California surfing competition told it must let trans woman compete

A surfing competition has been told to let transgender women compete or risk a violation of a local law.

A two-day surf contest is set to take place in Huntington Beach, California, this weekend (11 May), but, in a decision that has divided opinion, contest organisers informed Australian trans surfer Sasha Jane Lowerson that she could not take part.

The California Coastal Commission has said local events that ban trans women from participating in the women’s division could face being shut down. 

Lowerson said she applied for the competition as she fitted within criteria set by the International Surfing Association with regard to testosterone levels, adding that she could prove they are below the required threshold.

“I was really disappointed and surprised [at being excluded],” she told the BBC. “You can’t cherry-pick the rulebook. If you’re going to use the rulebook, you use all of it.”

Lowerson believes trans women have no unfair advantage in the sport. “It’s not a race, it’s about style, flow, grace,” she explained. “As a long-boarder, it’s more like ballet on a wave.” 

Last month, Todd Messick, whose American Longboard Association organises the competition, announced that trans women wouldn’t be allowed to compete in the women’s division. 

Messick said the decision aimed to “offer an equal playing field for all athletes,” but he told the BBC he was “surprised by the amount of anger” the move generated. 

In a letter to Messick, the California Coastal Commission said: “Prohibiting, or unfairly limiting, transgender athletes from competing in this or any surf competition that takes place in the coastal waters of California does not meet the requirements of the public access policies of the Coastal Act.”

A graphic showing a cut-out image of pro surfer Bethany Hamilton set against another image of her surfing in the background with a pink tint showing across the left side of the picture
Pro surfer Bethany Hamilton joined in a backlash against a Rip Curl campaign. (Pink News)

At the start of the year, Lowerson was featured as part of a Rip Curl campaign, which resulting in a backlash on social media. Professional surfer Bethany Hamilton joined in the criticism alongside former college swimmer Riley Gaines, and Lowerson’s photos were removed from the surfing sportswear manufacturer’s social media platforms.

Trans athletes’ participation in sport continues to divide opinion. Last year, the World Surf League announced its new policy on trans athletes. The guidelines require transgender participants to maintain a testosterone level of less than five nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months in order to compete in the women’s division.