50.50: Opinion

Patriarchy, not biology, disadvantages cis women in sport

Blaming trans women for the disadvantages faced by women in sport lets the real culprit off the hook

Maysa Pritilata
27 January 2023, 4.27pm

Whitehawk fans at the Emirates FA Cup second round match at the Chigwell Construction Stadium, Dagenham supporting LGBTIQ+ inclusion in football.


PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

During a grassroots women’s five-a-side football tournament recently, I was slammed into a metal wall by an opposing player. The same player later readily admitted that their team had been extra rough against our side, an all-trans squad, because she believed trans women were “stronger”. It was me who was in pain for the rest of the day, so I’d beg to differ.

The player approached us after the game, while we waited for our next match to begin. “I don’t know about trans,” she said, and proceeded to ask us a bunch of questions about whether we were allowed to play. One of our players explained the (invasive) FA rules which require trans women to submit their testosterone levels, which have to be below a certain point for us to be allowed to play at higher levels. She also explained that any advantage she had once had prior to taking gender-affirming hormones for several years has now been lost.

Anyone with an understanding of endocrinology (the branch of medicine relating to hormones) will know that people have diverse levels of different hormones. Sometimes a cis woman will have a higher testosterone level than a trans woman – but it’s only in rare cases (typically involving misogynoir) that cis women are expected to undergo invasive hormone checks such as these.

The other player still insisted that we had an unfair advantage. Even the science, explained to her upon request, didn’t change her mind – which is a perfect illustration of the disingenuousness of claims like these.

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Last year, trans women were banned from competing in elite rugby, swimming and cycling in the UK, on the basis of “safety concerns” and the idea that we have a natural “unfair advantage”. In football, FA regulations require trans players to pass hormone checks in order to compete in FA-regulated competitions.

Fae Fulconis, who plays for Hackney Women's FC, told openDemocracy: “I’m completely against hormone checks at any level, even pro. It’s rooted in patriarchal control over bodies.”

Fae was forced by FA regulations to change her medication before she could play for the women’s first team at Clapton CFC in east London. “The idea that men are better than women at sport due to testosterone levels or some birth thing, rather than access to facilities and training, is a very bio-essentalist argument,” she said. “[Women] have been marginalised for hundreds of years. There is a structural issue at heart.”

In the next FIFA World Cup, the most prestigious tournament in football, the winning team of the women’s tournament is expected to receive $4m in prize money whilst the winning men’s team received $42m in 2022. That’s more than ten times as much to spend on youth academies, scouts, coaches, equipment, physios, masseuses, nutritionists and anything else they think will improve the talent of football players in their country. Women – cis and trans – are disadvantaged by centuries of unequal levels of investment in gendered sport. That’s at the elite professional level, and for more than a century the levels below this have seen little to no support, which makes it less viable for women and girls to play football, either professionally or as a hobby. And that’s even before factoring in the additional demands imposed on women, many of whom are expected to perform unpaid reproductive labour.

This situation means that there is also a stigma that comes with playing football as a woman or girl due to patriarchal ideas about gender roles.

The trans women players on my team acknowledged that it was possible that they could have had an advantage over cis women players, but that this would be due to playing more as children or young adults prior to transitioning or ‘coming out’. It’s not due to some innate difference between people based on their assigned sex (i.e. natural superiority of people assigned male, which is an idea that originates in – you guessed it – patriarchy).

For me, and many other trans women who didn’t feel welcome or comfortable playing with boys after a certain age, even this wouldn’t apply. Prior to summer 2022, the last time I had played competitively was in an ungendered match for my primary school – where the best player by far was a cis girl in the year below me. The culture in secondary school was so toxic that I stopped even trying to play with the boys, and as an adult I thought I might never play again.

So why do we have the kind of arguments that I described at the start of this piece – arguments that, by the way, are rare at this level in my experience?

Cis women who do this nonsense towards trans women are not really concerned with advantage. The reason this happens on such a collective level is class consciousness – or, to be more specific, class anxiety. They recognise that, all other things being equal, they occupy a class position above trans women that gives them greater (sometimes even exclusive) access to resources and spaces, and want to maintain that class position at our expense – even where that means siding with the patriarchy. This is part of a wider phenomenon of transmisogyny, which is also what locks us out of housing, jobs in the formal economy, and access to gendered spaces.

Siding with the patriarchy, which oppresses women and people of marginalised genders, is not only going to delay women’s liberation and gender self-determination: it also actively harms cis women, too, especially cis women at the margins. Reactionary cis women will gladly throw Black cis women like Caster Samenya – who was told she would have to undergo hormone treatment if she wanted to defend her titles at the World Championship and Olympic Games – under the bus. If Samenya had agreed, the treatment was expected to have made her seven seconds slower over 800m. The difference between gold and silver in the last Olympics was 0.67 seconds. So much for fairness. Horrible conspiracy theories claiming that tennis superstar Serena Williams is a man show this same instinct at work.

A genuine concern for fairness for women (the majority of whom are non-trans) in sport would start with addressing the unequal allocation of resources towards the men’s and women’s games, not with a weird pseudo-scientific obsession with “biology”. Let’s stop letting patriarchy off the hook.

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