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IN A sign of ever-growing public concern about proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act which could permit people to self-identify their sex, 750 women's rights activists and supporters gathered last week to hear from high-profile sportswomen and scientists about the impact of permitting male transgender athletes to compete against women in sports.
Organised by grassroots campaign groups Woman’s Place UK and Fair Play for Women, the packed meeting at the QEII Centre in Westminster, central London, was given endorsements via video link by 16-time Paralympic medal winner and cross-bench peer, Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson, and middle distance Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes, who both sent their best wishes for the event.
“It’s really important that everyone has the chance to discuss the future of female sport and it’s only fair that women’s voices are part of that as well. A factual and respectful discussion must be allowed,” said Grey-Thompson, while Holmes added: “Congratulations on getting together and talking about fairness in sport, for women in particular. At the end of the day women need fairness in sport to continue to inspire a younger generation in all that they do.”
Dr Nic Williams of Fair Play for Women observed that “the size of the crowd should send a clear message to sports policy makers.”
“Single-sex sports have been made lawful under the Equality Act. These rules underpin the integrity of female sport,” she said, explaining that the purpose of the meeting was to explore “what happens if we allow males into the category reserved for females.”
Headline speaker at the event, Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies MBE told the crowd that opposition to male transgender athletes competing against women was widespread in the sporting community, even though few so far are speaking out.
“I speak to athletes all the time and every single one of us, male and female, feel the same. This isn’t one or two of us. It’s all of us,” she said.
She said that the lack of fairness under current sporting rules, which permit male-born transgender competitors who have been through male puberty to go head to head with female athletes, was reminiscent of East German Olympic doping that took place in the ’70s and ’80s: “Athletes would be lined up at the start of the race and they know they're not going to win.”
Davies won the silver medal in the Moscow Olympics 400m individual medley, losing out on the gold to the DDR’s Petra Schneider, who was later revealed to have been part of a state doping programme.
The East German athletes would come off testosterone for the duration of the competition, so they could pass drugs tests, but the muscle tissue they had developed was retained.
“Everybody knew about it,” she said, “but it was not PC to talk about these things.”
She expressed sadness at “all the swimmers you have never heard of” due to being pushed out of the top places by doping: “It’s why I’m so vocal — because I don’t want that to happen to another generation.”
Davies emphasised that she “didn't have a problem with the individuals. They didn't have much say in the matter,” rather she was angry at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for “turning a blind eye.”
Asked why the IOC was risking a similar scandal today, she said: “They are more concerned about getting sued than about ensuring a level playing field for women.”
“Why should someone get very seriously hurt — or killed — before they admit ‘yes, men are stronger than women’?
“Why should a woman lose out on a medal, whether gold, silver or bronze, or lose out on a place on the team, because we're putting feelings before facts?”
Davies said she had found discussing this subject extremely difficult, due to the abuse it attracts, especially online: “the thing I find most upsetting is being called constant names. But if people haven't got an argument, they call you a name.”
She thanked “my friend” Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete Daley Thompson for showing solidarity with her and attending the meeting, where he sat in the front row.
Afterwards Thompson tweeted: “What a goodnite was had by all yesterday at the #WPUKFairPlay [meeting] listening2constructive discussion on an important&sensitive subject,” adding: “@fairplaywomen @Womans_Place_UK I saluteU.”
The concerns of the meeting’s participants were thrown into relief at the weekend as male to female transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, competing for New Zealand at the Pacific Games in Samoa, won gold, causing consternation and disagreement among international sports fans as to whether the female competitors had been treated fairly in the competition.
Hubbard had previously competed in the male category for weightlifting prior to identifying as female, and is trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
At the meeting developmental biologist Dr Emma Hilton explained some of the science of physiology in sport: “To state that males as a class are stronger than females as a class is not controversial.” Pretending this is not the case is “ridiculous,” she said, quoting Ani O'Brien.
Men outperform women by 10 per cent on the running track and by 30 per cent when throwing various balls, she said. They have 40 per cent more muscle mass even when height is taken into account.
Males are on average five inches taller than females, and they have a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres which are responsible for “explosive” motion.
“There are 6,500 differences in gene expression between males and females,” Hilton explained.
All these differences are why “virtually all elite sports have a protected female category.”
However, under IOC guidelines approved in 2003 male transgender athletes were permitted to enter the women’s category to compete, although they were required to have had reassignment surgery and hormones in line with female profiles.
Some may say the decision that this would be fair was “unscientific,” Hilton observed wryly.
The IOC changed its rules again in 2015, getting rid of the requirement for surgery and replacing it with a requirement for “low testosterone” for at least 12 months prior to the athlete’s first competition in order to compete in the female category.
Hilton said that in her view “the 2015 IOC decision was political. Fairness for women was not their primary concern.”
She added that there were two studies currently under way that may provide better data to inform decision-making, one in Sweden one in the UK, although they may take some time to reach their conclusions.
“Will the IOC take notice? I can’t help thinking that will depend on their results,” Hilton said. “Sex segregation in sport does not exist for arbitrary reasons. It should never have been compromised for arbitrary reasons. Women were considered colateral damage.”
The meeting also heard from Victoria Hood, founder and manager of an elite women's cycling team, who so far is the first and only working athlete to speak up about the controversy.
She described how, unlike in men's cycling, in women’s cycling everyone was in one category from novice to elite, and that this could be dangerous for participants. Elite women could only compete against the lowest category of men.
British Cycling “was basically an old boys’ club and whenever I tried to persuade them to put on a women’s race alongside their men’s event, the answer would always be the same. Women do not want to race.”
Eventually, in 2014, she persuaded the organisers “that they needed to put on more women’s races and split up the categories. I told them they could not keep putting women in with the men otherwise they would never encourage more women to race.”
It was a difficult battle for Hood: “Men smirked at me like it was amusing I was taking part in their game. Men still believe we are there as a warm-up act — and it shows.”
She said: “It may be a human right to compete in sport but it's not a human right to compete in whatever category you wish. Women won't compete if they feel it is unfair.”
Williams spoke about Fair Play for Women’s ongoing campaigning for justice in women’s sport, saying that “Not one of the major bodies of major sports has invoked the Equality Act” which permits female-only events.
All sports bodies rely on testosterone suppression, she said, “but the vast majority of sporting activity happens at club level where testosterone testing is impractical.”
Furthermore “if male athletes start playing as women it will have implications for changing rooms and showers.” Sex segregation is “basic safeguarding” and clubs need to remember that they have a “duty of care” to those competing under their auspices, Williams said.
“We are not seeing the privacy of women and girls given proper consideration” and “litigation risks for clubs with ill thought through trans inclusion policies is high.”
The meeting also heard, via a pre-recorded video, from Dr Linda Blade, who is the president of the Alberta Athletes Association in Canada and a heptathlon champion.
She said she had been asked last year to serve on a national gender policy committee, which had left her “shocked” by what was being proposed.
“There were three things to the gender policy that bothered me immensely,” she said.
“The first thing is that male bodies — boys and men — would be allowed to self-ID into women's sports and along with that they would be allowed to enter women’s toilets and use the washrooms freely and then thirdly there was sort of an intimidation tactic — intimidating the officials not to ask any questions. Threatening them with hate speech if they would ask whether there was somebody inappropriately in the wrong category.
“As a human biologist I couldn't believe it — it’s just not fair.
“I called the CEO of the CCES, the [Canadian] Centre for Ethics in Sport, and I asked him how is this possible. You’re saying that you want us to have sport more safe and in inclusive and equitable and yet this isn't safe for women. It's not fair. Male bodies we all know have athletic advantages. And he told me I was exaggerating and being hysterical.”
Blade continued: “When I spoke to the men who run sport in Canada I said ‘Why can’t we just not do this?’ And they said, ‘You know, we should just do it and, you know, we should just have a few trans athletes involved because, you know, if we don't we’ll have a law suit.’
“Well, what do you think 50 per cent of the people are going to do? Are we just going to take this sitting down? You think that women and girls are going to take this sitting down? We'll just humbly go away and ignore the obvious fact that this is not fair? Of course not.”
Female cyclist Dr Jennifer Assali also had a video message for the audience. She was beaten at the 2018 UCI Masters Track World Championships in Los Angeles by male transgender athlete Rachel McKinnon, which caused a storm of media publicity at the time.
She said since then she had “been very quiet on the issue publicly because I have been pressured not to say anything if I don't want to risk consequences for myself or my teammates. The frustration and depression from keeping it all inside and being silenced have caused me to find my voice again.”
She said ever since the media storm after the race “I immersed myself in the research into transgender athletes and to whether or not there is any advantage retained after hormone therapy. As an orthopaedic surgeon I felt uniquely qualified to analyse and dissect these studies. I expected to find that I was being judgemental and bigoted but I in fact found the opposite. The current research used to craft the IOC's policies is seriously flawed and I'm surprised some of it was accepted into a published journal.
“I feel sympathy and empathy for the trans athletes. Of course they want to experience sport and competition just like anyone else does. However I couldn't ignore that biological females are the ones giving up their place on the podium in order to help trans athletes succeed.
“The situation we have now is not the trans athletes fault and it's not women's fault. It's the fault of the governing bodies of sport that make these rules and this is what we have to focus on.”
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