Levelling the field for transgender athletes

Nicola Slawson

Television personality and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner catapulted transgender issues into the mainstream. But it’s the new Olympic guidelines that are really impressing the trans community

There’s no denying that Olympic gold-winning decathlete Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner’s public transition raised the profile of transgender issues worldwide. But it was the January 2016 announcement that Olympic guidelines would be relaxed – meaning trans people will not need to have completed gender reassignment surgery before competing – that signals genuine change for trans athletes.

An openly trans person is yet to compete in the Olympics, but the buzz extends beyond the difference the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) guideline change makes at global level. That’s because it will have a knock-on effect for domestic sporting bodies. This is likely to mean that openly trans people will be able to take part in sports, the majority of which are genderdivided, both nationally and locally.

Sophie Green, an artist and trans activist, says: “The Olympics guidelines always trickle down, so we expect it will open up a lot of opportunities for people to play sports locally. We hope it will give trans people the confidence to get back to doing things they love.”

Green co-runs a website called Trans Girl Can, inspired by Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, and is passionate about the importance of sport and fitness. “Sport is such a great thing to do through transition as it’s very empowering and it’s great for mental health, which can be an issue.”

Green, who began transitioning in 2010, is determined to raise awareness of transgender issues. She says: “Growing up I didn’t know what trans meant or that there were other people like me, but now you have different people from across society finding their voice.”

Everyone should be able to do what they love without having to have surgery or special documents

With the charity, All About Trans, which aims to change the representation of trans people in media, Green facilitates workshops for clients such as the cast and crew of Hollyoaks – which welcomed its first transgender actress in November – and journalists and producers at the BBC. “Talking is so important. [Clients] don’t necessarily know how to get things right, so they often have questions about terminology or whether something may or may not be offensive.”

Green says the increase in positive portrayals and reportage in the media has led to a more vocal trans community. “It means that a lot of trans people now have the confidence in themselves to stand up and tell their stories. There’s a wave of people who want to get involved and make positive change.” Green believes the IOC’s decision is part of this momentum. “People in the trans community are getting quite animated about it,” she says. “It’s nice to have these little wins, they keep coming.”

However, there remains a long way to go. In November 2015, a transgender woman was found dead in her cell at an all-male prison after apparently taking her own life. Before her death, she had begged to be moved to a female facility.

Accessing healthcare can also be a struggle for trans people. Dr James Barrett, president of the British Association of Gender Identity Specialists, told the Women and Equalities Committee during a review in December 2015 that: “The casual, sometimes unthinking trans-phobia of primary care, accident and emergency services and inpatient surgical admissions continue[s] to be striking.” The resulting government report – the first to look solely at transgender rights in the UK – also explored mental health and social isolation. In 2014, PACE, a mental health charity for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, (which has since closed due to a lack of funding) found that 48 per cent of trans people under 26 had attempted suicide, while 59 per cent had considered doing so.

People from across society finding their voices

“The glamorous stories of trans celebrities are in stark contrast to the day-to-day experiences of many trans people”, says Conservative MP and the chair of parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller. She is calling for a sea-change in how trans people are supported within the NHS.

Progress came in October 2015 when the World Medical Association, which represents more than 10 million physicians worldwide, adopted new guidelines for trans patients, and recognised the key role doctors play in successful transition.

In the US, the picture is equally as patchy for trans athletes as it is for the general trans public. A high-profile battle is currently under way in cycling. Professional cyclocross racer Molly Cameron has long identified as a woman but is usually forced to compete in men’s competitions. She is currently fighting for sporting body USA Cycling to recognise trans people after she was barred from competing at all.

Jessica Gray, a UK cyclist, can empathise. She started cycling three years ago when she began to transition and competing has always been her ultimate goal. “Being unable to compete is really demoralising when you’ve got into a sport. For me, competing makes sport more fun and gives you a goal to work towards, so I was grinning from ear to ear when I heard the IOC’s news. I can’t wait to race.”

She believes positive role models in sport will inspire other trans people to get involved. “I think just seeing trans people openly taking part in sport, which is such a normal thing to do, will help the trans movement,” Gray says. “Everyone should be able to do what they love without having to have surgery or special documents. It’s a small step, but it’s a start.”


Natalie Washington is a 32-year-old IT service manager from Hampshire
She began transitioning two years ago. At the time she assumed she would have to give up football, but thanks to Rushmoor Community FC and some very welcoming team mates, she joined the women’s team last summer. She hopes to start playing competitively soon.

Natalie Washington at the match between Alton FC and Rushmoor, the latter team she plays for. Natialie is currently in a battle with the FA to get permission to play.


I started playing football as a teenager and in a way, at first, I was making myself like it. When you’re that age and you’re trying to be accepted, you want to have things in common with your peers. I guess it’s also part of the trans experience to try and fit in.

But later on when I was a young adult, my friends and I started up a men’s Sunday league team. It was competitive but fun. It was how my friends and I bonded. Football became really important to me.

I was nearly 30 when I made the decision to start transitioning. At the time, the FA rules said that to play football as a trans woman, you had to be at least two years post-gender reassignment surgery. I knew that would be some time. The waiting lists for the surgery meant it wouldn’t be until my late 30s that I could play football again and I thought it would be too difficult socially to join a women’s team as a trans woman. I didn’t think people would be accepting.

I just thought football would be one of the things I would have to give up. Most of those who are transitioning seem to have to sacrifice something, and people have to give up a lot more than football – their families, for example. Of course, I could have carried on playing men’s football after transition, but I tried playing men’s Sunday morning football in Aldershot with long hair, shaved legs and painted nails and it was not a comfortable experience.

Natalie Washington at the match between Alton FC and Rushmoor, the latter team she plays for. Natialie is currently in a battle with the FA to get permission to play.

But in July last year, I decided to contact a local women’s team to ask if it would be OK to join. They didn’t have any problem with it. Going into any new situation, especially as I’ve only been out as a trans woman for just over 18 months, is scary though. I was nervous going to the first training session because I didn’t know how people were going to react. But I don’t mind talking about being transgender and answering questions, so that helped.

I now train with the team once a week on a Tuesday and then games – we’re in Hampshire County Women’s Division One – are usually Sunday afternoons. Social isolation is a problem for many trans people. Before I started playing football again, I would just go to work and go home, so being in the team has really helped in that regard too because we socialise together and I’ve made good friends.

The only sticking point is that I haven’t been able to play any competitive matches. Under the FA’s new rules, trans women can compete as long as the amount of testosterone in their blood is under a certain level. My hormones are now under that level, but I’ve just been told I can only compete if they stay under for a whole year. It’s quite upsetting as I thought I would be able to compete right away. I actually meet the criteria to compete in the Olympics, but not the ones the FA seem to be working to. I hope they change their decision, but for now it looks like I’ll just be watching from the sidelines.

Hopefully the IOC’s decision as well as the mention of sports in the government’s Women and Equalities Committee report will help others like me. If trans people at a more elite level can now participate in sport, then it seems silly that people at a lower level can’t as well.

Natalie Washington at the match between Alton FC and Rushmoor, the latter team she plays for. Natialie is currently in a battle with the FA to get permission to play.


Photography by Alexander Walker

  • Posie Parker

    Yay, this is great. Born males who have lived as women for a very short time taking women’s space in sports….. because women do really have the monopoly. I guess the upside is that in some countries women are still not allowed to play or watch sport and so there’s no space to steal. This is a horrific development for women, women who have spent their lives dreaming of top sporting places would now lose out to biological males, who I assume will wish to change with women? Then there’s the American college campuses where much older late transitioners are taking young women’s places in sports teams. How is this a good thing? Why are transwomen demanding to take women’s places, it’s such a male thing to do. No empathy for robbing girl’s dreams at all.

  • Tom Hall

    Posie, trans women aren’t biological men, they are trans women and women. Women are more than capable of holding onto places in sports teams and creating others if there is competition. In the UK for example women’s registration with the Football Association grew from just 6000 to 250 000 in a mere ten years from 2000-2010. I coached women’s football then and new teams emerged all the time. And I think it discredits the women’s game to say that these women would be easily threatened by a trans woman. And Women would not welcome trans women to their teams if they didn’t want to. I think if we unify and try to help each other out the world is always better. This article is extremely positive and uplifting and I fully support trans people in mainstream sport

  • Ruth

    I play tennis with a group, one of whom is a woman who used to be a man. In no way shape or form are any of the women in our group remotely able to compete with her in terms of muscle strength, and some of us are very strong athletic women. This isn’t a rule, of course, many trans women are naturally effeminate. However, the hormones that cause male development increase bone and muscle density, and these people will always be strong, when living a healthy life. It isn’t a level playing field. In a way, it would be fairer to have many more lanes, all competitors run together, and the winners in each ‘group’ be the first of that group to cross the line- women, men, trans-women, trans-men, but of course, that would be complex, and gendered traits are something of a continuum… the inference is that it can never be really fair- only people with the same bone and muscle mass should be allowed to run against each other. Well, that’s just silly. Sport is a lot more than winning, but trans-women shouldn’t be competing against lifelong women. That isn’t fair. They aren’t biologically the same. It isn’t going to happen the other way round, so the first comment is absolutely correct. This is a shit outcome for female athletes. The one thing that people who were born male but feel female have always had available and open to them, is to achieve as men in the world of sport. They choose to give that up. Tough. Life as a woman IS tough. It shouldn’t be, but transitioning to being female shouldn’t involve making life less fair for other women.

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