more than 63,000 athletes become Olympians. Only two transgender women have made it to the Olympics in this time, and only one competed in Tokyo 2020 (the other was a reserve).
A realistic, fair policy would account for that truth by investigating why transgender athletes are not represented at various levels of play – as opposed to trying to block those who are attempting to participate.
Fina’s policy calls for the creation of a third, “open” category that transgender athletes could enter, which is not a reasonable solution. In some sports, such as running, “open” or non-binary categories have been introduced as an option for athletes who don’t feel comfortable competing in the binary system of men’s and women’s sports. But it has been an option for an athlete to self-select into, not a requirement.
Separate is never equal. Requiring all transgender athletes to compete in a separate third category is isolating and harmful. Additionally, this damaging policy deprives all athletes of the incredibly powerful social and community aspects of sport, which include making meaningful relationships with and learning from a diverse group of teammates and fellow participants.
I’ve found friends, family and community through my participation in sports; my teammates and coaches have been some of my greatest allies in both my transition and in life, largely due to our bond over a shared interest in the sports we play. Every person deserves to have that opportunity to form similar bonds and learn about others and themselves through sports.
It’s unfortunate that the swimming community has buckled under the pressure of anti-trans advocates without considering the larger impact this will have on all women in sports. Policies such as this suggest that we don’t believe in the power and strength of female athletes – and that we aren’t acknowledging or accepting the diversity of bodies that already exists among cisgender women, who vary in height, weight, strength, speed and agility just like everyone else.
Pride month is a cultural moment to appreciate the continual fight for fairness amid a barrage of mistruths. The truth won’t rest, nor will athletes committed to their love of sport and the connection it provides.
Chris Mosier is a professional athlete and founder of transathlete.com