THE fairness debate amongst the sporting community in regard to transgender athletes has recently been re-ignited. However, something that has intensified the fierce discussion are the glaring safety concerns. In particular there is scrutiny towards transgender athletes competing in female fight sports, such as mixed martial arts.
Martina Navratilova acted as a catalyst for the discussion in December after a tweet ignited a storm of criticism and support: “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard.”
The former women’s Wimbledon champion and campaigner for gay rights, further underlined her beliefs in a Sunday Times article. She claimed that “It’s insane and it’s cheating.”
Though the stance garnered a positive response from many athletes, who felt they could not speak out before, such as Sharron Davies. It also drew harsh criticism from trans athletes like cyclist Rachel McKinnon. Stating on Twitter: “I’m tired of transphobia. I’m tired of media constantly giving platforms to overtly transphobic athletes who only spread fear and lies.”
Fair Play For Women have also launched a campaign to protect the rights and safety of biological females, against trans athletes. Stating: “The rights of male-born transwomen to be included in female spaces clash head on with the sex-based rights of females to exclude males for reasons of privacy, safety and fairness.”
They also state specifically their safety concerns in contact sports: “Women and girls are sustaining injuries in contact sports.”
This is largely in relation to former mixed martial artist Fallon Fox. The fighter has been held up as an example of the unfair physical advantages, posing a serious health risk to female fighters. In 2014 Fox destroyed female fighter Tamikka Brents by KO/TKO in round one, on a promotion by Capital City Cage Wars. Brents suffered a broken orbital bone and needed seven staples to the head after the loss.
In recollecting the fight Brents stated online: “I can’t answer whether it’s because she was born a man or not because I’m not a doctor. I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right.”
With this, much of the mixed martial arts community were outraged. UFC commentator Joe Rogan was particularly damning. Stating on his podcast – The Joe Rogan Experience: “She’s a transgender, post-op person. The operation doesn’t shave down your bone density. It doesn’t change. You look at a man’s hands and you look at a women’s hands and they’re built different. They’re just thicker, they’re stronger, your wrists are thicker, your elbows are thicker, your joints are thicker. Just the mechanical function of punching, a man can do it much harder than a woman can, period.”
UFC athlete Paulo Costa also heaped on criticism on a Facebook video statement: “He has simply annihilated the girls who have fought against him. They were slaughtered, they put their lives at risk, they put their physical integrity at risk.”
Ronda Rousey the then Ultimate Fighting Championship champ, and former Olympic Bronze medallist, also responded to the fight in an interview with TMZ: “On Fallon Fox’s case I think she does have an unfair advantage, which is out of her control, but it’s unfortunately her scenario, and it’s unfortunate especially for her competition as well.”
However, many organisations such as Athlete Ally play down the alleged benefits of trans athletes assigned male at birth: “There are many factors which affect athletic performance, and there is no conclusive relationship between testosterone and athletic performance. Athletic performance depends on many complicated factors: access to better coaches and facilities; money to pay for nutritionists, recovery services, and many other factors. At the highest levels of support, physical characteristics can only get you so far — you also need serious technical skill.”
They also further go on to talk about the wider philosophical and societal implications of the discussion: “All LGBTQ athletes should be able to compete in the sport they love, including combat sports. Sport has tremendous physical, mental and social benefits which all athletes should be able to enjoy” Joanna Hoffman.
However, the vast majority do not seem to agree with this perspective. An online poll was created posing the question – Should Transgender athletes be allowed to compete in combat sports? 87% of those polled said no.
The question was also asked on a Facebook boxing group – Hatman Boxing. Again, the community was largely against this. However, the suggestion was made that a separate transgender category for fighters could be a way to alleviate the problem.
“Only if it’s against other trans athletes, otherwise it’s not only unfair but extremely dangerous!” Chris Tracey
“Maybe they can have their own category?” Deepak Pacino
“No, only if there was a transgender division…but even then how does drug testing work when they are on hormones” Kingsley Armaah
Some also suggested that trans athletes competing in the gender they were assigned at birth should be allowed. However, this was countered by users who suggested the use of testosterone when transitioning, would also pose an unfair advantage.
This mirrors the controversy surrounding transgender wrestler Mack Beggs. Beggs was assigned female at birth and has been transitioning into a male using testosterone. However, in this case due to the Texas birth certificate rule, they are not allowed to compete in the male category, despite their willingness. It seems in this case the bill which was put in place to protect woman, has backfired. Beggs although being born a female has dangerously unfair advantages in being given synthetic testosterone.
The wrestler previously responded to criticism via ESPN: “(Texas policymakers) should change the laws and then watch me wrestle the boys. Because I’m a guy. It just makes more sense.”
Interestingly enough in Olympic style boxing, there is a zero-tolerance policy to transgender athletes. However, this may be set to change in the future: “Currently AIBAs (amateur boxings world governing body) rules do not allow a Trans boxer to compete in the gender they have transitioned too. However, I can confirm the current position is currently being reviewed by them in conjunction with the IOC.”
“As and when the position changes, then naturally we will review our rules (in this instance they can’t change unless AIBA does so) and bring forward the appropriate policies / procedures as required” Gethin Jenkins (England Boxing).
At the professional level in Britain there is also no capacity for transgender boxers to compete. The British Boxing Board of Control responded to a freedom of information request: “Th British Boxing Board of Control has no provision for transgender professional boxers or to its knowledge has any licensed boxers who are transgender. However, should the need arise, the Board will take the relevant advice” Robert W. Smith.
Again, there is the suggestion that in the future, transgender athletes may be allowed to fight as boxers. Some would say this represents a significant safety risk, in the already dangerous world of boxing. However, as things stand the issue is yet to arise in the sport.
Recently former two-time Olympic champion and current unified women’s middleweight champion muddied the waters even further. In an interview with TMZ she claimed she could beat male boxers, including current WBA world welterweight champion Keith Thurman: “I think I can beat up Keith Thurman … I really do.”
After receiving criticism online Shields underlined her point further by stating she could beat former WBA regular super-middleweight champion Rocky Fielding: “So I can’t beat rocky fielding? 🧐 you are out of your mind.”
This opens the debate for mixed gender boxing competition, which confuses the issue even further.
Ultimately the male gender overall has a physical biological advantage over females. As stated by Fair Play For Women: “Separate sporting competitions are necessary because females have major disadvantages against males who are, on average, taller, stronger, and faster and have greater endurance due to their larger, stronger muscles and bones as well as having more circulating red blood cells. The ‘performance gap’ between male and female athletes is proven beyond doubt based on decades of sporting records and it ranges from 10-30% depending on the sport.”
However, with the growing march toward total gender and LGBT equality, the physicality’s may become obsolete. Political and societal pressures may force trans inclusion, and even mixed gender events.