Tennis ‘badly needs consistent policies for trans players’ in top pro events
OPINION: Earlier this year, Martina Navratilova, a much-lauded lesbian role model, caused a media storm with her remarks on transgender athletes, saying: “It’s insane and it’s cheating.”
She was referring to the fact that transwomen players on the women’s tennis tour aren’t required to undergo gender reassignment surgery, but simply to reduce their testosterone levels by taking hormone therapy.
Athlete Ally, an organisation which promotes LGBT rights promptly sacked her as ambassador, accusing her of being transphobic.
On the tennis circuit, the WTA transgender policy states that for a trans woman to be eligible to play on the women’s tour, her testosterone levels must be below 10 nmol/L (nanamoles per litre) which is pretty high considering the average cis-woman’s levels are below 2 nmol/L.
Strangely, the ITF (who run the Grand Slams) policy, is that levels should be below 5 nmol/l which would mean that a transgender woman whose levels are 7 nmol/l, for instance, would be allowed to play on the women’s tour but not in the Slams.
I contacted a senior manager in the communications department at the WTA about this potentially-embarrassing anomaly and he replied that he would “get back to me with a detailed explanation”. I am still awaiting that explanation.
I also contacted the senior communications coordinator at the ITF, pointing out the differing policies. He simply riposted each time I repeated the question with “What’s your hope?”, which seemed a rather strange response, so again, I received no explanation.
A recent documentary was aired on the BBC featuring a contrite Navratilova, in her search to understand the question of transathletes a little better. One has to applaud her but by the end of it, she appeared somewhat bemused but still appeared to stick by her theory that a male-to-female athlete still had a significant advantage over cis-women.
But was Navratilova so wrong in what she said?
The average female testosterone levels are below 2 nmol/l and the average male is between 10 and 35.
I spoke to Mary Burke, senior clinical nurse at the London Transgender Clinic about differences in sporting prowess in terms of those T-levels and she told me “I have several male-to-female (m/f) patients who compete in local sports events. One of them has had a T-level of 0.6 for the past 2 years and yet she has a huge advantage over natal females.
“Because she was born male, she has a far higher skeletal muscle mass which gives her more strength, which is even the case where trans women have had gender reassignment surgery.
“If you give a f/m hormone therapy, they can put on between 2.5 and 4 kg of muscle. If you give a natal male oestrogen, and even T- blockers, they never lose as much muscle.”
The whole gender identity question is a minefield, but the tennis community and, indeed other sports, badly need to put consistent policies in place.
According to the Transathlete website, boxing, athletics and golf require surgery – i.e. the athlete must have fully transitioned.
The UK Rugby Football policy is, forgive the pun, “in a transition phase at the moment”, but they state that they are working to bring it in line with Olympic Games policy, which is 10 nmol/l.
USA powerlifting has a total ban on transgender women competing.
It would seem logical for all Olympic-qualifying sports to follow the Olympic policy within their own federations, so it would be even across the board. But it would also seem logical for the Olympics to lower the required level to well below their current requirement of 10 nmol/l.
As Navratilova said the other night: “I’m not against transgender people. I’m for fairness.”
* Katrina Allen is a former Junior Wimbledon player and former world number one at the original game of Royal Tennis.