home Diversity and Inclusion The trans women in sport debate: The facts, the impact, and why our stories are needed

The trans women in sport debate: The facts, the impact, and why our stories are needed

Natalie Feliks challenges media narratives that are causing harm and fear about trans participation in sport and shares how more diverse storytelling can help.

The world is undergoing a dramatic shift in the way we view gender, sex and sexuality, and it’s no secret that this has led to an intense, fiery and often cruel debate. The saddest part of this is those caught in the crossfire of this are amongst the most vulnerable people in society. This debate has aroused many questions, including, if we open up concepts of ‘male’ and ‘female’, where does this leave women’s sport?

As someone who has been following the debate around trans people in sport for quite a while, let me make a few things clear. Firstly, as a big fan of women’s sport, particularly tennis, I understand where the hesitation is coming from. Women’s sports are underfunded, underrepresented and ridiculed in the media, and female athletes get a fraction of the recognition that their male counterparts do. For cisgender women to encounter all this hostility and then suddenly be prepared for “men” entering in their competitions, I understand where the raised eyebrows might be coming from. On the surface, it feels extremely entitled.

But there are many flaws with that outlook, the primary one being that trans women are “men” who benefit from male privilege just like anyone else assigned male. This is simply not true, and a fallacy easily disproved by examination of the overall lives of trans women. We could even easily apply this to the context of sport by asking, if it is true that trans women have the potential to completely dominate over cisgender women in sport, then why haven’t they?

Trans women have been eligible to compete in most sporting competitions for decades now, but as it stands the scenarios that get talked about in the media, where “male-bodied people” will be able to easily dominate their “female-bodied” counterparts due to unfair advantages unique to the “male body”, or where cisgender men will enter into female competitions as trans women to scoop up easy trophies, haven’t played out at any point in sporting history. Why? Let me explain.

Let’s look at the example that created the most noise in recent times, that of Lia Thomas. Some commentators have claimed that Thomas was an under-performing male athlete who transitioned to easily dominate the female competition and break world records. This is not even close to reality. For one, during the 2018-2019 season before Thomas transitioned, she recorded the top university men’s team times in three different fields, the 500 yard, the 1,000 yard and the 1,650 yard freestyle. The ranking that anti-trans activists point to, where she dropped to No. 554 in freestyle, occurred in 2019 after she went on hormone replacement therapy and her muscle mass reduced.

Secondly, to say that she dominated the female competition is also false. She won only one race in 2022, the women’s 500-yard freestyle, with a time that was over 9 seconds short of the university record. In other races, she was easily beaten by cisgender women, including the 100-yard freestyle where she finished last. Kate Douglass, on the other hand, broke 18 university records at the event, but none of the coverage criticising Thomas even mentioned Douglass’ achievements. Not very feminist.

Simply put, most of the information put forward about Lia Thomas were blatant lies. Lia Thomas undertook the required amount of hormone replacement therapy that the university mandated for female athletes, and afterwards, competed on the same level that she did pre-transition. These are the expected effects of hormone replacement therapy, despite what anti-trans commentators say about it. Her achievements were due to her ability and dedication. There was no unfair advantage at play, and no dominating “male-bodied” athlete.

Some people reading this might still be insisting that Lia Thomas still benefits from undergoing male puberty, but that is still a fallacy, and let’s not pretend that policing the bodies of female athletes is anything new anyway. The constructions that anti-trans commentators parrot don’t play out in scientific studies, and nor do they in competition. While trans women have been eligible to compete in tennis since the 1970s, as far as we know, every single trophy has gone to cisgender players. Surely, at some point, a trans woman would’ve at least tried to snag an easy trophy? No?

Well, let me posit an idea. Trans women don’t just have no advantage in women’s sports, we actually have an immense disadvantage. 

In order to pursue an elite career in sport, a player needs to dedicate their entire life. Most tennis players make the decision to pursue a career from an incredibly young age, even as young as 5. It requires a substantial amount of planning, money and mental fortitude. These are all areas where trans women not only are disadvantaged, but are basically impossible for us to get a look in.

The statistics on trans female mental health and finances speak for themselves. Transition alone can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and that’s assuming that a trans woman comes out early in life and doesn’t need to deal with the potential costs of escaping transphobic parents and losing a job. In those circumstances, the prospects of survival aren’t guaranteed, let alone a thriving sporting career. This isn’t even going into the trauma of being coercively assigned an incorrect gender and the prospect of transphobic isolation at school, and the effects that would have on mental health and confidence which are crucial for young aspiring sportspeople.

It’s easy to see how ridiculous this debate gets when you consider that in New Zealand, a trans woman was barred from playing darts. I would love to see any argument at all for what advantage trans women could have at darts. 

There’s a persistent idea that advocates for trans people are beating a relentless drum of ‘equality at all costs’ without considering the social ramifications of that on cisgender people, when that isn’t the case. If there were such a thing as a physical advantage at sport, I would be sympathetic to the ideas of different forms of competition. But the reality is, no such advantage exists. If it did, we would see it, and anti-trans activists wouldn’t need to lie. 

The harsh truth is that the reason why the lies work at all is that the lives of trans women are still very poorly understood by a public that is still prejudiced and squeamish about accepting us into society. It should be only natural that if trans women compete in sport, there will be times when we win. But, of course, any achievement by a trans woman is looked at with suspicion and admonishment, rather than a view to the dedication and skill of the woman. This is a prejudice called transmisogyny, which I wrote about for Overland earlier this year.`

As a trans female writer myself, I am working to change this. Every single survey has shown that the more someone knows about the reality of trans lives, the more likely they are to support our rights. This makes sense. So much anti-trans propaganda is based on lies, relies on ignorance, and pushes our dehumanisation.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that there is a big audience ready for authentic trans art whenever it gets the platform it deserves. I’m currently in the process of getting my first young-adult book published, and am currently writing my second which is set to feature a trans girl as she balances a flourishing tennis career with a developing romance she has with another trans girl living in an impoverished queer sharehouse.

My goal is to disprove the myths about trans women in sport and in wider society, and describe how they impact us in our everyday lives. I also want to really zoom in on the unique challenges that trans women face not just in our careers, but also in the relationships we build with others. I’m tired of the idea that trans women aren’t interested in simple things like chasing a dream job or falling in love. Of course we are, it’s just much harder when society is stacked against you.

I want people to know that trans women are so much more than the stereotypes people make up about us. We aren’t people using femininity as a costume or a female name as a mocking stage name. We are women with careers, families, houses, pets, relationships and dreams. I want people to see that we aren’t trying to take away from society or the lives of others, we want to add to them. None of us would want to pursue a sporting career if we didn’t care about adding to the sport that we fall in love with like any other athlete. Our home-grown trans sportswomen want to bring home medals for Australia not for a selfish quest for glory, but because we want to be part of society as much as anyone. So why not let them do it?

It’s time we look past our prejudices and at the facts. It’s time we let trans women speak so we can all benefit from what we have to bring to society.

It’s time we cheered on our Aussie trans sports stars and let their dedication and talent shine.

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