Why transgender female athletes can’t compete in female events

Context: Transgender women have been barred from competing in the female category by World Athletics (WA), the international governing body for track and field, following a vote on Thursday. WA has followed the path of FINA, the international swimming federation, which enforced a similar ban in June last year.

What does the ban mean?

Transgender women who have experienced male puberty will not be able to compete in the female competition after March 31 this year. However, the World Athletics Council has set up a working group to conduct research “to further consider the issue of transgender inclusion”. We are not saying ‘no’ forever,” WA president Sebastian Coe said.  

The former double Olympic gold medallist in the 1,500 metres emphasised “fair and meaningful” female competition. “Decisions are always difficult when they involve conflicting needs and rights between different groups, but we continue to take the view that we must maintain fairness for female athletes above all other considerations,” Coe said.

Why have transgender women been barred?

In its ‘Eligibility Regulations for Transgender Athletes’, WA focuses on the physical advantages men have over women post-puberty. “The substantial sex difference in sports performance that emerges from puberty onwards means that the only way to achieve the objectives set out…is to maintain separate classifications (competition categories) for male and female athletes,” WA states.

The debate has raged since New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard competed in the women’s 87-kg class at the Tokyo Olympics, although she had participated in the men’s category earlier.

NCAA swimmer Lia Thomas used hormone replacement therapy and moved from the men’s category to the women’s category. She started breaking records in the IVY League competition before FINA stepped in.

What were the rules for transgender women before WA’s ban?

Under the previous rules, there was no blanket ban, but transgender women had to reduce the amount of blood testosterone to 5 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) and maintain this level for 12 months to participate.

What had WA initially proposed?

In January, WA had come up with the ‘preferred option’ for transgender women. Instead of a complete ban, WA said it would allow transgender women to compete in the female category but would reduce the blood testosterone limit to below 2.5nmol/L for two years —cutting it down by half, and doubling the period before they become eligible to compete

So how did WA justify the change to a ban?

On Thursday, after its council meeting, WA said that the ‘preferred option’ did not have any takers. During January and February, WA said, it had consulted member federations, Global Athletics Coaches Academy, the Athletes’ Commission, the International Olympic Council, “as well as representative transgender and human rights groups”.

“It became apparent that there was little support within the sport for the option that was first presented to stakeholders,” WA said in its statement.

Which other sports have banned transgender female athletes?

The International Olympic Committee’s Framework on Fairness released in November 2021 stated that “athletes are not excluded solely based on their transgender identity or sex variations”.

But the IOC had put the onus on sports federations to put in place rules. FINA implemented a ban last year.

However, it was World Rugby in 2020 which became the first international sports federation to bar transgender women from female competition. Following this, Rugby Football League and Rugby Football Union also banned transgender women from female competition.

Last year, British Triathlon implemented a similar ban.

Have any famous sporting names weighed in?

Tennis great and gay rights activist Martina Navratilova took FINA’s side in an interview with The Australian. “It’s been such a topsy-turvy situation…with the momentum totally on the side of the transgender athletes. When it comes to sports, biology is the biggest divider… So, FINA, it’s the first big organisation that has gone all in for fairness and maybe it will try to include as many people as possible, as is fair. But fairness has to be first,” Navratilova had said.

She also criticised the IOC for leaving the decision-making on the eligibility of transgender athletes to sports federations.

Did WA also change other rules?

DSD (Differences in Sex Development) athletes — those who have genes that are generally associated with one sex but whose reproductive organs may not be atypical — will now have to keep their testosterone below 2.5 nmol/L for 24 months to participate in the female category across events.

Earlier, DSD athletes were not required to maintain a testosterone limit unless they wanted to participate in restricted events — 400 metres to a mile. For restricted events, DSD athletes had to keep their testosterone below 5 nmol/L for six months before being eligible to participate.

Mains Practice question:

Q. “Transgender women have been barred from competing in the female category by World Athletics (WA)” in light of this statement analyse the rationales behind this decision and how this decision will impact the LGBTQIA movement. (250 words, 15 marks)

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