Story at a glance
- The International Swimming Federation (FINA) on Sunday issued a new policy banning virtually all transgender women from competing in elite international swimming events.
- Transgender female athletes under the policy would only be eligible to compete in the women’s category if they receive gender-affirming care before the age of 12 or at the onset of male puberty.
- The policy comes months after an update from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that rejected the belief that athletes assigned male at birth hold an inherent advantage over those assigned female at birth.
The International Swimming Federation (FINA), the world governing body of elite swimming, on Sunday announced a majority of its members had voted in favor of a new policy effectively banning transgender women from competing in elite international swimming events.
The policy, FINA said, was developed to control for a “performance gap” between athletes assigned male and female at birth that emerges during puberty.
“Without eligibility standards based on biological sex or sex-linked traits, we are very unlikely to see biological females in finals, on podiums, or in championship positions,” a portion of the new policy reads. FINA members also determined that cisgender women – who in the policy were referred to as “biological females,” a term often used by anti-transgender activists – would be at greater risk of injury should they regularly compete against transgender women.
“We have to protect the rights of our athletes to compete, but we also have to protect competitive fairness at our events, especially the women’s category at FINA competitions,” FINA President Husain Al-Musallam said Sunday in a news release announcing the policy change .
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Under the new policy, which takes effect Monday, transgender athletes assigned male at birth are eligible to compete in the women’s category in FINA competitions if they can establish to the governing body’s “comfortable satisfaction” that they have not undergone male puberty.
Transgender female athletes may also be eligible to compete if they are able to prove that they received gender-affirming medical care before the age of 12 that prevented them from experiencing “any part of male puberty” beyond its onset. Testosterone levels must also remain under 2.5 nanomoles per liter of blood.
According to the policy, if gender-affirming care is initiated after the onset of male puberty, “it will blunt some, but not all, of the effects of testosterone on body structure, muscle function, and other determinants of performance.”
The policy adds that “legacy effects” from transitioning after puberty will give transgender women “a relative performance advantage” over cisgender female athletes.
The policy’s requirement that transgender athletes receive gender-affirming health care – like puberty blockers or hormones – as preteens comes as more than a dozen states this year have introduced measures to restrict access to them, particularly for transgender minors.
In Alabama, a law was passed – and later partially blocked by a federal judge – in April that made it a felony for doctors to provide or recommend gender-affirming health care to patients younger than 18 years old. Other bans on medical care for transgender youth have been passed in Arizona and Arkansas.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has called gender-affirming care “child abuse” and ordered state agencies in February to open investigations into the parents of transgender children. Late last week, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration introduced a proposed rule that would eliminate Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming health care.
The new FINA policy is also, at least in part, at odds with an International Olympic Committee (IOC) policy updated in November that rejects the presumption that athletes assigned male at birth hold an inherent advantage over those assigned female at birth.
“No athlete should be precluded from competing or excluded from competition on the exclusive ground of an unverified, alleged or perceived unfair competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status,” the IOC framework reads.
But the IOC in the same six-page document said the organization is not in a position to issue regulations defining eligibility requirements for every sport, and tasked each individual sport and its governing body with determining “how an athlete may be at a disproportionate advantage against their peers.”
On Sunday, FINA also announced that a working group will spend the next six months establishing an “open competition category” for athletes to compete in FINA events “without regard to their sex, their legal gender, or their gender identity.”
“FINA will always welcome every athlete,” Al-Musallam said. “The creation of an open category will mean that everybody has the opportunity to compete at an elite level. This has not been done before, so FINA will need to lead the way. I want all athletes to feel included in being able to develop ideas during this process.”
Calls to establish a similar division have been made this year, particularly in swimming, where Lia Thomas in March became the first transgender woman to win a national Division I title. Thomas during that meet swam a personal best of 4:33.24 in the the 500-yard freestyle – nearly 10 seconds slower than the NCAA record set by Katie Ledecky, a cisgender woman, in 2017.
But creating a separate category for transgender athletes could also create a unique slate of problems, Joanna Harper, a leading international expert on gender and sport, told Changing America.
Harper said she’s skeptical whether athletes competing in the new category will be able to earn a professional living and – especially in sports like swimming, with 16 events, four different strokes and a range of distances – if there will even be enough athletes to compete against each other at an elite level.
“I’m skeptical as to how this all will work,” she said. “But before denouncing it, I’m at least willing to give them a chance.”
FINA also isn’t the first governing body to effectively bar transgender women from elite international competition, Harper pointed out. World Rugby last year said transgender women would no longer be permitted to play in international competitions “because of the size, force- and power-producing advantages conferred by testosterone during puberty and adolescence, and the resultant player welfare risks this creates.”
The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the international governing body for cycling, earlier this month announced that transgender women must maintain a testosterone level of 2.5 nanomoles per liter of blood for at least two years before they are eligible to compete in elite international events.
The FINA ban is by far the largest ban on transgender athletes in sport, encompassing diving, water polo, artistic swimming, high diving and open water swimming.
“Forcing all transgender athletes into an open category is not a valid solution for equity in sports,” Chris Mosier, the first transgender athlete to represent the United States in international competition, told Changing America in an email.
Mosier pointed out that in professional running, some races have already added “open” or nonbinary categories, but participation in those categories is voluntary.
Requiring transgender athletes to compete in a separate category would be “isolating” and “harmful,” he said.
“It deprives all athletes of the incredibly powerful social and community aspects of sport,” Mosier said. “Which include making meaningful relationships with and learning from a diverse group of teammates and fellow participants.”
Published on Jun. 20, 2022