By Nana Soares
The International Swimming Federation (FINA) announced at the World Championship, held in June in Budapest, a new technical-medical rule to regulate the participation of trans women in all modalities under its governance. According to the new parameters, trans women who have experienced stages of puberty as boys will no longer be allowed to participate in women’s competitions. This decision comes after a sharp escalation of tensions over the participation of trans women athletes in 2021 and 2022. But the origins of this debate and related controversies have a very long history.
The discussions and tensions over the inclusion/exclusion of trans athletes revolve and reactivate visions and issues that traverse the very history of women´s presence in sports, and they concern the biological definitions of sex and gender but also rights. As the feminist biologist Anne-Fausto Sterling reminds us, the politics of sex/gender is embedded in the trajectory of elite sports since their beginnings: women were vetoed from the Olympics in Ancient Greece, as they were not even considered citizens. Women were also initially excluded from the games of the modern era. Baron de Coubertin, the “father” of the Olympic Games, was vehemently opposed to their participation because he considered that women’s sports offended the laws of nature. Fausto-Sterling notes that “Olympics officials were quick to certify the femininity of the women they allowed to participate because the very act of competing seemed to imply that they could be “untrue women”.
Such policy and policing have always existed. However, today, as we regularly show in our newsletters, the sport world has become a contentious battleground around the participation of trans women. In these clashes, the views of conservative anti-gender forces are intertwined with feminist positions that claim to be defending the place of women in sports. The arguments brandished by these voices are supported by strong convictions and weak or, at the very least, questionable evidence. FINA’s recent decision, although presented as technically grounded, appears to reflect the views of these voices and, quite worryingly, was quickly replicated in other sports (see the timeline at the end of the article).
Here are the facts: On June 19th, FINA announced that trans women will only be allowed to participate in elite women’s competitions in case they would have started their gender transition before the age of 12. Put it differently, if they have not experienced male puberty. Significantly, the decision was signed and announced in Budapest, which is currently a global hub of anti-gender wars.
Trans men are exempted from these rules and can participate in both male and female competitions as long as they are not using exogenous androgens. And, as a solution to the trans women exclusion implicit in the rules, FINA has proposed the creation of a new “open” competition category, in which trans women could participate without restrictions. This would mean confining trans women to an exclusive category of competition, which implies, in practice, defining them as a distinct category of athletes, and therefore of human beings, a view contrary to what trans activism has claimed and won in the realm of human rights.
The virtual banning of trans women in aquatic sports did not fall from the sky, nor does it end in itself. On the contrary, it has many antecedents and its wider effects are already visible. It is worth noting that presently there are no trans women competing in the elite aquatic sports internationally. Lia Thomas, a US trans swimmer, won major competitions in 2022, but in tournaments not governed by FINA and that do not follow its parameters regarding the participation of trans women. If they did follow, Thomas would have been unable to participate even before the rule was changed.
But for the new policy to be understood, both the new International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules on transgender participation and the virulent debates sparked by Lia Thomas’ victories must be taken into account. In November 2021, the IOC changed its guidelines regarding the participation of trans athletes. When announced, the new standards were considered an advancement because they left behind the classic parameters based on the maximum and universal level of testosterone. But also because they made it explicit that their premises aimed at not excluding any athlete based on unfair assumptions about competitive advantage. However, the IOC left it up to individual federations to determine their own parameters on the matter and this opened a loophole for the virtual exclusion of trans women from several “noble” sports. When the IOC published the new parameters, FINA created three committees to examine the matter and issue new guidelines.
These new rules and the speed with which they were adopted appear to be linked to heated debates that took place in the USA in reaction to the recent victories of Lia Thomas, the first trans athlete to be a college champion in the 500-yard championship. In the US, sport is currently one domain in which fierce anti-trans attacks are underway (alongside education and health care): since last year almost 20 states have introduced bills or passed legislation limiting the participation of trans women in sports. Thomas’ victories caused numerous protests and gained enough repercussion to influence or at least accelerate FINA’s urge to redefine its rules, which now apply to swimming, aquatic marathon, water polo, but also diving and artistic swimming, sports that differ greatly from one another in terms of what they physically demand from competing athletes.
The FINA document has numerous points that deserve closer critical analysis. It is based on the premise that puberty is a fixed divide in what concerns the physical abilities of men and women, which, under the FINA argumentation, cannot be compensated later. It also incessantly cites a concern for justice and human rights and states that sport is for everyone and that it is the duty of the regulating body to ensure opportunities for girls and women and women’s sports.
The guidelines have already been sharply criticized. A number of trans athletes and scientists have considered that the decision, in addition to excluding trans athletes, disregards body variability that occurs even among cis women. The Brazilian doctor Jairo Bouer, for example, made this argument on the basis of available studies regarding the performance of trans athletes as compared to the cis population.
Doctor Tatiane Miranda, who attends adolescents at the Hospital Infantil João Paulo II, in the state of Minas Gerais, also in Brazil, summarised her criticism as follows:
What (the rule) changes is the suffering it causes in the population because measures such as this one legitimize suffering and violence and sentence people to adjust to what society thinks they are at birth, but which is not how they see themselves. In addition, talking about sports should be talking about developing potentialities. (…) It is not clear what based the FINA decision. The argument on puberty blockage and hormones is not enough to justify it, including because variations across persons may occur. There is not, for example, a standard age for initiating puberty blockage, as this depends on the stage of puberty. If a 12-year-old is at stage 1, there is no recommendation for blocking. So what is the rationale? Is it an evidence-based scientific truth? Or is this biopolitical control? It seems to be a legitimized violence in the name of science when a wider debate should take place.
From whatever point of view the matter is looked at, what seems to be evident at this point is that the discussion should not end with the adoption of the FINA rules. The reverberation of the IOC’s new rules in other sports modalities as well as the replication of FINA’s decision added fuel to a highly ignited debate currently underway inside and outside sports. Most importantly, the consequences on the lives and rights of trans people, in particular trans women, whether they are or not athletes, remain unpredictable.
Timeline of anti-trans moves in high-performance sports:
- 2018/2019: World Athletics, which regulates athletics globally, updated its guidelines by halving the maximum levels of allowable testosterone concentration in women´s bodies. It maintained the guidelines even after they were questioned. But the rule only applies to athletes competing in modalities between 400m and 1500m. The measure excluded Caster Semenya from the Tokyo Olympics, as well as two sprinters from Namibia. None of the three athletes is a trans woman.
- November/21: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) updated the guidelines for the eligibility of transgender and intersex persons. The guidelines allow autonomy to each federation, while prohibiting gynecological testing and reinforcing the non-presumption of advantage.
- March/2022: in The US Lia Thomas becomes the first trans woman to win a 500-yard swimming competition, drawing intense criticism and facing protests made by people who oppose her participation in female competitions.
- March/2022: Emily Bridges, a British trans cyclist, was declared “ineligible” for her British national cycling championship race. The decision was made by the International Cycling Union (ICU).
- April (07/04/2022): The British ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that “biological men should not compete in women’s sporting events”.
- June (16/06/2022): The International Cycling Union (ICU) toughens the rules for trans athletes to participate in elite championships, halving the maximum testosterone level allowed and demanding a minimum of two years of low testosterone levels.
- June (19/06/22): The International Swimming Federation (Fina) announces its decision to ban trans women from elite competitions in women’s categories if they started transitioning after age 12.
- June (20/06//22): FIFA and World Athletics, which manage football and athletics respectively, announced that following FINA’s decision, they are also reviewing their inclusion rules for trans athletes
- June (21/06/22): The International Rugby League (IRL) bans trans female players from international competitions “until the organisation conducts research to enable a formal trans inclusion policy”. The determination goes against the new IOC guidelines, which state that discrimination is not allowed unless unfair advantage has already been scientifically proven with extensive studies.
- June (22/06/22): The International Hockey Federation, the International Canoe Federation, and the World Triathlon also announced revisions to their rules for including trans athletes in sports, which are due for November 2022.
- June (26/06/2022: UK Culture Secretary Nadine Norris has urged all sports federations in the country to follow FINA’s ruling.
- July (06/07/2022): The British Triathlon federation banned trans athletes from competing in the women’s categories and created a third “open” category.
In contrast, on June 23rd, the German Football Association (DFB) approved new regulations on the rights of trans, inter and non-binary people to participate in the modality. The new rule allows all athletes playing amateur football to decide whether they will play in male or female teams.