Fair game: Targeting trans athletes is unsporting and cruel

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Opinion

Fair game: Targeting trans athletes is unsporting and cruel

My footy club was the first place I felt comfortable to come out. It’s not an uncommon story, thanks to the proud history of inclusion in Australian sport. But now we stand at a crossroads, and the stakes are high for all of us.

Trans athletes have been banned from competing in women’s swimming.

Trans athletes have been banned from competing in women’s swimming.Credit:Getty

Last Monday, elite swimming’s governing body, FINA, made a bombshell decision.

They effectively banned all women who are trans, and some intersex women – that is, women born with hormonal, chromosomal or anatomical sex characteristics that do not fit the social or medical norms for female bodies – from competing against other women in elite swimming competitions.

International rugby league soon followed, announcing a blanket ban on trans women. And a growing list of sports have subsequently announced reviews.

Blanket bans risk violating international human rights principles of non-discrimination, which require policies to start from a place of inclusion unless an exclusion can be justified as proportionate to any risks identified.

Both FINA and International Rugby League’s policies fail to meet that standard.

That’s why FINA should immediately place its policy under a human rights review. And as rugby league and other international bodies revisit their approach, they must consult with affected people and provide a detailed explanation of the evidence they are relying upon before they exclude players from the sports they love.

The policies of these global federations directly impact a tiny proportion of sportspeople. In fact, the urgency is difficult to understand given there are no women known to be trans or intersex currently competing at the elite level of either sport.

But the message blanket bans have sent to intersex and trans women and girls is unambiguous – you are not welcome. And to make matters worse, many are now bracing themselves for the impact on their local sporting communities.

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Australian sporting codes are now considering their inclusion policies in light of these global shifts. And while the stakes could not be higher for people from these communities, what happens next has implications for all of us.

I’m not trans or intersex, but as a woman who played footy for years, I’m passionate about women’s sport, and believe we owe a debt of gratitude to those who fought so hard to ensure sport can be for everyone. This is particularly so for those of us who have been historically excluded from sports dominated by men or forced to hide who we are or whom we love for fear of discrimination.

Playing footy was good for all of us. We got fit and built our confidence and skill, and it was good for our mental health.

LGBTIQ+ people experience high levels of exclusion, marginalisation and isolation, driving poor mental health outcomes and high rates of suicidality, and research shows that this is particularly so for gender diverse folk. For intersex people, their bodies are already policed and scrutinised, often without their consent.

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That’s why it’s been vital that sporting teams have come on a decades long journey, working to include everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

Teams have long found practical ways to ensure that every member can be included while maintaining a fair game for everyone. And at the national level, most major sporting codes have worked through their particular requirements and policies to support this practice.

This work has undoubtedly saved lives, which is why what happens next is so significant.

Given the small number of trans or intersex athletes and the impact of exclusion on people’s health and wellbeing, codes should continue to take an inclusive, proportionate and evidence-based approach, rather than imposing blunt and harmful bans.

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This is particularly so where there are less restrictive alternatives available.

The simple act of playing a sport in a team in which you are valued and accepted is an affirming and empowering experience for anyone. It was for me, and I know it remains so for the women – trans or otherwise – that play at my old footy club today.

Like all sporting teams – these women continue to form life-long friendships and connect across difference. This is the stuff that community is made of. It is something to be cherished and protected, not attacked.

In the face of increasing pressure, and the disingenuous, overblown rhetoric of anti-equality lobbyists, decision-makers must resist calls for blanket exclusions.

To deny any woman or girl the chance to play the sport they love, in a team where they feel at home is just cruel. Sport should be for everyone.

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