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FINA, the international swimming federation, has banned trans women from competing in women’s categories for the sports it governs. Within days of this announcement, a raft of other sporting bodies had announced reviews of their policies for transgender inclusion, and the International Rugby League banned trans women from competition, pending “further research.” 

The decision has international political repercussions. In the US, it is more fodder for a culture war that has seen 18 states ban transgender teens from school sports. Elsewhere, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson supported the decision, while UK Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced a meeting with UK sporting bodies to urge them to implement similar restrictions. These are not people known for their sporting expertise: Johnson once climbed out of his prime ministerial car and jogged the last 10 meters to his hotel for a photo op, while Dorries confused Rugby League with Rugby Union at a Rugby League World Cup event—the sporting equivalent of telling a Star Trek convention how much you loved The Empire Strikes Back

The main thing you need to know about the freakout over trans women in sports is that, counterintuitively, it’s not about sports. FINA’s spokesperson confirmed for Associated Press that there are no transgender swimmers currently competing. The new policy solves a problem that does not exist. FINA didn’t produce any evidence that trans women threaten women’s sports, but we are in the middle of an international moral panic about trans people, of which trans athletes are a particular target. It’s not about sports, in the same way that MAGA was not about economic anxiety, abortion bans are not about protecting children, and “cancel culture” rhetoric is not about protecting free speech. 

We are in the middle of an international moral panic about trans people, of which trans athletes are a particular target.

It is significant that FINA’s announcement occurred in Hungary, where the swimming world championships are taking place. Under its President Viktor Orban, Hungary has brazenly dismantled democracy, ended legal recognition for transgender people, linked gay people to pedophiles, and barred children from viewing LGBT-inclusive sex education or media. You might think this would all be grounds for a sporting boycott, or at least statements condemning Hungary’s increasing hostility to LGBT people. Not FINA, though: They awarded Orban their highest honor in 2017, and the day before announcing the new transgender policy, FINA president Husain Al Mussalam tweeted four cozy pictures of himself with Orban

You can tell FINA’s ban is not about sports because the “debate” is almost entirely between people who do not care about women’s sports. More precisely, they take place largely between trans people who do not care about sports, and conservatives who do not care about women. The latter self-appointed defenders of women have little to say about the sexual abuse of female athletes, sexism more generally, equal pay, or advertising and promotion of women’s sports. Yet a small (but not small enough) contingent of liberals are saying, “Ah, they may be transparently bad faith actors on every other issue of importance, but this time they are speaking the truth!”

FINA has form on discriminatory decisions. In 2021, British manufacturer Soul Caps made a swimming hat designed primarily for women with Afro hair. It is difficult or impossible for black people with natural hair to use traditional swimming caps, which is one of many reasons black people are underrepresented in elite swimming. FINA dismissed their application to have the Soul Cap approved for use in the Olympics, claiming “athletes competing at the International events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.” After a major backlash, FINA released a damage control statement but has not actually changed policy.

Like the Soul Cap ban, the supposed justification for excluding trans women from women’s swimming is an alleged performance advantage. There’s a lack of evidence for both of these “advantages.” Instead, the possibility that there might be an advantage conferred by wearing a big swimming cap or being transgender has been used to justify blocking them out. This is why the University of Brighton’s Blair Hamilton describes this as a “guilty until proven innocent” policy. This runs counter to the International Olympic Committee’s guidance and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which has ruled that the burden of proof lies with the sports federations, who must prove athletes they wish to exclude have an unfair advantage.

Because this is not about sports, evidence is largely tangential. FINA cunningly did not say what evidence was considered, making their decision impossible to evaluate. If FINA has conclusive evidence of an advantage for trans women, they should share it with the scientific community. The evidence that does exist actually points in different directions. There is evidence for some advantages for trans women after hormone treatment, but also evidence of disadvantages. Crucially, none of the existing research has been done on elite athletes, because there aren’t enough trans elite athletes to study. The very fact of their non-existence should tell you something about their supposed advantages, and as any sports scientist will admit, you can’t make generalizations about elite athletes based on studies of the general population. 

Not only are there no trans swimmers in FINA’s events, there are also no reports of a wave of trans teens dominating high school swim meets. It’s not even a problem on the horizon. The focus on swimming comes after Lia Thomas, a trans woman, won the National College Athletics Association (NCAA) women’s 500m freestyle in March. She also failed to make the podium in any of her other events, scoring sixth in the tournament overall. Her 500m time was nine seconds off the NCAA record and does not make the tournament’s all-time top 5 best times.

I am not disparaging Thomas’s achievements, but she hardly spells the end of women’s competition. Had she instead demolished the competition, that would mean little either. Trans people make up 0.5% of US adults and 1.4% of US young people. If trans women have a competitive advantage, we should expect to see them winning more than 0.5% of Olympic medals. Instead, of the 5,494 women competing at Tokyo 2020, there was one (1) trans woman, Laurel Hubbard, who placed seventh and last in her weightlifting category.

Before I came out as trans, I was a campaigner against creationist schools. Transphobes and creationists are fascinatingly similar, right down to the way they accuse the opposite side of science denial, then start talking about “institutional capture” once you demonstrate the scientific consensus is against them. Of course one reason transphobes sound like creationists is that they often are literal creationists, for whom “male and female created He them” is a binding and eternal moral prescription. 

Transphobes and creationists are also alike in their stubborn insistence that explanations must be simple. “What is a woman?” they cry, before deriding anyone who offers an answer longer than three words, as if any complex explanation is automatically false. For the creationists, truth is a black and white binary. For transphobes, so is gender.

The brute problem for gender divisions in sports is that they enforce binary gender as absolute, when it’s really an approximation. This is a real problem because intersex athletes get caught in the crossfire when people attempt to ban transgender people from competition. FINA will require all athletes to register their chromosomes in order to compete. The history of such testing is that it has been weaponized in racist ways. Previous attempts to classify women with sex testing had to be abandoned because too many were wrongly excluded, with humiliating personal and professional consequences.

Why, though, is there a test at all? One minute we are told that trans women are so masculine and powerful that they will destroy women’s sports if they are allowed to compete, and the next we hear that trans women are so indistinguishable from other women that we need chromosome tests to tell them apart. Just like immigrants, who are allegedly so lazy they sit around all day claiming benefits while also stealing your job, trans women are demonized in contradictory directions. Testing won’t reveal previously closeted trans women, but talking about it does perpetuate the stereotype that trans women are deceitful. Whether they’re tricking unwilling partners into sex, grooming youngsters, or sneaking into sporting competitions, trans women are always up to no good in transphobes’ fevered imaginations.

One minute we are told that trans women are so masculine and powerful that they will destroy women’s sports, and the next we hear that they are so indistinguishable from other women that we need chromosome tests to tell them apart.

In all this, the assumption is that trans women are just men, and this is helped by the dearth of visible trans women. When low-information sports fans hear about trans swimmers, they imagine some behemoth donning a one-piece bathing suit and lining up beside the women. It is in transphobes’ interests to keep real trans women off our TV screens so this misconception remains unchallenged. If trans athletes get on TV, trans children will have role models, and they might start getting ideas about being proud of who they are. Meanwhile, if we have a public debate about “biological males” in women’s competitions, we get people to associate trans women with deceit, predation, and violence, all while making it harder for anyone to dispel these myths. 

Decisions like FINA’s mean little to elite sports in the short term. They do, however, heighten the climate of fear around trans individuals, which harms LGBTQ young people. Fortunately, sporting allies like footballer Megan Rapinoe and Olympic diver Tom Daley have spoken out clearly on behalf of trans youth.

It’s a precarious moment for trans rights, and we need allies like these more than ever.

Jenna has written for the Guardian, New Statesman, Times Education Supplement, Salon, and AlterNet. Her PhD from the UCL Institute of Education studied the experiences of students in fundamentalist Christian...

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