rights of transgender athletes
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This article is written by Siddhant Swain.

Transgender athletes face a lot of backlash from the mainstream sporting fraternity, for reasons best unknown. Their identity has been denied, ignored and sensationalized by the media time and time again. One of the most recent examples is of the famous MMA fighter, Fallon Fox. He was the first notable transgendered athlete in the international sporting sector. According to various reports, Fox underwent breast augmentation and hair transplant surgeries in 2006 and reassigned his gender from male to female, before ‘coming out’ to the world in 2013. The confusion regarding the coming out by Fox caused a great deal of controversy and generated a lot of headlines in the media. The decision taken by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC), to stand by her and not rip off her license, can be a good precedent as to how to deal with such incidents. 

It seems obvious, given the physiological difference between men and women, they are categorized to compete against others of the same sex. Most of the international governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other federations organize competitions along the segregated sex lines. Unfortunately, with the differentiation comes the scope of gender fraud, which in turn gives rise to unfair advantages to athletes because of their obvious hormonal differences. Transgender participation is a complex issue and can further become more with the rise of gender neutrality. Sport has long had issues of discrimination and many governing bodies are working hard to provide fairness and reduce the gap of differentiation. The onus is on the IOC, being one of the top most governing bodies in Sport, as well as other international federations. From confusion regarding which bathrooms to use to which clothing to wear, are issues which just form the tip of the iceberg.

To reassign, or say to identify one’s gender, there are a whole lot of things to be considered on the medical, societal and physical fronts. As stated above, Fallon Fox’ case was not just one high profile case, which the international sector has come across. There have been numerous other incidents which this write-up will look into and along with the cases, the efforts undertaken by the International sporting federations like The Stockholm Consensus (now replaced by the IOC Transgender guidelines) and the methods of gender reassignment of an athlete. Different countries have had their fair share of experiences when it comes to dealing with the transgendered athletes. Notable cases have arisen from the United States of America, U.K., India, Australia and many more. The mental barriers which the players have to go through once they identify themselves as a ‘trans’ athlete is another pertinent point to talk about.

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Notable cases of transgender athletes

Fallon Fox’ case was the first notable modern-day case involving the coming out of a transgendered athlete. As a result, many other cases have been following in after that. But, one of the famous and early cases of transgender athlete was of Renee Richards. Richards was already an established and promising tennis player in the men’s circuit. He underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1975 and started playing in women’s tournaments. Her discovery and the resulting media frenzy sparked a huge debate and controversy. She accepted the invitation to a warm-up tournament for the US Open, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and USTA withdrew their support. The tennis federations introduced a Barr Body Test, which was the test to identify a person’s chromosomes.

Richards rejected it and was subsequently banned from the US Open. She filed a lawsuit in 1977, challenging that her civil rights were violated. The NY Supreme Court ruled in her favour, stating that the Barr Body test was grossly unfair as the sole determinant and ruled her as legally female. She competed in 1977 US Open. The judgment, being ruled in 1977, is considered as one of the most progressive judgments but unfortunately, there were no sweeping changes which took place even after a major legal ruling.

India tackled this complexity with the case of Shanti Soundarajan. Shanti, an Indian runner who won a silver medal in the women’s 800m at Doha Asian Games failed a gender test at the games and was stripped of the medal. It was said that she did not possess sexual characteristics of a woman. The IAAF can request the contenders to take up a gender verification test at any time which is a serious threat to the Right of Privacy, which has been enshrined under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. 

Another famous case is of the New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard, a transgender weightlifter, who transitioned from female to male. After her transition, she went on to become record breaking champion in Commonwealth Games, winning Gold medals on a regular basis. Though her being a champion has caused a great deal of controversy, she remains an inspiration to the younger trans athletes generation to compete at the greatest level.

Origin of the 2015 IOS transgender guidelines

The vast majority of sports are divided into male and female categories because the significant advantage enjoyed by men from puberty onwards, which at elite level results in performances, which the female athletes would not be able to match. The physiological differences between both the categories lead to the difference in performance. Largely, the performances of sexes are dependent on the levels of testosterone, which are produced highly in males from puberty onwards. Higher levels of testosterone mean less fatigue, more stamina and greater endurance which results in elite level performances. Now, between the clear distinction between the sexes, where do the transgender athletes fit in?

As discussed above, the change in the levels of performances are affected by the levels of testosterone, which in turn are produced highly from puberty onwards. It is generally accepted that there is little difference between the sexes before the age of puberty, so if any athletes undergo gender reassignment surgery before the crucial age of puberty, then associations like the Football Association of England or Rugby Football League have little issue in their participation as trans athletes. It is the stage after onset of puberty where the gender reassignments by athletes are contentious. Currently athletes who have transitioned from female to male can compete without restriction. However, for an athlete who has transitioned from male to female, it is much more difficult and this change can only be permitted subject to certain conditions, which have to be fulfilled. This observation brings us to our next question, when did the authorities such as the IOA take cognizance of such transitions and participations of transgender athletes?

In October 2003, an ad-hoc committee was convened by the IOC Medical Commission in Stockholm, Sweden to discuss the participation of transgender athletes at the immediate upcoming Olympics. On May 17, 2004, the committee adopted its report and paved the way for the ‘Stockholm Consensus’ which opened the door on transgendered athletes to compete in the then Athens Olympics Games. The Stockholm Consensus has three main requirements for the transgendered athletes to be recognized in their ‘acquired’ gender.

  1. Surgical anatomical changes had been completed, including external genitalia changes and gonadectomy (removal of the ovaries or testes);
  2. They must have legal recognition of their assigned gender by the appropriate official authorities;
  3. They must have had at least 2 years of hormonal therapy to minimize the gender-related advantages.

These standards are followed by most of the sporting federations across the globe. The federations which apply the Stockholm Consensus, also apply it with a certain tweak. To give one example, under the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), sets up a medical panel to determine the eligibility of female-to-male transition, under which it considers various factors such as age, athlete’s androgen levels, whether the sex reassignment surgery was pre or post puberty etc. This is done to minimize any unfair advantage in the women’s category which may perpetuate during the games. The Stockholm Consensus has come under scrutiny in the recent past because of its conservative and stringent approach which it puts on the athletes.

The surgical changes and hormonal therapy which the ‘consensus’ states, are highly expensive and take a lot of time to execute. Along with that, the legal recognition of their assigned gender from authorities is not possible in some countries because there are many countries even now, which do not allow such recognition. Keeping in mind, the criticisms, the IOC developed a new set of guidelines called the ‘IOC Transgender Guidelines’ which replaced the Stockholm Consensus. The IOC guidelines are a bit relaxing in nature, and allows female to male transition without any restriction. Athletes can have their transition from female to male and compete in female category subject to certain conditions:

  1. Their declared gender identity is FEMALE (which cannot be changed, for sporting purposes, for atleast four years).
  2. Their total serum testosterone level has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months and it remains below that cap throughout the period of competition.

In the event of non-compliance, the athlete’s eligibility from female competition is suspended for 12 months.

Now, the IOC Guidelines are present for international scenarios, say for the events of Olympic Games but there has been a more permissive approach taken by national sports bodies. Majority of these policies or approaches are based around testosterone levels of athletes. Eligibility is determined on a case-to-case basis to ensure fairness. Restating the point made in earlier paragraphs, male-to-female transition do not attract much restriction in the domestic levels also as there is an initial presumption that after the hormonal therapy or gonadectomy, the results in the testosterone levels fall in the female range. National events of sports have been given more leeway in terms of transsexuality of athletes, and as observed, majority of the policies are based on the testosterone levels of the athletes and in which range they fall. One of the most permissive policies are adopted in Gay Games. This allows for participation based on legal sex alone or where the individual can demonstrate that they have been living in the particular gender for at least 2 years.

Conclusion and the way forward

The issue of the transgendered or transsexual athletes competing in sports is a very difficult and complex issue to legislate. Even though the 2015 IOC Transgender guidelines come as a welcome relief to the athletes, the jury is still out on the guidelines, pointing out to the fact that the testosterone test level cap is controversial in nature. Women’s testosterone levels tend to range between 0.12 and 1.79 nmol/L, while men’s are typically between 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L. This means the transgender athletes, even after following the IOC guidelines can have testosterone levels up to 5 times higher than usual female athletes. This is something natural and even after processes like hormonal therapy and gonadectomy, there remains a little grey area for biological factors to step in.

On one hand, society recognizes people’s right to change gender, however it is very difficult to create a level playing field in some areas and competitive sport is very much one of these. There have been various efforts by the sporting federations to tackle this complexity, but this is not a straightforward process. It is the matter of equal rights and opportunities for the transgender people. In the 21st century, where the concept of gender neutrality is a hotly debated topic, issues such as these, even in the sporting fields can attract a lot of media frenzy which can be an unwelcome distraction for players, coaches and countries. The right of privacy, equality, fair opportunity and the right not to be discriminated against, all form the base of the transgender people’s rights in the sporting field. Perhaps it is time for the IOC, in cooperation with other leading sporting authorities to review its regulations on the issue of transsexuality in sport in order to ensure that sport does indeed exist for everybody including this minority.

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