Elite swimming organisation criticised for discriminatory trans ban

Sydney protest for trans rights in 2020. Photo: Isaac Nellist

Opposition to the international swimming federation’s (FINA) blanket ban on transgender and intersex women participating in elite swimming has been swift. FINA announced new rules on June 19 which ban the participation of anyone who has gone through “male puberty beyond tanner stage two, or before age 12, whichever is later”.

FINA has also promised to develop an “open” category for the participation of trans and intersex athletes in some events. Although some have advocated for an open category, what will look like remains unclear.

There are no known transgender athletes currently competing in elite level swimming, although the high profile trans swimmer Lia Thomas has expressed a desire to compete at the Olympics if she were to qualify.

Given that, if the open category was to be established it would likely be comprised mostly of cis men and women, and likely be dominated by men, who are on average significantly faster than women, either cis or transgender.

FINA’s decision has been widely condemned by queer sports people as well as Equality Australia (EA), Pride in Sports, Pink News and Intersex Human Rights Australia (IHRA), as well as the research group Trans Health Research Program.

Women’s World Cup football champion Megan Rapinoe was widely quoted saying FINA’s exclusion was not supported by the evidence.

“I’m 100% supportive of trans inclusion. People do not know very much about it … Frankly, I think what a lot of people know is versions of the [political] right’s talking-points, because they’re very loud, they’re very consistent, and they’re relentless.

“At the highest level, there is regulation. In collegiate sports, there is regulation, and at the Olympic and professional level. It’s not like it’s a free-for-all where everyone’s just doing whatever.

“So we need to start from inclusion — period. And, as things arise, I have confidence that we can figure it out. But we can’t start at the opposite. That is cruel. And, frankly, it's just disgusting.”

IHRA has criticised the new policy for categorising certain intersex women as “males with XY DSD [disorders of sexual development]”. Intersex advocates have long advocated that intersex characteristics are a natural part of human diversity, not a disorder.

The classification of intersex people as disordered has led to violence and human rights violations against them in the form of non-medically-necessary and non-consensual medical interventions, including surgery and hormonal treatments that often lead to sterilisation.

As IHRA pointed out, the new requirements will require intersex athletes to prove that they have undergone such treatments.

IHRA criticised the ruling as increasing the stigma and shame intersex people face in society, as well as increasing pressure on intersex people to fit binary standards of sexual characteristics.

EA criticised the new policy for not treating women with “dignity and respect”. EA CEO Anna Brown said: “The fact is that women’s bodies — like all human bodies — are diverse.

“For a powerful international sporting body such as FINA to determine that only a particular type of woman can compete against other women sets a dangerous precedent, increasing discrimination against trans and intersex people and exposing intersex children to the further risk of so-called ‘sex normalisation’ procedures without their consent.”

EA also worries that conservatives will use FINA’s new policy as grounds for excluding trans and intersex women from other areas of public life. It has called on FINA to reassess the policy and to release an explanation of how it was reached.

Days after FINA’s decision, International Rugby League decided to ban trans women from participating in international events, for now. World Athletics President Sebastian Coe has said the policy on international track and field regulations will be discussed at the end of the year.

Olympic track and field has already come under fire for its treatment of intersex athlete Caster Semenya, who they required to take testosterone blockers to reduce her naturally high testosterone.

Australian Sports Commission CEO Kieren Perkins criticised FINA’s policy as “a blunt approach”, as did Olympic swimming medallist Madeline Groves, who said the decision was “shameful”.

Just.Equal Australia advisor Sally Goldner said: “Various groups in society have faced exaggeration, myths and moral panics, and the idea trans women have an unfair advantage in sport is just another of these.”

Golder called on the federal government to “initiate overdue trans-led reforms as soon as possible to help counter the negative impact of FINA’s decision” including “full Medicare coverage of affirmation treatments, workplace discrimination protection for trans people in the Fair Work Act, a public education campaign about the truths of trans lives, and the creation of a national trans working group to establish and implement uniform guidelines for recording identity on documents”.

[Rallies for LGBTIQ rights are being organised on June 25 in Sydney and Brisbane.]