Eligibility or Exclusion? What FINA’s policy is Really Saying

Trans women as a collective are exhausted. The powers that be, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that simply existing in a cis-normative world isn’t enough of a challenge, so they took the initiative to up the ante.

The latest group to run us through the gauntlet is FINA who have decided now is a great time to effectively ban trans women from elite swimming *slow clap*. Their report reads as a vaguely apologetic attempt at diplomacy, reducing the complexities of human biology and social determinants to a handful of convenient factors. The justification for such a TERF-y argument is oddly anti-feminist; it’s clear they see a strong desire to protect “The weaker sex” from trans women’s apparently impenetrable superiority in the sport.

The scientific evidence provided in FINA’s report reads with a kind of cocky clinical confidence one would expect from an all-male panel responsible from gatekeeping marginalised women from their chosen passion. But is their argument as airtight as they make it out to be? Absolutely not.

Standing on Shaky Shoulders

Research into trans women’s health is woefully sparce, as many trans women realise upon attempting to access hormone therapy and other appropriate medical care. One often detects a strangely unnerving hesitation from doctors and specialists who don’t quite know what they are doing, which doesn’t speak to their incompetence, rather to woefully underfunded research into trans healthcare. We don’t have a lot of empirical data on hormone therapy for trans women, so it comes as a surprise that FINA can appoint a scientific panel who can be so certain about the effects of feminizing Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).  Medical experts such as Dr Ada Cheung, a leading physician in Endocrinology who specialises in transgender health are keen to point this out:

“We actually don’t know if there’s a biological advantage for trans women over cisgender women because the science is not clear, no research has really been done into trans female swimmers or any elite athletes that are transgender. The jury is out.”

Similarly, Dr Patrice Jones, A postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Genetics, Epigenetics and Exercise group at the Institute for Health and Sport stated “We don’t have enough evidence to make these decisions”; “testosterone levels are not a perfect proxy for performance”

In its report, FINA argues that trans women have bigger lungs and limbs, and more effective cardiovascular systems than cis women. This is not the first time an argument has been made to exclude a marginalised group from sport, under the guise of “fairness and equality” and standing on the shaky shoulders of reductionist quasi-scientific discourse. These critics of inclusive sport usually push forward their views under the guise of “fairness” and the idea that “political correctness has gone too far”.

Would Fina exclude a 6″6 cis woman from sport because her feet are bigger and her arms are longer than others? Michael Phelps Possesses biological traits that have been described as “Bordering on supernatural” , such as double-jointed ankles which give his kick an unusual range. His body also produces just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete, a chemical causing muscle fatigue. Superhuman Champion or unfair advantage? The branding seems a little inconsistent.

Beyond Biology

Of course, It takes more than grit and muscle to participate in sport in an elite level. A multitude of other environmental factors are at play, relating to privileges such as social status and access to facilities, coaching and healthcare. FINA has acknowledged some of these additional factors, but only to speak to disadvantages faced by cis women. In their report, Fina stated “By reason of their sex and sex-linked traits, females often enjoy fewer societal opportunities compared to males, including fewer sporting opportunities, and sex-separated competitions are necessary to help address this inequality”

It’s an important factor to consider, but what about the inequalities for trans people? It’s a disturbingly common and dangerous myth that trans women “Enjoy male privilege” right up to the moment they transition. As if transitioning exists in a vacuum. Oh, we should be so lucky. People don’t just decide to transition on a whim, unfortunately more often than not we have been through a crippling pain and internal turmoil before our environment provides us access to such a feat. Often through the process we are severed from our families, out material support, our communities, and now thanks to this precedent our recreation. Here’s some stats for you FINA – 45% of trans people will attempt suicide in their lifetime. How are you taking into account the burden of living in a world that’s been designed to exclude you?

The Timing

FINA is saying that they need to implement this exclusionary policy now while they work out a way of including trans women in a fair way, but there are currently no trans women participating in elite swimming, so what’s the urgency? Why elicit this much harm for no benefit?

It seems oddly coincidental this “impartial and scientific” decision has come about now, while trans women remain centred in the political headlights both here and overseas. Perhaps this is more a political decision than a scientific one? The CEO of sport Australia thinks so: “This is a really challenging dialogue for anybody,” … “and one of the main reasons is that, unfortunately, the far sides of the argument have created this incredible emotive energy around the topic. The reality is the Save Women’s Sport movement, which suggests women’s sport is about to disappear because of a wave of transgender athletes, is incredibly erroneous”

The Point

So why does FINA think that it’s okay to do this to trans people? I Agree with Author Gill Peterson, that most of the destruction that occurs to trans identities is hinged on the idea that trans people, especially trans young people, are fundamentally new and therefore less deserving of human recognition. I’ve written before about how this idea is utterly incorrect, trans people have always existed but have been stricken from recorded history due to erasure and medicalisation.

Privilege and advantage exist in our society, and not only are they determined based on factors with immeasurable complexity, excluding people based on their life experience or biological makeup is not going to level the playing field. The truth is it was never truly level to begin with – genetics and environment shape our diversity as humans, which is something to be celebrated.  This isn’t about science or fairness, it’s about exclusion and politics. No one should be excluded from sport at any level. Celebrate trans sportspeople. Celebrate trans champions.