For the first time in history, out transgender athletes will compete in this year’s Olympics. Trans woman Laurel Hubbard is set to represent New Zealand in weightlifting, while non-binary footballer Quinn will play with the Canadian women’s team. Although the games have technically been open to transgender athletes since 2004, none have openly competed before.
Yet despite Hubbard and Quinn demonstrating that it is possible to reach the pinnacle of sporting achievement as a trans athlete, the Olympics continues to exclude athletes based on spurious science around gender.
Concern about trans people participating in sport is not new; women participating in the Olympics have been subjected to ‘gender-testing’ since the 1930s. This has been a one-sided fear, focused on the risks of ‘men’ being able to dominate women’s sport. Early examples could generously be described as confusion around the status of intersex sportspeople, but there has been little progress on the issue in the past hundred years.
The trans sport panic was thrust back into the limelight in 2009 when female South African runner Caster Semenya, was forced by World Athletics (IAAF) to take a ‘sex verification’ test on the back of her win at the 800m World Championships. The suggestion was that she might have a ‘rare medical condition’ which could give her an ‘unfair advantage’. What followed was a decade-long fight over whether Semenya should be allowed to compete, culminating in the IAAF setting testosterone limits in events from the 400m to the mile. These rules apply to all international competitions, including the Olympics, and led to Semenya being banned.
The focus on Semenya, a Black woman athlete, was no coincidence. As Jules Boykoff writes in his book Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, the Olympics has been a racist endeavour since its founding, with the 1904 St Louis Olympics holding ‘anthropology days’ to pit ethnic groups against each other to see who was the most athletically talented.
On top of this, as academic Hazel Carby argues: “history has constructed [Black women’s] sexuality and…femininity as deviating from those qualities with which white women…have been endowed”. It should come as no shock that the outcry around Sememya was led by white women athletes such as Paula Radcliffe, who claimed that Semenya competing would be the ‘death of women’s sports’. Meanwhile, Lynsey Sharp cried that it was impossible to race against Semenya despite the fact that at the Rio Olympics, Sharp could only manage to finish sixth, despite running a personal best.
As has happened throughout history, whiteness, and the tears of white women, has been weaponised to exclude Black women from the category of ‘woman’. The IAAF’s rules, which have been described as ‘unscientific’, have continued to impact the sport with Namibian athletes Christine Mbomba and Beatrice Masilingi both being excluded from competition this month due to ‘illegally’ high testosterone levels.
Of course, the irony is that athletes like Semenya, Mbomba and Masilingi are not transgender competitors. They are athletes who have been assigned as women since birth who have naturally high levels of testosterone; a genetic quirk that should be considered on par with Michael Phelps’ ability to produce far less lactic acid than the average person, for example. Their experiences show how stringent the rules are for those looking to compete as women. But even when trans women do meet those requirements, there is still outcry.
Laurel Hubbard’s inclusion in the New Zealand weightlifting squad was met with outrage by The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian. Even though one of Hubbard’s competitors spoke out in support of her, there is no situation where a trans woman competing would be acceptable to the majority of British media. In America, the situation is equally hostile with many states looking to ban trans girls from playing sports. The fear of trans women dominating women’s sports is the spectre that tends to be raised, yet the reality that only one has made it to the Olympics in the past 16 years is handly ignored.
Whilst trans women and cis women with high levels of testosterone are engulfed in the transphobic media circus, athletes who are non-binary or trans men are also ignored. In some cases, like that of Chris Mosier, the first trans man ever to compete in an Olympic trial alongside men, their participation refutes the notion that the gender you are assigned at birth leads to fixed sporting outcomes. In other cases, like that of Quinn, there is the sense that because they are competing in the gender category they were assigned at birth, their identity does not matter, as has been demonstrated by their repeated misgendering since they came out.
For Hubbard and Quinn, competing at an Olympics should be a source of pride and joy. Reaching the event is a phenomenal achievement, regardless of one’s trans status. Yet their representation should not be taken as confirmation that sport is moving in the right direction. With transphobia on the rise in society, sport has become a notable battleground. While athletes continue to be banned at a local, national or international level based on pseudo-science, there is not an equal playing field.
Jessy Parker Humphreys is a freelance journalist. They write about football for the Offside Rule.