LGBTI Sports Blog

Trans People and Sport

30th May 2014

Trans People and Sport

Juliet Jacques writes about the Stockholm consensus ten years on.

On 28 October 2003, a group convened by the International Olympic Committee met in Stockholm to ‘discuss and issue recommendations on the participation of individuals who have undergone sex reassignment (male to female and converse) in sport’. They advised that transsexual people be eligible for female or male competition (as relevant) as long as they had started hormone therapy and undergone sex reassignment surgery at least two years previously, and had legal gender recognition, with a ‘confidential case-by-case evaluation’. Their conclusions were published the following year and soon adopted by many governing bodies, allowing golfer Mianne Bagger to enter international tournaments and Martine Delaney to play in Soccer Tasmania women’s league.

The IOC’s prioritising of ‘male to female’ is telling: the anxiety around trans athletes has always been that people born male-bodied would have an unfair advantage in women’s sports, an attitude tied to the assumption that women are inherently physically weaker than men. Avery Brundage, president of the US Olympic Committee, requested gender testing in 1936, citing two Olympic athletes, ZdenÄ›k Koubek and Mark Weston, who had competed as women before undergoing surgery and legally changing their names. There were no great controversies around transsexual sportspeople, however, until the US Tennis Association barred Renée Richards from the 1976 US Open, citing an unprecedented women-born-women policy. Richards challenged the ban in New York’s Supreme Court and won, entering the 1977 Open and losing in the first round.

Renée Richards fought successfully in the New York courts to be allowed to enter the 1977 US Open. 

The Stockholm consensus retained the case-by-case approach whilst attempting to create a universal policy, but US activist Jamison Green, of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute, soon criticised its criteria, mentioning that legal recognition is not always possible and that surgery is unnecessary and often prohibitively expensive, especially for female-to-male people. The consensus made no provision for non-surgical trans people, who have often competed as their assigned sex. Trans man Kye Allums stayed on George Washington University’s women’s basketball team after coming out, delaying hormone therapy to avoid controversy. In 2011, Jaiyah Saelua became the first openly trans international footballer: part of the fa’afafine, male-born people who identify as a feminine third sex, Saelua helped American Samoa’s men to their first competitive win, beating Tonga 2-1 in a World Cup pre-qualifying match.

In October 2013, the Sports Council Equality Group issued alternative guidance, arguing that hormones rather than SRS equalise physical disparities, and that transsexual people should be allowed to compete just one year after surgery, as legislated by Badminton England. It is trying to produce separate guidelines for male-to-female and female-to-male people, arguing that trans men do not hold an unfair advantage at any point — which the IOC did not acknowledge.

“The Commonwealth Games have no option but to follow the Stockholm consensus, even though it’s chronically out of date,” says Delia Johnston, who worked with LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2012) and the Football Association before becoming CEO of Transsexuals In Sport and a member of TAGS (the Trans Action Group for Sport). “It needs urgent review, but there’s no realistic stomach for that. In the UK, the agreement has filtered down to local and regional competitions, but the Sports Council principles [which Johnston co-authored] are far better. At international level, the IOC has to lead, and I don’t see that happening for some time.”

As hormone levels are the main factor in deciding who competes in which competitions, any new guidance will most likely deal specifically with transsexual people, rather than those under the wider trans umbrella. “I’m not aware of anyone with a gender history participating in the Commonwealth Games,” says Johnston, “but I know people in regional sports who have problems progressing any further because the Stockholm consensus comes in.”

There are other barriers as well, says Johnston: “If a transsexual woman wins a local, regional or national competition, people start screaming foul, even if they meet the criteria,” as was the case when Fallon Fox entered women’s mixed martial arts, or when mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq came second in the 2006 Canadian National Championship. In addition to the lack of facilities for, and social exclusion of people who don’t meet gender norms in men’s and women’s sports, and the near-inevitability of transphobic hostility towards successful athletes who meet the Stockholm criteria, athletes are further disadvantaged as testosterone is a banned substance. Transsexual women do not produce any after sex reassignment surgery, and Johnston says that any revision of the guidance needs to consider this.

Fallon Fox is the first openly transgender athlete in MMA history. 

This is a greater problem for transsexual men, already culturally impeded by the fact that in many countries, sports for people raised as girls receive far less coaching or financial support. The World Anti-Doping Agency has issued guidance for ‘Female-to-Male (FtM) Transsexual Athletes’, stating that transsexual men must declare their hormone levels and have a letter from their doctor, but their document also references the Stockholm consensus, so the exclusionary principles criticised by Jamison Green and other remain a problem.

Challenging the socio-cultural prejudices and structural problems that often make sport feel unwelcoming to trans people is a huge project, unlikely to be completed soon. Reconsidering the Stockholm consensus is a realistic possibility, however, and will hopefully improve the position of transsexual men and women from the Commonwealth Games to local competitions — and open the door to more holistic thinking about how to include people who do not fit the rigid sporting boundaries of ‘male’ and ‘female’.

Written by Juliet Jacques on 30th May 2014.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The New Statesman, London Review of Books, TimeOut, Five Dials and elsewhere. Her book, 'Trans: A Memoir', will be published by Verso in 2015. Juliet can be found @julietjacques on Twitter.