Trans Athletes participation in sport, held by de montfort university

A special event which explores this theme, combining a panel discussion, speed lectures and interviews with athletes and leading academics.

About this Event

The role of transgender athletes has recently emerged as one of the most talked about topics in sport: but what are the personal stories behind these discussions, and how does academic research contribute? DMUsport would like to invite you to join them for a special event which explores this theme, combining a panel discussion, speed lectures and interviews with athletes and leading academics. 

The discussion will demonstrate how we need to explore academic insights along with each athlete’s personal story if we are to understand this significant development that is affecting sport from the grassroots to the Olympic Games. The athletes on the panel will share their journeys, the challenges they have faced and how they feel sport could become more inclusive towards the transgender community. 

The panel will be led by Professor Martin Polley, Director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture (ICSHC) and Professor of History at De Montfort University (DMU). The panel members are:

Chloe Quinnlocal athlete, Goalkeeper for Bedworth United Ladies

Helena Rachel Thomas, Senior Business Support Officer, LEAP Sports; hockey player, umpire and Manager of the Scotland over 35s women’s team 

Dr Gemma Witcomb, Senior Lecturer in Psychology; Gender and Sport mini-CDT lead, Loughborough University

Joanna Harper, author, PhD student, advisor on transgender and intersex athletes to various sporting federations including the International Olympic Committee and a former 2:23* marathon runner who is still actively running and training

Blurb from Eventbrite

*Harper’s time is only 7 minutes slower than the current women’s world record holder Paula Radcliffe. Fancy that. Must mean that Harper is an elite athlete then.

The predictable introduction

Professor Martin Polley opened the evening. He is the Director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University. He is also a Professor of History. He felt that he was hosting an ‘important conversation’ and mentioned some of the issues which were affecting ‘sportspeople’ from the issues of changing rooms through to policy in elite competitions. The focus of his introduction was very squarely on the needs and concerns of transgender athletes (as per usual trans-identified females barely had a mention in the whole 90 minutes) and no mention was made on how the transgender inclusion would affect women, which isn’t very intersectional.

The DMU itself is committed to embracing an ‘inclusive sporting environment’ and how to make sport more inclusive – ‘sport is for everyone, no matter how they identify’ Polley told us. The usual warning about ‘no space for hate’ was deployed and underlined as per the usual for these things.

We were to hear from two lecturers from Loughborough University. The University’s webpage boasts that it is ‘the best university in the world for sports-related subjects’ and this must be true as they are currently conducting research to prove that male participation in female sport is not only necessary, but a human right.

Dr Gemma Witcomb: More than just medals; inclusion in sport

First, but not foremost, was the only woman on the panel to speak. Polley said that Witcomb had set up the Gender and Sport Centre at Loughborough, which has six PhD students who were working on the ‘critical issue of trans and non-binary inclusion in sport’.

Witcomb spoke about the terrible misalignment that transgender people experience between their sex and gender identity, and their high rates of depression and suicide. Of course, not all transgender or non-binary people wanted to have medical intervention in the form of hormones, or to have surgery.

Witcomb said that most cultures viewed the population in two groups, one which was masculine and one which was feminine, which generally aligned with their sex. Culture kept on reinforcing this binary, especially sport, one of the most influential institutions which suggests that there were some sort of material difference.

Sport also held up ‘discriminatory and sexist ideology’ said Witcomb, since female sport was less well funded and less well respected (her own project being a beautiful example of this). Female athletes and female pundits were also routinely harassed.

Yet sport was an excellent tool for improving one’s own self worth and the idea that transgender people might be excluded [from female sport] was simply horrendous. Witcomb had done a study of 274 transgender pupils which showed that – shock horror – bullying was prevalent at school. School was the place where a love of sport could be nurtured. (Shame Witcomb didn’t do a comparison study with girls pre- and post-menarche.)

Witcomb came out with some waffle about people having a ‘sport identity’. Because of the binary nature of sport it was very ‘disaffirming’ for transgender pupils. Her research included asking people to photograph things which affirmed or disaffirmed their gender identity and sports images featured heavily, with one participant noting that ‘I am forced to be a man to do the thing I love’ (a quote which works on many levels if you think about it).

Another false binary, Witcomb told us, was ‘inclusion versus fairness’, these were not competing ideas. We have to understand and develop inclusive practices, she said.

There are many sports where sex segregation is really just a kind of historical legacy and new ways can be developed and new ways should be developed. I want to talk about one example of this.

Dr Gemma Witcomb, 15 February 2021

The example she gave was of a strength competition currently held in Derbyshire called Limitless. What she forgot to mention was that the founder of the competition appears to be one of her own PhD students at Loughborough University. It’s a small world, it really is.

Anyone can join and competitors are put into categories based on their own self-selected ability – see the application page. I also searched the timeline of Limitless Strength Competition on Twitter and the winners in 2019 are quite absent, so how the male/female broke down, well, I guess we will never know.

Witcomb interviewed the participants of this competition and some of the spectators too. Responses were ‘overwhelmingly positive’ though some people ‘did still express some concerns around fairness’. Seriously one of the events is Atlas Stones lifting to a 4ft platform with level 1 being 40kg, 50kg, 60kg stones – not exactly within the grasp of the average 5 ft 4 woman.

Witcomb said a really interesting finding of her research was that a gender inclusive competition might further marginalise trans people if it became a competition just for them (i.e. it really would be no fun if no women turned up to be beaten hands down).

So overall we have got to find new ways of doing sport, sporting events that challenge this unnecessary segregation where they can and as I have said that might be easier in some sports than others. But we need to normalise this way of looking at sport through that lens really. And for me fundamentally the benefits of physical and mental health are so profound that changes need to be championed, changes need to be supported, and we need to not get overwhelmed where we can afford not to be with the rules and regulations, which actually might be of detriment.

Dr Gemma Witcomb, 15 February 2021

Dr Witcomb did not mention that a woman’s physical well being might be at risk if she played a contact sport with a man. She did not mention that a woman’s hopes and dreams may well be dashed if she turned up at the start of a race next to a taller testosterone built male body. She seemed to be suggesting that rules and regulations didn’t matter (the ones she doesn’t agree with at least). I am sure that she has considered all these things, because it is impossible not to really, being as obvious as they are.

Joanna Harper: Transgender Athlete Performance Analysis

In 2015 Joanna Harper published his first peer reviewed article which contained quantitative analysis of the athletic performance of transgender athletes with differing hormonal values. Since then he has been gathering retrospective data and the prospective analysis of two transgender athletes (just two). Harper has authored a book Sporting Gender (geddit).

Harper has advised multiple sporting bodies including the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since 2015. In 2019 he relocated to Loughborough University and is engaged full time on his PhD. Harper is clearly off his rocker and loving every moment of it.

Well, one of the things that many detractors of trans women in sport suggest is that trans women have advantages over cisgender women, and look, this is absolutely true. Even after hormone therapy transgender women will be, on average, taller, bigger and stronger than cisgender women and these are advantages in many sports.

However. We allow [swivel eye moment] for advantages in sports. As an example, we let left handed fencers compete against right handed fencers*, even though it is well documented that left handed fencers have many advantages. What we don’t allow for in sports are overwhelming advantages. […] Right handed fencers and left handed fencers can engage in meaningful competition. There is no meaningful competition between heavyweight boxers and lighter boxers, the bigger boxer wins every time.

So the question when it comes to transgender women in sport isn’t ‘do trans women have advantages’, but rather ‘can trans women and cis women engage in meaningful competition?’

Dr J. Harper, 15 February 2021

*This advantage appears to be mainly that right handed fencers simply aren’t used to fighting left handers, and left handers conversely have much experience dealing with right handers, so this must be a slight left over right advantage at best and not analogous to sex differences.

Harper had come to the conclusion, obviously, that there could be meaningful competition and said that there were only about 1-2 trans competitors hoping to place themselves in women’s sports in the upcoming Olympics and said that there were about 5,000 women. Harper claimed that the transgender population was about 1 percent and that really we should expect to see 30-35 competitors instead, and therefore as a demographic they were hugely underrepresented.

Harper felt that the transgender athlete most likely to make it to the Olympics was Quinn, on Canada’s football team (Quinn identifies as non-binary, is female and plays on the women’s team in any case).

We were then stunned by a sciencey bit where a graph was put up showing hormonal levels of men who were taking oestrogen. Over time on the drug their performance was reduced by about 10 percent but he admitted that the sample was only eight athletes in one sport. Harper told us that Witcomb contacted him in 2018 and invited him ‘out of blue’ to come and study for a PhD.

He is conducting two studies, one where trans athletes are tested pre-hormone and during hormonal therapy. The other was looking at competition results before and after transition, more sciencey phrases were used.

One study participant started to hormonally transition in 2020 had gotten 12 percent slower over the course of 200 days. Harper would be collecting quarterly data from the participant and was very interested to know what his races times would do over the next year. I really do not understand how any sporting or educational body is supporting the chemical modification of an athlete’s performance to deliberately deteriorate, especially when oestrogen in men is linked to an increased risk of thrombosis. Ethically speaking it is repugnant.

Trying to do research on transgender athletes is extremely challenging but it is a very important thing. The contribution that Gemma’s team, including me, is making here at Loughborough is very important, but to see real progress we are going have to go for multi-institutional, multi-nation studies, where we can start to see some real numbers.

Dr J. Harper, 15 February 2021

Those studies probably will take place and they will show exactly what Harper and the other gender identity political activists want them to show; men who choose chemical emasculation will run slower and that’s want they wanted to do in the first place.

The transgender athletes

We were then treated to the moving stories of two real transgender athletes who had been kind enough to give up their time to share their special stories with us – ‘I can’t stress how privileged we are,’ whinnied Polley.

Helena Rachel Thomas

Thomas works for LEAP (Leadership, Equality and Active Participation in Sports for LGBTI people in Scotland) which, you’ve guessed it, lobbies for mixed sex sport and recently published guidance on ‘non-binary’ participation in sport and appears to include a cartoon drawing of a girl post-mastectomy, amongst other things. Polley and Thomas knew each other from university, the football team in fact.

Polley interviewed Thomas about his life. We learned that Thomas liked playing sport and had played football since he was 11 – ‘very interesting’ Polley enthused.

In his younger years, in a pattern which fits so many men who are trans-identified, Thomas became ultra competitive in sports. On reflection he claimed he felt that he used sport as an escape. This was ‘really fascinating’ to Polley.

Thomas told us about two dramatic episodes sounding completely unbothered by the memories of the same, of course Polley told him how brave he was. Having counselling allowed him to realise his true self. Fast forward to post-transition in his mid-50s, Thomas decided to take up hockey (there is a photo of him playing on LEAP’s website and he looks enormous). The ‘girls’ on the hockey team were welcoming of him and he has never had any problems with exclusion, in fact they apparently asked him to join (if true, that just shows you how low many women’s aspirations are).

Thomas said he was quite worried about what some of the opposing team members might say (not quite as worried as they were I expect) but nothing had come of that either. Thomas noted that the Scottish Hockey Union had an inclusive policy (the usual bilge). I was surprised to learn that hockey is considered a non-contact sport. My own memories from school is if you got a plastic hockey stick, rather than wooden one, you were literally fucked. In fact the scrabble for the sticks was rather hair-raising in itself. There would be no way I would be playing hockey with a fucking man. Jeez.

Thomas said the only way to break down barriers for trans participation support was to capture the governing bodies and work inside schools (both of which LEAP does). Thomas advised [female] students to be welcoming and friendly to any [male] trans player from day one if they wanted to demonstrate allyship.

Chloe Quinn

Quinn had never been particularly interested in sport whilst at school and only started playing football after he started cross sex hormones. Quinn was invited by some young mums who liked a kick-around in a park to join them. Quinn liked it so much he decided to join a proper team and recalled that he was ‘shaking’ when he saw ‘the girls’ on the field for the first time because he was scared of not being accepted. Not to worry, just like with Thomas, the women fully accepted him! Quinn now plays in the Women’s National League.

Quinn is 38 years old now and the other team members are ‘girls’ in their 20s. He had lost a lot of his speed and stamina and ‘the older I get the further down the field I get’ and had now ended up in goal. This Polley found hilarious, but one suspects the response would be different if a professional men’s team was keeping on a clapped out player.

Polley wanted to know if the club had the policies in place to fully accept Quinn as a player straightaway. Quinn contacted the FA in the first instance, who asked for proof that he had changed his legal documents to female and they also wanted to check hormone levels. At a meeting at the clubhouse with himself, the manager, the captain, and the club secretary to discuss the same, the club said they did not know how to move forward, but Quinn produced the ‘approval to play’ letter from the FA which he had already gotten and that completed the matter.

Quinn had only ever had one issue during a match with another side when a photographer had taken action shots. The photos were posted on Facebook and the supporters of the other club had apparently made ‘nasty comments’, Quinn said they were:

Just being really horrible, [saying] things like “I can’t believe we have come to watch a women’s team and there’s a bloke playing” and “what was that bloke in a wig”.

Quinn said that his team mates were completely supportive and that the episode had embarrassed him as he did not realise that people could tell what sex he was. The FA sanctioned the offending club. Since then there has been nothing but ‘love and support from everybody’. Quinn joked that it was a nice to have a break from sport during the pandemic. What a sport lover, eh?

Polley’s final question was about what can younger students [i.e. women] do to be more supportive of transgender [i.e. men] in [female] sport? Quinn answered that if you were a transgender person looking to join a club you should:

Stop thinking about it, just do it. Just get involved because that’s the support network that those girls (or boys) that can offer you afterwards. To be part of a team has done so much more for my transition.

A case of, ask not what can you for your team, but what your team can do for you. How inspirational.

Question and Answer session

Was really boring, as person after person lined up to ask uncritical question after uncritical question, with a good deal of fawning thrown in. A further discussion about Quinn’s episode of ‘abuse’ was rehashed.

Someone thought that Joanna Harper was ‘great’ but wanted to know about physical factors which don’t change? Harper replied that haemoglobin levels drop over the course of three months on hormone therapy and that men do not lose all of the strength advantage that they have. Height and hand size of course does not change. ‘Trans women are at a huge disadvantage’ in gymnastics because it was better to be smaller.

Another question to Harper was there a certain point in hormone therapy before the athlete can fairly take a place in [female] competition? Harper said that in community sports we should just ‘let people play’ but that in elite sports testosterone should be bought down to 5nmols/L and keep them there for 12 continuous months before being allowed to compete.

The only mildly probing question was on the issue of changing rooms and the issue of women’s privacy. Witcomb had this to say:

I don’t really understand the question actually. I don’t think there is any instigation [SIC] for changing rooms. People can generally whichever changing rooms they feel comfortable in, and most places now have gender neutral changing rooms if you prefer that, but I don’t think that’s really relevant.

I think it is unlikely that the question about changing rooms was asked by a gender critical feminist, worded in the way it was, especially as the follow up question from the same person claimed that 1/500 people were transgender. Harper responded to that he thought the transgender population was much higher and more like 1/100 or 1/150.

Someone bought up the issue of contact sports – Harper said there was a potential safety issue in rugby but did not think World Rugby’s ban was justified. He felt that more work needed to be done with ‘those trans women who play rugby’ and that he didn’t think that the evidence was there to support that there was a higher risk. He also felt [women’s] community rugby should remain open to [men] transgender players.

Quinn claims that he had taken more knocks on the football field than he had given out. He had come across ‘people a lot bigger than me’ and that being shoved was part of the game and that no one did it maliciously.

Witcomb admitted that there was pre-existing concern in rugby with regards to concussion but that the data did not exist to know (that’s because rugby has never been mixed sex for good reason) and that she would be looking to the performance results of males after hormone therapy. Witcomb repeated again that the answers were not known. ‘Brilliant, thanks very much,’ said Polley.


Of all the areas which gender identity ideology impinge upon I have to say that sport is the one that I am least likely to engage in. I almost didn’t sign into the webinar because I just cannot get worked up about the sports at all really, having never engaged in them willingly and find watching them mostly boring. However, I came away from the webinar depressed and saddened, more than I have ever been for a while I think. There was literally no concern for women in sport at all, not even a scintilla, from these sport academics. The word woman or female were barely uttered – hence I have tried to add them in square brackets.

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