Trans women in sport politicised and weaponised in election campaign as other issues ignored

The Prime Minister’s hand-picked candidate running in the seat of Warringah is becoming a burden for the Liberal party early on in the election campaign for her claims about transgender women.

Katherine Deves is campaigning to have transgender women banned from sport but has had to apologise twice in the past week as further statements and social media posts are unearthed with claims including, “Half of all males with trans identities are sex offenders” and likening them to Nazis.

Scott Morrison has backed away after starting the week in full support of Deves.

It is a highly emotive issue. Yet concern over trans athletes borders on a moral panic considering the population base we are talking about — in the 2016 Australian census, 100 people described themselves as trans female. That is 0.0004 per cent of the population.

Deves is running against the sitting member for Warringah, Independent Zali Steggall, a former elite athlete and Olympic medallist.

“[This creates] a diversion to hide the lack of policy around integrity and around pay equity for women by creating this, I think, quite side-lined fight that is divisive,” Stegall told The Ticket.

“It’s incredibly damaging for many people in the community but it’s also a bit of a dog whistle to the more conservative side of politics at a time where we have such bigger issues, so I support inclusion.

“International sporting bodies, national federations, they  have rules in place to deal with this.

“It is just not the problem that they are making it out to be.”

Steggall has also called for Deves to be disendorsed by the Liberal Party.

Zali Steggall won bronze for Australia in slalom at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

Big names advocate banning transgender athletes

There are some big names globally who advocate for the banning of transgender athletes from the women’s category; tennis great Martina Navratilova, British Olympic silver medal swimmer Sharon Davies, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson among them.

Martina Navratilova holds up a large silver trophy
Martina Navratilova is one of a number of high-profile figures to take issue with female transgender athletes.(AP: Robert Dear, file photo)

Save Women’s Sport is a coalition that says it “fights to preserve sex-based eligibility for female sports”.

The group says it is shining a light on “males unfairly competing as females”, a position at odds with shifting societal norms and the approach taken by many major sports bodies.

The issue bubbles away, but every so often a sports story emerges that puts the issue back in the spotlight. Most recently it was American swimmer Lia Thomas competing in the NCAA college championships.

In mid-March Thomas made history by winning the 500-yard freestyle race, becoming the first transgender woman to win an NCAA title in swimming. Much was made of her performance in beating two Olympic silver medallists.

What wasn’t explained was that the 500-yard event is not a distance contested at either the world championships or the Olympic Games. The two silver medallists in Thomas’s race were specialists in other events. Thomas’s winning time of 4 minutes and 33.24 seconds was almost a full 10 seconds behind the NCAA record for the event, a long way short of the “smashing” of the record others had predicted.

At the same championships, from 18 events, 13 records were broken, three of them by a single swimmer who nobody is talking about.

Two women hold trophies while standing in front of a blue backdrop
Lia Thomas won the 500 yards freestyle at this year’s NCAA competition.(Getty Images: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire.)

What do the rules say?

Sport Australia, the government agency supporting sport, partnered with the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Coalition of Major Professional and Participation Sports to develop guidelines for transgender and gender-diverse people’s inclusion in sport in 2019.

In them, sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins states:

“The federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984 … has recognised the non-binary nature of gender identity since 2013. The Guidelines provide … practical guidance on how sporting organisations, their staff and volunteers can promote the inclusion of transgender and gender diverse people in line with human rights-based principles.”

Claire Chandler, Tasmanian Liberal party member.
Claire Chandler’s “save women’s sport” bill was described as “terrific” by Scott Morrison.(ABC News: Emilie Gramenz)

For competitive sporting activity there is an exemption available for sports organisations, with consideration given to a “level playing field”:

The exemption allows for discrimination on the grounds of sex or gender identity only in “any competitive sporting activity in which the strength, stamina or physique of competitors is relevant”.

To apply for an exemption, sports need to show evidence that excluding a transgender woman from playing is proven on grounds of “strength, stamina or physique” where such characteristics are relevant to that sport.

The IOC is regarded as having a position of stewardship in world sport. It has recently pivoted to a policy that is more aligned with human rights policies. Rather than focusing on gender policing, the Olympic movement now recommends sports integrate UN guiding principles into their policies, seeing sport through a lens of health and wellbeing.

It advises all sports to consider transgender inclusion on a case-by-case basis, with special consideration to the unique characteristics of individual sports.

However, Liberal senator Claire Chandler introduced a “save women’s sports” bill to parliament in February during a heated debate about whether religious schools should retain the right, based on faith, to discriminate against transgender students.

The bill is yet to be debated in the House of Representatives.

It follows hundreds of bills in the US that have been introduced across numerous states to prevent transgender people from accessing women’s sport, school sport and health care. 

Transitioning far from easy

Those not familiar with the process of transitioning underestimate the years-long struggle to get to that point.

The idea that men would purposely “pretend” to be women to win a world title or gold medal ignores the lengthy physical, mental and emotional journey required to transition. It is neither easy nor quick. Transgender people are constantly stigmatised and marginalised. They represent a group of people most at risk of suicide. 

Androgen deprivation therapy — where levels of testosterone are reduced — must be undertaken for at least one year, usually more, for transgender athletes to be able to compete in women’s sport.

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