Gender Self-Determination

Woman running outdoor using a smart watch to track data.
Woman running outdoor using a smart watch to track data.

The Stockholm Consensus, the 2004 document that first allowed transgender athletes into the Olympics, had three main components. Trans athletes were required to have legal recognition of their preferred gender, genital surgery, and two years of post-surgical hormones prior to competition. By 2005, I knew that all three of these stipulations were flawed. My subsequent journey gave me the opportunity to be part of the group charged with updating trans athletic guidelines in 2015.

The new IOC guidelines were released in January, and discussion of the changes has centered on the fact that the IOC no longer requires surgery for trans athletes to compete. Those of us on the committee charged with updating the Stockholm Consensus, however, were virtually unanimous on the need to drop the surgical requirement long before the November 2015 IOC meeting. The NCAA and the IAAF (world track and field federation) had adopted no-surgery rules in 2011: since then trans athletes have barely dented the collegiate playing fields, while there has yet to be an openly transgender athlete compete in the IAAF world championships.

Going into the meetings, I was far more concerned with the requirement that trans athletes needed to have legal recognition of their preferred gender. And I wasn't the only member of the committee with that viewpoint.

When the committee met on Monday November 9th, Liz Riley, one of the IOC lawyers, and author of a professional legal paper on trans athletes, informed the committee that the legal status of trans people varied widely depending on their nationality. Five countries allowed gender self-determination, some countries had a third legal sex, many countries had complicated hoops required to change sex, and most nations still did not allow for any change of the sex-determination made at birth. Given the disparity of the legal status for trans people across the globe, Liz argued that the IOC should move to allow athletes to determine their own gender for the purpose of sport.

Later that day, when I spoke, I told that tale of Tara Hudson, the British trans woman who was sent to men's prison because her legal documents said she was male. Hudson was distraught because 60 percent of trans women incarcerated in men's prison are subject to sexual assault. In fact, the only way to keep trans women safe in men's prisons is to place them into solitary confinement. After a successful online campaign, Hudson was quickly moved to a women's facility. Not so lucky was Vikki Thompson, another English trans woman prisoner. Thompson claimed she would commit suicide if sent to a men's prison, and made good on her threat on November 13th, two days after the IOC meeting. I used the two incidents to exhibit the great harm that can be done to trans people when legal gender takes precedence over social gender.

As the last speaker on that Monday, Eric Vilain, a geneticist at UCLA, one of the world's leading authorities on intersex issues, and an openly gay man, spoke even more forcefully, saying that it was imperative that the IOC allow trans people to affirm their own gender. Eric even chastised me for being willing to compromise on the matter.

On the following day, we were expected to reach consensus on a new set of regulations. As expected, the committee moved quickly to strike the surgery requirement, substituting an upper limit on testosterone levels for trans women. Trans men were allowed to compete without restriction. To my surprise, there was no opposition to allowing gender self-determination. We had some disagreement on the length of time that a trans woman would need to be on HRT prior to eligibility; eventually we settled on a one-year waiting period. This is the same period as the NCAA had previously adopted, and represented a reasonable compromise.

By noon on Tuesday November 10th, we had developed a tentative set of new guidelines for the IOC. While there was some further refinement undertaken via email over the subsequent weeks, we had a final agreement by early December. In January, the IOC published these guidelines on their website.

While I support the removal of the surgical requirements for trans athletes -- it was patently ridiculous for trans men and unnecessarily burdensome for trans women -- I think the most important change in the guidelines is the fact that the IOC, a fairly conservative organization, now recognizes the right of gender self-determination. Hopefully, more countries will soon follow the IOC lead, and adopt rules permitting trans people to declare their own gender.

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