Trans young people say sporting bans stop them living ‘happy lives’ | UK News
Miles couldn’t care less about his bones being broken. Or even the odd thigh-wide bruise or chipped tooth.
Miles, 17, is a trans boy living in southeast England. He’s currently doing his A-Levels and working part-time – he loves rugby.
The teen used to play football and did mixed martial arts before finding rugby was the sport for him and he now plays for a local grassroots team.
‘When you join a sport, it’s kind of like your chosen family,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘It’s one big community and rugby is a fun sport in general. I’ve grown up with everyone there.’
Coming out at 14 at his all-female school was tough but he always had rugby, he thought.
‘It wasn’t blatant ignorance,’ he says of the reaction he got from some of his classmates, ‘like dirty looks and people not putting in any effort.’
For Miles, this ‘ignorance’ came in the form of people assuming he was a lesbian, or being misgendered and deadnamed.
All this began to feel at odds with the sport that Miles came to find strength and community in. But a trip to Holland helped him capture that feeling once again.
‘Holland has different contact laws than England does, so they allow mixed-gender teams until 17. When I used to play there, I would play with the boys. It was a mix of a boys’ and girls’ team.
‘There was no judgment, no questioning and things like that. Especially for me, it was a major thing. It affirmed who I was and made me enjoy my sport more.’
But in Britain and beyond today, people are trying to stop young people like Miles from feeling this way. From feeling accepted while taking part in their passions.
From British sports governing bodies to 21 American state legislatures, those in power are deciding to restrict or ban altogether trans people from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity.
On Thursday, the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives passed legislation that would bar trans women and girls from participating in women’s athletic programmes.
The bill, passed along party lines on a vote of 219 to 203, has next to no chance of getting through the Democratic-controlled Senate or being signed by US President Joe Biden, however.
While International Swimming Federation (FINA), World Rugby and most recently World Athletics are among the governing bodies to introduce restrictions on trans athletes.
World Athletics said sportspeople who have undergone ‘male puberty’ can’t compete in women’s world rankings competition, the kind of policy supported by former UK culture secretary, Nadine Dorries.
Alarm bells went off last year in the UK when then-prime minister Boris Johnson was asked for his thoughts. ‘I don’t think biological males should be competing in female sporting events,’ he said.
Miles, though, has an idea why this is all kicking off now.
‘There was never a major issue with it for however many years,’ he says, ‘but it’s only recently when the sort of trans lobbying thing started that they were like, “well, no, it’s not fair anymore”.
‘But how many years has that been? How many years has that worked for?’
‘I think that if these bans had started when I was about to come out, I would have just got up and left rugby. That would have been it,’ Miles adds.
‘I would have stopped sports because I would have been scared to continue and even now, with more bans coming out, I’m scared to carry on with my sports past where I am now.’
Mermaids, a trans youth charity, found that more than a third of trans youth play sports two to three times a week. Yet about the same amount worry about doing so due to the negative media stories about trans people.
Of the 180 trans, non-binary and gender-diverse young people aged 11-16 surveyed, 69% said sport soothed their mental health.
As Mermaids noted in its report, this is a ‘feat’ considering that young trans people suffer from disproportionally high mental health issues.
For 79% of respondents, however, simply being trans is a ‘barrier’ to their taking part in sports.
Sam (not their real name), 18, is a non-binary university student living in South Yorkshire. They know a thing or two about sports, from fencing to football.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Sam did sports at a high level. Since coming out at 16, they haven’t played sports much since.
There are a few reasons for it, but the ‘forced gender categories especially’ are a big one, they say.
‘To compete I have to choose which category to misgender myself into,’ Sam says.
A lot of the sports Sam plays recreationally now while at university are mixed-gender. ‘A lot of the other sports groups at uni tend to be gender segregated,’ they say.
‘In a mixed-sex space, you can sort of get by without talking to anyone about your gender identity if you don’t want to. When they separate by men and women, you either choose to assimilate and allow yourself to be misgendered or have conversations that you don’t want to have when all you want to do is play sports.
‘A lot of the time people look at me and assume I’m a woman.’
Sam feels gender-neutral categories might be a good start: ‘They would make it so much easier for me to consider competing again.
‘If you’re always competing separated by gender, there are always skills, techniques and friendships that you miss out on.
‘I just think it’s really important that trans youth take part in sport and life a fulfilling life without having to worry which sport they’re actually welcome in.’
‘When people feel excluded from the sport because of their gender identity, you’re not allowing them to live a healthy lifestyle or do the things they enjoy,’ Sam adds.
What does the science say on whether trans athletes have an unfair advantage in sport?
Data on the performance of trans athletes is patchy at best, experts say.
For a start, there isn’t much research to begin with on the athletic performance of trans people.
Most don’t actually involve trans athletes at all and there has been no published data to date on trans athletes’ performance at an elite level.
There also aren’t many trans athletes to ask to take part. In American women’s college sports, for example, there are around 200,000 athletes competing. Of them, about 50 are trans, one researcher estimates.
Some studies have suggested trans women retain, for a short while, residual strength and muscle mass advantages over their cis peers.
Yet a 2017 report in the journal Sports Medicine found ‘no direct or consistent research’ on trans people having an athletic advantage.
‘Therefore, competitive sport policies that place restrictions on transgender people need to be considered and potentially revised,’ the authors wrote.
Some scientists also feel that testosterone – often considered a benchmark of strength – doesn’t play that much of a part in whether someone is good at sports or not.
The International Federation of Sports Medicine (IFSM), which represents 125,000 physicians across five continents, said in 2021 that data is so scant that there is simply no scientific basis for a blanket ban on trans athletes.
Instead, each sport should work out the best trans eligibility policy for them and wait for more – and better – data.
These ‘disheartening’ bans, Sam adds, are ‘put in place by cisgender people with no lived experience of being trans’.
‘It’s disheartening to see all these walls being put in place just in case a trans person decides to be good at sport. It excludes them preemptively before they even have a chance to try.
‘It’s really frustrating that are a lot are being put in place on the back of a moral panic rather than actual evidence.’
Sam stresses that as much as supporters for trans sports bans say the community has an ‘unfair advantage’ over cis people, sport is, at its core, unfair.
‘A lot of the time, people who compete in high-level sports have biological advantages, whether it’s longer limbs or high lung capacity,’ Sam says.
Caleb, 19, is a trans man studying medicine at Newcastle University. He started swimming when he was eight and did it until he was 17, when he came out as trans the year before.
‘I told my coach everything and I decided it was too hard for me to continue swimming, which is a common theme for most trans people,’ he says, noting how sports are a ‘predominantly male environment’.
Contact sports – any sport that requires players to physically contact one another – are a sticking point for trans men like him. ‘Growing up, you tend to either do predominantly male sports or predominantly female sports, like girls do netball and boys do rugby,’ Caleb says.
‘You’ve grown up doing these sports your whole life and then you need to suddenly switch swap over,’ he adds, joking that he’ll never volunteer to do football as he grew up never playing it.
‘For grassroots, what is the worst that’s going to happen if you let people play in what category they want to play in? Nothing bad is actually going to come of this if a trans man competes in the category they want to.’
This is something that Verity Smith, 41, a former pro-rugby player and a trans inclusion in sports manager for Mermaids, knows all too well.
‘Sports isn’t fair,’ he says, ‘everyone is different.’
‘I lost half my life because I was told that if I came out as trans I’d be kicked out of the women’s premiership. I married a woman. I’ve not been myself and I don’t want kids to do that, too.
‘I want them to be their authentic selves, playing the sport that makes them happy.’
For Caleb, sport brings a ‘sense of community’ that, in the UK today, can feel a little hard to come by, what with trans rights being rolled back or stopped in their tracks and transphobic hate crimes on the rise.
So seeing people both trans and cisgender ‘stand up’ against the bans has been inspiring for trans youngsters like Caleb.
‘Obviously, on the backside of it, you’ve got people who are uneducated that can create a media storm of things that are factually incorrect,’ he says.
‘So you have to switch off after that and focus on the good things like the majority of people do support you and couldn’t care less about what you do in your life.
‘They just want you to live.’
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