Sport //

Breaking Binaries: Transphobia in sport

Lucy Watson examines a problem that plagues even the most progressive of sports


Over the weekend, the Eastern Region Roller Derby tournament took place on the Central Coast. The University of Sydney’s Roller Derby League was barred from participating, because the tournament was for women, and USRDL is gender-inclusive.

In many ways, roller derby is a wonderfully progressive, feminist sport. However, as with many other feminist movements, in recognising the power of women, the sport fails to recognise those who do not fall neatly into a binary gender category. Trans* and genderqueer sportspeople are often neglected in a world that considers men and women as two distinct, obviously defined categories, with one supposedly stronger, faster, and physically superior than the other. While some trans* people may neatly define themselves as one gender or another, others, like genderqueer people, might not be defined by such distinct categories.

Roller derby’s inclusion of transwomen is quite unlike many other sports. For any sport to have gender categories, it necessarily must define them. The peak governing body of women’s roller derby, Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), defines “female” as a person who is “living as a woman and having sex hormones that are within the medically acceptable range for a female.” This definition is more progressive than many other sports, so props for that. But there are several ways in which this definition is still fucked.

Firstly, it sets a precedent for what is a ‘medically acceptable’ level of hormones, despite the fact that many women who were born and identify as women (known as ciswomen) have levels of testosterone outside what is deemed ‘medically acceptable’. Secondly, policies such as this involve gender policing, and place the ‘burden of proof’ on the transwoman (M to F) herself. When any opposing team questions her gender ‘status’ it is up to her to provide medical certificates, doctor’s statements, hormone prescriptions – all deeply personal and private information. It also necessarily requires the woman to be on hormone treatment, a process that is both expensive, and mentally rigorous. All this, just to participate in a sport that is not professional; roller derby is not a money-making hobby.

Roller derby is one of the few sports with its own unique policy. The governing bodies of many sports in Australia, including netball, softball, touch football, basketball, and hockey, use the exact same wording in their ‘member protection policy’, which states, very vaguely, that they will attempt to make trans* players feel welcome, while acknowledging the physical advantages a transwoman may have, and encourage players to follow the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) policy. The IOC policy requires sportspeople to be legally recognised as their new gender, to have been on hormones for at least two years, and to have undergone Sex Reassignment Surgery. These extra processes are, by and large, completely unnecessary in ensuring the ‘level playing field’ that sport hinges on so incessantly: it’s not like the presence of a penis or an ‘M’ on a birth certificate makes a tangible difference on the field.

What’s interesting about derby is that in its haste to be inclusive of transwomen, it has been so exclusive of transmen (F to M). Regardless of their hormone levels (they might be entirely pre-treatment), if one identifies as a man, they are automatically excluded from play. This is particularly disappointing, given that WFTDA does not have a doping policy. Essentially, a woman can take testosterone (a performance enhancing substance) and not be punished, but someone who identifies as a man, regardless of their gender at birth, may not play, under any circumstances.

Transgender policies are presumably created to ensure the aforementioned ‘level playing field’. This field, however, is one that assumes that all men are necessarily better than all women: the categories are distinct, with no crossover. Therefore, transwomen, many of whom have gone through puberty as a man before transitioning, are treated suspiciously, as though their gender transformation is purely to get a leg up in a women’s competition.

Hormone treatment is enforced strongly so that the natural levels of testosterone in a transwoman are dramatically reduced, so they may be considered ‘equal’ to cisgendered women: otherwise they’d have a ‘natural advantage’, as they were born men. The same is not true of transmen. Despite hormone treatment being essentially the equivalent of taking a performance enhancing drug, sporting associations, including the IOC, do not view them as equal to cismen, presumably because they were not born men – the ‘naturally superior’ gender category.

 In order to create a true level playing field, one where all people are welcome, sporting institutions need to recognise both the existence of transgender sportspeople, and the possibility that there may be some ciswomen who are naturally faster, stronger, better, than some cismen.

Gender-inclusive (not mixed, or co-ed, as that generally enforces the male/female binary) competitions have the potential to create a truly welcome environment. Of course, this is difficult logistically at a professional level, but there shouldn’t be any reason to stop it happening at a local, amateur level. That includes the Eastern Region Roller Derby Championship last weekend, because, despite the presence of men – both cis- and trans- – USRDL’s relative inexperience would’ve made us no match for the bigger leagues.