A report for Britain’s sports councils argued last week there was no magic solution that balances the inclusion of trans women in female sport while guaranteeing competitive fairness and safety, and urged sports to choose which to prioritise. The Guardian invited two campaigners with different views of the report to give their verdicts.
Nicola Williams: ‘It cannot be right that a sport could continue to prioritise trans people’s wishes over fairness and safety for women’
The new report for the UK sports councils on transgender participation in sport confirms what we all know: sex matters in sport. That’s why we have always needed a separate protected category for females and still do.
The sports guidance concludes that female-only sport is bothl awful and necessary to guarantee the fair and safe inclusion of women. This puts an end to the idea it is possible to allow people who were born male into the female sports category without compromising fairness and safety.
Sports must now make a choice. They can continue to prioritise trans women in female sport at the expense of women and girls. Or they can protect the future of women’s sport by restoring the integrity of the female category and looking for new ways to increase participation of trans women.
This was a comprehensive review canvassing the opinions of all sides: scientists, athletes, lawyers, trans groups, women’s groups. When an organisation takes a serious look at the issue, the problems are undeniable. Last year World Rugby took the necessary steps to protect women’s rugby.
And now the sports councils are trying to do the same. It’s great to see UK sport taking the bull by the horns. Everyone knows the current system is not fit for purpose. Even the International Olympic Committee said that this summer. But it’s the UK sports councils that have taken the lead to find a new way forward. They must be commended for that.
The sports councils have put forward an option that is fair and inclusive for everyone in sport: an “open” category for all, alongside a fair and safe female sex category for natal women. If sports really want to be maximally inclusive, that’s what they’ll do. Remember, trans people are not excluded from sport. Most sports already have an open category and trans people can and do play there. But what trans activists have wanted is for trans people to be able to choose the sex category they play in.
That’s not how sport works – no one chooses where they belong in sport. Adults can’t choose to play in junior games. Able-bodied athletes can’t choose to compete in paralympic sports. Heavyweights can’t identify as welterweights. The same should apply to trans people. People with male bodies shouldn’t be able to choose to compete in the female sex category because it is women and girls who pay the price.
We welcome the new clarity regarding science and the law in this review, but they didn’t quite go far enough to protect the future of sport for women and girls. They failed to give a clear signal that sport must always provide safe and fair access for women and girls. It’s not optional or a “nice to have”. It is the minimum requirement for women’s sport. This can only be done by offering a female sex category. It cannot be right that a sport could continue to prioritise trans people’s wishes over fairness and safety for women.
But seeing it in black and white means we can now hold sports to account. Challenge them when they devalue women’s sport. They will have to own their bad decisions and face the wrath of women if they get it wrong. No more hiding or hand-waving about balancing inclusion with fairness and safety. You can’t.
So now sports face a simple choice. They either restore sex categories, based on birth sex, so that women’s sport is safe and fair. Or they continue with their current fudge, an unfair and unsafe version of sport for women that lets male-born trans people play in the category of their own choosing. Any sport that devalues the integrity of the women’s game will now be exposed.
Dr Nicola Williams is director of Fair Play for Women
Natalie Washington: ‘The solutions reflect opportunities missed and destroyed for transgender people’
Like many transgender people, the process of coming out to loved ones, trying to access healthcare, updating personal details and finding out which relationships I’d be able to keep hold of was a long, stressful and often lonely experience. During that time, sport was my release. It was the thing that gave me space to relax, to stay active and to nurture a more productive relationship with my body. If I couldn’t like what it looked like, I could at least try to like what it could do.
The release of the Sports Councils Equality Group guidance last week came as a surprise to many working in LGBTQ+ sports inclusion and for many trans people it landed hard. Trans people who have been participating in clubs for years, building friendships with their teammates, now face exclusion. If the messages I received from other trans people last week are indicative, the memo has certainly been received that sport in the UK sees trans people as a problem to be overcome.
Those welcoming this document point to a literature review they believe suggests trans women have a permanent unfair advantage in sports, but the research used to reach this conclusion lacks diversity. It overlooks other significant work on the topic, including two peer-reviewed 2021 publications by Blair Hamilton (University of Brighton). It infers its conclusions are evidence-based, yet experts in this field acknowledge research is ongoing and this is not a justification for excluding trans people.
It fails to ask important questions, such as the impact of the proposed solutions on participation (stated as a key objective), on the general wellbeing of those involved in the sport, both transgender and cisgender.
The proposed solutions reflect opportunities missed and destroyed for transgender people. One option proposed is a status quo for most sports – participation based on a set of eligibility questions around paperwork and physiology. Indeed, the guidance document highlights a majority of sports whose existing policies report positive experiences.
It suggests “‘case-by-case’ assessment is unlikely to be practical nor verifiable”, although fails to explain how this conclusion was reached. This is how things currently work in most sports and offers a common-sense approach. After all, size and sporting prowess cannot be accurately predicted using the sex recorded on a birth certificate.
The second option posits a replacement of the male category with an open one and the fortification of the female category to include only those “recorded female at birth”. This raises many questions on the policing of this category. Sport has an ugly history of treating women dreadfully in these situations – the Ugandan sprinter Annet Negesa being a recent example. Such draconian eligibility criteria could cause harm at the elite level and threaten the welcoming culture that has blossomed at domestic competitive level, leading to reduced participation at grassroots.
The final option is the biggest missed opportunity of them all. Titled “Create additional versions (universal admission)” it suggests that sports create a “third category” when “participation is not dependent a competitor’s sex”.
This represented a real opportunity to interrogate why people participate in sports, to find innovative solutions allowing mixed participation at grassroots levels. Instead, we are offered a “trans category”, something unworkable in practice.
Trying to find even 22 trans women footballers in Norfolk, say, to play a single game, let alone a whole league is impossible. Outside the biggest population centres it is impractical and that is the real kick in the teeth here. Yet again trans people have been thrown in the sporting dustbin, too inconvenient for proper inclusion.
I’m reminded of Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire, so influential on modern anti-trans movements, in which she suggests “the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence”. If this guidance results in trans participation being reduced to a sporting afterthought, that process would seem to have begun.