Sex matters in sport!

The Welsh government wants to ensure LGBT people benefit from sport. We agree. Sport can make you feel good. It can help you stay healthy, physically and mentally. A lucky few can earn a good living through sport. But women are still massively under-represented. Teenage girls drop out at three times the rate of teenage boys. Professional women’s sport lags way behind men’s, with only a fraction of the sponsorship and earning power. Many sports bodies have explicit policies to attract, welcome and retain females in their sport, but there’s a long way to go.

What about LGBT people? Sexual orientation is not relevant in sport. It should not be a barrier to participation. No one should feel excluded because of their sexual orientation.

Trans identity should not be a barrier either. Policies should be developed to facilitate free gender expression and to provide a welcoming environment for all. But this cannot mean replacing the protected characteristic of sex with the separate concept of gender identity. We support the ambition to ensure that the benefits of sport are open to all. But we cannot consider sport without considering bodies, which have a sex not a gender identity.

Everyone knows there are significant performance differences between men and women. A large and lasting performance advantage is conferred by male puberty. Being male or female is relevant in almost all sports, as recognised in section 195 of the Equality Act. It is lawful to segregate sports by sex at every age, if the sport is considered to be “gender-affected”. This does not mean gender identity; it means biological sex. It is about bodies and not about identities or expression. Most sports governing bodies in Wales have used this exception in the EA to permit sex segregation. Without it, female players would not have access to safe, fair sport. It is essential that this is factored into any policy in sport, including LGBT+ policies.

Male people should be able to play in Open, Men’s or Mixed sport categories and competitions. Female people should be able to play and compete in Open events but they also need a category which excludes anyone with a male body. This must apply regardless of that person’s gender identity, because the male performance advantage is not removed by identification, nor by any known form of medical transition. Studies by academics on both sides of the debate about trans inclusion in women’s sport have published peer-reviewed papers showing that even after three years of testosterone suppression, a significant male advantage remains. This is not surprising, since the anatomical and physiological differences enacted by male puberty are not reversed by hormone treatment – factors such as the narrower male pelvis which power a more efficient gait, the stiffer tendons which increase muscle efficiency, as well as many more familiar differences such as much greater muscle mass, larger lungs, less body fat, and so on. Therefore, sport policies must not replace the protected characteristic of sex with the separate concept of gender identity.

Other aspects of policy such as guidance for changing room access also need to weigh up the needs of transgender people and females for privacy. The law permits single-sex facilities and the exclusion of all males, even those with a Gender Recognition Certificate, from spaces where women or girls may be undressed or vulnerable. This includes sports changing rooms.

In considering sport policies to accommodate the needs of transgender people, it is essential to consider the impact on females. A policy intended to increase inclusion of one group may inadvertently trigger exclusion of another group. It’s easy to see how trans-identifying males can displace females, at every level from the Olympics to local rugby clubs. This is not about their motivation or their intention. It’s simply about the unarguable fact that male and female bodies differ. When males are permitted to participate in women’s events, females miss out. Some lose their places to those with performance advantage. Some self-exclude through fear of injury, or discomfort at mixed changing facilities. Some are disheartened by the unfairness. So-called trans inclusion is not free. Every male in a women’s team comes at a price, and that price is paid by females.

Merched Cymru and LGB Alliance Cymru are working together to respond to Welsh Government’s LGBT+ Action Plan. See our page here.