Australia’s top sport agency is under pressure to safeguard women’s sport, with rugby emerging as the first international federation to consider a ban on transgender players to prevent injuries and unfairness.
In news this week World Rugby experts cite a 20-30 per cent higher risk of injury for women tackled by biological males who identify as female, and new research showing trans players born male lose little of their physical advantages after 12 months on drugs to lower their testosterone in line with 2015 International Olympic Committee rules.
“These findings are consistent with concerns raised by many athletes, participants and administrators about biological males competing in women’s sport,” said Liberal Senator Claire Chandler, who is campaigning for female sport.
She called on Rugby Australia, which has been briefed on the issue, to release the research.
“Evidence about safety risks for female athletes is highly relevant to women’s sport at every level and should be made available,” she said.
Senator Chandler also urged a rethink by the government’s top agency Sport Australia, which issued with the Australian Human Rights Commission a 2019 pro-trans guideline recommending more than 16,000 sporting clubs covering nine million players reorganise on the basis of self-identified “gender identity”, and not biological sex, wherever possible.
The commission did not carry out a risk assessment on how the guideline might affect women and girls, on the grounds that the project was focused on anti-discrimination law and trans inclusion, it admitted in response to an FOI application from the group Fair Go for Queensland Women.
Self-identified “gender identity”, independent of birth sex, was given protection under the federal Sex Discrimination Act in 2013 when Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was in power. Definitions of the terms “woman” and “man” were removed by parliament.
Sport Australia and the commission refuse to say who they consulted in drafting the 2019 sport guideline but a Melbourne-based trans activist lobby group, Proud2Play, boasts about its inside running.
In publicity material, the group says “many Proud2Play members” served as advisers for the guideline. The group also shared in $20,000 of taxpayers’ money from Sport Australia to develop fact sheets to go with the guideline.
Proud2Play says it has given “much needed inclusion training” to sporting clubs and predicts a “bright future” as it “diversifies new funding opportunities”. It lists among its partners Victoria’s Andrews government, Tennis Australia and Athletics Australia, and secured a $100,000 grant for an LGBTI+ cricket program.
Proud2Play argues testosterone is just one of many influences on sporting prowess, likening it to living close to a training venue, and praises Sport Australia’s pro-trans guideline because it is “hesitant in giving sporting organisations justification to implement testosterone limits for participation in sport”.
The rise of self-identified trans status, which may involve no hormonal or surgical changes, has driven debate about risks and conflicts of rights, with division of opinion among LGBT people as well.
Proud2Play board member Dale Sheridan, a transwoman and senior federal public servant, has argued the AFLW’s physical tests excluding would-be trans player Hannah Mouncey, who is 1.9m tall and weighs 100kg, are unacceptable “gatekeeping on what constitutes a woman”.
Ms Sheridan maintains Ms Mouncey had “put in the hard yards like any other athlete” and her “physical attributes simply make up the range and diversity in women”.
Proud2Play was contacted for comment.
Commentators say World Rugby’s February talks on the trans issue were the first serious and comprehensive effort to draw on multiple viewpoints including women and try to balance safety, trans inclusion, science and fairness. All 32 experts and activists who took part were named on the public record.
Two of the experts, British developmental biologist Emma Hilton and Swedish sport scientist Tommy Lundberg, said the 2019 Sports Australia guideline was misleading in playing down the importance of testosterone in sporting performance.
“They don’t really speak much about testosterone or biological differences in the document at all, which is interesting in itself,” said Dr Lundberg, from Sweden’s top medical research university the Karolinska Institute.
“They make it appear as if testosterone is not that important because (they say) ‘many factors affect performance’.
“About 10,000 men ran the 100m faster than the fastest woman last year. The only thing (those men) have in common is that they have all experienced the benefits of male puberty and high testosterone levels — so testosterone explains most of the male/female average performance differences.”
Dr Lundberg and Dr Hilton wrote the May preprint research paper which was among the evidence weighed by World Rugby. Their review paper concludes that trans women’s biological advantages in areas such as strength, lean body mass and muscle are “only minimally reduced” when testosterone is suppressed for 12 months.
The paper shows “why women’s sport exists as a protected category — the biological and hence performance advantages are so large that sport becomes meaningless to females without it,” according to South African sports scientist Ross Tucker, an adviser to World Rugby.
Mianne Bagger, a fully transitioned woman who was a professional golfer for 11 years, said the AFLW’s 2017-8 approach to the trans issue was “a pretty decent effort” but World Rugby’s was the best and most comprehensive she knew of.
“It’s got to come down to science and research. People’s opinions and the approach of inclusion, I think, need to take a bit of a back seat,” she said.
“We need reasonable efforts at inclusion while maintaining fairness and being aware of biological differences between males and females, regardless of how some people want to muddy those differences.
“Anyone arguing the impact of testosterone is irrelevant is completely lost, it’s a ridiculous point of view to have — testosterone is a significant factor in the differences between males and females.”
However, Ms Bagger said while her own experience was one of losing strength, the full impact certainly took longer than 12 months.
Ms Mouncey, who has played women’s VFL and international handball, said suppression of testosterone for 12 months in her experience did make a big difference to physical factors such as strength, despite her having had the benefit of male puberty.
“It’s something that people can’t comprehend if they haven’t been through it,” she said.
“My bench press (maximum) went from 150kg to 50kg in a year.”
She said a month of hormone suppression drugs in the summer of 2015-16 had reduced her testosterone blood level from roughly 30 nanomoles per litre to as low as 1.1, well under the limit of 10 set for transwomen players by the IOC in 2015.
In 2019 Cricket Australia set the same IOC-style limit applying for at least 12 months before nomination, while the year before the AFLW set a testosterone limit of 5 nanomoles with a 24 month pre-draft period.
Tony Lycholat, a France-based sports medicine consultant to elite athletes, has criticised the IOC trans testosterone limit as “scientifically incoherent”.
“This is still well above that normally seen in a female athlete — indeed, should a woman compete with such high levels of testosterone and not be able to explain medically her hyperandrogenism, she would be deemed to be doping,” Dr Lycholat said.
Sport Australia’s first female CEO Kate Palmer launched the pro-trans guideline in June 2019 on Junction Oval St Kilda, and argued against any rules requiring hormone suppression for competitors.
“No athlete should have to take drugs to allow them to compete in sport,” she said, although media coverage linked her comment to the case of South African runner Caster Semenya, who is not trans but reportedly intersex with testosterone levels higher than most other women.
Intersex, also known as disorders or differences of sexual development, involves rare medical conditions which in most cases leave no doubt about the fact of binary biological sex. Intersex people complain their distinct issues are misrepresented in gender politics by trans activists.
Asked by Senator Chandler during a Senate estimates hearing to give examples of sports in which biological sex differences were not relevant, Sport Australia came up with darts, equestrian, sailing, wheelchair rugby and most motorsports.
Sport Australia said the guideline did not involve “mandatory rules forced upon sport” but was designed to help each code craft its own “inclusive policies”.
The guideline stresses the risk of legal actions that can lead to uncapped compensation damages under federal anti-discrimination law if sporting clubs try to exclude trans players, uses the word “unlawful” 40 times, warns that reliance on its advice will not protect clubs from a successful complaint, and urges them to get their own legal advice.
Promoted as a helpful response to clubs confused about trans players and the law, the guideline sets a high bar for any attempt to rely on a “strength, stamina and physique” exemption in anti-discrimination law supposed to protect competitive single-sex sport for women and girls.
It urges a 10-step process first, suggests clubs not use the exemption even when entitled to, and offers only one case study, involving 10-year-old trans girl Xanthe, where physical differences are irrelevant because the exemption does not apply to players under 12.
The guideline urges sporting clubs to adopt a “zero tolerance” against harassment, and says asking a biological male who identifies as female to leave female-only change rooms or toilets is harassment.
“Lina”, not her real name, a promising 15-year-old soccer player, told The Weekend Australian she would feel “vulnerable and intimidated” having to share a change room or toilet with female-identifying boys, and this had already happened at school.
“It wasn’t just the girls who were upset about it, it was the guys at our school as well, because they’re at the age now where they want to feel more protective of us.”
The human rights commission said it was “not currently considering a review” of the 2019 guideline. A spokeswoman said more than 100 “stakeholders” helped shape the document during “confidential, targeted and respectful” consultations.
Rugby Australia said it would review the draft policy from the international working party and offer comments towards a decision on the trans player issue. The policy would allow biologically female transmen to compete in the male game if they pass a physical examination and accept the higher injury risk.