The Mistreatment of Transgender Athletes in Sport By Clarisse Fullerton

Almost half a century after the mistreatment of the first trans-female athlete in 1975, and not much has changed within the sports industry in regard to transgender rights. Renée Richards was barred from the women's US tennis Open because of her transition from male to female, and it seemed to set the precedent that transgender athletes' rights could be publicly abused.

This Pride month, more than ever, it is important to recognise the activism of transgender people, most notably women, in the history of LGBTQ+ rights. Despite progression in recent years, acceptance of transgender identities appears to be declining with increasing cases of discrimination flooding the news. The United States in particular is witness to the control of transgender rights, notably within sports where the presence of transgender athletes is being contested in categories corresponding to their gender identity in which they are legally permitted to compete in.

In 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced guidelines to guarantee a fairer treatment of transgender athletes. The meeting outlined that trans-men "are eligible to compete in the male category without restriction", whereas trans-women must adhere to four conditions in order to be accepted. This in itself demonstrates the complexities and controversial views concerning the rights of transgender females and how they are more intently monitored. One of the conditions requires that "the athlete has declared that her gender identity is female" and remains so for a minimum of four years. Another condition relies upon the level of testosterone in trans-females, which must be kept "below 10nmol/L for at least 12 months prior" to competing and during competition time. Although these terms aim to create a more equal playing field, they also act as another means of policing trans-women. Why are male identities seemingly accepted unconditionally by law, whereas female identities must repeatedly assert their right to belong in sport?

Many reasons for the policing of trans-women are rooted in transphobia as transgender bodies are only accepted on the basis that they don't pose a threat to the prioritisation of cisgender bodies. This is therefore why the presence of testosterone in transgender women is highly disputed as it is seen as a physical advantage over biological females. However, a report by Dr Beth Jones declared that "many sporting organisations had over interpreted the unsubstantiated belief that testosterone leads to an athletic advantage in transgender people." Although many argue the implementation of regulations is down to science, statistics have suggested that testosterone isn't as crucial as it may appear. This is shown by the research of transgender runner Joanna Harper. Harper discovered that when comparing age grades of transgender runners (which compare athletes based on sex and age when looking at race times), results had hardly changed, "suggesting that they have no advantage over non-transgender women" as a result of hormones. If the concern then lies in the strength of trans-athletes, other categories can be formed which are independent of gender, such as size, as suggested by Jones. The need to exclude transgender athletes from sport on the basis of science is questionable, yet seems to be occurring more and more regularly.

The New York Times recently reported that in March 2020, the state of Idaho barred transgender girls from competing in women's sports and is aiming to legalise the verification of athletes' sex before being able to compete. In the last two months, several other states have followed suit, with some states considering the presentation of gender reassignment treatment for trans children. These rulings are disheartening considering the already limited power and legal backing that is afforded to the transgender community and constant invalidation of gender identity. Transgender bodies are viewed as becoming drastically more controversial when they are perceived as encroaching on cisgender rights.

This has most recently been demonstrated by a lawsuit filed in February 2020 in the US. Three Connecticut high school track athletes, Chelsea Mitchell, Alanna Smith and Selina Soule, filed a lawsuit against a policy by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC). This code allows transgender athletes to compete in categories of their gender identity. The lawsuit claims that this policy is in violation of federal law Title IX which prohibits discrimination of the basis of sex. The lawsuit accuses two trans-female athletes, Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood, of having "taken more than 85 opportunities to participate in higher level competitions from female track athletes in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons alone". The wording of the lawsuit in itself upholds transphobia as it questions Miller and Yearwood's sense of belonging in female teams and repeatedly refers to them as "males". The Guardian reported that plaintiff Chelsea Mitchell is "happy and relieved" at the US Department of Education's decision to withdraw funding in support of federal law.

"We will be able to get justice for the countless girls along with myself that have faced discrimination for years," stated Mitchell. The unintentional irony in Mitchell's remark is highly palpable considering the defendants belong to one of the most marginalised communities in society as both Black and Transgender females. To be able to compete in a division which felt authentic to their identity, Miller and Yearwood are both undergoing hormone treatment and testing whilst battling further exclusion from their peers. This bullying of trans-students has been universally recognised by a study released in February by the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). The research divulged that 50% of Black students who identified as Transgender or Non-Binary had experienced harassment during their education. It is therefore visible that in some cases schools can act as a breeding ground for transphobia and misinformation, leaving LGBTQ+ students more vulnerable. Protective regulations such as the CIAC's code to allow people to compete in their corresponding category to identity in school sports are important in supporting students' civil rights.

This is something that has been taken into consideration by the University of Surrey. The Students' Union aims to protect students' personal information when collecting data on diversity as a precautionary measure and hopes to encourage students to feel "comfortable and included", as stated by VP Activity and President-elect Lizzie Rodulson. The 2018/19 Activity Diversity Report shows a minimal engagement of LGBTQ+ students within sport, with only 1% of members identifying as neither 'Male' nor 'Female'. Although this is not representative of all non-cisgender identities, and mostly only addresses openly non-binary people, additional questions would pose a threat to the safety or students in smaller sports societies where members may be easily profiled and targeted as a result. This is the reality for many who partake in sports, as an industry where the roles of gender and sex are viewed as pre-existing binary disparities.

Since the election of Surrey's LGBT+ Liberation Rep in November, Izzy Watkins, our upcoming VP Community, has committed herself to increasing LGBT+ participation in sports by working in collaboration with Surrey Sports Park. After sending out surveys, an 'LGBT+ Inclusivity in Sport' workshop was organised with Team Surrey Club committees.

"We had a good turnout with committees from five different clubs attending," Watkins explained. "Alongside explanations of the different sexual and gender identities and the barriers they may face to participating in sport, we also worked on a number of case studies where the club members were given a scenario and they had to decide what they would do in those circumstances." The clubs that took part in the workshop were then named 'Surrey Allies' to highlight their training and support of LGBT+ members.

The students that took part in the Surrey Allies workshop

The SU will continue to work on educating Surrey students about LGBT+ lives with members such as Watkins on the SU committee. "I am delighted to be staying on next year as Vice President Community of the Students' Union and I will be certainly passing on everything I learnt to the next LGBT+ Rep so they can hopefully continue pushing for a more LGBT+ inclusive Team Surrey."

Lizzie Rodulson has also voiced her support for the inclusivity of LGBT+ students. "Equality and inclusion are essential at Surrey and I want all LGBT+ students to know that the Union is here for them. The Students' Union accept each individual as themselves and will always work closely with the Liberation Reps and students to ensure that the wants and needs of individual students are as catered for as much as possible." The Union understands that "trans and non-binary students face completely different challenges" and are there to "support the changes to reduce impacts of these for students." Rodulson also declared that the SU is working closely with the university to "ensure all University systems use a student's given name alongside additional ALS resources so that adjustments can be implemented for trans students experiencing physiological difficulty due to gender realignment."

It is reassuring to know that whilst American administration is negatively impacting LGBTQ+ rights in sport, the University of Surrey is actively demanding a fairer treatment of students, no matter what their gender or sexual orientation.

In today's revolutionary climate, perhaps it is time to reform the organisation of the sports industry to be more accommodating to non-confirmative athletes. The militancy of visible trans-athletes, such as Miller and Yearwood, is promising of a future where sports are more accessible for LGBTQ+ members.

For more information on trans athletes, as well as links to resources and action points, click here.

The Stag magazine aims to prioritise inclusivity and to actively support the trans community by highlighting marginalised voices. For those who wish to share their experiences please get in touch with us at editor@thestagsurrey.co.uk, so that we can use our platform to incite positive change.


Created with an image by Adi Goldstein