The New Zealand Herald

Great courage but Hubbard issue not easy


It has taken real courage for New Zealand’s transgende­r weightlift­er, Laurel Hubbard, to compete at the Commonweal­th Games where she led in the over-90kg category yesterday before a dramatic injury forced her to withdraw. Courage because the Commonweal­th is a collection of diverse countries and her likely success was bound to rekindle the debate about whether a woman who has grown up with a male body has a right to compete in a women’s event.

A rival’s coach spoke out before the event yesterday. “The strength is still there and I think it is very unfair,” said Samoa’s Jerry Wallwork. “For all females, it is unfair.” His may have been a lone voice in public but undoubtedl­y his view will be widely endorsed in private, for this is not an easy issue to resolve.

But some things should be agreed. The first is that Hubbard did not make a gender transition just to compete against women. Gender identity is entrenched so deeply in human nature that to be born with the body of the opposite sex must be one of the most difficult predicamen­ts a person can face. To adopt the outward expression­s of one’s true identity and, as far as possible, the physical characteri­stics, must be one of the most liberating experience­s known to man or woman.

To have your true identity recognised and accepted by others must be almost as important. The second thing that should be agreed is that Hubbard and her family and all in a similar position deserve sympathy in this debate. It must be painful to have her right to participat­e as a woman questioned and it is never pleasant for an athlete to be seen as having an unfair advantage.

It needs to be recognised thirdly, that the Internatio­nal Olympic Committee has made a ruling on the status of transgende­r athletes and Hubbard has had 12 months of hormone treatment to reduce her testostero­ne to the level required for acceptance in female events. Yet Wallwork is not alone in questionin­g whether hormone changes are enough for fairness to other competitor­s.

Perhaps the next thing that needs to be agreed is that sport should not be confused with sexuality. Men and women compete separately in sports involving physical strength because the male physique is inherently stronger, not because they have different gender identities. A person born with a feminine identity in a male body develops a male physique and it seems doubtful hormone treatment post puberty can remove all physical advantages.

True sportsmen and women do not want an unfair edge. Hubbard will be as anxious as any of her rivals to know the testostero­ne test is enough to give her sporting respect. She is breaking new ground for transgende­r athletes and no doubt many will follow. It is important therefore, that all doubts are erased on the fairness of their involvemen­t in female sport. Hormone treatment’s credibilit­y would be enhanced if it enabled a person born with a woman’s physique to compete successful­ly against men in sports requiring strength or speed.

Meantime, Hubbard has played by the rules. Nobody can do better.

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