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The transgender issues of Sport’s Gordian knot may never be undone

Rivers of ink have been spilled, analyzed and agonized over the history of thoughts put forward by Katherine Deves – the Liberal candidate for Warringah’s seat in the upcoming federal election – about transgender athletes and the “protection” of women’s sport.

It is so blatantly wrong that Deves equated fighting for her views with raging against the Holocaust. It’s actually subjectively odd that this issue of transgender athlete participation in sport is even a political campaign issue. But perhaps Deves’ fear-mongering only reflects what a silent majority already thinks and is too afraid to say. Perhaps …

Recognition:Figure: Simon Letch

Two papers published in the International Journal of Sport and Society late last year and early 2022 by three Australian academics Helen Parker, Beth Hands and Elizabeth Rose argue quite vigorously against easy passage for transgender women to the Participation in the women’s vs. cis women’s athletic competition.

And finally, this week, Olympic gold medalist Giaan Rooney called for clear, simple and safe rules for all sports to clarify permissions and limits for transgender athletes to participate.

Give me a politician, a couple of academics, and an Olympic gold medalist to speak out on the subject, and I’ll listen to the Olympian more than the others.

But aside from Deve’s hyperbolic nonsense, none of these comments should be dismissed lightly. However you analyze the problem, no obvious solution presents itself. Perhaps this is a mystery that just can’t be solved, and here’s why…

Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves.

Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves.Recognition:Louie Douvis

The true complexity of integrating transgender participation into sport lies in the fact that sport, and especially elite sport, is binary. Put aside anything like thoroughbred racing — and why a transgender jockey riding a winner this week in Mackay was newsworthy when male and female jockeys have been competing for decades is a mystery — there’s men’s competition and then there’s women’s competition .

Basically and as a rule there is no mixed competition; it’s either men or women. Now compare that to 21st century medical, psychological and social education about gender. Unlike sport which is structurally organized, what medicine, psychology and society are telling us and asking us to accept today, gender is fluid, it is a spectrum.

But what aspects of society are also now demanding is an admittedly incomplete freedom for people to make a choice to compete in men’s or women’s sports based on whether they identify as male or female and where they see themselves on that gender spectrum to sit.

Think of gender as a kaleidoscope of colors, and men’s and women’s sports, and then say all this kaleidoscope of gender stuff is utter bullshit because there’s only the black of men’s sports and the white of women’s competition from which you can choose.

Top-class sport simply has to be completely separated from sport at the participation level.

The choice between black and white in male and female athletic competition is an impossible contradiction to the color palette that makes up the gender spectrum.

So what are you doing? Well, what I think is this: Elite sport just needs to be completely separated from sport at the participation level. How you handle that Gordian knot of a problem on a Saturday morning in the park has no relation to how you handle the same problems in the Olympic theater.

Transgender sports policy at the “not for sheep stations” level of participation should be shaped primarily through the prism of safety. For example, assuming it is safe for all participants that a transgender soccer player is playing against biological women, then we should make that possible.

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Yes, the unfairness aspect will sometimes appear as a real factor, but the starting point has to be that all people have a fair opportunity to participate and play.

However, at the highest echelons of elite sport, where records, legacies and fortunes are being made, it must be imperative that a competing transgender athlete not gain an unfair and disproportionate competitive advantage by competing in their chosen gender, wherever that gender is different to her biological.

It’s so clear and so simple. Where you draw the line in terms of the threshold of injustice and disproportion is far from easy.

Rooney is absolutely right when he says that rules must be clear, simple and safe. And perhaps the foregoing offers the most straightforward start to solving an almighty difficult puzzle. But maybe not …

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