During the build-up to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, fears surrounding the potential athletic advantage of transgender people (people who experience incongruence between the gender they were assigned at birth and their gender identity) intensified, and questions arose about whether transgender people should be allowed to compete in accordance with their gender identity.
But was this concern justified? My colleagues and I, in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, became intrigued and decided to explore these questions and determine whether there was any real cause for concern.
We reviewed 31 national and international transgender sporting policies, including those of the International Olympic Committee, the Football Association, Rugby Football Union and the Lawn Tennis Association.
After considering the very limited and indirect physiological research that has explored athletic advantage in transgender people, we concluded that the majority of these policies were unfairly discriminating against transgender people, especially transgender females.
The more we delved into the issue, the clearer it became that many sporting organisations had overinterpreted the unsubstantiated belief that testosterone leads to an athletic advantage in transgender people, particularly individuals who were assigned male at birth but identify as female.
There is no research that has directly and consistently found transgender people to have an athletic advantage in sport, so it is difficult to understand why so many current policies continue to discriminate. Inclusive transgender sporting policies need to be developed and implemented that allow transgender people to compete in accordance with their gender identity, regardless of hormone levels.
It is well known that regular exercise is good for your health, with sport engagement and physical activity often used to help promote physical health and manage mental health issues. Transgender people often report high levels of anxiety and depression in comparison to the general population and therefore could benefit significantly from engaging in sport and physical activity.
Our research has also shown that these stringent and unfair policies have a negative impact on transgender people’s experiences of sport and physical activity; even when the activity is engaged in at a recreational level, such as considering joining a local football team or going to the gym.
If the size or strength of competitors is a concern, size categories can be developed that are independent of gender
At a recreational level, as financial or career gains are not at stake, surely it would be inappropriate to implement transgender sport policies? If the size or strength of competitors is a concern, size categories can be developed that are independent of gender. Mixed gendered sport teams is a widely debated topic and has been for many years, just not in relation to opportunities for transgender people.
However, introducing more mixed gendered sports teams would also facilitate accessibility for transgender people. As the prevalence of the transgender population increases, it is essential that welcoming and nondiscriminatory sport environments are created.
Our research team will continue to work with this population to reduce sport-related discrimination and increase accessibility to sport and physical activity for transgender people.
The research team comprises:
- Beth Jones, PhD student, School of Sports Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University;
- Jon Arcelus, Consultant Psychiatrist and Professor in Mental Health and in Transgender Health at the University of Nottingham;
- Walter Bouman, Consultant Psychiatrist-Sexologist/Head of Service at the Nottingham Centre for Transgender Health;
- Emma Haycraft, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, School of Sport Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University.
The full report and findings can be found here in the paper entitled Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies.
This article appears in our new digital magazine VOLUME.