Trans swimming ban based on opinion not science, experts say: ‘It creates a hostile anti-trans world’

Lia Thomas at a swimming event

Scientists and athletes have criticised a policy effectively banning trans women from elite swimming competitions as “not based on concrete evidence.”

Endocrinologist Dr Ada Cheung told Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday (June 21) that the ruling made by swimming’s governing body International Swimming Federation (FINA) shouldn’t have been based on people’s “opinions.”

“We actually don’t know if there’s a biological advantage for transgender women over cisgender women because the science is not clear,” Cheung said. “FINA’s report is really based on a group of people’s opinion, it’s not a gold standard.”

The international swimming body announced the policy – which bans trans women who did not medically transition before age 12 from elite competitions – on June 20 in an extraordinary general congress in Budapest.

FINA proposed the establishment of an “open category” for transgender and gender-diverse competitors as part of a step toward what the governing body described as “full inclusion.”

Several competitors and researchers have since lambasted the decision as “unfair”, with Cheung asking “what signal does this send to other sporting bodies?” in a tweet.

FINA’s ban was followed on Tuesday (21 June) by an announcement that trans women are being banned from international rugby league pending a review.

Trans athlete and pro-LGBTQ+ advocate Chris Mosier told PinkNews that FINA’s decision appeared to have been influenced by “misinformation, prejudice and convincingly crafted ‘what if’ scenarios”.

“The policy is 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, and is a considerable step backwards for all women in sport,” he said.

However, FINA has reiterated its belief in the policy, saying that the changes were based on “what the scientists are saying”.

Trans athletes have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2004. But it wasn’t until the delayed Tokyo summer games in 2021 that any out trans athletes competed as their correct gender. They were New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, Canadian women’s football player Quinn, and United States BMX alternate Chelsea Wolfe.

Transgender athletes had taken part in the games prior to this but were forced to participate in the gender category assigned to them at birth.

Mosier believes that these kinds of inclusive events pave the way for further trans acceptance.

“When sports organisations make policies that exclude trans people, it creates a much more hostile world towards trans people – athletes and non-athletes alike.

“The constant narrative of trans people not belonging in certain spaces, like those within sport, sets us a dynamic in the real world out of the pool and off the court or field where we are the target of further harm.

“It’s not just about sports; it’s about trans people’s abilities to be themselves and live in a world that increasingly tells us we do not belong.”

Fellow trans athlete Schuyler Bailar also spoke to PinkNews, saying that he is “devastated” by the ruling.

“The US has seen nearly 100 bills banning trans children from playing youth sports and criminalising transitional resources for children, rendering it impossible for them to play sports in any capacity,” he said.

“FINA’s decision does not preserve the integrity of women’s sports – it enforces the harmful policing of women’s bodies and the continued degradation and othering of trans people who already experienced mass discrimination in this world.”

Victoria University researcher Dr Patrice Jones also spoke to Sydney Morning Herald, saying that the policy sets a precedent for other sports committees to make “further exclusive decisions.”

“This risks the wellbeing of everyday trans people and sends [a] harmful message that they are not accepted in sports and broader active spaces,” she added.