Cis feelings shouldn’t dictate the fate of trans athletes

Leagues are deciding how to include transgender athletes. But their policies are missing the point.

Illustration by Maxine McCrann
ByFrankie de la Cretaz

Last fall, the Premier Hockey Federation, formerly the National Women’s Hockey League, debuted a new inclusion policy for transgender athletes. The move came shortly after the league announced it would be changing its name to be more gender inclusive. The new policy was significantly different from the previous one, mainly in its provision of a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for testosterone — a huge step forward for transmasculine athletes. At least one athlete, Harrison Browne, had left the league so he could begin hormone treatment.

But the PHF’s policy also came with another new, controversial clause: While the league no longer requires transfeminine athletes to be on hormone therapy, it does stipulate that they must be "living in their identity for two years" in order to play in the PHF.

Among the advisers to the PHF was the advocacy organization Athlete Ally, as well as Chris Mosier, a duathlete and advocate who founded, a digital database of trans inclusion policies in sports. Mosier also worked with pro women’s league Athletes Unlimited to craft its policy on transgender athletes, which was unveiled in spring 2021. Strangely, in contrast to the PHF’s policy, the Athletes Unlimited policy has no time requirement for transfeminine athletes to participate, but it does require transfeminine athletes to be on hormone therapy. Not only that, but testosterone for transmasculine athletes is considered a banned substance. There is no TUE.

Despite sharing a consultant, the PHF and Athletes Unlimited policies are nearly in opposition to each other.

Taken together, these policies reveal the often arbitrary nature of all trans inclusion policies. As more and more trans folks come out, the number of openly trans athletes is increasing. Sports leagues are now being pushed to come up with explicit rules and guidelines for the inclusion of trans athletes, particularly as conservatives have made their exclusion a tentpole of their social policy.

So far, the burden has fallen mostly on women’s leagues. (That men’s leagues are not currently facing the same level of pressure and criticism over their policies, or lack thereof, is yet another way that sexism and inequity manifest in sports.) But as more and more pro leagues develop trans inclusion policies, something interesting has manifested: Even for leagues with similar athlete demographics, the inclusion guidelines can vary dramatically. Women’s leagues, including the PHF, Athletes Unlimited, and National Women’s Soccer League all debuted new trans inclusion policies in 2021. Each one was different.

It can’t be denied that trans inclusion policies — and trans participation in sport, broadly — are overwhelmingly determined by cis people’s understanding of and feelings about trans identity.

Mosier, the consultant on both the PHF and Athletes Unlimited policies, disagrees that any differences in policy are contradictory. Instead, he says, the discrepancies are the mark of progress over time. “The progression of the creation of policies shouldn’t be looked at in opposition of one another, but rather as building upon the last,” he tells Mic. He points out that the Athletes Unlimited policy “made huge progress in sports by eliminating mandatory disclosure of one’s trans identity.” The PHF built upon that, he says, by similarly allowing self-determination, but also taking it a step further by removing the mandatory medical intervention for transgender athletes. That, according to Mosier, “has completely reimagined what a policy could look like.”

Still, that two policies that debuted within months of each other and were consulted on by the same person could have starkly different criteria raises questions about these policies as a whole. More pointedly, it underscores how these “inclusion” policies are in reality often exclusionary, in part because they’re driven by the comfort — and bias — of the cis people in the room who are shaping them.

When consulting with a league, “we present the existing information and policies that are relevant, as well as options for changes, and then work through questions that may arise,” says Anne Lieberman, the director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, who has consulted on both the PHF policy and the International Olympic Committee’s new framework, which debuted in November (but was not in effect for last month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing). Lieberman notes that “all leagues are balancing a lot,” and that the amount of input a consultant has on the final policy is really dependent on the league.

Mosier shares a similar message. “My role as a consultant is to be a teammate of the leagues I work with,” he tells Mic. “Consultants are partners in this work, not the sole decision-makers.”

That may be, but it can’t be denied that trans inclusion policies — and trans participation in sport, broadly — are overwhelmingly determined by cis people’s understanding of and feelings about trans identity, rather than by trans athletes’ right to be fairly included.

The PHF was the first league to put a trans inclusion policy in place back in 2016, when Browne socially transitioned. Mosier consulted on that first policy as well. The new 2021 policy was released shortly after the PHF came under fire for issues of transphobia related to comments by Toronto Six coach Digit Murphy and her association with the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group. Trans hockey player Jessica Platt had also shared her experience of not getting a tryout for the Toronto team.

Aside from the vague language around transfeminine athletes that doesn’t define what it means to “live in an identity,” the policy is also “a step back,” according to Jenna Weiner, who has consulted on inclusion policies for USA Ultimate. Weiner notes that the standards of care as defined by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), a global professional body that develops best practices for trans health care, no longer include lived experience as a requirement for hormones. “It’s not even inclusive, it’s almost backwards,” she says. (Weiner is a research fellow at Athlete Ally but did not consult on the PHF policy.)

The PHF told Mic that its “intention is always to ensure trans and nonbinary athletes are at the center of the policy, not organizations or people who want to undercut inclusive policies to stifle progress.”

Meanwhile, the NWSL’s policy provides a TUE for testosterone for transmasculine players like the PHF’s does — except that the NWSL requires transmasculine players to keep their T limits “within the normal female range.” It also fails to mention non-binary players at all, despite having at least one currently playing in the league. That policy, which was released in March 2021 within days of Athletes Unlimited’s new guidelines, was consulted on by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Why are we trying to limit inclusion, rather than simply allowing athletes to play their sports based on their own self-identification?

The next guidelines to be rolled out are the IOC’s new trans inclusion framework, which began implementation in March 2022 and encourage international governing bodies to move away from testosterone-based restrictions, noting that they have done a lot of harm to trans athletes over the years. The IOC consulted with hundreds of stakeholders and advocacy groups, including Athlete Ally.

During the November press conference introducing the new framework, the IOC referred to the issue of trans inclusion as “complex” and “highly politicized.” A reporter asked whether the framework went far enough, especially considering there is no real way to actually compel sports’ governing bodies to adjust their own policies to bring them in line with the IOC’s guidelines. “We don’t need to jump to the conclusion that this is a topic which needs to be solved tomorrow,” the official said. “Right now, in some sports, it’s related to some athletes.”

“Of course,” the IOC official added, “it’s a topic which will evolve and which potentially will be coming to more sports in the future.” In essence: Just be grateful for the baby steps that have been taken.

Consultants can only do so much if a league won't budge. But when one policy seems to completely counter another one, we must ask what the point is of having any policies at all. Why are we trying to limit inclusion, rather than simply allowing athletes to play their sports based on their own self-identification? As Weiner asks: If leagues really do want to be about inclusion, “why not start from there?”

“Get rid of the hormone regulations, get rid of the waiting period. Start from a place of inclusion,” she says. “And if [trans people playing is] not an issue, then it’s not an issue, which it hasn’t been in any of the situations we’ve seen. And if it is, deal with it then.” That would ensure that trans athletes — and not cis comfort — are being centered in conversations about trans participation in sports.

Mosier thinks we will get there. “Different leagues have different starting points, different expectations for themselves, and different circumstances, so it is unfair to say they are in opposition. They’re just different,” he says.

“I expect the next league looking to create progress in sports to take the policies that currently exist and expand and reimagine them again to try to move their league and sports to an even more inclusive place.”

That may well happen. But as long as leagues and governing bodies are run by cis people who are — intentionally or not — allowed to gatekeep inclusion, trans athletes will always be fighting an uphill battle.