(Image by Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf)

Canadian athletic community meets NCAA policy with mixed responses


SASKATOON (CUP) — The National Collegiate Athletic Association recently adopted a new policy for transgender athletes, but Canadian Interuniversity Sport and many other Canadian athletic associations are in no rush to do the same.

The NCAA’s policy states that any athlete who has testosterone in their system as the result of medical treatment cannot compete on a women’s team. If a male is transitioning or has transitioned to a female, the athlete can compete on a women’s team if they provide documentation showing that they have undergone testosterone suppression treatment for one full year.

“Research suggests that androgen deprivation and cross sex hormone treatment in male-to-female transsexuals reduces muscle mass; accordingly, one year of hormone therapy is an appropriate transitional time before a male-to-female student-athlete competes on a women’s team,” Eric Vilain, a professor of human genetics at University of California Los Angeles, was quoted in the NCAA’s policy.

Prior to the policy, any athlete who had not yet started hormone therapy could play for whichever gender they were born as — regardless of how they identified themselves. For athletes who were undergoing or had undergone therapy, the NCAA did not have strong regulations in place.

“Our goal was to provide transgender athletes with the opportunity to participate in sports,” said Pat Griffin, former director of It Takes a Team! — an initiative of the Women’s Sports Foundation to educate on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in sport — and who helped the NCAA develop its policy.

“It’s an issue of fairness and equity … and also partly a response to more young people now identifying as transgender.”

The CIS, however, will likely not implement its own transgender policy any time soon. It is waiting for a set of guidelines from the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport on how best to include transgender athletes within their league.

“We will look at the direction that is provided [by CCES] and customize it to the CIS environment,” said Marg McGregor, chief executive officer of the CIS.

CIS policies state that a male can only compete on a men’s team while a female must compete on a women’s team unless there is no women’s team provided in the female’s sport of choice. Only then can a female compete for a men’s team.

There is no clear policy regarding transgender athletes. That does not mean, however, that they are ineligible to compete.

“We have a human rights code within Canada and the CIS follows the human rights code,” MacGregor said. “There would be no one who would be denied their rights.”

Transgender athletes can compete but only as their legally identified gender.

Keegan Epp, coordinator for the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union Pride Centre, believes that this oversimplifies the gender transition process.

“It assumes that legally changing an individual’s sex from the one assigned to them at birth is a simple process,” said Epp.

He wants to see the CIS implement a policy that sets a national standard for all transgender athletes.

“The CIS has an opportunity to be proactive in publishing publicly available policy, guidelines or best practices to ensure transgender athletes at all member universities are treated with respect and fairness,” said Epp.

The CCES is in the process of developing guidelines for the CIS and for other organizations to use and said they would not rush to publish their guidelines despite the NCAA’s recent policy.

“The need to create a unified national policy is apparent but the manner in which it is being developed is cautious,” said Doug MacQuarrie, chief operating officer of the CCES. “We don’t yet know enough to make decisions with impunity and such decisions taken by the NCAA may be taken in absence of the multitude of factors that we think need to be considered.”

One major problem that MacQuarrie listed with implementing a policy in Canada that is similar to the NCAA’s policy is the ethicality of gender testing.

In the NCAA’s policy, “there are some implied measurements of hormonal secretion, which I think in many respects is tantamount to [gender testing],” said MacQuarrie. “The Canadian Academy for Sport and Exercise Medicine has a policy against testing for gender.”

Gender testing is not allowed in Canada for several reasons. The tests are not always scientifically valid, women can have certain genetic disorders that result in “failed” tests, tests are only done on females and, perhaps most significantly, athletes who “fail” the test often suffer long term psycho-social effects.

For example, following the 2006 Asian Games, Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of her silver medal in the women’s 800 metre competition after failing a gender test. Shortly after, she attempted suicide and slipped into a coma.

Canadian transgender cyclist Kristen Worley nearly became the first transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics after almost qualifying for the games in 2008. A post on her website, kristenworley.ca, reads that the “NCAA is setting themselves up for human rights issues” and that its policy “forces young college and high school students, who have varying degrees of ‘gender’… to seek ‘forced medicalization’ of their bodies.”

MacQuarrie backs this idea that athletes should not be forced to identify themselves within sports’ traditional binary view of gender — being either a man or a woman.

“The arbitrary process of establishing whether one is a man or a woman is fraught with all kinds of consequences — largely social and psychological — which have to be considered when anyone implements a policy of this nature,” he said. “Our approach is one that provides for a safe and secure sport environment and recognizes that humans — the physical and biological elements of human — are not binary.”

Epp argues, however, that the CIS’s reliance on Canadian law and the CCES’s lack of guidelines actually hurt the cause to eliminate gender testing and the gender binary.

Gender transitioning “is a process which differs from province to province. In Saskatchewan it requires notes from a doctor confirming ‘sufficient’ physical modifications have been undertaken. This more often than not includes hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery,” said Epp. “While it may seem like the CIS has avoided the ‘medicalization’ of gender the NCAA policy has been criticized for, it has effectively passed the buck to the provinces.”

Epp believes that the CCES and the CIS are being too stubborn in thinking that they can change the binaries of sport overnight. He wants to see the CCES and the CIS come up with some sort of standard for transgender athletes in Canada that can operate within the binary of men’s and women’s sport.

“Given the gender binary in sport is unlikely to undergo a major change in the near future, transgendered athletes deserve an accessible set of eligibility policies or guidelines as is available to any other CIS athlete,” said Epp. “The NCAA seems to allow for a greater amount of gender variance within the constraints of a gender binary sporting model. [The NCAA’s policy is] another step in the right direction, but it’s likely not the last.”

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