The Attack on Trans Women Athletes Was Always Bigger—and More Menacing—Than Sports

FINA and the International Rugby League are the latest governing bodies to ban trans women from competing in women’s sports at an elite level.

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The Attack on Trans Women Athletes Was Always Bigger—and More Menacing—Than Sports
Lia Thomas walks behind the blocks for the Women’s 500-yard freestyle during the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming & Diving Championship. Photo:Mike Comer/NCAA Photos via Getty Images (Getty Images)

In the last four days alone, two international governing bodies have banned trans women from competing in women’s sports.

On Sunday, FINA (Fédération Internationale De Natation), the swimming federation recognized by the International Olympic Committee, said that trans women who had experienced any part of “male puberty” before age 12 could not compete in women’s events. And on Monday, the International Rugby League (IRL) announced that until further research emerges, trans women are not allowed to play in women’s international rugby league matches.

Magnified by the moral panic around the successes of trans athletes like University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas and Olympic weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, the anti-trans arguments bulldozing their way through women’s sports purport to be about “fairness.” But they’re not all that different from the same exclusionary principles that kept women from voting, working, choosing abortion, or participating in sports in the first place: It’s just another form of hyper-targeted misogyny.

FINA’s new inclusion policy says the organization will establish a new “open” category for athletes who identify as women but don’t qualify to compete against cis women according to the new guidelines. Instead of affirming and prioritizing the lived experience of athletes, including intersex athletes who don’t tidily fit into society’s cisgender boxes, the sport opted to sideline trans athletes in favor of protecting the “fairness” and safety of cis athletes who have experienced but a fraction of the marginalization that trans women have dealt with. Although the sport can say it has created a new arena of competition for trans athletes, as opposed to banning them outright, the message is more or less the same: Trans women can compete, as long it’s not with us.

The policy—which more than 70% of FINA’s members approved, supposedly including athletes, scientists, and medical and legal experts—rests on the historically problematic argument that “biological sex is a key determinant of athletic performance.” Specifically, in aquatics, the report claims that body and limb size, respiratory function, and cardiovascular health are some of the many factors that guarantee most cis men will “outperform” cis women in swimming and that this “performance gap…universally emerges starting from the onset of puberty.”

In reality, relatively little meaningful research has been conducted on the alleged physical advantage trans women have in the water, but that hasn’t stopped medical experts from “confirming” that trans women or women with testosterone levels deemed too high (a metric that has predominantly impacted Black women) would competitively blow cis women out of the water.

FINA’s policy will be enforced by physical examinations, bloodwork, assessments, and potentially, treatment. While the athletes’ consent is required, trans athletes won’t have much of a choice if they hope to continue competing at an elite level, and that’s a whole lot of bodily violation for something that has “no basis in science.”

Within the IRL, trans athletes will be banned from the women’s Rugby World Cup in October due to “perceived risk to other participants.” And following comments from its president, Sebastian Coe, on Monday, World Athletics seems poised to hand down its own trans ban because “fairness is non-negotiable” and “biology trumps identity,” despite there being no elite trans track and field athletes (CeCé Telfer became the first openly trans athlete to win an NCAA title in women’s track and field in 2019).

But none of this is really about sports: The realm of sports is, rather, a political football—a vessel for the values those in charge holds dear. As Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU, put it during a CBS interview: “They are regulating a problem that doesn’t exist…They don’t care about women’s sports. They don’t care about women, full stop.”

Laws in at least 18 states ban trans girls from elementary school sports consistent with their gender identity. Other jurisdictions have denied trans and nonbinary youth gender-affirming care—the sort of repeated denigration that leads half of all LGBTQ+ youth to consider suicide at some point in their lives—while conservative politicians like Texas Governor Greg Abbott instruct citizens to report the parents of trans kids as child abusers. But conservatives and the far-right don’t give a rat’s ass about protecting the sanctity of women’s sports and they certainly don’t care about protecting girls. Rather, effectively banning trans women from the elite sporting world is about policing their bodies and protecting the interests, authority, and power of white cisgender men. Such anti-trans policies also further a right-wing, traditionalist agenda—tell me again that sports aren’t political.

Officials could listen to the athletes who are receiving death threats for daring to pursue an athletic dream. They could take the stance of the UCI—Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body—which acknowledges that inclusion of all athletes should be the guiding principle in sport. More cis athletes could stand as allies with their trans competitors and teammates as opposed to joining the relentless barrage of backlash.

Disappointingly and unsurprisingly, it so far appears that they won’t.

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