Is cricket's transgender ban fair?

Cricket is the latest sport to ban transgender athletes, citing "safety and fairness", but transgender researcher Joanna Harper thinks the decision is based on "wrong science"

Trans women now have no chance to compete at the international level after the ICC's new ruling (photo: DW)
Trans women now have no chance to compete at the international level after the ICC's new ruling (photo: DW)
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DW

The International Cricket Council (ICC) recently made changes to its gender eligibility regulations for international cricket, effectively banning transgender women. The decision follows similar rulings by governing bodies in swimming, rugby league, cycling and athletics.

This was seemingly sparked by the presence of trans woman Danielle McGahey, who played six T20 internationals for Canada, scoring 118 runs.

Loughborough University researcher, author and athlete Joanna Harper believes the ICC "got scared and overreacted" and that its decision makes its perspective clear.

"I believe that trans women are a subcategory of all women, but there are others who think that trans women are really men invading women's sports, and if you believe that, then each successful trans woman becomes an affront," Harper tells DW.

"There's little doubt that the majority of the people making this decision do not view trans women as a subcategory of all women and I think that's really unfortunate."

Need for evidence

Harper says the physiological differences between trans women and cis women should be considered in sport and that if those differences were such that trans women were dominating, then something should be done about it. However, for that to become the case, trans women would have to be involved first.

The quickest bowlers in women's international cricket bowl at about 130 kmph (photo: DW)
The quickest bowlers in women's international cricket bowl at about 130 kmph (photo: DW)

"Any human being who goes through a testosterone fueled; masculinising puberty gains a very substantial advantage over anyone who doesn't. There are lots of papers on that," Harper says.

"What isn't well established at all is how many of those advantages are taken away when someone medically transitions from being a male athlete to being a female athlete. And so when people say they use the science, that's what they mean. They're just assuming that trans women perform like men. And trans women don't perform athletically like men. So they're using science, but the wrong science."

An ICC spokesperson told DW that "the ICC is not assuming that trans women perform athletically like men. Instead, the principles approved are what the ICC considers are necessary to protect the integrity of the women's game and address the concerns over safety and fairness."

Fast bowling is likely one of those safety concerns. It is worth noting that the top bowling speeds in the women's game peak at about 130 kilometers per hour. To consistently bowl faster than that is an elite skill for any cis man.

Only a small number of professional cricketers can do so, and the chances that inside the small population of transgender people — roughly one percent of the world population is transgender — who have gone through gender-affirming treatment could consistently bowl faster appear miniscule. Given trans women are underrepresented in cricket — McGahey is the only one on record in the history of the international game — there also isn't enough data currently to provide clarity.


Trickle-down effect

Individual countries are allowed their own domestic policies, but Harper believes the rulings will still have a trickle-down effect on the grassroots game. A trans woman playing domestic cricket in England, who asked to stay anonymous over concerns of a backlash regarding her comments, confirmed as much to DW.

"Cricket is a team sport and has largely felt safe and inclusive to me, but when these kinds of decisions are made to exclude a certain group of people, everything feels unsure and unwelcoming. Cricket has always been my escape but it doesn't feel that way today," she said.

"It's also noticeable to me, on social media but also within cricket circles, that once the announcement was made, other people — who, in my opinion, are bigoted — felt more empowered to vocalize how they really feel about transgender females. It is so often that tired trope of, 'I do not mean you, but just imagine how much our sport and women's sport will be destroyed if transgender players are allowed to take over every women's team.'

"I am used to being abused for who I am, but it is devastating that the governing body overseeing the sport I love has helped to open up a whole area of abuse from people who previously were not so vocal — just through a ruling they made."

Both the player and Harper questioned whether the ICC had adequately consulted the transgender community, though an ICC spokesperson confirmed to DW that the organization had indeed contacted members of that community.

Legal battle

After the news, McGahey posted on Instagram saying that although her career was over, she would not stop fighting for transgender inclusion in women's sport.

Harper believes McGahey's decision to fight this will likely mean a visit to the Court of Arbitration (CAS) for sport.

"It is my belief that we are already going to see a couple of cases in 2024 of trans women before CAS in different sports," Harper tells DW.

"The court has made it very, very clear that if you are excluding, then the burden of proof falls on the organization," Harper, who was part of the Caster Semenya case with World Athletics, explains.

"The cases haven't happened yet, but I think they will, and it is difficult to imagine that the governing bodies can meet this [burden of proof]. They will certainly try to, using the overwhelming evidence to suggest that men don't belong in women's sports, which, absolutely, I accept.

"But trans women don't perform athletically like men. And so then where do the sport's governing bodies go?"

In two years, the regulations will be reviewed. An ICC spokesperson confirmed to DW that when that review process occurs, "consideration will be given to whether there is another option that could be taken going forward which assesses (in a fair, equitable and valid way) an individual participant's compatibility with the women's game."

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