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Trans participation in community and competitive sport is a human right

Transgender participation in community and competitive sport is a human right. It's also good for the community.

In the past few weeks, trans women's participation in sport has been politicised and weaponised as a federal election issue in Australia, most pointedly by Liberal candidate for the Sydney seat of Warringah, Katherine Deves; Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also defended Deves' views.

Previously to this, Tasmanian Sen. Claire Chandler put forth a private member's bill to restrict trans women participation in female sports. However, several coalition MPs called this redundant.

Both politicians publicly shared opinions that trans women were a danger to other women in sport. This has sparked concerns being raised at the professional level, including Australian swimmers and Olympic gold medallists Emma McKeon and Emily Seebohm saying rules around trans participation need to be both inclusive and fair. As Seebohm has stated: "I want everyone to feel included in this sport, we just have to work out how that works and how this will look."

It's imperative professional athletes are included in the conversation. However, the evidence to trans women being a danger in sport is contrary and proves the framing of the issue is instead being used as a political football, to the harm of the trans community and community sporting clubs.

Research by Australia's Monash University found that less than a quarter of women who play at community sports clubs surveyed believed trans women had an "unfair advantage" when playing on female teams. Researchers Erik Denison and Richard Pringle said they "found the majority of women expressed strong support for the inclusion of trans girls and women in rugby, while a minority supported exclusion."

Further research also supports this, as a systematic review relating to sport participation and competitive sport policies determined there was "no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals [or male individuals] have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition." Yet, despite this, the report found: "The majority of transgender people have a negative experience when engaging in competitive sports and sport-related physical activity, including discrimination."

The coverage of trans athletes and trans women's participation in sport being framed as an election issue further alienates them from community or competitive sport. As studies have found, transgender people experience stigma, anti-trans rhetoric, prejudice, discrimination and violence at higher rates because of their gender identity, and they are more likely to avoid situations when afraid of harassment. This includes community sport -- which is their right to participate in -- especially when that right is being debated on a public stage.

Hockey player Emily Dwyer, who plays for a women's midlevel pennant team, wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian that joining community sport had given her mental and physical health a massive boost and "not once did anyone on that team, nor anyone who we played against, ever take issue with me being on the field."

However, trans participation being dragged into dog whistle political debates can keep others from joining. As Dwyer writes: "For some trans and gender diverse people experiences or fears of discrimination -- deliberate, subtle, unintentional -- are barriers to participation that remain too high."

This is a problem as participation in sport is a human right for all, as recognised by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which states it's important a person is able to bring their "whole self" to any sport they choose to participate in. It's also an issue as trans participation has myriad positive outcomes in community and competitive sport.

Siren Sport co-founder and lifelong member of the Flying Bats, an LGBTIQ+ women's community football club in Sydney, Danielle Warby says society at large can benefit from trans participation and gender diverse folks in community and competitive sport as when it comes to gender identity.

"Society as a whole is still grappling with all of this stuff," Warby says -- and this is where community sport can be leaders in the space.

"It's important to sort of lead the way and be outward, be very demonstrative, very vocal and very clear about what inclusion means and what it can look like," she says. "And do that by leading by example," which can include guidelines and policies.

The Flying Bats have been around since 1985 and Warby says as the community changed and evolved, so did the club. They created a gender and identity policy to make sure everyone at the club was enabled to be their full selves.

"That's the benefit really. Always questioning and making sure that we're opening up space for different folks, however they want to identify, and enabling them to self-identify and be themselves with our football environment."

"Community sport is coming from a place of inclusion and enabling anyone to play -- that's the whole point of community sport," Warby says.

So, by excluding anyone, or deterring an entire group of people, from participating, clubs aren't accurately representing their communities.

Just as inclusion can benefit individuals and sporting bodies, exclusion can cause harm. As Rowing Australia states in its community sports guidelines: "Practices that exclude transgender and gender diverse participants have been found to be harmful not just to transgender and gender diverse people but harmful to all people associated with sporting organisations."

As Warby notes, "the more diversity, the stronger you are, the better you are."

Additionally, by making inclusion a priority, clubs can benefit from increased participation and grow from more people feeling welcomed. "Sport wants to grow, and it's like, 'you know you can't grow without opening up, right?,'" Warby says.

And as a side issue to trans participation, despite gender segregation being enforced in most organised sports, mixed-gender training, especially at the junior level, can benefit the community and those participating. Studies have found that when viewing sport as a continuum, rather than a gender binary or hierarchy, there are overlapping performance outcomes and capabilities. Additionally, mixed-gender training can have positive effects that support gender equality, challenge sexist notions of gender difference and undermine heteronormative gender structures.

Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano in their book ''Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports'' suggest that mixed-gender sports teams improved gender relations and decrease sexism. As one study in America showed, segregation of men into hypermasculine environments, such as high school football, can reinforce cultural and structural sexist or antifeminine mindsets toward women. However, after competing in gender-integrated cheerleading, their attitudes towards women's athleticism, leadership abilities and friendship changed after competing with female athletes.

This can be increasingly beneficial for primary-school-aged children, in establishing healthy and productive notions of gender, while research by Sydney University found there were no statistical differences in the physical capabilities of girls and boys until high-school age. Authors of the research stated that: "Perhaps perceived differences in physical capability between boys and girls are based on outdated gender stereotypes that appear at birth, when some boys are given their first footy and some girls their first doll."

And simply practically speaking, mixed-gender sporting cohorts could mean fewer clubs or organisations having to share funding, consolidation of coaching, staff and volunteers and fewer scheduling conflicts for parents. This is on top of the societal benefits of reducing gendered cultural norms.

At the community level, gender is more of a non-issue, as inclusion, fun and fitness are the main goals rather than competitiveness. But even when it is, it's not a new one. Many sporting organisations and bodies have gender and identity policies, from community organisations, such as Cricket Victoria and Australian Rules Football to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which in 2004 announced policy requirements for transgender people to adhere to in order to compete without athletic advantage.

There are also many existing resources and practical advisories for sporting organisations, including local clubs and those competing on a national level, which they can use to create an inclusive environment. For example, Sport Australia, in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Coalition of Major Professional and Participation Sports, have developed guidelines for the inclusion of transgender and gender diverse people in sport.

Having for the most part successfully navigated these waters without women feeling threatened, the political debate surrounding trans athletes and participation in women's sport isn't something the Australian sporting community have been calling for. Only a very small number of professional athletes have publicly raised concerned about trans participation and far more support of their inclusion has come from the community level.

As inequality reporter and vice president of Elsternwick amateur football club Stephanie Convery wrote for The Guardian, the feeling from community sports clubs hasn't been one of relief but rather one of anxiety. The question they're asking is: "How can we protect our trans players from this completely unwarranted attack on their right to play?"

The grassroots reality is that trans participation has long been a part of community sport. The political framing as an issue does nothing to protect women but rather further threatens and alienates trans people from participating in their right to sport -- which also disadvantages the community by not having them there, too.