Canada voted in favour of world swimming body's transgender policy

·5 min read

Canada voted in favour of a controversial gender policy announced this week by the world governing body of swimming.

In a policy that went into effect Monday, FINA allows only transgender swimmers who transition from male to female before age 12 to compete in women's events.

FINA is contemplating the establishment of an open-competition category.

Canada's swimming, diving, water polo and artistic swimming federations are represented at the FINA voting level by the umbrella Aquatics Canada Aquatiques.

FINA stated 71.5 per cent of votes were cast in favour of the new policy.

"Canada did vote in favour of FINA’s gender inclusion policy," president Kelly Stark-Anderson told The Canadian Press in an email Tuesday.

"The values of inclusion and fairness are fundamental in international sport competition and to us as Canadians. We believe that this policy was thoughtfully developed and protects competitive fairness, especially in the female events at FINA competitions.

"We are also supportive of the work FINA will undertake to create a new open competition category, reflecting FINA’s commitment to inclusion."

Canadian athletes are currently competing in the biannual world aquatics championships in Budapest, Hungary.

The International Olympic Committee released in November a framework on "fairness, inclusion and non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex variations" and acknowledged that sex verification testing and requiring women to modify their hormone levels were harmful.

The IOC also downloaded responsibility for determining women's competitive criteria, and whether an athlete has an unfair advantage over the field, to international sports federations.

FINA was the first major international sports federation to restrict transgender participation after the IOC published that framework, although World Rugby banned transgender women in 2020.

"It's interesting to see two very different sports like rugby and swimming adopt very similar trans exclusionary policies," said Brock University assistant professor Michele Donnelly, who specializes in gender issues and social inequality in sport.

"Between World Rugby and FINA, it feels like steps backward and really bowing to what I would hope is a minority voice that just is doing real fearmongering."

Also, the International Cycling Union last week tightened rules on transgender participation by reducing the maximum permitted testosterone level and increasing the transition period for low testosterone levels from one year to two, in order to compete.

FINA's announcement Sunday following the vote came just weeks after the NCAA swim championship in Atlanta, where transgender woman Lia Thomas won one of her three finals.

She finished fifth and eighth in the other two and didn't set NCAA records.

"People who don't care about women's sport in any way shape or form, who have taken on the issue as an opportunity to further their transphobic platforms under the guise of fairness and competitive balance in women's sport is so frustrating, particularly as someone who is really invested in equality in sport and gender equality," Donnelly said.

"These are people who don't say anything when women's sport continues to receive between two and five per cent of all sports media coverage and less in terms of resources on every single level."

With several U.S. states recently legislating against trans women and girls participating in women's and girls' sport, Simon Fraser professor Travers says the climate around transgender participation is worse now than when they authored the 2018 book "The Trans Generation. How Trans Kids (And Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution".

"I've interviewed a lot of trans kids," Travers said. "Sport participation has been a real barrier for them. Many of them just feel it's not an option, which is an awful thing for a kid.

"Bans like this on the participation of trans women and girls in sport sends a chilling and damaging message to children and youth. It really indicates that you are, we are, real outsiders that don't belong.

"The open division that's being proposed by FINA is deeply problematic because it's going to stigmatize and isolate transgender women. It's not about inclusion, it's about exclusion."

FINA contends higher testosterone levels in males from puberty onward give them a competitive advantage in aquatic sport.

FINA says gender affirming male-to-female transition procedures can blunt some, but not all, effects of testosterone on body structure and muscle function "but there will be persistent legacy effects that will give male-to-female transgender athletes (transgender women) a relative performance advantage over biological females.

"A biological female athlete cannot overcome that advantage through training or nutrition."

Travers doesn't buy that.

"What is considered to be fair and unfair is a social decision, and the science just doesn't convincingly establish that trans women have an unfair advantage," the professor said. "The FINA ruling is not based on sound scientific evidence."

Donnelly, who is also a roller derby athlete in the Niagara region, served on the Women's Flat Track Derby Association's board of directors when it revised a gender policy that's been in place since 2015.

"I would say roller derby was ahead of the curve in terms of recognizing the problems with any sort of biological, physiological-based policies," she said.

"So we ultimately determined a self-declaration policy that says, among other things, that if women's flat track roller derby is the version and composition of roller derby with which you most closely identify, this is the place for you.

"I think it's incredibly important as an athlete to be able to go into the space where you're playing and know that both among your teammates, as well as among your opponents, that your right to be there is recognized by everyone."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2022.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting