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25th Mar 2022

Opinion: No, trans women are not a “major problem” in women’s sports

Sarah McKenna Barry

O’Sullivan’s recent comments speak to a larger moral panic.

Yesterday, former track and field athlete Sonia O’Sullivan wrote an article for The Irish Times, in which she argued for the exclusion of trans athletes from women’s sports.

O’Sullivan pointed to the case of Lia Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania swimmer who won the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA women’s championships in Atlanta last weekend.

Right off the bat, O’Sullivan claims that Lia’s win “wasn’t talked about”, which, if you’ve been on Twitter at any point over the past week, you’ll know is not the case.

The sporting event trended massively on the app, with Lia herself being the subject of transphobic abuse from all corners of the internet.

O’Sullivan claims that the inclusion of trans women in sports is an issue that will be “coming down the track” for every sport soon, and the only solution she proffers is to exclude trans women from women’s sports entirely, as she points to what she feels is an “unfair advantage”.

The idea that trans women have an unfair advantage in competing against cisgender women is a talking point in transphobic rhetoric and it stems from unfounded myths about sex and gender. Contrary to popular belief, sex is not binary, nor is it apparent at birth, or as the ACLU points out, “identifiable through singular biological characteristics”. And, as a recent article in The New Yorker outlines, researchers have not been able to find a “definitive causal relationship between individual testosterone levels and athletic performance”.

It’s also possible for cisgender people to have hormonal levels outside the range of what we typically consider normal for cis men or women, and there is no single body size for women – whether they are cis, trans and intersex.

Despite this, until 2021, trans women competing in the Olympics were subject to strict rules about testosterone suppression, and many sporting institutions still enforce this policy. Cisgender athletes are rarely subject to such body policing.

What’s more, O’Sullivan fails to recognise how the cards are already stacked against trans people in life, and the sporting field is no exception. Trans children already face exclusion from sports all around the world, but particularly in the United States. This exclusion has knock-on effects on their health and wellbeing. For instance, a report from the School of Law at UCLA found that 98% of trans people who have experienced exclusion have had suicide ideation.

O’Sullivan posits a solution to “protect the integrity of women’s sports” in which trans women are prevented from taking part. This, however, is already a reality. In 2020, US lawmakers put forward 20 bills to prevent trans women from participating in sport. In Florida, the Fairness in Women’s Sport Act means that athletes must perform on the team that aligns with the gender on their birth certificate.

Throughout her article, O’Sullivan others trans women. Her words speak to a moral panic in which trans women are presented as threatening forces that cis women must be “protected” against. This sort of rhetoric is not too far removed from the transphobic discourse surrounding the bathroom bills debate, which threatened the existence of trans women in public spaces.

Her article ignores the lived experiences of trans women, and the abuse and discrimination they face not only in sports but in every facet of life. Trans people are four times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than cisgender people. Last year was the deadliest year on record for trans people. In the UK, 67% of trans people have said that they avoid being open about their gender due to fear of a negative reaction.

This is the reality trans women face. They are not intent on destroying the integrity of women’s sports.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, supports are available. You can contact the Transgender Equality Network in Ireland (TENI) right here. You can also phone The Samaritans on 116 123.