The response from the sporting community to Kellie Maloney’s announcement that she has transitioned has been overwhelmingly positive. But it raises questions, too. What if Maloney had been a boxer in her prime, rather than a promoter some years retired?
The obstacles facing the average trans sportsperson are huge, and the same goes for those who are intersex or non-binary, as well as cisgender women with atypical hormone levels.
Controversy erupted last year after a mixed martial arts fighter, Fallon Fox, was outed as transgender. No matter that experts confirmed her gender past gave her no advantage in the ring: many believed otherwise, and made this abundantly clear through a storm of hostile social media comment.
Official guidance, in the UK and beyond, only serves to complicate matters, redefining gender well beyond the simplicities of law, politics or biology. According to UK Sport, the sports division of the Department of Culture Media and Sport, UK sports bodies must aim to prevent individuals from gaining an unfair advantage in “gender-affected” sports. They should also bear in mind the safety of participants in a given sport.
So how have they put this in place? Well, first, by tearing up the protections afforded to trans persons, by stating explicitly that legal provisions on equality do not apply in sport: they’ve also got rid of the Gender Recognition Act, by stating that a birth certificate is not sufficient proof of gender assigned at birth. So sports bodies may challenge birth certificates, and request instead a letter from a GP.
What about unfair advantage or safety? Neither issue is tackled directly. UK Sport seems to regard the issue as settled by appeal to one’s GP or the Gender Recognition Panel, which might provide insight into hormone levels or legal status.
But as neither are experts in the dynamics of sport, or health and safety issues surrounding it, this feels like the wrong place to go, if the concern is really as the DCMS says it is and not some residual reservation about the participation of trans people in sport.
Because, of course, if safety was really a concern, then a safety evaluation, focussing on actual risk of injury, would be carried out in all sports for all athletes irrespective of gender.
At least the UK rules are better than those put together by the International Olympic Committee, which requires that all external surgery be complete, including gonadectomy, as well as stating that hormone levels be established over a long term (at least two years) a and legal gender recognition already conferred.
That is problematic in so many ways. we’re back to the old demand that trans folk must be sterilised before they are recognised, despite pronouncements from many international bodies that this is a Human Rights outrage.
It also makes legal recognition a pre-condition of playing a sport, so trans athletes from countries that don’t recognise gender re-assignment simply cannot compete internationally. And as for a hormone requirement, there is evidence this is overly restrictive.
Then, there are added complications for intersex people and anyone whose hormone levels are not “normal”, with the bizarre result that women who are their birth gender can potentially be excluded from sport for naturally producing a lot of testosterone.
It’s a mess, reflecting a complete absence of understanding of the trans condition, and the creation of barriers that utterly fail to solve the problem they are supposed to address. But then, that’s official thinking for you. Luckily for Kellie, her friends and supporters are a bit less dogmatic.