Mountain bike rider Kate Weatherly doesn’t shy away from media interviews about transgender athletes – even when she gets death threats. 

She’s bravely stuck her neck out over the ongoing debate about gender and sports, and she willingly talks about her own transition. 

But she says the latest discussion over swimming’s world governing body FINA’s decision to ban transgender athletes from the elite levels of women’s competition has triggered the worst response she’s experienced. 

“People are particularly concerned about the impact that people like me have on other women. They perceive transwomen as this group of people who have an unfair advantage over other women. 

“By us coming into sports we are taking career opportunities and results away from the people they perceive as real women.” 

Weatherly talks to The Detail about the personal attacks, her response to FINA’s move and why she believes decisions about transgender women competing should be made on a case-by-case basis, rather than a blanket decision for the entire sport. 

Under FINA’s new rules, transgender women are barred from elite female competition if they have experienced any part of male puberty. It says male-to-female transgender athletes can now only compete “provided they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 (which marks the start of physical development), or before age 12, whichever is later”. 

That means that US champion Lia Thomas and other transgender athletes are now banned from competing against women. FINA says it will develop a separate ‘open category’.  

International Rugby League has placed a ban until further research is done and other sporting bodies, including World Athletics and football’s FIFA, are now considering their policies. 

Waikato University Professor Holly Thorpe says fear and ignorance drive much of the debate and it’s not helped by the “exclusionary” decisions of organisations at the top level. 

“They say the science is evidencing that there’s an unfair advantage and actually the science does not conclusively show that at all,” says Thorpe, who researches and works with sporting organisations on equity and justice issues. 

“A lot of people connect with this idea that if you’ve got a biological male who goes through puberty and transitions, they’ve had the advantage of testosterone on the body during those teenage years and a lot of people go, ‘Oh yes that makes sense of course, men and women are different’. 

“But what we are not necessarily considering when we have that conversation is, what happens for the transgender woman as she goes through that transition process?” 

Thorpe says too much emphasis is placed on the benefits of one hormone, testosterone, without considering the trauma and disadvantages of transitioning. 

She says FINA’s policies are not a done deal and New Zealand has an opportunity to show leadership as its sports bodies consider the next steps. 

“It’s definitely an interesting moment and I’m not sure which way it’s going to go, but I know that there are a lot of people out there fighting really hard to rethink sport towards more inclusive models and that gives me hope.” 

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Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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