'Polarizing topic': Sides grapple with fairness of trans women competing on female teams

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A woman demonstrates against a proposed ban on transgender girls and women from female sports leagues in South Dakota in March. Republican lawmakers in several U.S. states have introduced legislature related to transgender issues. (Stephen Groves/The Associated Press - image credit)
A woman demonstrates against a proposed ban on transgender girls and women from female sports leagues in South Dakota in March. Republican lawmakers in several U.S. states have introduced legislature related to transgender issues. (Stephen Groves/The Associated Press - image credit)

It's an easy question to ask but finding a conclusive answer is proving difficult.

Republican lawmakers in several U.S. states have introduced more than 100 bills related to transgender issues, many of them aimed at preventing transgender women and girls from competing on female sports team.

Those who support the legislation argue transgender athletes have a physical advantage in women's sports.

So, do they?

"It's a very polarizing topic," said Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, chief executive officer for Canadian Women and Sport.

"There is quite a bit of research on the topic, with more being produced all the time. Our understanding of the research is that it's also divided, therefore quite inconclusive. Everybody's kind of got signs on their side. That's part of what makes this really a tricky conversation to navigate."

Veronica Ivy, a Canadian transgender athlete who is a two-time UCI Women's Masters Track World Championship winner, argues there is no advantage.

"The idea that [in] pre-puberty there's any physiological advantage for trans girls is literally nonsense," said Ivy, who was born in Victoria and is an associate professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. "So, these bills are not scientifically grounded.

"When it comes to post-puberty trans women, there's also no clear advantage, let alone an advantage large enough to justify exclusion. We have to remember that we already allow huge performance advantages within the women's category."

Sandmeyer-Graves' group has joined with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports (CCES) to conduct a review of the research done on whether transgender athletes have an advantage.

"A lot of people assume the answer," Sandmeyer-Graves said. "I think the science tells us that is actually a lot more complex than most people realize."

Caitlyn Jenner recently added fuel to the debate when she said it "just isn't fair" for biological boys who are transgender to compete in girls' sports in school.

WATCH | Bring It In panel breaks down Jenner's trans comments:

Jenner won an Olympic decathlon gold medal as a male at the 1976 Oympics in Montreal.

"It plays into a lot of the fears that people have about how trans women's participation will impact women's sports," Sandmeyer-Graves said. "We don't believe those fears are well founded."

Ivy said Jenner had previously supported the right for trans girls to participate in girls' sports.

"I suspect her about-face is politically motivated as she seeks the California governor's position as a Republican, tossing red meat to a transphobic voting base," Ivy said. "It's hypocritical to say the least."

'Trans girls are girls'

Six U.S. states have passed bills preventing athletes from competing in categories different than their biological sex at birth. Ivy called the laws "cruel, unfounded and harmful."

"They will do nothing but harm innocent children by taking away their right to play with people of their gender," she said. "Trans girls are girls. They are females.

"When we're talking about children, sports and playing on teams is such an important part of their social and intellectual development. Taking that away from already marginalized kids is nothing but cruel."

In Canada, the CCES has worked to develop policies for transgender athletes.

"That guidance essentially says that a person should have the right to participate in sport in the gender they identify with," said Paul Melia, the CCES's president and chief executive officer. "There should be no requirements for either surgery or hormone therapy imposed upon on individual as a condition of their participation in sports because of the harmful consequence that kind of intervention can cause an individual."

In 2018, U Sports, the governing body of Canadian university sports, released a policy saying transgender athletes can participate on varsity sports team that correspond with their sex assigned at birth or with the gender they now identify with.

Existing concerns

The issue of transgender athletes may not be making headlines in Canada, but concerns do exist. Some high school athletes might fear having a transgender person competing on their team could cost them a chance at a university scholarship.

"We're not receiving complaints from universities or sports organizations directly, but we are hearing some negative feedback," Melia said.

"This is probably more nuanced and complex. Our policy guidance at the community sport level has probably helped a lot of sports organizations. But once the rewards start to be become more significant, that's where the friction comes into the system."

Canada's domestic policies might also face headwinds at higher levels where sports are governed by international federations.

Last year, World Rugby became the first international sports governing body to institute a ban on transgender women competing in global competitions like the Olympics and the women's Rugby World Cup. The ban was introduced because "safety and fairness cannot presently be assured for women competing against trans women in contact rugby."

Rugby Canada has rejected the policy, saying it has a trans inclusion policy and believes everyone deserves "respectful and inclusive environments for participation."

Laurel Hubbard, a transgender weightlifter from New Zealand, has qualified for this summer's Tokyo Olympics. The 43-year-old lived as a male for 35 years and never made it into international weightlifting.

Sandmeyer-Graves said a lack of funding and support for women's sports is a greater threat than transgender athletes.

"I don't think there's going to be a wave of trans women taking over women's sports," she said. "I think the threat might be overstated.

"The real threat to women's' sport is coming back to the idea of there's scarce resources and opportunities. The fact that women's sport isn't supported, funded with equitable opportunities, equitable resources and equitable coverage is a far more significant impediment to women's participation and advancement in sport than trans women's involvement."

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