By Bernard Lane, the Australian
Australia’s peak sport agency has been rebuked for being evasive, dismissive and insulting to women after it failed to answer basic questions about the effect of transgender players on female sport.
Sport Australia’s acting chief executive Rob Dalton said in a parliamentary hearing he “didn’t have an opinion” when asked if allowing biological males in female sport would put off young girls.
The government agency refuses to say who was consulted over a contentious pro-trans guideline which urges more than 16,000 sporting clubs covering nine million players to reorganise on the basis of self-identified “gender identity”, and not biological sex.
The document plays down the edge that testosterone gives males, and sets a high hurdle for sporting bodies which might consider relying on a “strength, stamina and physique” exemption in anti-discrimination law supposed to protect single-sex sport for women and girls.
The guideline stresses the risk of legal actions that can lead to uncapped compensation damages under federal anti-discrimination law, uses the word “unlawful” 40 times, warns that reliance on its advice will not protect clubs from a successful complaint, and urges them to get their own legal advice.
In a sharply worded letter to Mr Dalton last week, Liberal Senator Claire Chandler said the trans issue had “major implications for women and girls and their engagement in sport” and the agency’s stone-walling of her questions in a Senate estimates hearing was “evasive, dismissive and insulting”.
On Friday Sport Minister Richard Colbeck put distance between the government and the taxpayer-funded guidelines, saying he knew nothing about them until he took over the portfolio in May 2019 and stressing they “were not launched by the government”.
“While generally the government wants to see all Australians have the opportunity to participate in sport, it is important that the integrity of women’s sport is maintained,” he told The Australian.
Senator Colbeck also contradicted the Sport Australia line that the term “women’s sport” had passed its use-by date now that society supposedly recognised more than two genders.
“Minister Colbeck does not agree that the term ‘women’s sport’ should no longer be used,” his spokesman said.
In her letter Senator Chandler said Sport Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission — which ran the consultation — had “refused on multiple occasions” to say which outside organisations were allowed to influence the document.
The commission led the drafting of the guideline with a “review panel” of unidentified third parties. The guidelines cost at least $20,000 in direct public funding.
Athlete Tamsyn Lewis, who represented Australia at three Olympic games, said she understood “the importance of inclusion” but the issues had to be openly discussed so that careful decisions could bring about a fair outcome.
“The category of female (sport) has been around for so long, and it’s been there for a reason,” she said.
Few women in sport will go public on this issue. Sceptics of self-identified trans risk being attacked as “transphobic” at a time of “cancel culture”.
“When you look at the online abuse that JK Rowling has received in the last week (over biological sex and trans) you can understand why female athletes might feel hesitant to speak out on this,” Senator Chandler told The Australian.
She said trans inclusion had to be approached in a way that protected the interests of female players, and the government’s top sport officials should “go back and have another go”.
The human rights commission said its consultation for the trans guideline was “targeted, respectful and confidential”, and more than 100 bodies had input, including a single unnamed women’s group involved in “sport advocacy”.
Women Sport Australia, which bills itself as “the peak national advocacy body for women in sport”, deflected questions from The Australian, saying it “doesn’t comment” on the guideline issue, and refused to say if it was involved.
Sport Australia’s first female chief executive Kate Palmer — who took part in the launch of the June 2019 guideline at Junction Oval in St Kilda — has said there was “no longer a place” for women’s sport as a sub-category, “especially now that, as a society, we recognise there are more than two genders”.
Asked how many genders there were, Sport Australia said it was “not appropriate” to answer.
A spokesman for the agency said Ms Palmer was just making the point that the term “women’s sport” implied it was somehow lesser than sport at large.
“Rather than use the term ‘women’s sport’, Sport Australia prefers to focus on growing the presence and influence of women in sport,” he said.
In her foreword to the guidelines Ms Palmer stressed the importance of “inclusive sport”, claiming “research among gender diverse young people tells us that mental health and wellbeing concerns for this group are substantial”.
The only study she cited dealt with “homophobic bullying” in sport and involved an anonymous Facebook survey promoted in activist circles, such as the Safe Schools Coalition.
The Victoria University study “unexpectedly” ended up with 137 heterosexuals among the 563 survey participants, and had only 9 trans people and 12 “gender queer”.
Asked in Senate estimates if Sport Australia agreed that women’s sport was intended for biological females, Mr Dalton said: “I’m not specifically aware of what our policy is on that”.
Sport Australia later explained the agency does not define the term “woman”.
This is consistent with 2013 changes to the Sex Discrimination Act — when Julia Gillard was prime minister — removing definitions of “women” and “men” from the statute, and adding self-identified “gender identity”, floating free from biological sex, as a ground for human rights complaints.
In estimates, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins explained that “historically” sport had been based on a male-female “binary” but now there was “a new conversation” about “inclusion”.
The Sport Australia spokesman said the trans guidelines were “not mandatory rules” but a response to “sports reaching out for guidance” on how to comply with federal anti-discrimination law.
“The guidelines advise sports on how to implement their own inclusion policies,” he said.
“Lina”, a promising 15-year-old state-level soccer player who has competed with boys since the age of six, said she could no longer match males on the pitch.
“Everything is pretty equal up until puberty, that’s when guys shoot up, grow taller, stronger faster — they’re outrunning us, outdoing us physically, bigger lungs, hearts, muscles,” she said.
“Being on the field and possibly getting injured by a biological male, obviously that’s a concern.
“If we step wrong after they’ve pushed us or nudged us the slightest bit, it’s going to be a long road to recovery if we do our ACL.”
Partly because of biomechanics, females have a significantly higher risk of injury to the anterior cruciate ligament.
Lina, whose ambition might one day see her competing with biological males for an American university sport scholarship, said she was aware she risked being falsely accused of “transphobia” but was simply taking a stand against unfair play.
“It would dishearten me, because of everything I’ve worked for, everything I’ve been pushing myself to strive for,” she said.
“And for a biological male to take that from me when it’s specifically a women’s team, it would dishearten me, if opportunities were taken away from me.”
Lina is a pseudonym used to protect her privacy.
Ms Lewis said the junior pathway into elite female sport should not be overlooked.
“The reason why I continued on in sport, to get to the top level, was because I was good at the junior level, so you still want to make sure that the female category is protected in some way so that you’re not making it unfair,” she said.
In May 2016 Australia’s (under strength) women’s soccer team, the Matildas, was beaten 7-0 in a friendly game with a NSW regional boys’ team of under-18s, and commentators pointed out this was just testosterone in action and no shame for the Matildas.
“As the young men start to have more testosterone through their bodies of course they’re going to be a lot quicker and stronger than women, it’s silly to think otherwise,” former Matildas’ team manager Sarah Groube said at the time.