KPE experts discuss World Athletics ban of transgender women from female events

TOKYO, JAPAN August 7: The running shoes and legs of runners during the 10000m final for women during the Track and Field competition at the Olympic Stadium at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games on August 7th, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN August 7: The running shoes and legs of runners during the 10000m final for women during the Track and Field competition at the Olympic Stadium at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games on August 7th, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

World Athletics announced on March 23 that transgender women would be banned from competing in the female category at international events. The World Athletics Council also voted to reduce the amount of blood testosterone permitted for athletes with differences in sex development (DSD) such as South Africa's Caster Semenya to below 2.5 nanomoles per litre, down from five. 

The governing body's president Seb Coe said no transgender athlete who had gone through male puberty would be permitted to compete in female world ranking competitions from March 31. Coe said the decision was "guided by the overarching principle which is to protect the female category" and added a working group would be set up to conduct further research into the transgender eligibility guidelines, saying: "We're not saying no forever." 

We asked Professor Emeritus Bruce Kidd and Associate Professor Caroline Fusco of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) to share their thoughts about the ruling. In 2015, Kidd helped initiate Indian sprinter Dutee Chand’s successful appeal, at the Court of Administration for Sport (CAS), of the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) attempts to legislate natural testosterone in female athletes. Fusco’s research interests include gender/s, sexualities and the body within the framework of social justice, equity and inclusion.  

What was your response to World Athletics’ new requirements?

Bruce Kidd: I’m sickened by them. They enforce grotesque discrimination in this once great world sport, and create enormous harm among those affected, as has already been documented by Human Rights Watch, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, and the film Category Woman by KPE alumna Phyllis Ellis. Henceforth, athletics must be understood as an asterisk sport, one where only some women are eligible to compete. As Human Rights Watch said in its report, ‘they’re driving women away from sport!’.

Caroline Fusco: I was not surprised at all, and I think it is despicable. On International Women’s Day, I was on a panel that was discussing the documentary film Category Woman. I viewed the film several times and the documentary signaled the possibility that WA would make the hegemonic move to ban transgender athletes and require that DSD athletes reduce their blood testosterone. Both these moves demonstrate how biopolitical discourses impact on the lives of women athletes in terms of deciding what is or is not the proper amount of femaleness – and as we know these determinations of ‘femininity’ have been going on for decades and decades. 

Not only has WA continued to frame womanhood and femininity in terms of gender binaries and heteronormativity, but its reliance on dominant Eurocentric systems of gender and sexuality render womanhood and femininity implicitly white. The fact that many of the athletes who are affected by these requirements are from the Global South is not incidental. The WA requirement renders bodies that do not align with its determinations of female as deviant because these bodies are allegedly unreadable (visually, biologically) as feminine, they are deemed unwomanly, they are criminalized and viewed as a problem that needs resolving. 

The WA is enacting flawed and racially coded biocentric systems of knowledge that have historically been based on producing binary hierarchies that discipline athletes into categories of ‘fully woman’, ‘not-quite-woman’ and ‘non-woman’. As Dr. Payoshini Mitra argued in Category Woman, “Who made them the gods who could decide who is a woman and who is not?” 

Concomitantly, WA is reproducing transphobia and the kind of exclusionary violent transphobic rhetoric that is dangerously on the rise across the world. Their pronouncements demonstrate that they do not see transgender or DSD athletes as legitimate members of a collective group of world-class competitors or humans, whose everyday realities and lives will be greatly, unjustly and violently impacted by their continued biocentric ideologies and white heteropatriarchal belief systems. The film Category Woman very clearly illustrates the horrific treatment, the public humiliation that athletes face because of WA regulations – these requirements are career ending and literally destroy lives.

What are the counter-arguments to World Athletics’ position that transgender women and DSD athletes have an unfair advantage when competing in women’s sport? 

BK: Trans and intersex women are women, and it’s a violation of their human rights to be barred from athletics on the basis of their adolescence, in the case of trans women, and their biology in the case of intersex women. The WA rule-making violates all the international standards for scientific policy making—the so-called research leading to this policy was conducted by WA’s own ‘scientific director’, Stephane Bermon, a galloping conflict of interest. There was no independent review, and in fact, the relevant literature shows no clear pattern. There was little consultation with athletes, and no consideration of the ethical issues involved. There are many factors in sport that confer ‘advantage’, including family and national income—why single out this one aspect of biology?

CF: WA requirements continue to perpetuate legacies of dehumanization and indignities on the bodies of women, transgender and DSD athletes. WA requirements prevent women from having control over their own bodies and histories and that is what Eurocentric heteropatriarchal systems want - under the guise of ‘fair play’ – they have a vested interest in keeping women apart and creating cultures of suspicion about transgender and DSD athletes. Under such a regime, (hetero)sexism benefits, racism benefits, capitalism benefits and because there is a requirement to chemically alter one’s own natural blood testosterone, pharmaceuticals benefit. 

Nirmal Puwar argues that the somatic norm represents those bodies who can occupy space without question, transgender and DSD athletes are always questioned, they are deemed ‘space invaders’, perceived as not belonging in (hetero)normative (Eurocentric) women’s athletic spaces because they are said to impact on the sanctity and fairness of woman’s sport. 

Many scholars in sports studies have already argued that the notion of a ‘level playing field’ is a myth but many people like to imagine that such a playing field exists. WA have enacted what Giorgio Agamben calls a ‘state of exception’ which is the suspension of laws of human rights to create a fictional social world (in this case a ‘level playing field’), which denies bodily autonomy. WA get to determine what (bio)markers count as an advantage in (women’s) sport and which ones do not – and of course, ‘bio-advantage’ is rarely, if ever, ruled as illegitimate in men’s sport.

In 2022, the British Triathlon established an ‘open’ category in which transgender athletes can compete. FINA, the swimming world’s governing body, said they, too, aim to establish an ‘open’ category for athletes whose gender identity is different than their sex observed at birth. What’s your take on that? 

BK: These are policies of discrimination and coercion. They not only deny trans and intersex athletes the right to compete as they live their lives but they force them into a competitive category not of their choosing. If these international federations try to stage events under these rules in Canada, they will be challenged in court on the grounds that they violate Canadian human rights legislation.

CF: I would like to know what transgender and DSD athletes think of these ‘open’ categories? While some may argue that these ‘open’ categories give athletes a chance to compete, this ‘othering’ is simply another way of upholding the discriminatory hetero binary gender system and renders the bodies that are placed in these categories as not belonging in the ‘proper’ sports competitions. To me, jettisoning certain bodies to the margins (i.e., ‘open category’) is always already a refusal to celebrate the great diversity of bodies that athletes have, denies some people’s natural superiority, and robs spectators of the wonder of seeing epic and beyond world class performances.

Coe said the organization would review their position on banning transgender women from competing in the female category at international events as more evidence become available. What are your expectations?

BK: It’s reprehensible that WA has rushed ahead without having the evidence. A far better approach is that taken by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which has recommended self-identification and full inclusion for trans athletes until such time as there is hard, widely accepted evidence to that their participation would be unfair.

CF: Dr. Payoshini Mitra argued in Category Woman that the misguided attempts by WA to protect women’s sports and competition are causing real bodily harm to women athletes (e.g., advocating for medical interventions when they are not necessary, etc.) and because WA are accountable to almost no one, their ideologies go unchecked. Dr. Cassandra Well’s research on the resilience of sex testing/gender verification in sport tells us that despite the ongoing challenges and protests over the decades and decades of testing, the weight of biocentric belief systems prevail. As Walter Benjamin would say “something is rotten at the core of the law” so, while it would be great to change this system, my expectations are tempered.

Anette Negesa, a world-class Ugandan middle-distance athlete whose body was destroyed by invasive surgery (i.e., she thought she was going in for some hormone treatments so she could compete at the Olympics, but surgeons conducted a partial clitoridectomy and bilateral gonadectomy on her and now her “body doesn’t work anymore”) states in Category Woman, “Enough is Enough!”

What would it mean for athletes, to paraphrase Audrey Lorde, to say “we do not have to live this way, we do not have to live with the horrors and the inconsistences in the system”? What would it mean for us to build an athletic and sports world that affirms and celebrates diverse lives and talents rather than destroying them?  Building the capacity for change requires that all athletes, especially cis-gender men and women athletes, resist and refuse transphobic and biocentric ideologies and take up the question: what might our sports world, liberated from white heteropatriarchy and capitalist biopolitics, look like? My job as a scholar-activist is to engage in a radical practice that notices what Katherine McKittrick calls ‘biocentric systems of knowledge’ and to breach those logics repeatedly to enact “a determination to live otherwise” (Dionne Brand) in sport.