It’s a burning issue, not just in Australia but around the world, with athletes, transgender groups, politicians, scientists and the sporting community deeply fractured on how to solve it.
The pressing question: how to strike the right balance between transgender inclusion, equity and safety.
“I realize that’s a fair versus inclusive argument, but fairness is the basis of the sport. That’s why we have all categories of strength, age and biological sex, and it’s about to create a level playing field,” Flemming told Insight.
Jane Fleming holding the Commonwealth Games Queen’s Baton at Circular Quay in 2006. Source: AAP / ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AAPIMAGE
But according to transgender athlete and researcher Joanna Harper, a level playing field does not exist.
“The level playing field is illusory; everyone has advantages, and successful athletes always have advantages over less successful athletes,” Harper, adviser to the International Olympic Committee, told Insight.
Instead, Harper thinks it’s possible for transgender and female athletes to have “meaningful competition” if trans women suppress their testosterone levels for at least 12 months – as Harper did during her transition in 2004.
“I think it’s absolutely possible…you may not have 100% inclusion, equity and safety, but you have a very high percentage of all three,” she explained.
For Tasmanian Liberal Senator Claire Chandler, equity must come before inclusion, and she proposed a private member’s bill in February to make sure of that. The Save Women’s Sports Bill seeks to exclude trans women from competing in women’s categories.
Senator Claire Chandler introduced the Save Women’s Sport Bill in February. Source: AAP / MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE
Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially declared his support for the bill last Monday, saying he personally shared views with Senator Chandler and seemed to signal that his government would support it.
“I share their opinions. We will have more to say about that at another time,” he said last Monday.
But just days later, he dropped his support for the bill, saying, “It’s a private member’s bill. The government does not envision this being a government bill.
Katherine Deves, chosen by Mr Morrison to challenge the Warringah seat and a supporter of the ‘Save Women’s Sports’ Bill, has been criticized for her public Twitter posts referring to trans teenagers as ‘surgically mutilated’ and ‘sterilized’.
Last week, she apologized for the messages.
“My advocacy for the rights and safety of women and girls is well known, and I stand by my desire to ensure that we protect the safety of women and girls and our entire community…However, the language that I used was not acceptable, and for that, I apologize,” she said last Wednesday.
However, the debate continues around the world. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently said that transgender women should not participate in women’s sporting events.
World Rugby, the international sporting body for rugby union, also put fairness and safety ahead of inclusion when it banned trans players.
The AFL raised similar concerns about fairness and safety when it denied transgender player Hannah Mouncey’s participation in the AFLW.
Spokespersons for several Australian sporting codes, including Cricket Australia and Netball Australia, said their organizations support inclusive policies for transgender and gender-diverse people, and said they had not been consulted on the draft private member’s bill from Claire Chandler.
At the center of the debate over differences in biological and hormonal development is whether the male physical benefits that come from increased testosterone during male puberty can be reversed by hormone therapy.
Caroline Layt before her transition.
Transgender athletes who have taken hormone therapy to suppress their testosterone levels do not believe they pose a threat to women’s sports.
Rugby and athletics athlete Caroline Layt was assigned a boy at birth and transitioned just before her 30th birthday. She played sports on men’s teams before transitioning, and nine years later began competing as a transgender woman in the women’s categories of the same sports.
Now in her 50s, Layt told Insight that since being on hormone therapy, her testosterone levels have been much lower, and even lower than the average woman’s.
“Once you go through a medical transition, and for someone who transitioned like me, your muscle goes down, your fat goes up,” Layt said. “And over time, after about ten years of transition…you’re almost probably at a disadvantage.”
Caroline Layt says she felt like an “outcast” by other players when she started playing women’s rugby.
Layt called the Save Women’s Sport Bill “a storm in a teacup.”
“There are very few trans women, we are 1% [in the] population and so few of us play sports,” Layt said. “There should be rules and guidelines…but I don’t think [the bill is] necessary because you don’t harm anyone by playing sports.
Learn more about Jane Flemming, Joanna Harper, Caroline Layt and other guests on
Katherine Deves and Senator Claire Chandler were invited to appear on the Gender Games episode of Insight to discuss the Save Women’s Sport Bill. They both refused to attend the taping of the show on April 4.