Trans participation in sport is happening now – not only is it a non-issue, it makes clubs better | Stephanie Convery

T.he feeling from community sports clubs in the midst of the political debate about trans athletes competing in women’s sport over the last week is not relief. It’s anxiety: how can we protect our trans players from this completely unwarranted attack on their right to play?

The prime minister has been attempting to characterize this as an issue of concern for ordinary mums and dads “who just want common sense to apply”. But in my experience, grassroots sport and the community more generally are way ahead of this political debate, just as they were on the issue of marriage equality.

Here’s what I know as the vice-president of Elsternwick, one of Victoria’s oldest amateur football clubs.

Our trajectory at Elsternwick is a really common one: a club that for more than a century was only for cis men has performed an incredible gear-shift in just the last few years. From the moment it started a women’s team in 2019, it committed to being inclusive; to welcoming people of all backgrounds and identities – those with excellent skills honed over a lifetime and those who’ve never picked up a ball in their life.

Active steps towards trans inclusion are a necessary part of that process. When I went looking for guidance on the best ways for the club to do that, I found a wealth of resources. The idea that sports are in uncharted waters on this is simply untrue.

The most high level guidance comes from Sport Australia. In partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Coalition of Major Professional and Participation Sports, it published extensive guidelines for sports in 2019 on how to be trans-inclusive and fair, and also explained the reasons why it was not only necessary but ideal. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission published its own specific guidelines even earlier, in 2017.

In 2020, the AFL released a policy for its community clubs that allows players to play for the team that aligns with their gender identity, and non-binary players to play in the team in which they feel most comfortable. Trans players are under no obligation to “confirm” their gender identity or disclose that they are trans in any way.

These things are really important. As hockey player Emily Dwyer wrote for Guardian Australia: “For some trans and gender diverse people experiences or fears of discrimination – deliberate, subtle, unintentional – are barriers to participation that remain too high. Isolation and depression are crisis issues for trans and gender-diverse people; participation in sporting and social activities can be one part of the solution. “

For some sports, there are rules around therapeutic use of testosterone, as competitive sports generally follow the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Anti-Doping Code, in which exogenous testosterone is a banned substance.

But Prof Kate Henne, at the School of Regulation and Global Governance at Australian National University, says that the focus on testosterone thresholds as a marker for male or femaleness is just the latest flawed method in a long line of different ways sport has tried to ” test ”for sex difference, stretching back almost a century.

“This concern about men participating in women’s sport has paralleled the growth of women’s sport, and it’s been a concern of elite administrators more than anything,” says Henne.

The earliest tests were inspections of women’s actual genitalia. After there was backlash against this and regulators decided they were violating athletes’ human rights, there was a move towards scientific procedures.

“To see politicians evoke archaic ideas about gender and women’s sport – it really sets us back in terms of participation in sport when we’ve made such great progress. It’s really out of step, ”says Henne.

Not all clubs put their own trans-inclusion policies in writing. Evan Lloyd, president of West Brunswick Amateur Football Club, which currently fields six teams, says their strategy has simply been “to be nice”.

“It’s worked out really well so far. Our main focus was always just to remove barriers to players. We just wanted to make it easier for people to come and play footy, ”said Lloyd. “The clubs with a good culture are the ones that attract people and grow.”

Inclusivity begets inclusivity. Since West Brunswick started its first team in the women’s division in 2016, it has grown to three women’s teams and has had numerous trans players, in part due to the fact that many women who play football are more connected to the LGBTQI + community.

“It’s really improved the culture on the men’s side of things, and the whole experience of the club is better for everyone,” said Lloyd. “There are more families, people bring their kids down, people volunteer from outside of the playing group more often. I can’t speak enough about how much it has improved the mood at the club. When all sides are going well, that’s when it really hums. “

One of the best gender diversity in sports policies I’ve seen committed to paper comes from the Flying Bats Football Club (that’s the round-ball sport) in Sydney. Established in 1985 as a safe space for lesbians to play soccer and socialise, it evolved over the years and now welcomes “all women – lesbian, queer, bi, straight, cis, trans, intersex – to come and play football and socialise”.

Jen Peden, president of the Bats, says inclusion policies at a community sport level are about “actually allowing people to play under the competition that suits them best”.

“We had no official policies pre-2016, but there had been trans and gender diverse players for years,” Peden says. “What we wanted to do though was make it more explicit, to make it feel safer for trans and gender diverse players. We took a stance as a club, to make sure they felt welcome and also to put a flag in the ground to say we weren’t here for trans-exclusionary stuff. “

Peden despairs about the state of the current debate, noting there are many things that could be done – such as better facilities, more opportunities, more financial support – to help women’s sport, that are being lost.

“From a community to an elite level there are so many things that would materially improve women’s sport generally but they take money and effort, and it’s not an opportunity to punch down on a marginalized group in a culture war,” Peden says.

Lloyd agrees. “To say that what women’s footy needs is to have trans people excluded, it just misses the mark so far.”

Henne’s work supports this, as does research out of Monash showing most women who play sport are not concerned about the inclusion of trans women and girls.

One of the many things I’ve learned from playing and volunteering at Elsternwick is that there’s so much reason to have faith in the basic decency of people. Most mums and dads these days have a trans person in their lives, whether through their kids, their work, their family, their community, or their sport. They might not always use the right words and they might need to ask a lot of awkward questions, but they know cruel vilification of an already marginalized group when they see it.

One trans player I spoke to put it simply: “I just want to play football.” Community sport just wants to get on with making that happen.

  • In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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