Transgender Athletes Join Debate Over Sport Participation After FINA Decision

On a cold Melbourne winter night, Em Fox braves the cold for footy training.

She is happy to be here because 10 years ago she thought she would never play again.

“2012 was the last year I played in men’s football leagues,” she said.

“I always found it a challenge to play in men’s teams, even though I presented myself to the outside as a male identity.

“It wasn’t how I felt, and it was very uncomfortable being in that hyper-masculine environment.

“So when I decided not to play football anymore, I thought that would have a lot of finality.”

She became the first openly transgender woman in the women’s VFL. But tonight she trains with the Melbourne University Women’s Football Club.

Transgender woman in action on the football field
Em Fox became the first openly transgender woman in the women’s VFL.Russ Canham

“Melbourne University Football Club had a lot of transgender athletes play for this club long before I even played women’s football,” she said.

“This place here has really been at the forefront.”

An estimated one in ten members of the club are trans or gender diverse – including Em Collard.

Woman wearing a navy hoodie on a soccer field.
Em Collard says the Melbourne University Women’s Football Club has enabled them to examine their gender identity.ABC news

“When I joined, I joined at a time when I wasn’t out yet, in terms of being non-binary.

“So I think I had a chance to make friends and explore gender identity.”

However, not every club or sport is so welcoming.

Scientific evidence not established

Last month, the world governing body of swimming, FINA, voted to exclude transgender women from the elite women’s competition if they had experienced some part of male puberty.

International Rugby League followed suit with a temporary ban and the cycling governing body put in place stricter rules around testosterone levels and transition times for transgender athletes.

The scientific group behind the FINA policy found that transgender women maintained a performance advantage over female athletes if they underwent male puberty before transitioning, but it’s unclear how they arrived at that conclusion.

Associate professor Ada Cheung says there is simply not enough evidence available for an evidence-based policy.

Woman with short hair, wearing a red shirt and black jacket, sitting in an office.
Ada Cheung says very few trans athletes compete at the elite level.ABC news

“I understand the need for people who participate in elite sports to have guidelines and policies,” she said.

dr. Cheung believes the debate surrounding transgender athletes is disproportionate to the perceived problem.

“Even if you look at the Olympics… transgender people have been allowed to participate since 2004,” she said.

“But since that time, out of 71,000 Olympians, only two are openly trans women, and one of them came in last and the other came in 37th out of 42.”

There are few publicly available studies on the effects of hormone therapy on performance, and the available studies have significant limitations.

Woman walking from behind
The evidence surrounding the impact of hormone therapy on performance is still unclear.Flickr: Thomas Hawk

One often cited found that the only real performance gap after two years of feminizing hormones was that trans women ran an average of 12 percent faster — but that looked at U.S. military personnel, not athletes.

Another study found that trans women who received hormone therapy generally maintained their strength levels after a year, but that didn’t look at athletes either.

dr. Cheung said the evidence was anything but clear.

“I often use the analogy, if you imagine a four-wheel drive, but it’s powered by a hatchback engine.

“So the muscle mass and muscle strength is low, but the frame is bigger.”

Finding the right balance

Former pro golfer and trans woman Mianne Bagger broadly supports FINA’s policies – a view that is at odds with many in the trans community.

She was the first openly trans woman to play a professional golf tournament at the 2004 Australian Open.

Mianne Bagger watches her shot from the tee with her golf club slung over her shoulder.
Mianne Bagger broadly supports FINA’s policy.Reuters: David Gray

“Obviously, when I started sports, there was that requirement for surgery and two years of incapacity,” she said.

“In 2015, that changed to no surgery and 12 months incapacity.

“Now, in some places, in some sports, it’s all about self-identification without medical intervention. And that’s completely unacceptable.”

Bagger has empathy for sports executives trying to create transgender policies that balance fairness and inclusion.

“Of course everyone should have access to sport for the sheer pleasure, the community, the benefit for personal life,” she said.

“Give kids access, find a way to get kids into sports.

“But when you go to the elite level of sport – the Olympics, professional sports – it’s about people’s livelihoods, making money and medals.

A steel ladder on the side of an outdoor pool.
The FINA’s decision to limit the participation of transgender athletes is the strictest of all Olympic sports organizations.ABC News: Holly Tregenza

“It doesn’t matter what policy is developed, someone is being discriminated against.

“And really, when it comes to women’s and girls’ sports, the only group that shouldn’t be discriminated against is women and girls.”

Sports organizations continue to struggle with how to provide a level playing field for athletes.

But trans and gender diverse players like Em Collard say the debate over them and their bodies has been anything but fair.

A hand is holding a small transgender flag
The issue of transgender inclusion in sport is very divisive.Reuters: Brendan McDermid

“All we’re trying to do is feel comfortable in our own skin and be a part of our communities and celebrate who we are as trans and gender diverse people,” they said.

“So when people say really awful things about us mutilating our bodies or something, trying to gain unfair advantage in sports, we don’t try at all.