Transphobia in sport: Misconceptions and the media

As the world marks IDAHOBIT 2020 amid increasing LGBTphobia, how can the media help trans people in sport who want to share their stories?

By Jon Holmes

Every year, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17 receives greater acknowledgement around the globe.

The theme for 2020 is ‘Breaking The Silence’, reflecting the need to hear from more LGBT+ voices in society, and to empower them to share their truths and lived experiences. For the media, that should mean telling more stories in print, on digital, on TV and radio, and in podcasts, to provide important representation and to let those who might be struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity know that they’re not alone.

Since Sports Media LGBT+ started up two-and-a-half years ago, we’ve striven to amplify lesbian, gay, bi, and trans voices – and those of allies too. We continue to listen to those who might not otherwise be heard. We offer the chance to be part of a wider conversation, framed responsibly, on our own channels; on the platforms available to our network members, such as BBC Sport, Sky Sports, and other publishers; and via our partners and connections. We recognise that LGBT+ narratives are rarely simple and straightforward, and that nuances need time and space to be explained in full.

However, we recognise that for many LGBT+ people in sport, it’s not an attractive proposition to be visible and vocal in the media. That’s even more true for members of the trans community. Discussions around inclusion, fairness, and the motivations of trans athletes frequently play out on social media and in more traditional media. Examples are provided from specific sports in support of an argument, and while some of these examples are backed up by science and research, others are not – often because the science and research isn’t yet available for certain scenarios.

For the general sports fan who may not have read widely around the subject of trans inclusion, or who may be unfamiliar with policies or regulations, it can be a confusing landscape, littered with sweeping statements. There is a pressing need for robust, well-funded studies. These will benefit the media too – data and metrics will give greater clarity and can help to prevent good-faith discussions from sliding towards transphobia.

Dr Gemma Witcomb is the Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Loughborough University where she leads the Gender and Sport Centre for Doctoral Training. The Centre is exploring trans inclusion in sport through a number of focused projects, including the physiology of athletes; variations in international policies; the experiences of non-binary people; and the effects of media coverage.

It’s groundbreaking and important work. As yet, there is no full and complete study of long-term hormone use for trans people, and none specifically in trans athletes. While some studies are underway in Europe with trans people seeking hormone therapy, the results won’t be available for some time. Meanwhile, an extensive set of varied physiological studies will be needed too.

Dr Witcomb was among the contributors to Martina Navratilova’s BBC documentary ‘Trans Athletes: A Fair Playing Field?’ which aired a year ago. I spoke to her to better understand how transphobia is contributing to the silence of trans athletes, and how that silence is preventing academics from obtaining the research that will help to improve policy and cultures in sport…

JH: Dr Witcomb, what’s the main focus for trans inclusion in sport and how is the Centre approaching that?

GW: Really, there are two different things going on. There is elite sport, where it’s mostly about physiology and what’s fair and what’s not fair – we have to address that, and we are. But what I think is touching more people’s lives, is at more of a grassroots level. We’re exploring this from a multi-disciplinary perspective – it’s not all about physiology, or looking at a particular population or methodology. We’ve got a range of projects that are looking at all different kinds of issues, but all of them are centered around trans and non-binary people’s experiences in sport.

What tends to determine whether someone in sport will exhibit transphobic behaviour or not?

We know a lot about transphobia generally, and people’s experiences of that – things that might be said or done. It’s useful to understand why this happens. I did a project looking at cisgender athletes and what their internal motivations are. There are lots of different measures that sports scientists use to look at what drives a person – how they attribute success or failure, for example. Do they attribute it to personal factors about themselves or to some outside factors? How you manage that can affect your psychological processing, and that processing then has a big impact on you and your performance.

We talk about Achievement Goal Theory. When you’re doing a sport or a task, what’s your main driving factor? You can get the personal goals type of motivation – striving for success in competition – and then there’s more of an ego thing, the feeling of ‘I want to win and I want to be the best’. That’s obviously important and will be there in elite athletes. But that ego motivation is highly related to unsportsmanlike behaviour as well. People who hold that motivation highest are often those who are more likely to dope and things like that, because that desire to win can introduce all kinds of bad things in the pursuit of winning.

The study looked at athletes in different measures of motivation, which included beliefs about sex and gender. In men, there was nothing much of any particular interest; but in women, transphobia was associated and significantly predicted by this ‘ego / win’ type of motivation. That suggests we don’t see that in men because they’re not threatened in the same way by trans people participating, whereas women are – and if you hold these higher ego threat motivations, you’re more likely to have transphobic views. That makes sense because you’re reacting to what you perceive as being a threat.

So that’s where the work really needs to come in, and it links back to physiology. It’s only by negating that belief that there’s a threat that we’re going to calm down some of the transphobia because at the moment, it’s driven by real fear that this is not fair. The data helps puts that into perspective.

As far as the media is concerned, how can we create conversations about being trans in sport that aren’t dominated by fear?

Often there’s a misunderstanding – it might be genuine or introduced on purpose – whereby people assume that what you’re talking about is someone who identifies as a trans woman rocking up and playing against women having had no intervention whatsoever. That is not the case.

If you said that to someone, most people’s reaction will be ‘oh my god, yes, that’s not fair’ – but to be a trans woman in sport, you’ll have to have been on hormones for a number of years. Anecdotally and looking at other measures of performance, you can see that causes performance to go down. These trans women might still be taller and have bigger skeletons but they certainly don’t have the muscle mass and don’t have the power behind them. Their bodies have had significant changes.

The other thing is that there will never be a blanket rule for all sports, because sports are different. Some of those might be positive for trans women to be part of, and some of them might not be. A grassroots team might even include a trans woman who is earlier on in her transition – at that level, it’s generally an accepted thing because people know each other well and it’s not about winning a league.

Whenever we talk about sport, it’s often framed around competition so this can lead to misconceptions. For a trans person wanting to be involved in sport – whether that’s participating or spectating – it’s less to do with winning, it’s the other things. Maybe it’s hanging out with certain people, and the social support and the psychological feedback; maybe it’s because it keeps you fit, and that feeling of strength is quite motivating and you’re not overweight so you’re not worrying about your health.

So from that perspective, why would anybody want to deny that to somebody, on the basis of how they identify? It’s no threat to them. It’s no threat to me if the person sat three spaces away from me supporting my team is trans, why would I care? Or if the person in my gym class is trans, why do I care? What am I gaining from keeping them out of that space? I think there’s a lot to be said for trying to focus these conversations, and move people’s attention onto what we get out of sport that isn’t just about winning or losing.

As for the suggestion that there’s all these trans women out there just waiting to join sport so that they can win everything… it’s just ridiculous. I mean, you’ve got to fundamentally like sport in the first place.

One of the stories I got the chance to work on last year was with the cricketer Maxine Blythin, who talked about a birth condition she had. The reaction was almost entirely positive…

Some of the analysis we did of media – and it tallies with Maxine’s story – shows that when people think there’s a biological ‘problem’ and that’s why they’re trans, people can get on board with that a little bit more. It fits into this biological model that you just have men and women, and sometimes it goes a bit wrong in the middle. When you have people that don’t have that background and identify as trans, other people struggle with that.

The diagnosis for being transgender used to be a lot more medical and it’s changed somewhat over the years. Some older trans people don’t really agree with that, and this has been interpreted as a kind of almost internal transphobia. Some people want and need a biological reason to say this has gone wrong with me, ‘that’s why I’m trans’, but other people don’t want that label. Part of having that biological reasoning fits into this medical model of justifying it. almost in a way that allows cis people to go, ‘OK then, it’s not your fault’. It’s interesting.

I think the misconception of what it means to be trans is still massively rife and it needs people to tell their stories. Now and again, people might know of a trans person and that person is then put on a separate pedestal – ‘they’re OK and I understand them but I don’t understand the rest’. So the more voices you have, the more that pool of people becomes bigger.

Maxine Blythin spoke to Sky Sports in November 2019, and discussed the transphobic abuse she has received

How was your experience of being part of Martina’s documentary?

I was a bit reluctant but I thought there’s nothing else out there and we’ve got an opportunity to put something positive in that space. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it, because it was made really quickly. They were suggesting experiments we could do but we had to explain it would constitute two years’ worth of work, it couldn’t just be pulled out of the bag in three days.

From the conversations we had with Martina off camera, I do think she learned a lot. The only thing I was disappointed with was that almost every trans person that was featured was a trans person pre hormones. I imagine some viewers were sitting at home saying ‘they shouldn’t be allowed to play’ because those people haven’t had any hormones which would have attenuated their performance.

That goes back to the general reluctance of trans women to tell their stories publicly, especially in sport, and be interviewed about it…

This is what’s often forgotten – that someone who is trans will have been struggling most likely for many years. Taking that decision to transition is massive, and coming out is massive too, let alone then trying to do that in a sporting area. That’s why we have such problems with mental health in the trans community. To think you’d do all that and you’re fine and then you’re going to decide to play on that team because you want to win… there’s so much more going on.

Stories about being trans in sport are tricky to communicate because it’s so complex, on so many levels. However, sport is such a positive experience for so many reasons and we want to encourage people to be active too.

The topic won’t go away but the media should strive to be more constructive in its approach. That can only benefit women’s sport, right?

When you’re looking at the elite level, you can still see the difference between men’s and women’s sport in terms of funding, sponsorship, and spectators. There are the silly things too – if you took female tennis players, the players that get the best sponsors still tend to be the prettiest ones, not necessarily the best players.

There are some quite vocal female athletes now, who are concerned about women’s sport. That’s understandable – it’s taken many years to get to where it is. But the misogyny around sport is much more of a problem than trans people in sport.

Thank you to Dr Gemma Witcomb for this Q&A. You can follow the Gender and Sport Centre for Doctoral Training at Loughborough University on Twitter at @LboroTGDSport, and see the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences webpage for more information and contact details.

If you’re interested in learning more about the work of Sports Media LGBT+ in helping trans and non-binary people access the media, please contact us here.

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