Swimming body effectively bars trans athletes

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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FINA's new policy effectively bans trans women from competing in elite swimming events. Photo: Courtesy FINA<br>
FINA's new policy effectively bans trans women from competing in elite swimming events. Photo: Courtesy FINA

The world governing body for competitive swimming, FINA, has banned most trans female athletes from participating in elite levels of competition.

Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the organization announced June 19 that it would institute the new policy the following day, June 20. This is just the latest in a barrage of efforts, particularly in the United States, to ban trans women athletes from competing against their cisgender peers. Eighteen states, including Texas and Florida, have passed legislation banning transgender students from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity. The move by FINA, however, has international ramifications.

This follows the controversy that exploded after Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania, won an NCAA Division I championship in March. Her victory prompted an outcry from critics who insisted that she had physical advantages over her fellow cisgender swimmers, the same argument used against female trans athletes in American schools.

The decision by FINA effectively prohibits any trans women from competitions if they transitioned after the age of 12. However, according to the policy report issued by FINA with its announcement, trans women can participate "if they can establish to FINA's comfortable satisfaction that they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later."

The Tanner scale is a scale of physical development in children, adolescents, and adults defining physical measurements of development based on external primary and secondary sex characteristics, such as the size of genitals and breasts, and other markers. Tanner Stage 2 in women denotes the growth of breast buds, and other characteristics. Thomas began transitioning three years ago at age 19, according to the sports website Swimswam.

To explain its decision, as well as the process for making its determination, FINA issued a 25-page document titled "Policy on Eligibility for the Men's and Women's Competition Categories."

In February, USA Swimming, swimming's national governing body, issued new rules allowing transgender women to compete if they had taken medication that had sufficiently suppressed their levels of testosterone continuously for three years. Numerous other sports governing bodies have enacted similar policies.

National LGBTQ athletic groups expressed disappointment with FINA's decision.

"FINA's new eligibility criteria for transgender athletes and athletes with intersex variations is deeply discriminatory, harmful, unscientific and not in line with the 2021 International Olympic Committee framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations," said Anne Lieberman in a news release. Lieberman is director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, an organization committed to ending homophobia and transphobia in sports.

"The eligibility criteria for the women's category as it is laid out in the policy police the bodies of all women," the statement continued, "and will not be enforceable without seriously violating the privacy and human rights of any athlete looking to compete in the women's category."

Locally, LGBTQ athletes and athletic organizations expressed frustration with the ruling. Some were insulted by FINA's action.

Rachel Katz, board president for SF Tsunami, an LGBTQ swim club with both swimming and synchronized swimming teams, said she was disappointed with the decision.

"We're just trying to figure out how to respond to this right now," said Katz, who declined to state her sexual orientation.

Jeremy Bedig, 29, is a nonbinary soccer coach and a board member for the SF Spikes, an LGBTQ soccer club.

"Something like that is based in fear but not science," Bedig told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview. "It would be incredibly mentally harmful to [transgender athletes] to be told that they cannot play this sport they love because they went through this life-altering experience to become more of who they are."

SF Spikes President Danielle Thoe, who identifies as pansexual, said the decision made her sad.

"On so many fronts," she said in a phone call. "It's Pride Month and for this decision to come down when trans folks and everyone else are supposed to be celebrating who we are, it's even harder. Just to feel like the trans community is under attack for a very small number of trans athletes who have scared transphobic people is really what it comes down to."

Bedig called the decision "deeply transphobic" and said it disregards the struggle of trans people to embrace their gender identities.

"To say that these world class athletes are transitioning just to get some competitive edge goes against what we train athletes to do, to be sporting and fair," they said. "And not cheat."

Chris Mosier, a trans man who's a triathlete, posted on Facebook June 9, before the FINA policy was announced, "The goal of any legislation, rule or law targeting LGBTQ people is to make it so incredibly difficult to exist that we disappear. So thriving, living a great life, sharing our JOY & carrying on in the face of all this is a form of resistance."

In 2015, Mosier earned a spot on the Team USA sprint duathlon men's team for the 2016 World Championship, making him the first known out trans athlete to join a U.S. national team different from his sex at birth.

The National Center for Transgender Equality did not have a statement on its website. It did have a June 9 release about its new partnership with World Lacrosse that has a goal of developing a trans-inclusive participation policy for that sport's international governing body.

"This partnership between World Lacrosse and NCTE is a groundbreaking opportunity for our organizations to work together to craft an updated inclusion policy that will ensure that all lacrosse players are able to continue to enjoy the sport that they love for years to come," NCTE Executive Director Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen stated. "Lacrosse can be an example to other sports on how to create an environment of mutual respect, dignity and fairness for all."

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