Sport’s trans wars

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


The sporting world is in the throes of a major culture war. After a series of controversial wins by trans athletes, some organisations like British Cycling and Swim England have placed restrictions on trans women competing in female categories. Multiple female athletes, particularly ex-swimmer Sharron Davies, have supported the move, claiming that anatomical and hormonal differences between biological men and women make it unfair for them to compete in the same category.

However, this has been met with criticism on the grounds that this is exclusionary towards trans athletes. Critics argue that the science in this area is insufficient to prove that biological differences will always affect the outcome of a competition. Some point to cases like double Olympic champion Caster Semenya, who suffers from hyperandrogenism, who has been subject to intense and often cruel media scrutiny about her identity. If the difference between men and women’s sport gets boiled down to testosterone levels, the lines can become blurred.

Many institutions have proposed the creation of open categories to include trans people. For example, the World Boxing Council is working towards creating an open category for trans athletes after some male boxers refused to fight athletes with XX chromosomes out of fear of fatally injuring them. But is an open category the solution, or merely a way to segregate trans athletes?

Supporters of trans inclusion have been critical of such debates, arguing that questioning an individual’s identity is unacceptable. ‘Trans people don’t transition for athletics. We transition to be happy and authentic and to be ourselves’, trans swimmer Lia Thomas told Good Morning America. For some, biological differences between men and women can be transcended by prioritising an athlete’s sense of who they really are. But others point to a seeming contradiction in the world of sport, where the differences between men and women’s ability is celebrated as a defining factor. When it comes to the success of the Lionesses – or the sexism scandals in the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket and the Welsh Rugby Union – what it means to be a woman in the sporting world was clearly understood.

Should sport overcome the challenges of biological difference – and if so, how? This isn’t just an issue at elite level – many parents oppose open categories in their children’s sports day for fear of boys winning all the prizes. Is it fair for girls to grow up believing they will always be second best, or does the inclusion of trans children in sport take precedence? Do we have to be exclusive to become inclusive? And how can we ensure that sport remains a passionate, enjoyable activity for all while still enforcing safety and fairness requirements?

Dr Tim Black
books and essays editor, spiked

Dr Sara Dahlen
writer; ethicist; researcher, King’s College London

Baroness Kate Hoey
non-aligned peer, House of Lords; former Labour MP; former sports minister; former unpaid commissioner for sport, London Mayor’s office; Leave campaigner

Fiona McAnena
director of sport, Fair Play For Women

Geoff Kidder
director, membership and events, Academy of Ideas; convenor, AoI Book Club