Last Monday, FINA, the international federation responsible for administering international competitions in water sports, voted in favour of new rules which ban male-to-female transgender athletes from competing in the women’s division if they have gone through male puberty.  Aquatic athletes, sports scientists and legal experts were consulted. The move has sparked controversy. Tom Daley claims to be ‘furious’ at the decision, while Australian Olympic champion Cate Campbell has publicly defended it. The issue is undoubtedly polarising, and the poles are arguably irreconcilable. Both sides have a valid argument.

Men are from Mars Women are from Venus

Firstly, male and female physiology undoubtedly differ. Due to genetic differences and the impact of sex steroid hormones, men typically have proportionately more muscle mass, more bone mass, and a lower percentage of body fat than women. Men also have larger lungs and wider airways. This makes them predisposed to be able to swim harder and faster. The different categories for male and female athletes are there for a reason. Allowing trans women who have a male physiology to compete alongside female swimmers undermines the entire justification behind the male and female categories in the first place. FINA’s scientific advisors said that males outperforming females is primarily due to differences in neuromuscular, cardiovascular and respiratory function, and anthropometrics including body and limb size.

However, problematically, it is not clear which experts participated in FINA’s science group nor which scientific studies they are drawing on. There needs to be more transparency when such a controversial decision is being made. Moreover, the new rule isolates and alienates an already marginalised community by creating an arguably unjust hierarchy amongst trans people. Namely, those who have access and can afford to transition in childhood will have an advantage over those who don’t.

Inclusion v Fairness

Cate Campbell, when defending the rule, said: ‘listen to the people who stand up here and tell you how difficult it has been to reconcile inclusion and fairness.’ Campbell has put her finger on the underlying conflict at the core of the debate around transgenderism and sports competitions: inclusion versus fairness. The cost of ensuring elite swimming competitions are fair is the exclusion of a minority. At non-elite levels of competition, inclusion might be valued more than absolute fairness.

Interestingly, female-to-male transgender athletes are allowed to compete in men’s competitions, regardless of whether they have been through female puberty — even though having female physiology puts them at an automatic disadvantage. This does suggest that FINA are seeking to reduce the degree of discrimination as much as possible, but the lack of consistency means a very specific group of people are alienated.

It has been argued that the new policy ‘dehumanises’ trans people by reducing them to their bodies and their biology. However, when one’s biology determines one’s ability to perform a sport, isn’t it reasonable to differentiate on that basis? There is no other way of ensuring competitive fairness in the women’s division.

Reality v Feelings

The ban indirectly places more value on transitioning by hormone treatment at an early age. Not every trans person wants to transition by undergoing medical intervention. Determining whether someone can participate in a sports competition based on when they transitioned, reduces transness to a conversion from one binary gender to another. Yet the scientific reality is that male sex hormones naturally lead to greater muscle mass. It is impossible to reconcile this objective reality with the subjective experiences and feelings of trans people.

Notably quiet in this debate are the people who will actually be affected by the new rules: trans swimmers. Trans athletes in other sports have spoken out though. For example, Chris Mosier, a trans triathlete, tweeted:

‘To require transgender athletes to “complete” a medical transition by age 12 — particularly when it is increasingly difficult & in some ways nearly impossible to get gender-affirming care — is outrageous & completely unrealistic.’

However, the rule doesn’t ‘require’ transgender swimmers to transition before the age of 12. In fact, it is simply based on the premise that it is generally not feasible for people who have transitioned to compete without having an advantage. The exception would be if they have done so at an unusually young age. The rule means that trans women are not discriminated against as a group. Though the ban targets almost all trans women, it does not go so far as to discriminate on the basis of gender identity.

The decision has had a ripple effect. The International Rugby League followed suit in banning transgender women. Fifa, the football governing body, stated it would also be reviewing its gender eligibility rules. As time goes on, more sports organisations are likely to come out with their own rulings. Of primary importance is surely establishing a more sound scientific basis for such decisions. It seems natural to assume that males have an advantage over females in competitive sports, but this needs to be unequivocally and transparently proven.

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