I am fascinated by bodies in motion, bodies which achieve amazing feats of fitness and endurance, and those which reach an elite level of success. But I’m equally fascinated by who gets to compete, and how bodies are viewed and received when they are suspected of possessing an unfair advantage, a competitive edge not previously considered. What happens when new bodies enter the arena, bodies considered (by some) deviant and untrustworthy? Who really deserves to win? According to Mumsnet, it’s never going to be trans women athletes.
This is a skinnier version of my final master’s dissertation, written originally in the summer of 2016. It was inspired by the International Olympic Committee’s 2016 guidelines allowing transgender athletes to compete in the Olympics and other international events without undergoing sex reassignment surgery. This policy triggered an hysterical outpouring of outrage on the parenting website Mumsnet, with several threads dedicated to the perceived unfairness of the updated policy. No matter that the policy was changed to adapt to current scientific, social and legal attitudes on transgender issues.
To make for a less tiring read for you, I have reduced or removed those sections which are necessary for an academic piece, less necessary here. I’ve hyper-linked the key texts, but not all. The bibliography is there; please feel free to use it.
At its core, the point remains: why do so many posters on the parenting website Mumsnet have such a massive problem with trans women (and it is always trans women), and how does this feed the ongoing transgender backlash?
Please remember that this is my own hard work, my own views, so be kind, and cite me if you use anything. It’s a longer post than the usual blog posts, but doesn’t do a bad job of bringing down a few of the pearl-clutching Mumsnetters who continue to use bad science to defend anti-trans sentiments.
Mumsnet was established by Justine Roberts in 2000 as a website for pooling information and advice for parents. It is now regarded as one of the most influential women’s sites in the UK, and live webchats have featured current and former prime ministers, as well as prominent professionals and celebrities. Mumsnet has initiated several national campaigns (including Let Girls Be Girls) and publicly supports many causes (including Abortion Support Network). It has 5,000 registered bloggers and an online community of 7.5 million users, 100 staff members, and has a growing feminist voice.
Mumsnet’s strapline claims it is ‘By Parents, For Parents’, but it is unreservedly aimed at women, specifically mothers, due to its content (Pedersen, 2013). Its talk boards are very active and cover a range of topics including breastfeeding, childbirth, and the ever popular ‘Am I Being Unreasonable’ area, where ‘Mumsnetters’ can seek advice on unsociable neighbours, spirited children, and which bastard left crumbs in the butter dish. Mumsnet is a popular and hedonically rewarding site for its users, adept at navigating delicate debates and wildly differing experiences and opinions of parenthood.
Such delicate debates have been increasing in focus on the transgender community, with particular attention on transgender women, many of them anti-trans. The debate analysed in this paper was sparked by the International Olympic Committee’s 2016 guidelines allowing transgender athletes to compete in the Olympics and other international events without undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
This data source originated from an on-line thread on Mumsnet on 24th January 2016. It contains 989 posts and 169 (assumed) separate voices, all posting under anonymous user names. As of 04.07.16, it had received 27,246 views. As a comparison, the local Brighton and Hove newspaper ‘The Argus’ newspaper has a circulation of 36,717. This is a significant comparison, as it indicates the wide-ranging influence this thread may contribute to the emerging backlash. The data content was qualitative, and the method of analysing my data source was by using a thematic coding approach.
The thread had the following title:
‘Trans people being allowed to compete against women in the Olympics.
The Olympics is now allowing men who have taken hormones for 12 months to compete against women. It is NOT transphobic to say that this is grossly unfair and a huge violation of women’s rights. Women who have trained all their lives cannot be expected to compete against people with male bodies and who will be allowed roughly 4 times the amount of female testosterone levels. It’s not on. We can’t stand for it. Please get behind this Mumsnet. Someone needs to make a stand. It is NOT transphobic to state that this is unfair. It really isn’t.’
Firstly, please note that I only included trans women athletes in this discussion. This is because trans men athletes were not identified as a threat to the integrity of sport by the posters on the Mumsnet thread analysed. Secondly, I did not consider the position of the intersex athlete. Although the intersex athlete was frequently referred to in the data, there was no hostility towards the intersex athlete’s inclusion in the Olympics. This was due to the posters on the thread considering the intersex athlete to be ‘natural’ and ‘born that way’, thereby privileging the natural and adopting what posters view as a common sense position.
The common sense position
Hill Collins (1990) notes that in order to preserve their power, dominant groups create and maintain a popular system of ‘common sense’ ideas that support their view. Often these views are so persuasive that it can be difficult to argue against them. The deployment of ‘common sense’ positions has also been observed in contemporary discourses surrounding motherhood, most notably with the ‘breast is best’ position and the promotion of ‘natural’ (which means drug-free) childbirth as being superior to any other method of infant-feeding or birthing (Phipps, 2014).
The ‘common sense’ of immutable physiology providing an unfair competitive advantage is adopted and used widely by posters on the Mumsnet thread, as evidenced by its large number of occurrences. As this thread was prompted by the IOC’s 2016 updated policy, a summary of the history of the relationship between the IOC and transgender athletes is helpful.
The International Olympic Committee and Trans women Athletes
The complexity of trans women athletes’ participation in sport at elite level has been written about extensively within the academic literature over the last decade, predominantly as a result of the IOC’s 2004 Stockholm Consensus (Westbrook, 2011, Aura Shy, 2014, Buzuvis, 2011, Sullivan, 2011). This participation often intersects with themes around gender segregation, inclusivity and the LGBT athlete (Cauldwell, 2006; Semerjian & Cohen, 2006), and the ’out and proud’ gay athlete is regularly written about in the media (Karp, The Guardian, 2014; Meany, Generation Progress, 2015). Despite improved levels of inclusion for athletes’ differing sexualities, sport remains a powerful representation of gender normativity, with trans women athletes rendered less visible, often experiencing discrimination and exclusion in some sports (Hargie, Mitchell & Somerville, 2015; Wong, The Atlantic, 2015). Although there have been individual cases of trans women athletes fighting for the right to compete as their identified gender (notably Renée Richards and Fallon Fox), trans women athletes competing openly at an elite level is still uncommon.
The IOC’s (2016) updated policy on the regulations for trans women athletes to compete in the Olympics triggered a fresh wave of interest particularly in trans women athletes. This has mainly occurred in the media (Brynn Tannehill, Huffington Post, 2014; Harper, Washington Post, 2015), and has contributed to increasing discussions about competitive advantage (Slot, The Times, 2009; Kessel, The Guardian, 2011), and whether trans women athletes possess it.
Similar discussions have been emerging on several of Mumsnet’s talk boards since the IOC’s 2016 policy was announced, a number of which use gender essentialism to justify the opposition to trans women athletes in sport. Milan has called this ‘an uncloaking of an ongoing strain of anti-trans prejudice and hatred’ (The Guardian, 2016), and it focuses on the issue of competitive advantage.
The IOC settled the issue of competing eligibility for trans women athletes in 2004, with the publication of the Stockholm Consensus. These IOC rules were applicable to both male and female transgender athletes. They stipulated that athletes must have had gender reassignment surgery, must have legal recognition of their assigned gender and that athletes must have at least two years of hormone therapy. Following on from the Stockholm Consensus, gender verification testing was abandoned, based on the premise that there is no test that reliably proves sex.
Under the new IOC guidelines (2016), surgery is no longer required, with transmen athletes eligible to take part in men’s competitions “without restriction”. Trans women athletes will need to demonstrate that their testosterone level has been below 10 nanomols per litre for at least one year before their first competition.
The decision by the IOC to update its policy concerning competing eligibility for transgender athletes was not an overnight decision. Rather, the IOC have spent the last four decades trying to prove that women have vaginas, ovaries and XX chromosomes and men have penises and XY chromosomes (Cavanagh, 2004; Sykes, 2006). This is rarely straightforward, and people with two X chromosomes can develop hormonally as a male, and people with an X and a Y can develop hormonally as a female. In short, chromosomal screening does not support the argument that biology is the path to legitimacy (Fiester, 2012). In fact, as Linder et al (2016) notes:
‘ The move away from using reproductive organs or chromosomes was linked to scientific evidence which show that ‘nature’ is a lot messier than we think. There is no neat and clear distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female’ – and no way of ‘measuring’ or ‘testing’ sex based on reproductive organs or chromosomes alone. There are much greater variations of sex chromosomes than simply XX and XY, and chromosomes themselves also don’t have a direct impact on the body’s physical characteristics – they only do when combined with certain hormones.’ (Linder et al 2016: 54)
Since the 2004 Stockholm Consensus, much of the academic literature has focused on perceptions of what constitutes competitive advantage. Gooren and Buck (2004) have located this perception to be rooted in gender normative ideals of greater height, muscle mass and power, which are traditionally attributed to masculine physiques. When considering trans women athletes, this focus shifts to whether or not athletes retain any physiological advantages associated with their original sex that can confer a competitive advantage in sport (Teetal, 2006). The conclusive answer is no: scientific studies support the theory that only one year of continuous hormone therapy is needed for the body to adapt to the new hormonal composition and balance concomitant physical changes (Krane 2011, Griffin, 2012).
Further research demonstrates that after a year of oestrogen therapy, a male sexed body will have testosterone levels consistent with female bodies, including decreased muscle mass and bone density, with increased body fat positioned in female patterns, around the breasts and hips. In addition to these reductions is a notable decline in muscularity, strength and speed. While testosterone is considered a performance enhancing hormone, oestrogen is performance diminishing, and does not offer a competitive advantage (Wahlert, Fiester, 2012). Higher levels of testosterone do not correlate to better athletic performance, and there is no known level of testosterone that ensures a high-level athletic performance (Teetal, 2006).
After four decades of research, the IOC has concluded that trans women athletes do not have an unfair competitive advantage (Huffington 2016). However, this conclusion does not quell the panic about competitive advantage existent on the thread on Mumsnet analysed, and leads to the debate about what exactly constitutes a level playing field in sport.
The Myth of the Level Playing Field
Sport is filled with contradictions regarding fairness (Donnellay, 2008; Reeser, 2005), and the numerous personal advantages that all athletes bring to the starting line (Buzuvis, 2011) disrupt the myth of the level playing field. The question of what exactly constitutes a level playing field is widely written about, and when considering trans woman athletes, several debates focus on the potential to upset the level playing field of female competition due to biological physiology (Reeser, 2005; Sykes, 2006). As much of sport is still segregated by sex, previous feminist and queer literature on gender and sport (Jarvis, 2010, Caudwell 2010) has raised issues of concern about the relationship between masculinity and sport and how this may reinforce male privilege and female subordination (Jarvis, 2010).
Privilege for any athlete is not isolated to physiology, with other factors more likely to create an uneven field for competition. Reeser (2005) notes that environmental, cultural and socio-economic factors also make a difference to performance. All athletes bring their own advantages and privileges to the field, whether this is the athlete who was financially comfortable enough to train rather than work, or the athlete who modifies their body through laser eye surgery or performance enhancing substances (Cavanagh 2004). Attributing the unfairness present in sport to the inclusion of ‘unnatural’ trans women athletes is itself unfair (Cavanagah, 2011; Sykes, 2006).
Attempting to privilege what may be perceived as natural only highlights that those arguments based on ‘naturalness’ are also not neutral, but inherently value-laden (Phipps, 2014). Within the gender normative discourses previously mentioned, the male physique may be perceived to have the best ‘natural’ advantage in sport. However, we must remember that Olympic athletes are themselves exceptional individuals, who transcend everyday conceptions of gender and exhibit physiques that cannot be easily seen as ‘natural’ (Reeser, 2006). To reiterate, differences in physiology are not synonymous with competitive advantage when considering fairness and equity (Reeser, 2006), and there is a backdrop of varying and diverse differences among all competitive athletes’ bodies (Buzuvis 2011).
The Transgender Body and Gender Essentialism
The transgender body continues to be subject to what Butler (1990) has called ‘a kind of feminist policing of transgender lives and trans choices’ (Butler, 1990: 65)’, and this policing is evident on the Mumsnet thread. The recent change in the IOC’s 2016 policy has provided Mumsnetters with an opportunity to apply gender essentialism to a new platform, that of sport, by policing trans women’s bodies. This gender essentialism is often found ‘residing in frequent claims and counterclaims which are often partial but which also invariably purport to be conclusive’ (Phipps, 2014:5).
Gender essentialism argues that a person’s gender is an innate, inherent quality, and cannot be changed according to culture or context (Richardson, 2014). Butler (1990) has challenged this notion by arguing that gender is a social construct. It is ‘a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one’ (Butler 1990: 9).
The connection between the gender essentialist discourses on Mumnset in response to the inclusion of transgender women in sport feeds into the emerging transgender backlash. Since this thread adopts the worst aspects of gender essentialism and separatism, it simultaneously also grounds womanhood in the most rudimentary biological determinism (Wilchins, 2004) and fails to acknowledge gender expression as a civil right.
As Hill Collins (1990) notes:
‘Oppressed groups are frequently placed in the situation of being listened to only if we frame our ideas in the language that is familiar to and comfortable for a dominant group. This requirement often changes the meaning of our ideas and works to elevate the ideas of dominant groups’. (Hill Collins, 1990: 52)
The common sense position is problematic for another reason. Rather than attempt to move away from the social inequalities foisted onto women’s bodies as a site of oppression, the posters on Mumsnet seem willing to lash themselves to their bodies, identifying as ‘bleeders and birthers’, and thereby advocating for cisgender privilege. A great deal of feminist energy has gone into trying to minimise or even erase this particular marker of feminist difference, that of biology as the source of inequality for women (Brook, 1999, Rich, 1976). Yet the posters on Mumsnet view their biology (and their bodies) as a source of superiority, with the conflation of woman as body celebrated in the association with pregnancy and breastfeeding (Richardson, 2014).
Gender-neutral spaces actually intensify gendered behaviour, with participants in an online community likely to bring with them pre-existing patterns of this (Pederon & Lupton, 2016). By merely moving traditional gender divisions online, the opportunity for gender essentialism on Mumsnet becomes widespread. This manifests itself when considering the emerging backlash, manifested as anxiety, which surrounds trans women’s bodies.
The emerging backlash against the transgender community has been examined in several discourses (Riggs, 2014; Westbrook, 2014). While some spaces, such as the workplace are slowly demonstrating more acceptance of the transgender community, others are less supportive, including sport. This is based on the belief that some spaces should be gender-segregated due to women’s inherent vulnerability and the threat men pose in those spaces. These issues have made women’s public spaces central to the debates over transgender rights (Westbrook, 2014).
Much of the ‘gender panic’ surrounding the perceived violation of these public spaces have centred on hypothetical situations which are reminiscent of past homophobic messages in the media, framing the gay male as a predatory deviant (Richardson, 2010). Trans women in particular have been similarly framed, with a series of inflammatory comments made by high-profile individuals, including Curt Schilling and Julie Bindel.
These hypothetical situations, constructed under the guise of protecting women and children, serve only to divide the transgender and cisgender community. It also enables transphobic voices to shout louder, claiming that they represent all cisgender voices, when they do not. These voices operate particularly loudly on-line, as evident on the thread, and this anxiety is directed at trans women athletes, fueling a fear that they are only competing as women in order to win (Cavanagh & Sykes, 2006). This anxiety also renders trans women’s bodies as suspicious, and as a site for deviance and promoting equality-difference and feeds the emerging transgender backlash.
‘We are Bleeders and Birthers’
The data analysed indicates that the repeated use of gender essentialism by posters on the thread represents a powerful example of the resistance to gender variance in sport. The policy caused an overwhelmingly negative reaction from posters, with 97.63% of posts agreeing that trans women athletes would have an unfair advantage due to their immutable physiology.
Posters were keen to focus on the notion that , ‘they are basically men – tall, with deep set tendons that give them better strength when they are at full stretch and accommodate larger muscles. Pelvis better constructed for running because of not having to take a female reproductive system into account, ‘, emphasizing that, ‘everybody knows that men are stronger and faster than women, as well as having higher lung capacity and more efficient blood flow’.
These two examples are representative of a high number of posts analysed, expressing the belief that transgender women have a fixed, immutable physiology, assigned ‘naturally’ at birth and which cannot be denied. This led to many posters adopting the ‘common sense’ position that men will always be better athletes, due to their superior ‘bell curves’, ‘heavier skeletons’ and ‘heart size’.
This position is problematic for a number of reasons. It is true that some aspects of physiology cannot be altered through the use of hormones, namely size of hands, feet and height (Sullivan, 2011). However, it is a mistake to assume that these factors are a fast track to guaranteeing a competitive advantage. For example, in women’s volleyball, a sport where height could be considered the ideal advantage, the gold medal winning women’s volleyball team has, with one exception in 1968, not been the tallest team in the tournament (Reeser, 2005).
Revisiting the common sense position
The ‘common sense’ of immutable physiology providing an unfair competitive advantage is adopted and used widely by posters on the Mumsnet thread, as evidenced by its large number of occurrences. Additional ways in which this common-sense position is applied is through the citing of world records held by cisgender male athletes, all of which are considered superior to cisgender women’s in terms of speed or strength.
One poster notes that, ‘the first male to run a mile in under 4 minutes was Roger Bannister in 1954, nearly 62 years ago. The first female was…well, there aren’t any. The current world record is 4:12:56, set in 1996.’ Other examples of world records are then cited by posters, with the conclusion that, ‘you’re basically looking at biologically born women never winning a medal in anything ever again’.
These examples are held up as prima facie evidence that a cisgender woman would be incapable of competing fairly against a transwoman athlete, because trans women, through their ‘naturally male’ physiology, will always have a physiological advantage. These examples fail to include any records set by trans women athletes, and demonstrate how the common sense position is promoted.
‘This gender construct bullshit’
Gender essentialism argues that a person’s gender is an innate, inherent quality, and cannot be changed according to culture or context (Richardson, 2014). Butler (1990) has famously undermined this notion by queering the specific belief that biology is destiny, and that gender is performative.
The Mumsnetters do not agree with this position at all, with one poster claiming that ‘this gender construct bullshit isn’t fooling anyone.’ Their insistence on drawing attention to the ‘obvious’ (but hypothetical) differences between their bodies and trans women’s bodies, is deeply problematic. By grouping all women on the thread together under the identity of ‘bleeders and birthers’, there is the risk of denying the relevance of other aspects of their lives (Brook, 1999), as well as being anti-intersectional and lacking in sensitivity to differences between women.
In addition, there is a high level of suspicion and hostility towards trans women’s bodies. Examples of this can also be witnessed in discourses surrounding the right to trans-parent (Nixon, 2013; Riggs, 2014), that only biological women can be mothers. This suspicion is also similar to the hostility that has been aimed at women in the past (and can be found in contemporary representations of motherhood), and has been used to deny women full status in society (Spelman, 1982). Stryker (2006) calls this ‘informed prejudice’, which sees individuals employ oppressive rhetoric against transgender people without having to face their own contradictions. Posters here are typically unaware of the contradiction in the benefits afforded to them by society due to their cisgender privilege. This includes being able to freely access the services they feel entitled to by definition of being ‘biologically female’, such as free contraception or the right to an abortion.
This gender-based oppression could be read as a form of body-shaming, in the way it can potentially discourage younger trans women from participating in sport. Increasing numbers of LGBTQ athletes are coming out at a young age (Griffin, 2012), but the language and rhetoric used by posters of Mumsnet serves to ridicule and ostracise (Wilchins, 2004). This prejudice manifests itself with the accusation levelled at those trans women athletes who are not ‘committed enough’ about transitioning, because they have failed to ‘go the whole way and have surgery.’ One poster claims that they ‘could get on board if they at least cut their dick off. At least then they’d mean it.’ The posters fail to appreciate that the policy is aimed at inclusivity for all, especially for future generations.
Within this body shaming rhetoric lies a tendency by posters to focus only on trans women’s pre-op, pre-hormone treated body, seeing all trans women as homogenous, all benefitting from the body assigned at birth. There is no consideration of the actual effects of hormones on the body, or the fact that trans women athletes are medically managed individuals, whose hormones are prescribed as part of their therapy (Cavanagh, 2010). For many posters, taking hormones still constitutes cheating.
One poster notes that ‘there’s a name for people who take a fuck-load of hormones in order to win’, whilst another is concerned that trans women athletes may be able to ‘to skimp on the hormones that block testosterone?’ This reasoning returns the debate to the fear that trans women athletes, ‘would still have a massive advantage’, alongside objections about ‘trans women competing as women full-stop, but at least the previous rules set the bar high enough that only genuine trans women would be competing against women rather than just any man that fancied a go’.
As the IOC (2016) has established after four decades of research, taking hormones remain in the policy because they have a significant impact on trans women athletes. For the posters on Mumsnet, the process of determining gender set out by the IOC is never going to be sufficient enough. Transactivist groups have rightly pointed out the perpetual stereotyped transgender person who is inherently untrustworthy and deceptive, and likely to deceive the IOC about their ‘true’ gender (GenderPAC, 1998).
‘They say they are women but they sure do act like men’.
Many posters are quick to refer to ‘male entitlement’ and ‘male privilege’ as being additional sites of deception carried out by transswomen simply by virtue of having been born and socialised as men.
This makes the naïve assumption that those ‘feminine’ markers that women pick up on as they grow up, are not also picked up by others, and that they are exclusive to women. Women’s experience is not something shared, and women are not defined by how they were possibly socialised as girls. This assumption serves only to downplay differences between women, and more problematically, it fails to ask about possible similarities between trans and cisgender women, both of whom are disparaged for their femininity (Elliot, 2004).
When considering these expressions of male entitlement, there is an appeal to the hypothetical scenario of trans women athletes with exceptional athletic talent annihilating cisgender women’s competitions (Reeser, 2006). These scenarios continue in failing to properly consider the effects of gender reassignment surgery and/or hormone therapy, and so what remains is the presumption that ’being transgendered’ (Wilchins, 2004: 32) is just another form of cheating.
The hostility towards trans women athletes then, is rooted in the notion that they can’t help cheating, because ‘being transgendered’ is a form of cheating. If male entitlement and privilege is innate, as many posters believe, then transwomen will never be able to transcend possessing it. ‘So much for all the evidence’, writes one poster, ‘the immense socialization benefits that we KNOW boys get when it comes to competitive sport.’ This anxiety about male privilege and entitlement is what really lies at the heart of the competitive advantage debate, and serves to add a nuanced layer of hostility and suspicion towards trans women athletes.
One potentially dangerous knock-on effect of this thinking is the negative reinforcement that boys are better at sport than girls, simply because they are boys. It also pays no regard to the reality of gender dysphoria, which transcends a desire for any cultural advantages of being (an) other sex. The posters fail to grasp that by wishing to exclude trans women from sport, they are actually making the competition less fair.
In addition, the absence of a transgender voice on the thread does not, to quote from the thread, prove that ‘even transgender people think that this is an own goal.’ As Califia (1997) has noted, ‘invisibility does not equate with acceptance’ (1997: 239). This then leads to the second key theme in the data, that of the perceived marginalisation of cisgender women’s rights in favour of trans women’s rights.
‘It’s transwomen again, and again, and again’
The debate over whether or not to allow, accept, and embrace trans people as a segment of the feminist movement has been a tumultuous one that remains unresolved (Green, 2006). The second dominant theme to emerge from the Mumsnet thread was that of the perceived marginalisation and erosion of cisgender women’s rights in favour of transgender women’s rights.
This perception manifests itself with a belief that, ‘it’s always women rather than transwomen that get thrown under the bus’. They are not respecting women by demanding new rights, which require our rights to be taken away.’ Of the 165 posters on this thread, not one identifies as transgender, an absence which leads to the posters constructing a kind of transwoman strawman, one whom they can exercise their cisgender privilege over and project their own fears and anxieties on to, with one poster feeling that ‘it’s I was a man but now I’m a woman and I still want all the privileges I had as a man and if it means I have to trample on the other women then so be it.’
Much of this anxiety is connected to the belief that women’s sport and women’s rights are not only being compromised, but dramatically and irrevocably eradicated. There is no evidence that ‘trans rights are trumping rights trump women’s rights because trans people are currently the oppressed minority.’ After all, no self-identified transwoman athlete has ever openly competed in the Olympics.
As outlined earlier, the opposition to trans women athletes by the posters on Mumsnet centres on immutable physiology, competitive advantage and hormones. Once these factors are removed, it becomes clear that this hostility towards trans women is however, not just focused on the policing of trans women’s bodies, it also extends to the notion that trans women’s feminist identities are suspect. One poster expresses concern that ‘our putative trans woman athlete could later decide that it was all a big mistake and, with hindsight, he prefers being a bloke. Et voila! He’s all manly again, and he’s got that prize money. Nice job, eh?’
The argument that trans women are untrustworthy and, by extension, deviant, has been used to great effect in the media and by radical feminists, including Germaine Greer. It is important to note that this thinking carries influence, and is a legitimate cause for concern regarding transgender safety. Despite the visibility of celebrities such as Laverne Cox and Paris Lees, there have been 2,016 reported killings of trans and gender diverse people in 65 countries worldwide between the 1st of January 2008 and the 31st of December 2015.
‘Why don’t my feelings count?’
Evident on the thread is a total disregard and ignorance around the lived experience of trans women athletes, and the battles they may have fought to be allowed to participate in their sport. The rights that feminism has historically struggled for do not cross-over by demonstration of support or empathy for the LGBTQ rights movement. There is also ignorance of the history of the Olympics and gender verification, as well as confusion with the intersex athlete, who is pitied but accepted due to their legitimacy, because, as one poster notes, ‘they can’t help being born that way’.
Several posters refuse to accept that gender dysphoria is nothing but a lifestyle choice, and believe that ‘being transgender is so, so fashionable right now.’
Logically, this hostility and suspicion which begins with the policing of trans women’s bodies is motivated by fear, especially the fear that trans women call into question the very foundation of the feminist movement. It should not be the one-sided responsibility of trans women to take on cisgender women’s oppression as the central core of their own political struggle for legitimacy. This is especially true when a more privileged minority group – the Mumsnetters – is actively engaged in the oppression via the exclusion of others, specifically trans women (Green, 2006).
As Green (2006) notes, feminism is based on the identity of oppression, and this cannot exist without being oppressed. This becomes problematic when considering that trans identities and experiences are also based on oppression. Rather than unite in a shared oppression, such as the unnecessary and pervasive policing of women’s bodies, many posters prefer to exacerbate the problem, and deny trans women a potentially helpful source of support and solidarity. One poster feels that ‘trans need their own category, and if women don’t make a stand against this then I’ll never understand why. I’ve been through a lot too. Why don’t my feelings count?’
The dominant position here is one where many posters believe that future generations are being side-lined in favour of the current one. The belief that gender variation and the inclusivity of trans women athletes legitimizes their own feelings of oppression, and takes precedence over others is prevalent.
It is not without irony that those posters who consider themselves oppressed, are in fact acting as oppressors. The cis-gender privilege being enforced here acts to ‘other’ trans women, which has historically led to less access to resources such as healthcare, safety, negative views of their bodies and psychological well-being (Beckman, 2014). Such logic has sadly also led to the death of trans women such as Islan Nettles, who was murdered by James Dixon in a ‘blind fury’ in 2013, after Nettles revealed her trans gender identity.
Several posters offer a nod to inclusivity and equality for trans women, and extend sympathy for the hardships they perceive as coming from being ‘born in the wrong body.’ However, this sympathy often hides a false conscious, with an insistence to ‘just stop infringing on women’s rights’.
Yet there is a contradiction with this generosity, and there is a failure by many posters to recognise transwoman athletes as valid and authentic. As shown by the themes identified through this research, these posters do not feel that they gain from the deconstruction of gender or the potential to unite with other women. Rather, they feel this is a backwards step for women’s rights, using the hypothetical scenario of women being nudged off the medals podium. The integrity of women’s sport has nothing to do with the inclusion of trans women athletes and would arguably suffer if feminists attempt to eradicate any gender-variant presence as a means of keeping feminism for the cisgender only (Green, 2006).
The data analysed produced the clear result that the majority of posters on Mumsnet did not agree with the IOC’s 2016 decision to amend the policy for transgender inclusion in sport. In fact, they did not believe it, and instead relied on the common sense position and gender essentialism to support their claims. These claims were further justified by suggesting that the integrity of women’s sport is being compromised, and by extension, women’s rights are being marginalised in favour of trans women’s rights.
Due to the wide reaching readership of the thread, I have been able to argue that these claims feed into an emerging backlash. This is significant when considering the potential to negatively influence readers who may be uncertain about current debates on trans issues and rights.
What is also clear from the data analysis is that gender essentialism can, for many, be a convincing standpoint, particularly when looking at sport, which is still strictly gender segregated. The social construction of sport is complicated, and the IOC’s 2016 policy is only one small attempt to dismantle this construct. After all, the seemingly inclusive policy still requests that athletes must still be either male or female when competing, there is no room for a spectrum here.
The wider implications of study for research in this area are enormous. Considering that the majority of academic literature surrounding trans athletes has only been emerging since 2004, together with the fact that no self-identified trans woman athlete has competed in the Olympics, means that this much still to be discussed. One can only wonder how the landscape may have changed by the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The themes within the research have been carefully examined, and draw on literature surrounding the inclusivity and acceptance for trans women athletes at the Olympics. This literature supports the notion that immutable physiology and the perceived competitive advantage it affords to trans
women athletes, is untrue. It has highlighted that every athlete brings their own privilege to the starting line, and that the level playing field is a myth. The literature also supports the IOC’s decision to abandon gender verification, due the complexities of nature and sex verification.
Critical discussions are important in understanding gender women’s experiences of sport, yet every day experiences of trans women athletes competing in sport at elite level are missing from these accounts. The traditional gender normative focus in feminist sport sociology (Caldwell, 2006) pays little attention to trans women athletes, whose experiences are instead discussed in queer literature.
As a result, future research would benefit greatly from drawing on lived experiences of trans women athletes who wish to compete at an elite level. Developing a project which took time to consider the realities of achieving the goal of becoming not just a visible transwoman athlete, but a gold medal winner could help to break down the myths which surround competitive advantage and trans gender bodies.
Past feminist encounters with differences of race, class, ability and sexual orientation have resulted in positive results (Elliot, 2004), but it seems that when there is something as important as a gold medal at stake, there is only resistance to the inclusion of trans women in sport. The presence of transgender athletes at the Olympics is still a hypothetical one, after all, but the IOC’s 2016 policy ‘validates the fact that I exist, that trans athletes exist, and we’re people. And we have the right to compete in the Olympics if we’re good enough as athletes.’ (Alyn Libman, figure skater).
Bibliography & Key Web Links
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 Abbreviated to the ‘IOC’ from here on.
 This was confirmed in an email from MNHQ on 04.07.16, in response to my request.
 The 2016 IOC Policy can be located on p.40
 At the time of writing the Russian Olympic Team have been accused of doping on an unprecedented scale, further nuancing the debate. Can sport ever be clean?
 At the time of writing the coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games as been widely criticized for its focus on women athlete’s clothing rather than ability, and for presenter Helen Skelton’s ‘risky’ wardrobe: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/07/helen-skeltons-revealing-dress-sends-rio-2016-viewers-into-meltd/