Why is a transgender weightlifter's participation causing controversy?

by Rachel Savage | @rachelmsavage | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 2 August 2021 10:12 GMT

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand competes in the women's +90kg weightlifting final at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Sports Arena 1, Gold Coast, Australia on April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Paul Childs/File Photo/File Photo

Image Caption and Rights Information

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is set to become the first openly trans woman to compete in the Olympics. Her participation has fuelled global debate about trans women's inclusion in women's sports

By Rachel Savage

LONDON, Aug 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first openly transgender woman to compete at the Olympics when she takes part in the women's super-heavyweight 87+kg category at the Tokyo Games on Monday.

Hubbard's participation is fuelling a fierce global debate about whether trans women should be allowed to compete in women's sporting events, and - if they are - what the rules should be.

Trans rights campaigners say excluding trans athletes is discriminatory and will stoke bias against trans people in general, but critics say trans athletes have an unfair physical advantage in women's competitions.

Also in Tokyo, footballer Quinn, who uses only one name and is trans and non-binary - identifying as neither male or female - is participating with Canada's women's soccer team.

The trans sport debate has been at the heart of a culture war in the United States between conservatives and supporters of U.S. President Joe Biden's push for greater LGBT+ inclusion.

WHY HAS CONTROVERSY GROWN?

As more people come out as trans, the participation of trans women in women's sport has increasingly been called into question, including by well-known sports stars such as tennis champion Martina Navratilova.

Hubbard, who will be the oldest lifter at the Games at 43, competed in men's weightlifting competitions before transitioning in 2013.

Two years later, she became eligible to compete at the Olympics in women's events in line with guidelines issued by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The IOC currently advises sporting bodies to let trans women athletes compete in women's events if their testosterone levels remain below a certain threshold for at least a year. Trans men face no restrictions.

With the Tokyo games shining a spotlight on trans athletes, the IOC said last week it would review scientific data to determine a new framework for international federations to set rules for competitions in their individual sports.

Richard Budgett, the IOC's medical and scientific director, said the challenge was to ensure inclusivity while also retaining fairness.

FILE PHOTO: The Kirtland Hornets and Sandy Valley Cardinals high school football teams compete in the Division V quarterfinal Ohio football playoffs in Chardon, Ohio, U.S., October 24, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

WHAT DO OTHER SPORTS AUTHORITIES SAY?

Around the world, sporting authorities are grappling with how to formulate their rules.

World Rugby ruled last year that trans women could not compete in elite and international women's rugby, citing safety and fairness concerns.

In the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which runs inter-college sport in the country, says trans women must suppress their testosterone for at least a year before competing in women's contests

Trans men cannot compete with women if they start taking testosterone, NCAA rules state.

In March 2020, Idaho became the first U.S. state to ban trans women and girls from women's sports leagues in schools and colleges, though the law was suspended after a court ruled it was discriminatory.

This year, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, West Virginia and Florida passed similar legislation and South Dakota's governor has signed an executive order supporting a sports ban. All have Republican governors.

West Virginia's law was suspended last month by a judge who ruled that it was unconstitutional.

FILE PHOTO: Dec 5, 2018; Spokane, WA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs students get their picture taken during a basketball game against the Washington Huskies at McCarthey Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

WHAT DO SCIENTISTS SAY?

Trans women's muscular advantage only falls by about 5% after a year of testosterone-suppressing treatment, according to a review of existing research by the University of Manchester and Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

Britain's Loughborough University found that hormone therapy reduced trans women's haemoglobin levels, which affects endurance, to equal that of non-trans women within four months.

But strength, lean body mass and muscle area remained higher after three years of medication to block testosterone, it said.

Tommy Lundberg, who coauthored the first study, said male athletes gain their 30% muscular advantages during puberty, but there are no studies of trans adolescents who could take puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones before puberty finishes.

WHAT DO TRANS ACTIVISTS SAY?

LGBT+ activists say the U.S. sports bills and World Rugby ban are discriminatory and dispute claims of a physical advantage.

Chris Mosier, a triathlete and the first trans man to represent the United States internationally, said the current debate was damaging for all trans people.

"These are very dangerous bills that are attempting to serve as an entry point to larger scale discrimination," he said. 

Related stories:

Are U.S. firms ready to do more than voice concerns on trans rights?

State of LGBT+ rights after Biden's first 100 days

Biden scrambles Plan B on LGBT+ rights as Equality Act meets resistance

(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.