Recently, I’ve been vocal on the topic of trans rights. When people ask me why this is something I care about, I tell them the truth: that I want to support my trans friends who are often on the receiving end of some really awful discrimination, abuse and harassment. That I stand against discrimination towards any minority group. That – quite simply – nobody should have to argue for the right to be who they are.
What I don’t usually mention is that understanding this has been a journey for me. It’s time to talk about some of that.
When I mention that I was once an MMA fighter, one name that keeps getting brought up is that of Fallon Fox. Fallon was the first prominent trans woman to compete in MMA. Rumours and falsehoods have been spread about her not just in the MMA world, but way beyond. People who have never had any interest in MMA, but are looking for any excuse to demonise trans people have fixated on her particular case.
I’m well aware of Fallon Fox, because back in 2013 when she first hit the headlines in the MMA world, I made some public comments about the situation. This was the first time I’d really thought about trans women competing in sport, and my initial reaction was similar to that of many people I speak to. I wondered if it was fair, if it was safe. I didn’t have anything against trans women, and I believe in inclusion, but I was concerned about the possible risk to those of us who were “born and raised as women”. I noted that the scientific evidence was inconclusive, and suggested that a fighter should have the right to know if her opponent was transgender, so she could make her own assessment of the risk.
I believed at the time that the comments I made were respectful and well intentioned. I certainly didn’t mean to cause any harm. But sometimes we cause harm without intending to, through ignorance; and when we do, our good intentions matter less for those it affects than the negative outcome.
I bumped into Fallon a few months ago on a facebook forum, and she reminded me of what I’d said in 2013. Quite rightly she called me out on it, and asked me whether I’d changed my mind.
It was an uncomfortable experience. To tell the truth, I’ve learned a lot in the last eight years, and I’m embarrassed by some of what I said back then. But I hope that I can now challenge some of those misconceptions and stereotypes; and perhaps by talking about how I came to change my mind, I might leave the door open for others to follow.
Trans women in sport
The two most common objections directed towards trans women, specifically, competing in sport alongside cis women are that “it’s not fair”, and that “it’s not safe”. We’ll look at each of these separately, and when we do, it’s worth remembering that similar arguments have long been made justifying racial segregation in sport. The perception that black athletes have an “unfair” advantage over their white counterparts has led to racial discrimination and harassment that closely mirrors that targeted at trans women.
First of all, though, let’s tackle the most common, and most pernicious falsehood: the perception that trans women competing in sport are men who self-identify as women in order to gain an unfair advantage. In order to compete in most sports, trans women have to satisfy strict criteria to prove that they have undergone hormone treatment, and have suppressed testosterone levels for a certain period of time (a minimum twelve months). Leaving aside the ludicrous insinuation that anyone would go through all this merely to gain an advantage at sport, not to mention the difficulty many trans people experience in getting access to hormone treatment at all, it’s simply not accurate to describe a trans woman who has undergone this treatment as “biologically male”. Although biological sex has a number of different elements to it, hormones play a significant role, especially when it comes to performance.
Perhaps trans women are still left with an advantage, though, even after hormone treatment?
Nobody is seriously arguing that trans women are biologically identical to cis women, or trans men to cis men. The question is whether criteria can be put in place that ensures, if not precisely a level playing field, then one that has no more bumps than exist between cis people.
Any categorisation in sport – whether by weight, experience, age, sex or disabilty – is a clumsy and imperfect attempt to level the playing field and allow more people to meaningfully participate. We’re attempting to compare “like with like”, but no two people can ever be completely alike. Some may have genetic mutations that give them an advantage. Others may have a more advantageous build, or been fortunate enough to have better nutrition when growing up, or were born at the right time of year. Biological advantages come in lots of forms, and it would be impractical to try to implement separate categories for every single one of them.
Advantages and disadvantages can also balance each other out. Some athletes naturally have a higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres which gives them an advantage in speed and power, but these fibres also fatigue faster. Within a weight class, a fighter who has to “cut” more weight to make the weight limit may have a strength advantage, but is likely to pay a cost in endurance. It may well be the case that trans women have slight advantages (on average) in some attributes compared to cis women, but disadvantages in others. On average, trans women have a larger frame but hormone treatment has a dramatic effect on strength, resulting in less muscle to power it.
There’s a perfectly valid scientific discussion to be had about what the eligibility criteria should be and where the line should be drawn to allow trans athletes to compete alongside their cis counterparts. In fact, the criteria used by the IOC have changed over time (notably, the requirement to have had gender reassignment surgery was removed in 2015), and it’s likely that the IOC’s current criteria will be adjusted and improved over the coming years as the science improves. It may even be that – as trans athlete Kirsti Miller believes, the current rules are too stringent and force trans women to compete in an unhealthy state that not only puts them at a disadvantage compared to cis women but forces them to sacrifice their health in order to compete. It may even be that slightly different criteria will be needed in different sports, depending on the differing physical demands. The reality is that weighing up advantages and disadvantages in sport is necessarily more complicated than simply measuring muscle mass or even raw strength in a laboratory.
So – after all this, what, exactly, do we mean when we talk about “fairness”? If we’re not careful, there’s a danger that we end up saying that trans people can compete, as long as they never win, because as soon as they do, it proves that they had an advantage all along.
If looking across a range of sports – trans people are winning no more often than we’d expect given the number who compete, then that is surely the only meaningful measure of fairness we can ask for.
And there’s a way we can check this. The International Olympic Committee has had a trans inclusive policy since 2003. In that time, there have been no trans olympic athletes (let alone medal winners). The idea that trans women would make women’s sport meaningless by easily dominating the competition has not, so far, materialised. If trans women do have an advantage over cis women (on average, on balance, and across a range of sports) then it’s a hard one to spot.
In contact and combat sports, there is another concern that is often raised. What if trans women do have a physical advantage, to the extent that it increases the risk to cis women competing against them? As with the question of fairness, this also needs a bit of unpacking. No contact sport is risk free. In fact, injuries happen routinely during competition. While many outsiders would find the assertion that “Fox fractured a woman’s skull” disturbing; those of us who are more familiar with the sport understand that an orbital fracture (the actual injury) is a common injury, and can think of numerous examples in both men’s and women’s divisions that Fallon was not involved in.
Does a trans woman inherently pose a higher risk to her opponents than other elite female fighters? This is pretty straightforward to answer. Historically, the answer is “no” – there’s a long list of cis female fighters who have caused more, and more serious, injuries in combat sports than any trans woman (I’m not proud of the irony that – depending on how you assess severity – I’m probably on that list).
But we’re looking at a small sample size; what about theoretical risk. Do trans women fall outside the range of physical attributes that we might otherwise expect to come up against in competition? That’s certainly not been the case with any combat athlete we’ve seen so far; and given the absence of trans women dominating other sports at the olympics, it seems unlikely that it’ll be the case any time soon. This is especially true in a weight category sport where even the possible benefit of a larger frame size is factored out. If that’s not a risk that you’re comfortable taking, then MMA is probably not the sport for you.
Perhaps, as some suggest, we should wait until we have more evidence before we allow trans people to compete in sports? I’ve come to believe that the answer to that is also “no”. We should continue to promote inclusive policies that are transparent, based on the best evidence available, and allow athletes to keep important medical information confidential from both competitors and the public. Of course more research is needed (as is so often the case). There are always uncertainties in anything as complex as human performance, and it makes sense to try to make our metaphorical playing field as level as practicable. But we cannot and should not exclude trans people from sport until we have perfect knowledge.
The bigger picture
When I first looked at this question, I looked for evidence and the sports science, but what I missed was listening to the voices of trans people. Back then, I didn’t know anyone who was openly trans, and I certainly hadn’t asked them about their experience.
I’ve been fortunate to get to know some amazing friends who have patiently educated me, and helped me to appreciate a bit better what they go through. I know that there will always be elements to that experience which I just don’t understand; but I can empathise with feeling judged for being who I am.
The biggest thing that I’ve learned, and the thing that came as a huge shock to understand was the sheer amount of abuse and harassment that trans people face every single day of their lives, just for being who they are. Whenever I stand up for trans inclusive policies, I get a barrage of similar abuse hurled my way – allegations that I support abuse of women, of children, that I’m stupid and don’t understand biology, that I’m on the side of deluded or predatory men. It can become overwhelming. Yet this is a tiny fraction of what my trans friends experience. I could opt out and walk away; they can’t.
Sport is empowering. Back in the early 2000s, there were plenty of those in the MMA world who didn’t believe that women had a place in the sport. We fought to be there, and we fought hard for the right to compete on the same shows, with the same rules, as the men, and we won those battles. As a woman, I have benefitted enormously from my time in MMA. It’s given me confidence, physical abilities, enjoyment, a positive relationship with my body, and a supportive community that I’m a part of.
How could I now argue for rules that would needlessly deny that experience and those benefits to people from other marginalised groups?
Unfortunately, calm, rational and empathic discussion about this has become almost impossible in the wider public sphere, where this issue has become a proxy battle in the culture war, with trans people as collateral damage.
When I’ve spoken to trans people, I’ve found them very willing to talk about the issues they’re facing. Several friends have patiently helped to educate me when I’ve got things wrong. What they can’t, and shouldn’t, be expected to do is to endlessly debate their right to be who they are with those who are hostile and often abusive.
The issue of trans women in sports seems to have attracted all manner of people who had no previous interest in women’s sports. “I’m not transphobic, I’m just passionate about the rights of female athletes” has become the new “I’m not racist, but…”. Where were they when women were fighting our own battles for inclusion?
I’m immensely proud to be part of my generation of female fighters. At the beginning of my career, women’s mixed martial arts didn’t exist in the UK. I finished my career as the first British woman to fight in the UFC. Nowadays MMA is one of the few sports in the world where women compete on the same platform and under the same rules as the men. We made that happen.
Some of the people who are arguing now against trans participation in mainstream sport are the very same people who a decade or two ago were telling us that they didn’t want to see women fighting, or posting misogynistic comments about female fighters, or talking about what a joke female MMA was. The people so concerned about the “safety” and “rights” of female fighters are nowhere to be seen when we talk about other issues we face. These people are not our allies.
Humans come in all manner of shapes, sizes, body types, with different strengths and weaknesses. We’ve learned to celebrate many of those differences. Sport has a proud tradition of bringing people together across borders, and in spite of our divisions. Sport at all levels, but especially grassroots and recreational sport has much to offer for the health of both individuals and communities. Trans people are sadly one of today’s most marginalised groups, and they deserve the opportunity to share those benefits, as much as any of us.