It appears the debate regarding the eligibility of transgender athletes in sports is heating up as the discussion continues to draw polarized opinions from all angles regarding whether or not transgender, non-binary, and intersex athletes have a right to participate in sports. Many high-profile athletes from all over the world have used their platform to share their opinions, often drawing the ire and criticism from people on the other side.

It is important to remember that the 2003 Stockholm Consensus which was agreed upon by the International Olympic Committee was the first step toward inclusion of transgender and intersex athletes in the Olympic Games. In 2015 the IOC updated the policy that is considered the most inclusive policy so far for transgender athletes and athletes with Hyperandrogenism to participate in the Olympic Games. This policy is also supported by most of the various world governing bodies that sanction the Olympic Games for their specific sports. Despite these policies, no openly transgender athletes have participated at the Olympic Games, ever.

Despite this, the controversy has escalated as we are seeing more transgender athletes participate in sports, some of whom are very competitive and thus drawing attention for their wins. Athletes such as Dr. Rachel McKinnon, Mack Beggs, Pat Manuel, Fallon Fox, and Andraya Yearwood, all of whom have seen athletic success in their sports. Have drawn criticism from many people who claim that their wins are the result of unfair advantages associated with their transition. Often being labeled as cheaters, these athletes frequently face a lot of transphobic insults, threats and general hate that diminish their athletic accomplishments to a mere fallacy. However, these athletes reflect a statistically insignificant portion of the greater athletic population and again, none of whom have ever qualified nor competed in elite level sport or at the Olympic Games.

However, this hasn’t stopped more than a few current and former cis gender elite athletes from introjecting their opinions that criticize transgender athletes and label them as cheaters. Athletes including Wimbledon Champion Martina Navratilova, Team GB Olympic Gold Medalist Sharron Davies MBE, and former Australian Football League player Sam Newman among other high profile athletes have openly mocked, criticized and questioned the dignity and rights of transgender athletes.

Most of the criticisms and perspectives are often based on ignorance and lack of a clear understanding in regard to how transition affects sports performance. It is true that we do not have a full scientific understanding how transition does affect sports performance. However, as this issue is becoming more relevant it will spur more interest and scientific research that will serve to help clarify policies and ensure that respect the inclusion, rights and dignities of transgender athletes while ensuring a fair playing field for all.

Unfortunately, many organizations such as USA Powerlifting have chosen instead to hide from progress with transgender blanket bans in their sports. Blanket bans only serve to inhibit the opportunity to build or knowledge, understanding and research based on evidence. In contrast, organizations such as USA Hockey, Scottish Athletics, Crossfit and the 2019 Canada Games have chosen to adopt more trans inclusive policies. Such policies are important because they help pave the way that improves our understanding of how to develop inclusive policies that respect the spirit of sports and fair play while also respecting the rights and dignities of transgender, non-binary and intersex athletes.

Taking a stance against the mockery and criticisms of Navratilova, Davies and Newman as well as other athletes, several LGBT Sports Organizations have released statements to speak up in protecting transgender athletes.

In response to Sam Newman, Pride in Sport, in conjunction with Pride Cup Australia, Stand Up Events, Proud 2 Play, AFL Pride Collective, and in association with the AFL released a statement condemning Newman’s mockery and comments.

Standing up to Sharron Davies, Pride Sports, LEAP Sports Scotland and LGBT Sport Cymru released a statement to speak out against Davies’ claims and help clarify the current policies and statistics.

The backlash that Martina Navratilova has faced from her article, including getting dumped by Athlete Ally and heavy criticism by Outsports. Navratilova herself followed up with a statement on her website with the intention to take the time to promote discussion and research into the issue.

The consequence of this ongoing debate and furthering transphobic attitudes, policies and general negative attitudes towards transgender, non-binary and intersex athletes in sports can have a negative effect on the mental health of the athletes and individuals. Transgender people face a disproportionally high levels of mental health conditions and suicidal tendencies which is directly correlated with how they are treated by others and includes discrimination, stigma, and rejection. Thus, every time a prominent person makes a statement calling trans people “cheaters” or mocking trans people, they are directly contributing to the hate and discrimination that trans people face every day.

Participation in sports at all levels has the power to help combat discrimination and hate. But it’s also one of the most contentious avenues that the fight against discrimination and hate takes place. It even makes the anti-LGBT bathroom bills and so called “religious freedom” bills look like mere footnotes. Exercise and sports however, is an important avenue for transgender people to be part of, because of its directly correlated effect on improving mental health, sense of belonging and self-efficacy in individuals. Sports and exercise can help improve the mental health and confidence of transgender, non-binary and intersex people, while also combatting the discrimination and hate. Unfortunately, the anti-trans rhetoric rooted in fear, hate and ignorance inhibits trans people from wanting to participate and be active in sports which contributes to the statistically low number of transgender people who choose to participate. So, whenever an athlete does win it becomes a big piece of news, not because they have some so called “unfair advantage” but because it’s easier to use hate to justify a loss rather than accept one own’s athletic shortcomings.

Organizations such as Athlete Ally, Pride in Sport, Pride Sports, Stand Up Events, Proud 2 Play, Leap Sports Scotland, LGBT Sport Cymru and others are important to help promote sports as well as further the discussion, awareness and education that direct affects transgender, non-binary and intersex athletes in sports. Through their efforts, we can help improve mental health and reduce the amount of suicides in the transgender community by improving participation in sports. In turn, this will help us improve our knowledge and research to help clarify and improve policies to be more inclusive, consistent, and fair.

By Dirk Smith