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Discourse surrounding transgender people in sport is not a new topic of conversation. But the problem with these debates is that the majority aren’t coming from fellow athletes, but outside observers. Thankfully, it seems sports governing bodies for higher education are trying to give all students a fair opportunity to compete. They’re doing this by ensuring that alongside scientific guidelines for participation, their transgender policies mention commitments to equal opportunity and ensured safety.
Student athlete Sophia Cathcart was nervous to start playing rugby again after transitioning from male to female as she was, and still is, early on in her transition. She says that thanks to the positivity of university competitions, she has been welcomed back into her sport with open arms. Sophia discusses her experience as a transgender student athlete with PRUDE.
“It’s been nothing but positive, which I know isn’t the case for everyone,” says 23-year old Sophia, a second year student at the University of Roehampton in South West London. “Whilst the news is currently focused on America, we still have a parallel of transphobia here, which is really frustrating.”
Last week Lia Thomas, a swimmer for the University of Pennsylvania, reignited a debate about women’s sport, and eligibility for trans athletes. This is because Florida governor Ron DeSantis – the same governor who signed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill into law on Monday – refused to recognise Thomas as the winner of the NCAA’s (the National Collegiate Athletic Association, that governs inter-college sport in the USA) women’s 500-yard freestyle event.
It seems that colleges and universities on both sides of the Atlantic are striving for equal opportunities in sport. The post-competition treatment of Lia Thomas is nothing to do with the NCAA, whose Board of Governors in fact updated the participation policy for transgender athletes this January. They voted for a ‘sport-by-sport’ approach to deciding rules around trans athletes in order to “preserve opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete”.
Inclusivity seems to be a core component in the UK, too, as Sophia explained that everybody was welcoming at her first game of rugby in the women’s league.
“I played Rugby for about 10 years, then I stopped playing the men’s game when I got to 18. Since I’ve come out, I’ve decided to go back to sport, but I was really unsure about university rugby. Thankfully, competitive university sports are trying to be inclusive.”
There seems to be no transphobia on the playing field, as Sophia says – despite her nerves – nobody had any issues with her participation. “The opposition had no issues. The captain spoke to the referees, who spoke to the opposition, and nobody had any problems. So I played the whole game and it was the first I had played in five years, it was amazing.”
The UK’s equivalent of the NCAA is BUCS (British University and College Sports). BUCS’ transgender policy states: “Transgender students should have equal opportunity to participate in sport and physical activity at university.”
Speaking out on Lia Thomas, Sophia, who is an avid American sports fan, said the decision was “disgraceful” because Lia followed all legalities required to participate. She also said: “Everybody is making out like her win was astronomical. She won by 1.75 seconds, and it wasn’t even an NCAA record.”
The current record for the 500-yard freestyle event is 4:24.06, almost 10 seconds faster than Thomas’ 4:33:82, yet Ron DeSantis said that Lia’s achievement “undermined the integrity of the competition”.
Sophia says it’s unfair that Lia Thomas has been stripped of her victory because of other people’s transphobia: “Most of the men making these claims [that Thomas is ruining women’s sport] have never watched women’s sport in their entire lives. It’s their way of saying ‘we don’t understand this’ so they’re pinning whatever they can on her to take away her victory, and it upsets me because you can see that transphobia is quite apparent.”
The cliché goes that sport should be for all. Yet, even though Lia Thomas complied with every single rule in place, she is still being shamed for winning. Do people have genuine reason for complaining that she is making a “mockery” of women’s sport, or is sport being made a mockery of by people using it as an outlet for masking transphobia? Thankfully, it seems that higher education institutions are helping to give people of all backgrounds the opportunity to participate in physical activity – a requisite to lead a healthier life. But as Sophia says, “Whilst we’ve come a fair way, we haven’t come far enough.”
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