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Why transgender athletes can’t get a sporting chance

Thursday 28th June 2018

A weightlifter is the butt of online jokes. A cyclist faces a slew of criticism. A fighter prepares to hide who he is. Max Towle meets the transgender Kiwis suffering for their sport.

Kate Weatherly navigates a downhill course.
Kate Weatherly navigates a downhill course.

Photo: Cameron Mackenzie

When Kate Weatherly discovered mountain biking, she raced to avoid finishing last.

The 21-year-old has always been a sport fanatic, despite battling a chronic lung disease as a child. She took up archery in her early teens and tried wakeboarding and snowboarding. She loved swimming, despite finishing last in every school race.

Once her breathing improved, downhill biking became her new love. What she lacked in natural talent, she made up for in enthusiasm. At 16, she lived for the thrill of hurdling rocks, navigating drops and sliding her bike through dirt.

Determined to catch up to her rivals, she spent school nights on exercise bikes in a gym. Her times gradually improved and she moved from novice categories to just below the elite division.

At the same time she was discovering her true self - she came to understand she was a woman in a male body. “As a child, I never really questioned my gender, but in a way, it’s been something that’s been on my mind for as long as I can remember. I first had the realisation at 16 when I was presented with the idea of a transgender person.”

She began hormone therapy a year later. She competed as a man for a few more years - afraid, battling the debilitating effects of her treatment.

Mountain biker Kate Weatherly says the wrong message is being sent to trans athletes.
Mountain biker Kate Weatherly says the wrong message is being sent to trans athletes.

Photo: Supplied

Early last year, she brushed aside her skepticism that it was even possible for her to race as herself and sent an anonymous email to Cycling New Zealand. She cautiously described her longing to switch to the women’s division and asked what its trans policy was. There was none, she was told.

Rather than be discouraged, she looked further: “I wanted my place in the sport to be completely justified.” She contacted the world governing body Union Cycliste Internationale and eventually found out she was already within the international Olympic guidelines for competing. She went back to Cycling New Zealand and encouraged it to draft a new policy and adopt the international guidelines.

In January, Weatherly competed in the women’s field for the first time, eligible under the regulations she helped create.

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The Wireless contacted six different sporting codes asking if they had a policy, or what advice they would give a trans athlete, and their responses generally make Cycling New Zealand look like a frontrunner in diversity and inclusion.

Some, like Hockey New Zealand and Tennis New Zealand simply said they would defer to international policies. Boxing New Zealand’s president, Keith Walker, said he was unaware of guidelines relating to trans fighters or any precedent, and added, “you have raised something that in time they may well have to address.”

A spokesperson for NZ Golf said there was “something in the works” in terms of inclusion: “In a few weeks we can have a clearer answer. This is a great question, and a space that society is moving towards. We don’t have a solution yet, but we are on a journey.”

Netball New Zealand does have a policy that involves players providing a medical certificate that verifies their gender, and proof that therapy has suitably adjusted their testosterone levels.

New Zealand Rugby’s head of participation, Steve Lancaster, said the organisation doesn’t have a trans policy but is developing one. “We have recommended to provincial unions to apply a safety-first focus … these issues need to be handled with care and support.”

These responses show that if Weatherly had chosen another sport over cycling, the difficulties she faced would be the same. And her story isn’t a rare one - The Wireless spoke to four other young people who have felt the same anxiety and isolation. All of them say they wish the system was built to help them succeed in sport happily.

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A few months ago, Erin Page made one of the toughest decisions of his life.

He’s been a cricket devotee since he was knee-high and watched his dad play club cricket. “When I’m older, I want to play too,” he told him.

Years later, the 22-year-old Wellington student spends summer weekends wearing Persil-white shirts on cricket greens.“When the season ends, I long to hear the crack of a ball colliding with a bat.”

Late last year, he joined a waiting list to be seen by a clinical psychologist so he could access testosterone therapy. Erin was assigned female at birth, but is a man.

“I’ve decided I have to leave my team,” he says.

I was afraid.

Erin is a “rural kid” who went to a small country school outside of Hastings. He’s upset to leave his team as “they’re an awesome bunch of women and they’re my friends”. But he feels he has to make a choice between who he is, and the sport he loves.

It’s a familiar refrain. *Riley, 21, played for his Auckland high school’s hockey and football teams, but, since his final year, has given up any sport. “All of my teammates continued playing for clubs, but I didn’t want to play for women’s teams anymore. I looked for men’s teams, but it just didn’t work out. I didn’t feel comfortable.”

He says a lack of information proved discouraging - from the bigger questions he was dying to ask, right down to worrying about where he could change before games. “Coming out as trans socially is one thing, but being a trans player in a sport team is a completely different challenge.”

Andy* agrees. Growing up, netball was his sport of choice. When he came out during the first year of high school, he says giving up the game affected him more than he imagined. “I didn’t realise how much playing sport and exercising can help with depression … perhaps I could have spent a little more time trying to seek out trans-friendly teams, but it just didn’t seem like an option. I was afraid.”

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For a 17-year-old who has experienced so much turbulence, there’s a resilience in Andy’s voice.

Recently, that resilience led to him to discover a new sport - full-contact medieval sword fighting. It’s as crazy as it sounds - combatants clad in full armour swing giant swords, axes and fists in a rectangular ring.

Andy, who fights for a female team, plans to travel to Russia this year for an international tournament, yet due to the country’s history of homophobia and transphobia, he says he’ll have to hide who he is - “Well, more than usual.”

“When I do go on hormones, I’m scared because I’ll want to join the men’s team for international tournaments, but I won’t be able to do that without people noticing.”

Erin Page isn’t keen to find a new sport. He just wants to play cricket. “I’ve been looking for a men’s team, but I’ve spent ages online searching for any sort of guidelines or inclusivity policies for trans people and haven’t found anything.”

There were documents from various clubs and organisations, but he says they felt like generic “insert sport and LGBT here” statements.

He, like Andy, is yet to come out to everyone in his team: “I’m terrified I won’t be seen as a man and accepted. Sometimes I think my concerns aren’t rational, but because there’s zero information from either Cricket NZ or the club I play for. There’s nothing out there to prove me wrong.”

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Wiri Bristowe just assumed she wouldn’t be able to switch from a men’s to a women’s team.

The 27-year-old has represented the men’s national team’s reserves, but longed to play with women. “In the men’s netball scene there are a lot of trans women who have never felt able to play for a women’s team,” she says.

Wiri Bristowe has faced complaints about her playing women's netball.
Wiri Bristowe has faced complaints about her playing women's netball.

Photo: Supplied

Bristowe moved home to Blenheim a few months ago to be closer to her family during hormone treatment. She travels to Nelson to meet with doctors and psychiatrists. A few weeks ago, a local netball club asked if she wanted to play for their women’s team. She said she would love to, but wasn’t allowed. “They said that didn’t seem right, and did all this research and work to find out if I ticked the right boxes.” She played in her first women’s game a couple of months ago.

A few weeks ago, her team beat another 85-12. After the game, a parent who had discovered Bristowe was transgender made a complaint to Marlborough Netball. A reporter came to the next game and later tried calling Bristowe. Others, too, have asked her “probing” questions. “It’s been upsetting, but I knew it was going to happen sooner or later. It was just really intense having people come at you and ask you all these questions at once,” she says. “I just want to play netball.”

Earlier this month, at a tournament in Taupo, she won an award for ‘Most Valuable Player.’

“Seeing the word “female” on the certificate - it felt like an acknowledgement of who I am.”

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Being allowed to compete with women’ hasn’t magically fixed everything for Kate Weatherly. “Plenty of mountain bikers have been supportive, but there have been plenty of both strangers and people I know who are against me racing.”

If you Google her name, the immediate headlines question her legitimacy: “A level playing field?”; “Transgender mountain biker controversy”; “Lack of stand down period for transgender rider causes confusion for field”; “Athlete criticised for switching to female category after transition”.

Kate Weatherly celebrates a win.
Kate Weatherly celebrates a win.

Photo: Cameron Mackenzie

When Weatherly won the elite women’s division at the national championships in February, some riders called for her to race in a gender-neutral category. There were endless transphobic comments on social media.

Weatherly says she wishes people saw her as a person, rather than “a reason to yell”. “I don’t want to be a ‘trans athlete,’ just a regular athlete.”

Yet beyond “ignorant keyboard warriors,” what affected her most was the reaction from a close friend. “There was a girl I rode a lot with growing up and she was one of the first bikers I came out to - she was cool about it at the time, but once we started competing against each other and I beat her a few times, she did a full 180,” Weatherly says. “That hurt a lot.”

She says she’s happy to be in the spotlight as the wrong message is being sent to young people questioning their identity.

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New Zealand prides itself as an inclusive, diverse country, but the experience of the highest profile trans athlete in recent years, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, contradicts that.

Laurel Hubbard celebrates a successful lift.
Laurel Hubbard celebrates a successful lift.

Photo: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga

Hubbard looked certain to win gold at the Commonwealth Games in April, but her arm buckled on a lift and an elbow injury will likely mean her retirement.

On social media, people revelled in her despair. On a sport page's Facebook post, for instance, a crass joke about her gender received more than 500 ‘likes’. The most popular supportive comment was liked only 19 times.

The Wireless asked Hubbard for an interview, but she said “further reporting will just add fuel to the fire”.

And there is already plenty of fire. Simply Google the words “transgender” and “sport,” and the first response is a story quoting a university professor arguing trans athletes have clear advantages, and regulations should be stricter before they’re allowed to compete.

Erin Page says he wishes sporting codes and clubs made it clearer they took a zero tolerance approach to discrimination. He says their silence is deafening. “We’re just out here trying to live our lives and for many of us, playing sport is as important as it is for anyone.”

For now, he’s trying to find the courage to approach his cricket club’s president about switching teams. “Trans people are coming up against obstacles from all corners - whether it relates to biology or judgement by society ... for me, I just want more than anything to keep playing cricket and I don’t want the fact I’m trans to stop me,” he says.

“Everyone has the right to play sport.”

 

*Andy and Riley did not want their real names published.

LOOKING FOR SUPPORT?

Rainbow YouthA group supporting queer & gender diverse (LGBT) young people.

InsideOUT - InsideOUT works to make Aotearoa a safer place for young people of minority genders and sexualities.

OUTLine - A free counselling and support service.

Tranzform - A support group for youth who identify as transgender, fa'afafine, whakawahine, tangata ira tane, intersex, two-spirit, genderqueer, non-gendered and questioning.

Evolve - A health and social support centre for youth.

Naming NZ - An organisation to help transgender, gender diverse and intersex youth with updating their identity documents to correctly reflect their sex and gender.



Max is a journalist who has worked for The Star, Bleacher Report and RNZ News.
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