Protesting trans athletes isn’t about fairness or safety. It’s about transphobia

·7-min read

As it emerges that swimmers on the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s team are considering a boycott against their trans teammate, Lia Thomas, it’s worth remembering the long history of sports boycotts.

From sporting boycotts against South Africa during the apartheid era to Venus and Serena Williams boycotting a prestigious California tournament after crowds shouted racist chants, this form of protest is nearly as old as sport itself.

In fact, one of the earliest documented sports boycotts was in 332 BC, when the Greek city of Athens threatened to boycott the Olympics after allegations were made that one of its athletes was cheating by fixing matches.

Often, a sports boycott has a political or social point to make – like calling out racism – and aims to draw attention to an unfair situation. Sometimes boycotts are led by individual athletes, sometimes by governments – many countries boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in solidarity with Afghan citizens after Russia invaded Afghanistan, and Russia then boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games in retaliation.

As well as war, segregation and military invasions, human rights abuses have also led to protests, as happened in 2013 when human rights groups called for a boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics over Russia’s anti-LGBT+ “gay propaganda” law. The Commonwealth Games Federation is currently considering measures including boycotts of countries with anti-LGBT+ laws – often a remnant of British colonialism – as part of efforts to be more LGBT+ inclusive.

As can be seen in many of these instances, a sporting boycott is meant to shame or force a government or organising body into addressing an injustice. It’s a way of striking back against harm caused by a state’s actions. A boycott might be organised by those experiencing the injustice or harm, or by others standing in solidarity with that oppressed group. And although they don’t often achieve the intended result, a boycott can be a powerful symbol.

But sometimes, boycotts backfire, or those who join one inadvertently reveal more about themselves than about those they want to embarrass.

The latter happened earlier this year, when The Sun newspaper joined a social media boycott organised by football clubs against racist, xenophobic, homophobic and transphobic online abuse. Fans were quick to point out the paper’s hypocrisy, given it regularly writes inaccurate and sensationalist headlines about Black football players; publishes damaging, inflammatory rhetoric about migrants; and regularly misgenders and deadnames trans and non-binary people (sadly it has this in common with the majority of the British press).

Outside of sports, examples of boycotts backfiring frequently come via Mumsnet. In 2019, users of the forum infamously boycotted Flora to protest the margarine brand pulling advertising from Mumsnet over anti-trans content – leading to a surge in Flora’s stock price. The same year, Mumsnetters boycotted the Co-op supermarket for running an advert for strawberries featuring a trans woman; unfortunately, being offended by seeing a trans woman on their TV screens was not the moral high ground some seemed to think it was.

What was being protested against with the Co-op boycott was simply the presence of a trans woman in an advert. However, like the progression of the seasons or rain falling as snow when it’s cold enough, the existence of trans people is not an injustice – we are merely a fact of life.

As with protests against a trans woman in an advert, a similar theme is emerging this week with reports in the Daily Mail that several swimmers at the University of Pennsylvania want to boycott an 8 January event in protest at the competition’s inclusion of their own teammate, trans woman Lia Thomas.

The swimmers are apparently angry because Lia Thomas is winning races – and, like many Republican-backed anti-trans bills in multiple US states, the swimmers say this is about “fairness in women’s sports”. Lia is on their own team, so that seems odd, but the swimmers allegedly are worried about precious college scholarships. On this, they are on common ground with three Connecticut track athletes who filed a federal discrimination complaint against the inclusion of trans girls – saying they shouldn’t be allowed to compete in girls’ sports because it’s unfair, and is jeopardising cis girls chances of winning college scholarships. Their case was undermined somewhat when one of the cis girls bringing the lawsuit beat one of her trans opponents in a race, and a judge later threw the case out.

The UPenn swimmers reportedly abandoned the idea of boycotting the next swimming competition because “they’re afraid to be perceived as transphobic”. While the boycott is off, several swimmers are said to be planning other forms of protest, such as mass false starts or not swimming the event that Lia Thomas is scheduled to compete in.

While it’s often claimed that arguing against trans women in women’s sports is about “fairness”, trans women who compete can count on being protested against whether they win or lose.

Laurel Hubbard was the first openly trans woman to compete at the Olympics, 16 years after the rules changed to allow trans athletes.

The New Zealand weightlifter crashed out of the games with zero medals. Yet her inclusion in the Tokyo games had been fiercely protested against internationally, and the fact that she lost seemed to make no difference. Like Laurel, the majority of trans women athletes don’t win. But their presence is ferociously contested nonetheless.

Plenty of trans women – most trans women – don’t win. But whenever trans people – especially trans women – compete, they get protested against. Protesting the inclusion of trans people whether they win or lose suggests that it’s not about fairness or safety, but about cis people’s anxiety about trans people.

Trans and non-binary people, too, often organise boycotts. The Trans Writers Union in Ireland is currently encouraging people to join a boycott of the Irish Times, demanding the paper stop publishing anti-trans rhetoric and giving a platform to transphobes.

Bestselling trans author Shon Faye helped draw attention to this boycott when she refused an interview with the newspaper, but it’s otherwise flown mostly under the radar. This is because trans people are excluded from the media, as well as from politics, policymaking and positions of power.

When trans people organise a boycott, we do so from a position of no power and no platform. When your voice is so firmly excluded from the public space, a boycott can be the only avenue left to draw attention to a situation of injustice.

Trans people protesting against our own oppression – and asking people to join us – follows in a long tradition of resistance and protest, and is emphatically different to a sporting boycott against trans athletes. We have a word for people who protest against the existence of trans people: it’s transphobia. And it’s getting tiring.

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