The controversy over male-to-female trans athletes competing against ‘biological females’ has been reignited by American swimmer Lia Thomas’ success at the NCAA Championships.
Thomas, who is transitioning from male to female and this year began competing with women after three years racing against men, made history by becoming the first transgender person to claim an NCAA Division I title.
Many international federations and national governing bodies are carrying out reviews of their transgender policies amid respective guidance issued last year by the International Olympic Committee and Sport England but the current picture is as follows:
Fifa has “gender verification” regulations dating back to 2011 but they make no mention of trans women. The regulations have been under review since late 2020. To play in English football, a trans woman must have “blood testosterone within natal female range for an appropriate length of time so as to minimize any potential advantage” under the Football Association’s transgender policy. The policy does not specify what that range is.
The sport last year became the first to ban trans women from playing at the elite women’s level “because of the size, force- and power-producing advantages conferred by testosterone during puberty and adolescence, and the resulting player welfare risks this creates”. The Rugby Football Union is reviewing its own policy on grassroots rugby that allows trans women to play if they have lowered their testosterone levels to 5nmol/L for a year beforehand. In 2019, the team-mate of one Welsh transgender player joked about her folding an opponent “like a deckchair”.
Rules allowing anyone who self-identifies as female to play in domestic women’s competitions in England without restriction are currently under review. That could impact on the likes of Maxine Blythin, who made her Kent debut in 2019 and was their leading run-scorer in that year’s Women’s Twenty20 Cup. A trans woman can only play internationally if she has lowered her testosterone levels to 10nmol/L for a year beforehand.
Tennis is no stranger to the trans woman debate, with Renee Richards having played professionally in the 1970s, winning a landmark legal battle to be allowed to play at the US Open. So it is a surprise that the sport’s current rules are such a mess. The International Tennis Federation – and presumably the four grand slams – have imposed a limit of 5nmol/L on the testosterone levels of trans women wanting to play in events it oversees, including the Olympics. But, under current Women’s Tennis Association rules, that figure is doubled.
LPGA players voted back in 2010 to eliminate the tour’s requirement that players be “female at birth” and to allow transgender athletes to compete. That was less than two months after a trans woman suffered the tour, arguing that the rule violated California civil rights law. The LPGA does not appear to have publicly-available rules governing the participation of such players. The International Golf Federation has followed the IOC guidelines, while England Golf has its own rules which suggest testosterone limits should be between 0-3nmol/L.
Athletics was among the first sports to impose the 5nmol/L testosterone limit on trans women wanting to compete. American hurdler Cece Telfer fell foul of the strict rules when she was blocked from competing at the US Olympic trials before last year’s Tokyo Games. World Athletics has faced more opposition over similar rules for athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD), who were assigned their female genders from birth. Those rules currently only cover track events between 400 meters and a mile following a legal challenge.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.