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WOMENS WORDS

England Netball – Take back control

and nurture England’s largest female team sport

WRN Summer of Sport

If you care about safety and fairness for girls and women in netball and protecting the female category, now is the time to make your voice heard.


The world governing body of netball, the International Netball Federation (INF), does not have specific transgender participation guidance as they have published a clear position statement on ‘Male participation in Netball’ [1] outlining the unique nature of netball among team sports in attracting large numbers of girls and women, actively helping to address the disparity in sports participation and providing benefits for health and wellbeing from a young age. The INF states that “This is netball’s unique selling point and is something that should be maximised”.


Mixed netball teams are increasingly popular which the INF welcomes as long as safety is considered due to the physical differences between the sexes. The INF also recognises the importance of puberty by encouraging mixed sex participation and core skills development up to age 11. Overall though, the priority for the INF is that the elite game at international level remains for females only. In fact, through the active promotion of women into positions of leadership, coaching and officiating, they are trying to raise the profile of netball as a female sport as a way of redressing sexism in sport as a whole.


The vision for netball set out in the INF statement is simple and easy to implement. There are female-only teams, as well as mixed teams for those who wish to be involved, no coercion or deception. The policy stresses that safety is paramount because the INF understands that males and females are different. There will be no embarrassment or media scandal from a “Lia Thomas” moment because the position statement uses unambiguous language, referring to female or male throughout with clear boundaries for female teams and the opportunity for males to play in mixed sex teams. Safeguarding is not infringed by any confusion between sex and self-identification. This is all very reasonable and admirably female-centred.


Sadly, the same cannot be said for England Netball (EN), the national governing body for England’s largest female team sport, whose Trans Inclusion Guidance on the rules for males in the female sport spectacularly departs from the INF position and leaves the reader baffled. Good to know then that this guidance is currently under review and a consultation among its 92,000 members is now underway in the form of a survey on Gender Categories.


Now is the time to make your voice heard. Here’s why.


The EN Trans Inclusion Guidance [2] was published in 2017 and is now out of step with developments around transgender policies from the IOC [3] and from the UKs National Sports Councils [4].


The IOC has reneged all responsibility for a coherent strategy on men in women’s sport by placing the ball firmly in the court of the International Federations to develop their own policies for their own sports. In the Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex variations document published in November 2021 [5], the IOC “recognises that it must be within the remit of each sport and its governing body to determine how an athlete may be at a disproportionate advantage compared with their peers, taking into consideration the nature of each sport”. Testosterone limits for male and DSD athletes have been abandoned by the IOC and instead the onus is on sporting bodies to prove that men who identify as women will have a disproportionate advantage over female athletes.


The UK’s Sports Councils conducted a review of transgender policies and a consultation resulting in the publication of Guidance for Transgender Inclusion in Domestic Sport in 2022. The Guidance concludes that the inclusion of transgender people into female sport cannot be balanced with inclusion, fairness and safety in gender-affected sport where there is meaningful competition due to retained differences in strength, stamina and physique between the average woman compared with the average transgender woman or “non-binary person assigned male at birth”, with or without testosterone suppression.


Representatives, stakeholders and experts from a range of backgrounds were invited to Parliament in October 2022 to discuss the issues around men in women’s sport and afterwards a useful POSTNOTE “Performance, Inclusion and Elite Sports - Transgender Athletes” was published [6] followed by political pressure from the Conservative government urging sporting bodies urging to respect Section 195 of 2010 Equality Act [7], [8] and the EHRC providing reassurance that excluding males from the female category is lawful according to both the EA and the GRA [9]:


The ‘sporting exemption’ in the Equality Act (EA) specifically:


…makes it lawful to restrict participation of transsexual people in such competitions if this is necessary to uphold fair or safe competition, but not otherwise.


The Gender Recognition Act (GRA) states that:


A body responsible for regulating the participation of persons as competitors in an event or events involving a gender-affected sport may, if subsection (2) [fair competition and safety] is satisfied, prohibit or restrict the participation as competitors in the event or events of persons whose gender has become the acquired gender under this Act.


Guidance is clear, the law is clear, and yet, the first sentence in the EN Trans Inclusion guidance on Good Practice is that members should:


Welcome everyone to play and enjoy netball equally, and accept anyone joining in the gender they identify with, whether or not transition is taking/has taken place, and address that person accordingly. In most netball clubs this will be in the form of a transwoman (someone designated male at birth who wishes to identify with the female gender). It should be remembered that it is illegal to discriminate against a trans person.


With plenty of warnings to discourage those who might speak out:


England Netball promotes a zero tolerance approach to transphobia and ensures that any unacceptable behaviour and language is challenged appropriately and sanctions and /or educational programmes implemented to ensure the creation of a safe, inclusive and welcoming environment for trans people.


Transphobic behaviour should be reported to the police


The apparent rules around who can play in which category and when is sexist, confusing and requires a high level of intrusion into personal circumstances.


The over-arching principle is that:


Transwomen will be able to play in friendly and informal matches, join in training sessions, become officials, coaches and volunteer at your club, although they may not be eligible to play in competition.


So based on the initial statement describing a policy of self ID, women and girls would be expected to accept any man into their sessions and informal matches, no questions asked, and no consultation required.


In defining eligibility for competitive netball matches it seems that EN has lost all control over any attempts to keep elite netball female-only in line with the INF policy. The eligibility criteria are also blatantly sexist, a trend among sports transgender policies which are strongly influenced by transgender lobby groups, with a very different approach for females who identify as men compared to males who identify as women:


Any transsexual male may compete in his affirmed gender in any male or mixed-sex domestic competition.


(A transsexual male is a female who identifies as male).


By their own definition, a “transexual” person does not have to have had any medical intervention, and yet all females who identify as male are excluded from the competitive female game and must compete as a male in both male-only and mixed team games, even if they are not taking testosterone.


The sexism in this part of the policy becomes clear when the much more complex criteria for male eligibility in the female game is explained:


Transsexual woman over 16 and post-puberty (male-to-female transgender person) may compete in her affirmed gender in female or mixed-sex domestic competition by providing evidence that her hormone therapy has brought her blood- measured testosterone levels within the range of her affirmed gender or that she has had a gonadectomy (which prevents further production of male hormones).


It should be made clear to the transwoman or girl that she is not entitled to play in female competition until she has provided evidence that the criteria has been met. She will be required to disclose medical information to support this.


OR


She may compete in any male or mixed-sex competition if she has not started hormone treatment


(A transsexual woman or transwoman is a man who identifies as woman).


Let’s unpack this statement. It seems that as long as testosterone levels are within an undefined range for an unspecified period of time, or there has been a specified surgical intervention at some point, neither of which will mitigate the physiological effects of male puberty on the skeleton, muscle mass, heart size or lung capacity, a male can lay claim to the place of a female on either a female-only or a mixed team. I suppose details are inconvenient. Science is a bit complicated. And who on earth cares about fairness?


In order to achieve eligibility here, medical evidence must be handed over to officials, and presumably test results are required at regular intervals for testosterone suppression. These are unreasonable requirements for everyone involved and has had terrible repercussions for officials trying to maintain the rules around males in female sport in the past; a request for exactly this type of medical information caused fell-runner Lauren Jeska / Michael Jameson (a male who self-identifies as female) such huge anxiety and anger that he took revenge on a UK Athletic official in an horrific knife attack that left the official with life-changing injuries. Jeska now resides in HMP Foston Hall, a women’s closed prison.


Next:


Transgender girl – under 16 and post-puberty Either she may compete in her affirmed gender in any female or mixed-sex domestic competitions subject to an individual case-by-case review, if required, undertaken by England Netball. The transsexual girl and her parent or guardian should be asked to permit EN to undertake a review meeting to check her individual circumstances and manage expectations with due consideration to fairness and safety.


However, medical interventions may be undertaken that suspend puberty, and those young people will be able to take part in adult sport during their teens and into adulthood according to their affirmed gender status, without restriction. The issue of whether or not young players have physiological treatments during puberty can determine the level of their inclusion, so an understanding of this is crucial.


Or


She may compete in any male or mixed-sex competition if she has not started hormone treatment


(A transgender girl is a boy who identifies as girl).


Well, the off-label prescription of puberty blockers by gender clinics has been suspended in the UK since June 2023 due to a lack of research data on the effects of these potent drugs on healthy children, so this part of the guidance certainly needs updating to reflect the fact that this intervention is not proven to be safe in children. Also, the suggestion that halting healthy puberty is a gateway into women’s sport is ethically dubious.


Case-by-case decisions are perhaps the worst possible way of determining eligibility for competition. It is unfair on the male player who must provide justification for their request, it is unfair on the officials who must make an apparently subjective decision with no clear guidance around the criteria for eligibility, and it is unfair on the girls and women who have zero input on the decisions directly affecting their sport.


And finally:


Transgender girl – pre-puberty - may compete in her affirmed gender in any female or mixed-sex domestic competition subject to confirmation of her stage of pubertal development. This is because there would be no virilising effects of testosterone, minimising the risk of injury and no physical advantage over competitors of the same age. The girl and her parent or carer may be asked to refer to her GP for details.


I don’t envy the official who has to decide the point at which puberty is having enough of a ‘virilising’ effect to warrant exclusion of the male player from female competitions. Perhaps the GP knows best.


EN and all other domestic sporting organisations have sufficient information and support to be able to make good, female-centred policies that unashamedly prioritise the safety, fairness and dignity of girls and women in their sport. Many UK sporting bodies have already updated their guidance to protect the female category, including Swim England, British Cycling, British Triathlon, English, Welsh and Irish rugby union governing bodies, England Volleyball, British Ski and Wakeboard, and UK Athletics.


It is right that stakeholders are consulted. It is important for members to respond to a consultation, now is the time. Build on the momentum and tip the domino.


Or, as a non-member you can write to:


England Netball SportPark, 3 Oakwood Drive, Loughborough, Leicestershire, LE11 3QF


Or contact the Safeguarding, Inclusion and Compliance department complaints@englandnetball.co.uk


Netball in a playground; Netball, derived from the American game of Basketball, was first developed in England around 1895 by Martina Sofia Helena Bergman-Österberg (née Bergman; 7 October 1849 – 29 July 1915), a Swedish physical education instructor and women’s suffrage advocate. After studying Swedish gymnastics in Stockholm she moved to London, where she founded the first physical education instructor’s college in England, in which she admitted women only.


Bergman-Österberg pioneered teaching physical education as a full subject within the English school curriculum and played a pivotal role in the early development of netball. Bergman-Österberg was an advocate of women’s emancipation, directly encouraging women to be active in sport and education, and also donating money to women’s emancipation organisations in her native Sweden [10].


7. This section allows separate sporting competitions to continue to be organised for men and women where physical strength, stamina or physique are major factors in determining success or failure, and in which one sex is generally at a disadvantage in comparison with the other. It also makes it lawful to restrict participation of transsexual people in such competitions if this is necessary to uphold fair or safe competition, but not otherwise. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/notes/division/3/14/5

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