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No Debate is Over for Rowing

A conversation about British Rowing transgender policy.

When Junior Rowing News published an Opinion piece entitled: ‘Transgender women aren’t a threat to women’s sport’ the reaction was explosive! Currently, the tweet announcing the opinions piece has had 3.3 million views with 48 likes, and hundreds of not entirely complimentary replies.

WRN member, and rower, Jane Sullivan contacted Junior Rowing News and offered to write a counter piece. So did developmental biologist Emma Hilton. This is the article that JRN published.

In the era of ‘No Debate’ it is unlikely that the counter argument would have been given an airing. We thank Junior Rowing News for giving us the space to present the scientific and legal arguments, and to highlight the real-life impact on female rowers of all ages. No Debate is Over.

Transgender women ARE a threat to women’s sport

By Emma Hilton and Jane Sullivan

On September 11th 2023, British Rowing’s new Competition Eligibility Policy comes into effect. Pursuing other sports – inter/national rugby, cycling, athletics, triathlon, aquatics, for example – British Rowing will restrict the women’s category to female athletes. Males, regardless of gender identity, will be eligible only for the newly-proposed ‘open’ category.

We are beyond pleased.

Jane: I’ve personally witnessed the damage to women’s sport caused by just one or two transgender women (males who identify as women) in rowing. I have campaigned for regulatory changes for several years, working with individuals and groups like the Women’s Rights Network, Fair Play for Women and Sex Matters. British Rowing has recognised that allowing males to compete against females is unfair and damaging to women’s sport.

Junior Rowing News recently published: Transgender women aren’t a threat to women’s sport contrary to British Rowing’s new policy” which claimed that stating “trans women are a threat to women’s sport” is transphobic rhetoric and scaremongering.

Here we answer some of the questions raised in this article.

1. It is not really a problem; trans people make up a tiny proportion of people who play sport

Sadly, the presence of just one transgender woman can have a huge impact on many women and girls. In cycling there are numerous trans women competing in various disciplines (documented by Twitter user @I_heart_bikes; transgender women cyclists racing and winning). Hannah Arensman, 35-time winner on the national cyclocross circuit, has thrown in the towel after being forced to race against biological males in women’s events.

Elite surfer Bethany Hamilton, who famously continued to surf even after a shark attack in which she lost an arm, now refuses to compete in World Surfing League competitions that permit transgender women to win prize money intended for women: She asks: “Is a hormone level an honest and accurate description that someone indeed is male or female?”

Jane: World class athletes give up the sport they love. They are not alone. Angling, tennis, badminton, any sport and there is a woman or girl who has been denied a team or podium place because a transgender woman was included in her category.

2. Transgender women do not possess a physical advantage in rowing

Emma: Rowing is an obviously sex-affected sport. Height and long limbs are the levers for a stroke. Musculature adds power. High cardiovascular capacity gives you a sprint start and finish. So important is skeletal structure, GB Rowing recruits on height – “females 5’10” and taller… and males 6’2” and taller”. And then they teach tall people how to row.

Look around you. Men are, on average, taller than women, and thus have the most important inbuilt advantage in rowing. And that’s without considering the bonus of greater muscle mass and strength, and bigger hearts and lungs.

Emma: There are multiple studies of transgender women suppressing testosterone. They don’t get shorter and they only lose a little bit of muscle and strength, even after 14 years. Performance studies find greater upper body strength and endurance remain after four years.

Jane: In short, you cannot unbuild a male (and what does it say about Clean Sport when a Sports Governing Body asks athletes to take powerful medications to reduce performance?).

How does this apply to rowing? The men’s British record for 2k on the ergo is Mo Sbihi at 5:41.8. The women’s record, set by Sarah Winkless, is 6:28.8. No woman has ever scored lower than 6:21.0 on the ergo. The 15-16-year-old male record for this event is 5:57.2. Even the record for 14-year-old boys stands at 6:16.7 – faster than any woman has scored. Records here.

Jane: After 12 months of testosterone suppression transgender women show only a 5% decrease in muscle mass and strength. A 5% reduction in the British men’s record score takes it up to 5:58.9 still well beyond the world records for women.

Emma: There are now around 15 peer-reviewed scientific studies that show reducing testosterone does not reverse the impact of male puberty. The one (anonymous and not peer-reviewed) CCES report quoted by the JRN article makes statements that are simply not true.

3. We are in a toxic culture war, with devastating effects on transgender people

We ask: what about the effect on women and girls? All women and girls, elite and recreational?

Since the mid-2000s, a male rower has been competing, winning medals and setting records in the women’s categories. In the 60-69 age group the 500m, 2k and 5k records are held by a male; in the 70-79 ages groups the same male has set records for 1 min, 4 min, 100m, 500m, 1k, 2k, and 5k. At World level, the 100m, 500m and 1k women’s indoor 40-49 age group records are held by a male. (Women's Indoor Records).

The impact on women has been largely ignored because it seems Masters’ Women are unimportant. However, these events are important to the women who enter them. All women and girls, from grassroots to elite, deserve fair sport; the inclusion of transgender women with male advantage is not fair.

Jane: Women have been cheated out of their rightful places on the podium and in record books, and I know many women who have given up rowing competitions as a result. In 2015, the Women’s Boat Race shared both day and course with the Men’s event – a significant stride for equality. Each female rower in that team felt pride. But one lost her historic spot to transgender woman rower Sarah Gibson. I wonder how that woman felt.

4. What about inclusion?

Including transgender women excludes biological females, and this likely contravenes the Equality Act 2010 as indirect discrimination. Sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act; it is legal to exclude males from female sports (and, importantly, the single sex spaces where female athletes get changed).

“The inclusion of transgender people into female sport cannot be balanced regarding transgender inclusion, fairness and safety in gender [sex]-affected sport where there is meaningful competition. This is 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”.

Jane: I have witnessed women’s rowing grow from a thousand athletes to nearly half of British Rowing’s 31,500 membership. We are a rowing powerhouse and our women excel. Earlier this month, all GB women at the U19 World Championships medalled. Inclusion of transgender women in women’s rowing has already harmed women and girls. Let’s move on and focus on those ergo scores and getting boats moving fast (in the right sex category, of course).

Dr Emma Hilton is a developmental biologist at the University of Manchester. She has published academically on sport, male development, and transgender women. Emma is a board member of Sex Matters.

Jane Sullivan was a medical writer for 30 years. She learnt to row at Reading University and the Women’s Rowing Centre in London. Jane was also Head of Rowing in a Co-ed school, and currently coaches coastal sculling in Wales.



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