Nadine Dorries offers the illusion of easy choices while trans athletes pay the price

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Nadine Dorries cares. Nadine Dorries just wants to help. Nadine Dorries is making the pinched, sympathetic face she makes when she is doing something that pains her deeply but nonetheless needs to be done, like abolishing the BBC or selling off the colour red. “In a choice between inclusivity and fairness, as culture secretary I will always choose fairness,” Dorries writes in the Mail on Sunday. “So I’m setting a very clear line on this: competitive women’s sport must be reserved for people born of the female sex. I want all our sporting governing bodies to follow that policy.”

Nadine Dorries chooses fairness. Nadine Dorries has a very clear line. One of the most squalid aspects of this entire discourse is the way it has been essentially condensed to a game of political slogans. “Inclusion versus fairness.” “Follow the science.” Comforting, catchy bromides that offer the illusion of clarity, of easy choices and easy binaries.

Related: Decision time: why sport is struggling to deal with transgender row | Sean Ingle

On Tuesday Dorries will meet the governing bodies of several major British sports and tell them to follow Fina’s lead in instituting an indefinite ban on all transgender athletes from competing in women’s swimming competitions. International rugby league has already acted. Sebastian Coe quickly hinted that World Athletics would be next. Now Dorries wants a UK-wide ban, across all sports, immediately.

Why the rush? And – given that no trans athlete has ever represented Team GB and the number of trans women in elite sport remains tiny – why now? Perhaps the unseemly haste offers a clue as to the true function of the powerful anti-trans movement: one that claims to be run on “science” and “fairness” but is driven in large part by identity, prejudice and a wish-list that extends far beyond swimming or judo.

Let’s start with the science. There are around a dozen studies indicating that a limited sample of trans women who have undergone male puberty retain some physical advantages over natal females. That is “the science”. All of it. Things it is: peer-reviewed, persuasive, evidence of the need for a certain regulatory framework in most sports, particularly contact sports. Things it is not: extensive, beyond challenge, equally applicable across all sports at all levels, a one-stop manual for blanket bans, the words of the literal Bible. Nor is it remotely capable of bearing the torrent of slurs and scaremongering that has been carried out in its name.

Other sciences are, of course, available. Shall we cite any of the numerous studies on the effect of socioeconomics or mental health on performance? (Trans people are significantly more likely to be in poverty or unemployed, disproportionately affected by depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.) Or how about quantifying the effect of – let’s say – spending years in a body you do not want, undergoing often painful and traumatic transition, being demonised for simply existing and living under the daily threat of harm? Shall we run the numbers on that, guys? The wrong kind of science? Too much science?

For trans athletes this is a deliberately hostile landscape, deriving from the basic bad-faith presumption that the trans person can never be who they say they are. They must be framed as aggressors, frauds, cheats, violators. They must be subjected to snide jokes and base insults about genitalia. These are not the hallmarks of a rational, evidence-based agenda. Rather, they are the tell of a cause that – for all those on both sides of the debate who genuinely repudiate the above – has long been hijacked by a dangerous political fringe, preoccupied by fear and control, power and opportunism.

Of course, the real fallacy is that sport – this wonderful, organic, mercurial, unpredictable thing – can be reduced to a simple bodily function, that women are nothing more than a pile of cells and chemicals. You put x body in, you get y result out. And you wonder if any of the right-wing politicians and newspaper columnists who have so abruptly flocked to the cause of women’s sport have the first idea about how it really works, about the millions of variables that can influence a given sporting performance on a given day, about the vast differences between sports.

And so we turn to fairness. And above all the touchingly simplistic idea that there is this mythical level playing field delineated solely by biological sex and – this part is important – nothing else. Structural, systematic, irreversible advantage is the very stuff of sport. Socio-economics, geography, opportunity, family support, big countries playing small countries, left-handers in fencing and cricket. None of these disparities is deemed intolerable or beyond the pale. Nor do any of them seem to overly exercise American neo-Nazis.

Related: Here’s the result of the trans swimming ban: strife, with a big role for sports lawyers | Robin Moira White

So why now? Well, the political weather is shifting. Zealots on both sides of the Atlantic have long been poking and stoking the issue of trans rights, pressuring legislators, using their media platforms to drum up support. Naturally, there are risks. Further scientific research may emerge. A few more trans women may filter into elite sport and the world may not, in fact, stop turning. People might even quite enjoy it. Best to pull up the drawbridge right now.

And then what? Once the trans women have been purged from sport, does all that energy and toxicity simply evaporate? Or does it move on to the next target, push the window a little further? Many of the arguments being used against trans women from sport can easily be repurposed to ban them from gyms, swimming pools, classrooms, medical settings, the military. A recent bill in the Republican-controlled Ohio state legislature called the “Save Women’s Sport Act” could force teenage girls to undergo an invasive genital examination to prove they are not trans. Meanwhile 375 trans people were murdered in 2021. Anyone else think this ends with the 100m freestyle?