When Laurel Hubbard was announced as the first transgender athlete to compete in an individual sport at the Olympics, controversy was not far off. One prominent commentator even called it a “disaster for women’s sport”.
In Aotearoa, New Zealand, the topic was hotly debated on TV, radio, newspapers and social media. And earlier this week, there was a protest outside the New Zealand High Commission in London against Hubbard’s inclusion in the weightlifting team.
The arguments are emotional and polarizing, and often ignore key facts – particularly that Hubbard qualified through the processes outlined by the International Weightlifting Federation and the International Olympic Committee.
More broadly, the language used has real consequences beyond this specific debate. It is therefore important to consider the impact this can have on the mental health and well-being of trans athletes and transgender communities in general.
What voices are heard?
Unfortunately, the perspectives most often missing from these debates are those of trans athletes themselves.
But the backlash against Hubbard in the wake of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which now echoes the approach of the Olympics, is contributing to a climate in which transgender athletes do not feel safe speaking to the media.
By protecting their own sanity and well-being, their stories, humanity and courage are largely lost from the media narrative. This is a loss for all of us, leaving the larger discussion of transgender participation in sport to focus on often uninformed fears.
This has serious implications, as the power of the media to reinforce or sometimes challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about trans athletes is well established.
A preliminary analysis of 111 articles on Hubbard’s Olympic inclusion day shows that 33 (mostly from the UK) “died” her – meaning they deliberately used her name before the transition. Referring to people as they choose to be known should be a basic tenet of media ethics.
Discriminatory language, underpinned by fear, phobias and the characterization of trans athletes as “cheaters” or worse, is likely to contribute to the already very high levels of psychological distress and suicide within transgender communities.
We need to pay attention to other aspects of the language used to argue against Hubbard’s inclusion in the Olympics, and trans participation in sport in general.
Often, this language plays on fear and misinformation, rather than on well-founded evidence. For example, there is a tendency to selectively cite research focused on testosterone levels, although the science on this is far from established.
Other research has shown that many variables contribute to athletic performance and success. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and testosterone is only part of a much larger picture of what builds athletic greatness.
Many researchers and experts encourage approaches that go beyond physiological criteria to better recognize the complex social (rather than strictly biological) understandings of athletes’ gender experiences.
A growing body of research also shows the importance of ethics and human rights as a basis for developing sports policies and laws that enable transgender people to participate in sport at the elite and higher levels. the community.
The importance of listening
Unfortunately, the whole subject is too often approached from a position of ignorance rather than curiosity and compassion. As one researcher argued:
Those who persist in their view that trans women should not compete with cis women in elite female categories would benefit from talking to trans women, getting to know trans athletes, and reading qualitative research that delves deeper into the experiences. , motivations and reasons for trans athletes to participate in sport.
This was reinforced in a recent report by the United Nations Independent Expert on Protection from Violence and Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity:
All those who struggle against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity have certain lived experiences in common which should convey a notion of the importance of seeing, listening to and taking action. to each other with kindness and compassion.
The report specifically challenged the belief that the inclusion of transgender women threatens women’s sport. Rather, he called for evidence-based approaches to ensure that sport promotes the development of all girls, including those who are trans.
A moment of learning
Meanwhile, the mainstream debate is still too often tied to polarizing rhetoric and muddled arguments. At this important moment in the history of sport, that must change.
Hubbard’s groundbreaking Olympic inclusion provides a truly teachable moment that allows us to work towards a more constructive dialogue. Particularly useful here is the work done by researchers and activists with online resources such as Proud2Play in Australia and Athlete Ally in the United States.
Finding new ways of talking about the subject can lead to the development of more inclusive and supportive policies and practices in sport at the elite and community levels.
More than anything, we must remember those who are most directly affected by current debates and media campaigns. This includes girls and young trans women who just want to be able to play on their school or club sports teams.
Holly Thorpe, professor of sociology of sport and physical culture, University of Waikato; Jack Byrne, Senior Research Officer, Trans Health Research Lab, University of Waikato; Jaimie Veale, Director, Transgender Health Research Lab, University of Waikato, and Lynda Johnston, Professor of Geography, Assistant Vice Chancellor Sustainable Development, University of Waikato.
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