The question of whether trans athletes should compete in female races and play in women’s leagues has been one of the most bitterly fought battles of an already fraught gender debate.
In March World Athletics controversially voted to ban transgender women from elite female competitions if they have undergone male puberty, in a decision the governing body said had been taken to “protect the future of the female category”.
The clash between inclusion and competitive fairness will be discussed in parliament next week [June 12] as part of the parliamentary debate on the Equality Act. The debate is a response to calls for clarity on protections against sex discrimination and provisions for single sex spaces relating to biological sex, rather than the sex people identify as.
For women in sport, this is a growing concern that has put many off competing. As they see it, new gender norms are turning women into spectators in their own competitions, and undermining the huge progress that has been made in female sports over the last few decades. Here are the stories of three of these women...
‘The imbalance in power felt so obvious to me, I couldn’t bear it. I’ve hung up my football boots for good’ – Maggie, 48
I was obsessed with football as a child and when I was eight I joined the boys’ league because there were no teams for girls. I loved it and was hugely focused, so I will never forget the day I was told that FA rules had changed and I couldn’t play anymore because there were no girls’ changing rooms and that at 11, I was too old to undress in front of boys.
It really affected me and I think contributed to some teenage depression, so I was delighted to find my way back into a women’s football league in my 30s. I spent many happy years playing with them, until in 2021 a trans woman joined our team. During the trials something didn’t feel right, but I told myself to check my biases.
It was only during our first competitive match that I realised how unfair it was. We beat the team we were playing 6-2, and the trans woman scored all six goals. They were banging in goals from parts of the pitch I couldn’t have even attempted and the imbalance in power became so obvious to me when I saw them plough through players with no awareness of their physical advantage.
I felt ashamed in front of the other team because of the unfair advantage we had. They were knocked out of the cup but without the trans woman, who knows what the score would have been? It is telling that none of the rest of us managed a single goal.
I actually walked off the pitch ten minutes into the second half because I couldn’t bear it any longer. I later quit the team and I’ve now hung up my competitive football boots for good.
I strongly believe that the FA needs to look into similar regulations to the ones they have in athletics. Ultimately, including transgender people in female sports categories is a barrier to participation for women. My experience as a child was a clear ban – but more subtle barriers manifest in other ways. As an adult, I made the choice to self-exclude because of the unfair advantage my team had; other women have done so because of shared changing facilities or the fear of getting injured on the pitch. There are also a number of young muslim women in the league who may have had to overcome cultural barriers to join – and we shouldn’t forget about them.
Apparently these are difficult views to hold in 2023, but all I know is that women deserve a level playing field..
‘It felt like tumbling back to the Dark Ages of misogyny’ – Julia, 50
I started racing in the 1980s when cycling was rife with sexism. I was selected at 16 for the junior national women’s team and quickly realised there was no coaching and no kit – unlike the boys’ team, which had both. But as I grew older, things slowly changed and in the last decade it has been wonderful to see a newfound focus on women’s sport. Unfortunately, it has coincided with allowing men to compete in our events - and to me, that has felt like tumbling back to the Dark Ages of misogyny.
The first time it personally stung was in 2019 when I was taking part in a masters race for women over 45. I am a mother-of-two with a busy job, but I carved out the time to train for it because I really wanted one of the top places in the podium. It was only on the day itself that I realised a natal male was taking part. Of course, they won the silver spot which meant I was placed bronze. It felt bitterly unfair, not least because not a single document mentioned the fact that the person who beat me was trans.
Arguably more difficult was the cult of silence around it. I know one woman who kept losing to the same trans rider and so eventually quit and many others who have been seriously demoralised – and yet so few speak out for fear of being labelled a bigot. One trans cyclist in Cheshire was winning virtually every woman’s race in the region – but when I went to the all-male board, they did nothing, in case it was transphobic to admit that men are faster and stronger than us.
Similarly, I oversee a girls’ cycling club, but when I asked race event organisers about safeguarding and trans athletes using the women’s changing room at the same time as them, nobody knew what to say. In all these situations, it’s volunteers or local people having to make decisions that should be coming from the Government.
I’m still cycling and trying to win that elusive silver medal, and I was pleased with the recent news that trans women would be banned from competing with women at an elite level. But clear rules are as important in grassroots races: gender IDs are here to stay, but competition needs fairness as a value in order to survive.
‘There was one particular trans athlete who was impossible to beat’ – Lisa, 49
It was in 2015 that I realised athletics was no longer fair. I was standing at the start of a race I was hoping to win when I noticed a male-bodied athlete had joined the lineup of women. And they looked like a man: taller, stronger and far more muscular than the rest of us. They also easily out-ran us all, and afterwards I looked around at my fellow competitors in stunned amazement – but they all kept their eyes trained on the ground.
A few years later, another trans identifying male (or you could say male bodied athlete) joined our running club. It’s mixed sex so that was no problem until they insisted on competing in the women’s races. There was one particular trans athlete in the over-45 age group that was impossible to beat. They were so fast that I eventually chose to move to a younger race category. Competing against women 10 years my junior felt a lot fairer than against a man.
At the same time, I started watching younger women lose their motivation as they realised there was no possibility of winning races against people with so much more testosterone and muscle mass than them. This really upset me as I have taken so much pleasure from sport – it has given me a sense of teamwork and real friendships – and so I decided to send letters and talk to whoever I could about it.
Thankfully, UK Athletics listened to the mass of women speaking out and new rules were implemented in March that say that anyone who has gone through male puberty can no longer compete in the female category. There is a loophole though: trans athletes who entered before March can carry on running against women and all the ones I know are still registered in the female category, but I’m just grateful things are changing at last.