In February, Lia Thomas became the first known transgender athlete to win the highest US national college swimming title, beating an Olympic silver medallist to do so at the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) championship in Atlanta.
Some are celebrating Thomas’ win as a victory for inclusion. But there is nothing inclusive or fair about allowing Thomas, previously ranked 462nd in men’s college swimming, to compete against female athletes.
I am a former athlete who started at community sport and slowly worked my way up to the elite level. As the saying goes, “hard work beats talent, if talent doesn’t work hard”. I was one that made my way through hard work, the struggle to break through is something I understand intrinsically. This is why I am so dismayed by the current political support for gender and/or sex self-identification, which allows males, with all of their natural advantages, to compete with and against females under the guise of diversity and inclusion.
I started at community sport for two different pursuits as a teenager (rowing) and again in my late 20's (triathlon events), eventually competing internationally. However, in both disciplines, I struggled for a few years to break through, and it required a great deal of tenacity at times to carry on. For many athletes, it can be a very fine line to be able to continue competing or not. Even more so for female athletes where participation rates and opportunities overall are already less than our male counterparts. A 2019 Active NZ report by Sport NZ, established that young adult females have a greater appetite to increase participation than males, but they also face more barriers.
I lived week to week, managing work and study commitments around training and competing, acutely aware my ability to pursue sporting goals would be short lived in the great scheme of life. I relied heavily on the small but significant windows of opportunity to keep the momentum going. A win could lead to an article in the local newspaper and in turn people in my community started to become aware of my achievements. Over time with consistency, this recognition became sponsorship. Businesses offered running shoes, a gym membership, physio treatment, equipment, and expertise. A foundation of support was slowly built by my community and allowed me to continue progressing. I was fortunate. Of the many barriers and challenges that I had to face when chasing my sporting dreams, the possibility of having to compete against a male loaded with irreversible physiological advantages was not one of them. I don’t know what I would have done if I was in the situation that many female athletes now find themselves - pressured to stay silent in the face of something that clearly undermines girls and women’s right to fair and safe competition in the name of “inclusion”. In recent years there has been active collusion by sporting organisations to reorganise sporting priorities. Currently, sports organisations and government agencies in both New Zealand and Australia are advocating for, or have already implemented, policies to give any male who says he identifies as a girl or a woman the right to play sport in the female category, and use female changing rooms, with no physical transition required. These agencies believe that a male’s right to be “included” in women’s sport is more important than the safety, fairness, and opportunities for females. In almost all instances these proposals and policies have been developed alongside and widely consulted with advocates for transgender people while deliberately excluding female athletes from consultation. Nor have any assessments on the impact that including males in girls or women’s sport will have on female players – physically or emotionally – been undertaken. For example, in a March email from Sport NZ to Save Women’s Sports Australasia, a Sport NZ representative wrote, “I can advise that no surveys have been undertaken by Sport NZ into the potential impacts on participation of female participants as a result of the inclusion of transgender participants... The guiding principles, as you know, are being developed to support sporting organisations at the community level to address matters of inclusion around transgender participants. They look at ways to include transgender participants, rather than potential impacts on those who are already participating in sport. The overall intent of these guiding principles is inclusion, allowing everyone who wants to participate in community sport to be able to do so in the gender they identify with. This aligns with the Sport NZ vision of Every Body Active.” Given the obvious impact this will have on sporting clubs and associations at all levels, the lack of wider consultation, transparency, and consideration of ramifications for female athletes, is extremely concerning. This will have serious implications and real potential to discredit performance and erode the integrity of female sport.
Community sport is the gateway to regional, national, and international levels. Not only that, but amateur sport played at community level is competitive and still requires considerable dedication, time, and resource to participate. For girls and young women this also includes considerable dedication of both time and finances by their family members as well. When a male that identifies as a woman claims a spot on the podium in the female category, it is incredibly unfair to the girls or women who have worked hard, turned up and performed to the best of their ability, only to be displaced and have their moment and their time of celebration undermined. How is it possible that sporting organisations are allowing this to happen with no understanding of how this will be impacting ongoing female success and participation rates. Where is the advocacy, support, and consideration for the female athletes who should be entitled to fair competition in their category.
Not only are females being displaced in their events, but they are being physically injured in contact sports when they play against males that identify as women. This recently occurred in a high school rugby game. Despite World Rugby research made available last year, which established that safety and fairness in rugby could not be achieved with the inclusion of transgender women, a male that identified as a woman was still allowed on a women’s team. Only after three female players were injured in a single game, did the coaches and organisation admit that the size, strength, and physical force of a male in contact sport could cause serious harm to the female players.
Despite this, New Zealand and Australia’s national rugby unions continue to talk about prioritising “inclusion” in social and community rugby. These realities cannot continue to be ignored. Not only is this unfair, but girls and women are already being harmed when inclusion is prioritised over safety and fairness.
Women are not men with lower testosterone, and we cannot identify our way out of our biological differences. Acknowledging this does not make women 'lesser' athletes, it simply reflects material reality and is the very reason that we have separate categories for the sexes. Everyone has a right to feel safe, included and accepted in sport. But sport is not separated by gender. We do not have non-binary sports teams, agender sports teams, bigender sports teams, or moongender sports teams. Sport is separated by sex because it is not identities that play sports, it is bodies. And a male person, no matter how they identify, can never change their biological sex.
While I do not believe that male transgender athletes should be seeking to participate or compete in women’s sport, it is not them that deserve the spotlight of criticism and scrutiny. It is the sporting organisations and government agencies that are implementing “inclusion” policies while excluding those most impacted by them, refusing to acknowledge that there is a significant conflict of rights, and the full extent of ramifications have not been considered, nor researched.
I feel compelled to continue to speak about this because I had a fair opportunity to succeed to the best of my ability in sport, as have other women before me, in their sporting endeavours.
The question I ask is whether the next generation of girls will have the same opportunities, if we can no longer define material reality.
Candice Riley May 2022