When FINA, swimming’s governing body, decided to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in elite women’s competition, there were concerns within community sports of how it could impact transgender participation in local leagues.
Former VFLW player and coach Emily Fox, who is a trans woman, said her initial reaction to the decision was one of great disappointment. “Especially when they’re saying that they based it purely on science and fairness when the science is far from conclusive, and the fairness aspect means that they’re diminishing the identity of transgender people.”
Retired VFLW player and coach Emily Fox fears what FINA’s decision will mean for community sports.Credit:Jason South
Fox said when it came to transgender people in sport, “there are so few of us”.
“The fact that there are so few athletes from a gender diverse community, even at a community level, also speaks to the fact that this has been a policy designed to remedy a problem that doesn’t actually exist.”
Fox said policies implemented at the highest level could filter down to local leagues and grassroots sporting competitions, regardless of whether that was an intention or not, further alienating people from community sport.
“Whether this situation will now empower local swimming clubs to tell gender diverse people that they’re not welcome and they should no longer be there could be a real effect of this,” she said.
“As other sports join and jump on board, so with cycling, athletics, both the rugby codes for example, we might have situations where at a community level, transgender people might be ostracised, forced to leave or even outed without their consent by organisations that are going to use this as an opportunity to discriminate against a marginalised sector of the community.”
In October 2020, the AFL announced that gender diverse players could not be excluded from community games for reasons of “competitive advantage” because there were no apparent safety risks at that level.
But Fox said she observed occasional discrimination despite so few transgender people participating at the community level.
“We are already aware of football leagues in Victoria that have openly expressed antagonistic attitudes towards transgender people and have told transgender athletes not to apply for their leagues as they won’t be welcomed.”
Regardless, an AFL spokesperson said no policy review was currently being considered, highlighting that “football is a game for all”.
Fox noted that decisions were largely made without the consultation and support of transgender and gender diverse athletes, and that there was a lack of understanding about the community.
“There’s no homogenous concept of what a transgender woman or what a transgender man is,” she said. “Trying to come up with this one-size-fits-all exclusionary focus just ignores the fact that someone might be an 18-year-old who transitioned at the age of two, someone might be a 45-year-old who just wants to play division-four hockey and there’s this blanket concept: ‘Well, they’re all the same, and they’re all not the right kind of human, and we don’t want them as part of our sport.’
“It’s just very, very disappointing.”
Despite concerns regarding a potential trickle-down effect on community sports, various Victorian sporting bodies believed local clubs, leagues and events were different and altogether more inclusive, and should therefore be regulated separately from professional sports.
Transgender American swimmer Lia Thomas has helped lead the debate around trans involvement in elite sports.Credit:Getty
Jason Hellwig, chief executive of Swimming Victoria, described the ideal culture within community sports as “inclusiveness, kindness and welcome”, a space where people of all walks of life could be active while enjoying non-judgmental fun.
“As sporting bodies, we have an obligation to represent an opportunity for the entire community to play the sport,” Hellwig said.
“That doesn’t mean everyone gets to go to the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But everyone should be able to find a place to participate.”
A diversity inclusion advisory committee was installed two years ago to better educate those within the organisation, but no concrete transgender policies have been introduced at the local level.
Hellwig noted that requirements for elite pathways were understandably different from community avenues due to its highly competitive nature, and this had to be accounted for when creating policy.
“It’s going to take some really important work to be done,” he said.
“These things appear simple, but where does the line of elite start and finish? What is that point of demarcation at which this [FINA’s transgender] policy becomes effective? Then, once we understand that, what do we do at that more local, granular level?”
Chief executive of the Women’s Professional Golf Association, Karen Lunn, said transgender participation would now be front-of-mind for all golf organisations in coming years, focusing predominantly on how to reconcile the difference between professional and community events.
“That’s the million-dollar question at the moment,” Lunn said.
“Community sports is all about participation … In professional sport, it’s people’s livelihoods, so we just have to create a level playing field.”
Cricket Victoria’s policy allowed all athletes, irrespective of their legal sex classification, to participate in community cricket with no restrictions.
“We’ve looked seriously into transgender inclusion at the community level, but this [FINA’s ruling] doesn’t really impact that as much, I don’t think. It isn’t a key priority issue at the moment,” a spokesperson from Cricket Australia said.
On tennis courts, gender diverse athletes could freely play in whichever local category they felt most comfortable.
“Tennis is … one of the few sports where genders have always had the opportunity to participate and compete alongside each other,” Gabriella Tobias, head of communications for Tennis Victoria, said.
“In fact, the introduction of the new UTR [universal tennis ranking], which could be compared to a golf handicap, determines ranking purely on results, and does not take gender into account.”
Tobias said the body was committed to their gender inclusion policies at the community level, which differed greatly from international rules overseeing elite competitions. Professional transgender women players would need to provide proof of testosterone concentrations below five nanomoles per litre for 12 months before competition, whereas community tennis required no testing or regulation.
Little Athletics Victoria, a modified athletics program for children from five to 15 years of age, aims to normalise and encourage diverse, inclusive environments for children. Participants under 12 could choose whichever gender category they wished, with the preference that the child then remain in said category for the remainder of the season. Athletes over the age of 12 followed the same guidelines, but also had to demonstrate that their gender identity was consistent with other aspects of their everyday life.
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