This week has seen two historical LGBT firsts in Sport, but both are receiving completely opposing reactions. Today it was announced in America that Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib has become the first active NFL player to come out as gay. The vast majority of the reaction has been incredibly supportive and quite rightly full of praise, and this truly historic event in LGBT participation in sport will hopefully pave the way for far more inclusivity and gay acceptance within team sports.
The second announcement was the news that Transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbert has been officially selected to represent New Zealand in the Tokyo Olympics – this announcement is therefore no less historic in terms of LGBT Sport, but let’s just say that this news has not been received with the same level of inclusivity or acceptance.
Whilst many are throwing their hands in the air in horror proclaiming ‘the end of the world as we know it’, the reality is far less dramatic but nonetheless still highly significant – Laurel has made history by being the first ever Transgender athlete to qualify to compete in any Olympic Games and the fact that it has taken 9 Olympics spanning 18 years since 2003 from when Trans Women were first accepted for qualification in Women’s Sport is highly significant. Far from joining a cascade of Trans Women who are ‘dominating women’s sport’ (as so widely claimed), Laurel is likely to be a lone Transgender Women to finally participate in an Olympic Games which shows how difficult it is for Transgender Women athletes to compete at the highest level with Cisgender Women. It’s really difficult to dominate if you can’t even qualify!
The critics (fuelled by disgraceful transphobia) will look at the photos of Laurel and make glaring judgements on her and her sporting ability based purely on how she looks. So guess what, I’m going to look at actual facts.
FACTS. EVIDENCE. TRUTH.
These are all words that apply to Sport. As avid sports fans we love to discuss who we believe to be the best – who has scored the most goals, run the fastest 100m, or won the most gold medals. To help establish who was the ‘best’ we can easily find facts recorded online that we can use as evidence to back our own elected champions – you can’t make up records that do not exist, so the truth is always out there. Not even Peter Crouch himself with 22 International goals would claim he was England’s greatest ever goal scorer, as the records clearly show that Wayne Rooney tops the table with 120 goals. Facts, Evidence, Truth.
But for some inexplicable reason, this basic logic of using facts is completely ignored when it comes to the whole issue of evaluating Trans Women in Sport.
So what are the facts that apply to Laurel Hubbard – I have seen it claimed that Laurel ‘never achieved any success when competing as a Man yet now ‘smashes records’ in Women’s events’. The FACTS are that at junior level, before her gender transition, she did have a successful career in weightlifting. She set national records in junior competition and at 20 recorded a best, combined snatch and clean and jerk total of 300kg. However in 2001, aged just 23, Hubbard quit the sport as the pressure of living as a man had reportedly became too much – and this highlights an issue that so many ignore. To achieve sporting excellence and reach full potential, an individual must have a totally focused mind with full commitment to succeed. Gender Dysphoria is far from an ideal condition in enabling this to happen. We can only speculate on the impact that gender dysphoria can have on an athlete, so even comparing pre and post transition achievements can give a skewed perspective.
Having undergone her transition, and clearly being in a far better mental state of mind to contemplate top level sport, Laurel set about her entry back into sporting competition. The current IOC eligibility rules, developed in 2015, are based on two fundamental criteria. The first is that an athlete must have declared that their gender identity is female, with this declaration unabled to then be changed for a minimum of four years. The second is that, for a 12-month period leading into and including their competition, she must show testosterone levels below a specified amount (an athlete's total testosterone level in serum must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category). Laurel not only meets the current criteria, but she would have qualified under the original 2003 rules when the IOC required transgender women to have undergone sex-reassignment surgery.
Whilst competing as a man, Laurel proved she was capable of performing at the highest level against men. If we are looking for fairness and the requirement to reduce testosterone levels have reduced/removed the advantages of Male puberty, then after transitioning Laurel should not be demolishing Women, but competing with them at a comparable level as when she competed with Men pre transition. Since transitioning her recorded lifts at championships from 2017 to 2019 (8 events) gave an average combined snatch and clean and jerk total of 274kg – if you recall, pre-transitioning she lifted a combined weight of 300kg.
Age will clearly play a part, so it’s difficult to accurately compare, and even though she won a silver medal in the 87-plus kilogram weight class at the world championships four years ago, the real question is whether she can she fairly compete at these Games. So let’s compare her to the records of other Women competitors. According to IWF’s Olympic qualifications, Laurel is currently ranked 15th in her weight division and her best combined lift in 2020 was 270kg, which is a full 55kg lower than the current world record set earlier this year by China’s Li Wenwen. Even if Laurel matches her career-best lifts in the snatch and clean and jerk at Tokyo she is highly unlikely to win a medal.
So if the Facts, Evidence and Truth show Laurel is not competing unfairly, what is the problem? Some say ‘she is denying the opportunity for a ‘natal’ women to compete’. Why? Laurel is legally recognised as a woman, and legally qualifies a women. She didn’t choose the way she was born or the body she inhabits. As a Women she deserves the respect and decency to be treated as such. After Martina Navratilova defected to the USA she competed in 16 Fed Cup ties representing the USA. Martina did not make or break the rules, but by being selected to represent the USA she did take the place of a naturally born American player. What is the difference? None.
Laurel is not a cheat, nor someone who should be hounded just because her life experience is different to others. She should be entering these games as a hero and a trailblazer, but there is little or no chance of that.
Kirsti Miller is a trans athlete who knows this story oh so well. Like Laurel she was was a world-class athlete at Junior level, breaking state swimming records and was Australian U16 Aquathon Champion. She then progressed into the Modern Pentathlon representing Australia in both Junior and then Senior Modern Pentathlon World Championships, which combines swimming, show jumping, fencing, pistol shooting and cross country running. Kirsti was the youngest Australian competitor ever selected to represent her country at Junior level - suffice to say she was a highly talented athlete in many sporting events, pre-transition.
Kirsti is now heavily involved in the fight for fairness in sport; fairness in respect to cisgender women, and also fairness in relation to transgender women specifically due to the serious health implications that adhering to IOC qualification requirements does to your body.
“I don’t blame athletes who say it is not fair because when you look at the surface, most people would agree. I lay blame on the IOC for not following through with education. They pretty much threw this policy on the table and that has caused the big fight ever since.″
Kirsti says that, as a consequence of Hubbard’s sex-reassignment surgery, she produces less testosterone than the biological women she competes against.
“Laurel is effectively like me,” she says. “She is post-operative and her body has not produced hormones for eight years. I can categorically say that Laurel is competing with a disadvantage.”
In time, seeing and accepting Trans athletes participating in sport will become more socially acceptable once we have a more socially inclusive and trans friendly society – unfortunately it will take time for society to change, but history has shown how the worst of human attitudes and decimations can and do change.
Paul Hoffman was a cox who represented the USA men's eight Olympic Rowing team which was effectively a team made up from Harvard University. He was a member of the US Olympic Team at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City which is famously remembered for the raised fist racial equality protest by two black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. A supporter of the Olympics Project for Human Rights (OPHR), Hoffman had provided Peter Norman (the Australian silver medal winner) with an OPHR badge that he wore at the medal ceremony in support of the protest.
US Olympic Committee President Douglas Roby was disgusted by the support shown and part played by Hoffman and he wrote a letter that included the following statement “…I feel that the miserable performance of you and your crew at Mexico City will stand as a permanent record against you and the athletes which you led. As a boy I had great admiration and respect for Harvard and the men it produced. Certainly serious intellectual degeneration has taken place in this once great University if you and several members of your crew are examples of the type of men that are within its walls.”
It is quite clear that history has indeed remembered this moment and it is Douglas Roby, and those that held similar racist views that would today hang their heads in shame, and not Paul Hoffman.
Over the next few weeks in the build up to the games and when she does enter the sporting area, Laurel will no doubt be cast by many as the villain – I fear that the rhetoric used, most of it being highly transphobic, will be incredibly cruel, but I also believe that in time history will again show that those expressing these views will be the ones to look back in shame.
Like Carl Nassib, Laurel is making history, and history will remember her the right way, and for the right reasons.