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Is enough being done to remove unfair obstacles to transsexual people playing football?

Progress on their participation is being made – but not quickly enough.

Aeris Houlihan speaking about her dispute with her local team on YouTube.
Aeris Houlihan speaking about her dispute with her local football team on YouTube.

This week, two stories have broken about transsexual people and sports. The first was the Daily Mail’s report on transsexual woman Aeris Houlihan not being allowed to play for her local women’s football team despite her GP’s letter stating that her oestrogen levels are within the typical female range after eight months of hormone replacement therapy, and being backed by her club. The second is that the Sports Council Equality Group’s guidance for partner agencies on Transsexual People and Sports, has been published, challenging the consensus that surgical status should determine the gender under which transsexual people are allowed to compete.

Besides the shock of seeing the Mail report take a trans person’s side in any sort of dispute, it was interesting to note that it focused on her blood hormone levels as the critical factor. (The Mail’s mention of Houlihan holding a female driving license and passport is a red herring: these need to be altered after changing name by deed poll, something that many transsexual people do before getting hormone prescriptions via their Gender Identity Clinic, as the GICs often stipulate this as a requirement.)

For domestic competitions, many British sporting bodies, including the Football Association, use the International Olympic Committee’s guidelines of 2004, known as the Stockholm Consensus. This states that transsexual people must be able to verify levels within the appropriate male or female range after 24 months of hormone therapy, as well as having legal gender recognition and having sex reassignment surgery at least two years prior to participation. The Sports Council argue that surgery is not always possible or desirable, and has no bearing on strength or stamina. Nor does the acquisition of a Gender Recognition Certificate, with the expense, the evidence needed to persuade the Gender Recognition Panel to grant one and the legal necessity of dissolving existing marriages or civil partnerships often presenting barriers to this.

Delia Johnston, who worked as an ambassador for LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralymic Games) and with the Football Association, helped to produce the Sports Council document.

“There are a number of people playing successfully under the current guidelines”, says Johnston, pointing out that Houlihan does not meet the current requirements, but would be eligible to play in competitive matches with her team under the Sports Council’s criteria. These recommend that transsexual women ‘may compete in [their] affirmed gender in female or mixed-sex domestic competition on providing evidence that her hormone therapy has brought her blood-measured testosterone levels within the range or her affirmed gender, or that she has had a gonadectomy’. (The guidance on transsexual men in contact sport is similar.) The Mail doesn’t mention testosterone levels: Johnston states that although there will be arguments about whatever criteria is used, this are the best way to ensure that transsexual women do not have any legacy of historical advantage: “After a year or more of hormones, testosterone levels drop massively, so the new guidelines are fair and balanced.”

Lou Englefield of Pride Sports, who support LGBT clubs and work towards wider inclusion, said that “I understand that the FA’s policy is under review and that a public-facing document is likely to be available in the new year. I also understand that the FA will undertake individual assessments of players, and decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.” Englefield added that the FA has not yet clarified whether or not Houlihan will be able to play competitive women’s football under their new legislation.

There have been a few high-profile cases of transsexual people in sports – mostly those wanting to enter women’s competitions, where it has been argued that they will have an unfair genetic advantage. In no instance have these women dominated their field, however, and the numbers in football are low: writing for In Bed with Maradona in 2011, Chris Ledger named 47-year-old Martine Delaney, playing in the Tasmanian League, as the most prominent. Since then, Jaiyah Saelua made headlines as one of Samoa’s third gender fa’afafine community and the first transgender person to play in the World Cup – for American Samoa’s men’s team, as they won a competitive match for the first time.

The odds are stacked against transsexual women becoming top-level female footballers – many do not transition before their physical peak in their mid-twenties, and the masculine norms of men’s football may dissuade them from playing regularly enough to reach a high standard beforehand, with the problems around gendered changing rooms providing a further obstacle to maintaining fitness. The removal of the IOC’s surgical and legal requirements makes matters easier for those who want to compete at any level, and the possibility of individual assessments is also welcome: soon, Houlihan will be able to play, and the unfair disadvantages faced by transsexual people will be significantly reduced.