Sport is contending with issues of gender and inclusion globally. But it’s time to challenge basic assumptions, such as the ‘unfair advantage’, to level up for the next generation of athletes.

Australian sport is at a crossroads. Age-old assumptions about gender, masculinity and sport are being challenged. Teams are being forced to reckon with how they can become a more inclusive space for all athletes.

Meanwhile, high-profile cases both in Australia and overseas have raised questions about who gets to decide which athletes have the right to compete on the biggest stage. The participation of transgender women in sport even became an unexpected topic of political debate in the recent federal election.  

Experts in gender and sexuality studies from ANU say progress on inclusion in sport is long overdue and could present a golden opportunity to give one of our country’s favourite pastimes a much needed makeover.  

Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen says our various sporting codes need to think about how they deal with “difference of all kinds”. Rasmussen believes that events such as Pride Rounds are a great start, but how clubs treat their players day to day is crucial.  

“Pride matches only go so far,” she says. “I think it’s important to look at how our sporting teams are treating players from all minority groups and, in particular, further marginalised groups such as trans athletes.”  

Professor Celia Roberts (left) and Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2019 guidelines for the inclusion of transgender and gender diverse people in sport outline the legal obligations of sporting groups under the Sex Discrimination Act, which has recognised the non-binary nature of gender identity since 2013.

The guidelines are “designed to maximise the inclusion of transgender and gender diverse people in their sport” and state that a person must be able “to bring their ‘whole self’ to any sport they participate in”. But advocacy groups and transgender athletes say several years on, we still have a long way to go.  

During Australia’s 2022 federal election campaign, then prime minister Scott Morrison came under fire for his backing of Liberal candidate for Warringah Katherine Deves, who was vocal in her push to exclude transgender women from women’s sporting events.  

Trans athlete Hannah Mouncey, who was drawn into a lengthy battle with the Australian Football League’s women’s competition — AFL Women’s (AFLW) — over her eligibility to play after being forced out of the 2017 draft, says the ‘debate’ around trans rights is ruining lives. 

“After five years of being in the middle of it, I’m beyond exhaustion,” she posted on Twitter in April. “There is no ‘debate’ around trans rights, there are trans people and self righteous bullies seeking to destroy them.”  

Actor Magda Szubanski echoed Mouncey’s sentiments when she said Deves’ comments were “lacking in compassion and common sense”. Szubanksi expressed concerns vulnerable trans kids were being used as “political footballs”.  

This followed the introduction in February 2022 of a bill by Tasmanian Senator Claire Chandler that would give greater legal protection to clubs that exclude transgender athletes from competition. The bill is before the Senate.  

Challenging the ‘unfair advantage’ argument  

Australian sport is not alone in grappling with these issues. The International Olympic Committee set out its own inclusion framework in 2021. It states: “Every person has the right to practise sport without discrimination and in a way that respects their health, safety, and dignity.  

“At the same time, the credibility of competitive sport — and particularly high-level organised sporting competitions — relies on a level playing field, where no athlete has an unfair and disproportionate advantage over the rest.”  

Transgender swimmer Lia Thomas. Photo: AP Photo/Josh Reynolds

This idea of a level playing field was placed under the microscope following the success of American transgender swimmer Lia Thomas. Thomas made headlines around the world in March when she became the first openly transgender athlete to win an National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I national championship — the highest level of college sport in the United States. 

Professor Celia Roberts says we can expect to see more trans athletes competing at the top level here in Australia over time. She believes we have an opportunity to learn from how cases like Thomas’ have been handled overseas.  

“One rather radical suggestion would be that each sport starts to think about how to transition to categorising participants in ways that aren’t based on sex. Gender studies argues that the idea of people fitting neatly into one of two categories has always been a fiction. There are lots of people who don’t fit into either. As that number continues to grow, I don’t see how sport can keep going as it is now.”  

Thomas was part of the men’s team during her first years at university, before coming out to her coaches and teammates and beginning hormone replacement therapy. She was six months short of completing three years of therapy — which is a new stipulation under USA Swimming’s policy for trans athletes to compete — when she won the title, after the NCAA allowed her to participate.  

Olympic gold medallist Caitlyn Jenner, who came out as a trans woman in 2015, was among the many people who voiced their opinion. Jenner said “biological boys should not be playing in women’s sports.” Others were vocal in their support of Thomas.  

In an interview with ESPN Thomas said “trans women competing in women’s sports does not threaten women’s sports as a whole.” She emphasised that they are “a very small minority of all athletes” and “we haven’t seen any massive wave of trans women dominating” despite the NCAA rules about trans women competing in women’s sports existing for more than a decade.  

Roberts points out that as we see more young people identify as trans earlier in life, it will further challenge the idea of these athletes having an unfair advantage. “It’s increasingly common that children will identify as trans before puberty and seek puberty blockers,” she says.

“We are quite fixated on this idea of the level playing field, as if it’s not an unfair advantage that some people have huge feet or amazing lungs. Sport is all about disadvantage or advantage — that’s how people win. The question is how to classify participants so that competitions can be exciting and safe.”  

“Some of the things these athletes still have to deal with are very troubling. We still get plenty of homophobic or transphobic commentary from spectators on social media.” 

Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen

Former Australian footballer and human rights advocate Craig Foster was asked to share his views following an address at the National Press Club in Canberra in March. “What I believe in is human rights and non-discrimination on the basis of gender,” he said while delivering the annual ANU Australia and the World lecture.

“I would be making sure that we examine the issue appropriately under the frameworks of human rights, not under the frameworks of what is considered fairness in sport, or sporting integrity. It is about humans; it is not only about sport.”  

But sport is big business and, for many of us, plays an important role in our sense of who we are. As a result, Roberts believes major change may still take some time and is not guaranteed to be in the direction of greater inclusion.  

Across the United States, Republicans have introduced legislation to limit the participation of trans athletes in sports, including proposed laws in Ohio that could see young women subjected to invasive gender-verification procedures to compete at high school and college levels.

In June, FINA, swimming’s world governing body, voted to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in women’s competitions—barring any women who have gone through male puberty. It also agreed to work towards establishing an ‘open’ category.  

Where does religion fit?  

Roberts says that if competitions such as the AFLW are willing to put in the work, sport has the potential to be a great avenue for celebrating all sorts of difference — whether it be based on sexuality, physicality, religion, or something else altogether. 

AFLW player Haneen Zreika made headlines of her own when she chose not to wear her team’s Pride jersey and to sit out the round’s game in early 2022.  

“As the first Australian Muslim woman in the AFLW, I have a responsibility to represent my faith and my community. I respect people regardless of their sexual orientation,” Zreika wrote on social media.  

“Inclusion is about creating a space where people are able to respect their right to choose how they live their life, as long as they don’t advocate hate and division.”  

Rasmussen says the fact this choice was accepted by Zreika’s club, Greater Western Sydney, indicates they have fostered a culture where Zreika felt comfortable having a difficult conversation with officials and teammates and missing a game of football.  

“It raises an interesting debate about religion, and its place in the game,” Rasmussen says. “I expect that accommodations will need to be made for religion as well as gender and sexuality.”  

Lagging behind  

However, there is still a “huge lag” between the men’s and women’s codes in Australia when it comes to representation and celebration of LGBTIQA+ players, Rasmussen says. 

This was highlighted in October 2021 when Adelaide United footballer Josh Cavallo became the only openly-gay top-tier men’s professional player in the world. “I’m a footballer and I’m gay,” he stated in an emotional video message. “Growing up I always felt the need to hide myself … all I want to do is play football and be treated equally.”  

A-League footballer Josh Cavallo. Photo: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

Rasmussen says while we may have reached the stage where being a member of the LGBTIQA+ community is not “spectacular or unusual in most settings”, Cavallo’s experience shows we still have some way to go.  

“It’s a continuing challenge for men’s sport,” Rasmussen says. “Some of the things these athletes still have to deal with are very troubling. We still get plenty of homophobic or transphobic commentary from spectators on social media.”  

After taking the field for an A-League game in January, Cavallo revealed the toll that abuse can take. “I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t see or hear the homophobic abuse at the game last night,” he wrote. “As a society it shows we still face these problems in 2022. This shouldn’t be acceptable.”  

He also called on social media platforms to do more to stop abusive content. “I don’t want any child or adult to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that I’ve received. It is a sad reality that your platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages.”  

Back to the future  

Roberts and Rasmussen both agree our current generation of budding sporting stars will grow up to enter a vastly different arena.  

According to Rasmussen, conversations about gender and sexuality are increasingly part of education in schools. She says whether or not students identify as diverse in their sex, gender and sexuality, they will increasingly be part of and lead these conversations.  

“It means more and more young people are thinking about these things for themselves, even if they’re not all coming to the same conclusion,” Rasmussen says. “A lot of these athletes we see today are grappling with complex issues from an early age, which may not always have been the case 20 or 30 years ago.  

“We’re seeing people project a lot of things onto these young athletes as well. Increasingly, we’re seeing the commodification not only of an athlete’s performance but also a push to commodify their bodies and sexuality.”  

Roberts adds that some young people want to subvert established gender structures.  

“We need to think about how we can support young people who are keen to challenge the very categories themselves. They are a different group of potential athletes again,” Roberts says.  

“Where do non-binary athletes fit in? If you’re an elite swimmer who is non-binary, what are you supposed to do? This needs to be taken into consideration as well.  

“If sports across the globe can look at some of these issues and once possibilities are on the table, more kids are going to want to have a go. Surely that’s a win for everyone involved.” 

Top image: biDaala studio/Shutterstock.com

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