Everyone deserves to watch, play and enjoy the sports they love

Everyone deserves to watch, play and enjoy the sports they love

Michelle Daltry, Head of Service - Sport, shares her observations on the current levels of inclusion in sport and physical activity and how we can make sport more welcoming to everyone, including trans people.

The power of inclusive sport

For those of us lucky enough to work in the sport and physical activity sector – we understand its transformative power, much like education it can raise expectations and aspirations, connect people and communities and improve health and well-being. 

Sport has been defined by many to be a human right. Everyone deserves to watch, play and enjoy the sports they love. However, unless we find ways to engage everyone, sport will just continue to exacerbate society’s inequalities and serve the groups who are already active.  

Some current debates

The debate around trans inclusion in sport could not be more polarised and emotive than it is at this moment in time.  Organisations in the sector are under increasing pressure to take a stance on the involvement of trans women in particular, even though across the population trans people of any gender make up a tiny proportion (estimated to be around 1%). Yet the campaigning and attention this issue is receiving is disproportionate with all energy focused towards the participation of transwomen and not transmen.

In 2020, World Rugby instigated a ban on trans women and non-binary individuals assigned male at birth from participating in international rugby. Since then, a number of major governing bodies have instigated similar policies, with some also extending these restrictions to participation in recreational sport.

For example, FINA, the world governing body for swimming, voted for new eligibility rules that restrict participation in elite competition. This in essence bars any transgender women who have gone through male puberty from competing in women’s events.

The current IOC framework concludes that there should be no presumption that trans women have an automatic advantage over natal women. Alongside this the IOC’s guidelines stipulate that it is up to individual sports to decide their eligibility rules which means that restrictions can still be imposed.

Many of these decisions are being made using contested research evidence as there is little peer-reviewed research to compare the participation of trans women and cis women in sport – particularly at a performance level. In particular the research most widely cited compares data for cis men vs cis women in non-athletic populations and concludes that cis men have a competitive advantage.

This might be true when comparing the ‘average’ cis male with the ‘average’ cis female but certainly won’t be true in every case and across all forms of sport. The research also assumes that the performance of cis men is equal to that of trans women. However, there is a growing body of research which suggests that the transition process has a profound impact on the bodies of trans women and that this impact could be more profound for those who are performance athletes.

Another common argument is that trans women’s participation in certain sports is likely to cause safety risks for cis women. However currently there is no research which backs this up and in fact no evidence that a cis woman has been injured as a consequence of the participation of a trans woman in sport. Sport injuries tend to be more closely linked to technical skills and training than they are the size and power of the athletes involved.

Finally, in sport and physical activity spaces that are not gender-affected or where young people are participating who have not yet reached puberty or where people are participating for fun rather than in ‘meaningful competition’ (as judged by the governing or responsible body), the above issues will have little relevance to trans inclusion and all individuals can be made to feel welcome.

The wider societal impact of these debates

On the surface, the impacts of these decisions appear to be restricted to the world of sport. Still, the reality is the ripples can be felt much wider and the decisions made by large governing bodies can have broad societal influence.

Many are concerned that steps such as these legitimise the exclusion of trans people from other spaces.  For example, we’ve seen transphobic groups in the UK echoing those in the US and demanding that people use the public toilets that match their gender assigned at birth, meaning trans men would have to use the women’s toilets and trans women the men’s toilets. Aligned to this, Oklahaoma recently passed a bill that forces schoolchildren to use the bathroom correlating to the gender on their birth certificate.  Evidence suggests that actions such at these put these children at risk of bullying, harassment and even violence.

We know that for many trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people, sport and physical activity will not be a comfortable place, they may not want to be visible and may have had previous experiences which have disappointed, excluded or even traumatised them.  Conversely, we know for many, sport and physical activity can provide a sense of self, community and have a strong therapeutic effect that can be amplified and reach wider audiences if we create inclusive environments for it to take place. Everyone deserves to be able to engage with, enjoy and participate in the sports they love.

Our position

We believe that inclusion and fairness can work together and that a fair inclusive approach to trans people’s participation in sport is not only possible but essential.  We know that change takes time, and are committed to working with individuals and organisations to make change happen. We also want trans people and trans allies in the sport sector to know that they are not alone.

Recently the Inclusive Sport team have been working with the sector to:

  • Dispel the myth that inclusion and fairness cannot be balanced
  • Develop fair and inclusive policies around the participation of trans people in sport
  • Provide training and education into the reality of the trans experience in sport and meaningful ways to engage LGBTQI+ communities

Other sources of information

The IOC recently published a report with recommendations for how governing bodies should proceed, which aims to provide a set of principles to ensure fair and inclusive decisions are made and encourages more quality research on the participation of trans people in sport to inform evidence-based decisions.  

An article which explains how difficult it is to make sweeping generalisations about athletes’ performance:  https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/lia-thomas-upenn-swimmer-trans-woman-b2093012.html

An article summarising current scientific understanding of the concept of gender: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/stop-using-phony-science-to-justify-transphobia/

If you need any further sport and advice on this topic, our Inclusive Sport team would love to hear from you.