“It’s that time of the month,” she told the interviewer. “I know the ladies watching are probably like, yeah, I got you.” Yeah, Lydia, I got you. But honestly, it wasn’t until very recently an instructor at my very non-elite sporting pursuit told me the reason I was weak some days and strong on others could be linked to my cycle. Maybe it was a hormonal overreaction, but I shed hot tears that night thinking about how many years I had gone without a proper understanding of my own body. Thanks, science.
This is one of the real issues women are responding to when the question of trans inclusion in elite women’s sports once again becomes news. The debate is not driven by a tsunami of athletes transitioning to beat female sporting champions. It has been repeatedly and rightly pointed out there is no such phenomenon. At issue is the question of fairness. For the women competing now and when, as seems probable given the growing number of transitioners, the number of transgender people wishing to compete at an elite level increases. And perhaps more importantly, it is driven by the issue of how all women are permitted to learn and feel about our own bodies.
As swimmer Cate Campbell said in her speech to FINA following the decision, this discussion should never be about making sport less inclusive. Community sport prioritises inclusion and there is every reason that will remain the case. Naturally, some amateur competitions or clubs will limit participation to a certain set of people, but surely we can respect that organisations like GLORY – the Gay & Lesbian Organisation for Racing & Yachting – sometimes want to create a special space for people identifying as gay or lesbian to come together.
Respect is the key here: transgender people and their experiences should be valued and respected. Likewise, biological women and their experiences should be valued and respected. Biological women don’t seek to erase or override the subjective experiences of transgender women, but nor should they be erased or overridden by transgender women.
Biological women go through menarche, menstruation and menopause, and the wild hormonal ride that accompanies them. We make room in our bodies that other people may come into this world but, too often it seems, it is women who are expected to accept there is no special room in the world for them. We need our bodies and our particular realities to be acknowledged.
Following FINA’s late conversion to courage, there is hope more organisations will realise their responsibility to preserve spaces for women, while looking for ways to be inclusive and sensitive to the needs of transgender people. Where rights collide, new solutions are needed and women should not be marginalised, or have to subject themselves to abuse and attacks by activists when they assert that they too deserve to be respected and included.
This is about so much more than sport. It is about whether society is able to remain respectful and broker compromises when rights collide. It is about whether organisations will step up to ensure fairness. FINA is trying to do just that and should be congratulated for it.
Liam Mannix’s Examine newsletter explains and analyses science with a rigorous focus on the evidence. Sign up to get it each week.
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