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Cricket and gender

A fraught battleground

Tanya Aldred
Maxine Blythin drives through the covers  •  Ian Scammell

Maxine Blythin drives through the covers  •  Ian Scammell

Career controversialist Katie Hopkins tweeting about cricket? There must be a bandwagon rolling into town. Sure enough, there it was - pulling into Lord's, brazen, klaxon at full volume. When Maxine Blythin was named Kent's woman Player of the Year in September, all hell broke loose on social media. This was because she was born a boy, but transitioned in her teens. When it comes to trans women in women's sport, nuance and empathy can disappear: Hopkins called Blythin's award "another kick in the ovaries for biological females everywhere".
It is a battleground where inclusion flips the bird at equality, trans activists square up to gender-critical feminists, and science faces off identity politics. It is also an issue that revolves around female sport, both biological women (sometimes referred to as cis women) and trans women (men who have transitioned into females). Trans men do not threaten male sport in any meaningful way.
For some trans activists, it is straightforward: a trans woman is a woman, and has a right to be included in women's spaces, including sport. For others, a trans woman who has gone through male puberty should not play against biological females. Between the two positions lies an ocean of grey. (Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner, is a cause célebre for a different category altogether: intersex, where a person is born with characteristics that are not typically male or female.)
In the UK, especially, debate has been poisonous, catalysed by proposed changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. Former British Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies and nine-times Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova have been accused of transphobia, after talking about the advantage of the male body, and in many places discussion has effectively been shut down - freedom of speech losing out to accusations of hate crime. In January, Selina Todd, a gender-critical feminist professor, was given two security guards by Oxford University after threats from trans activists. Meanwhile, cricket's administrators are torn.
Predictably, the picture portrayed of Blythin on social media was incomplete. A softly spoken trans woman who works in finance, she wasn't trying to trick anyone, and had written to the ECB before she started playing for Kent, explaining her position and offering her testosterone results. She was forced by the subsequent publicity to come out to everyone she knew. She is also a red herring of sorts. Blythin, who was backed in the Twitter storm by her Kent captain, England batsman Tammy Beaumont, says she was born with very low testosterone levels; she is waiting for doctors to confirm her condition. Crucially, she says she didn't go through male puberty, and started living as a female in her teens. After taking oestrogen, she then went through female puberty.
Last year, her debut season for Kent's women, she averaged 33, and was their third-highest scorer. She also played for St Lawrence & Highland Court's women's team (and averaged 127) and Chesham Second XI, a men's team (and averaged 11). Mixed cricket is not unusual for good female players, because it gives them further experience: in 2011, England batsman Arran Brindle scored the first century, in Lincolnshire, by a woman in a men's Premier League match for Louth; in 2015, England seamer Kate Cross took eight for 47 in the Lancashire League. "The papers make out that I'm this massive hench guy," says Blythin. "Yes, I'm six foot four on my tippy toes, but my dad is taller, and my sister is tall. I've never had to shave. I have pretty much zero testosterone."
Does she think being born a man gives her an edge? "None at all. People will point to my height, but it brings advantages and disadvantages. A long reach can be really useful, but when you're smaller you can get away with angles. There are girls in my team who can hit the ball harder, and have bigger hands - though I've got the longest legs. I get the arguments against trans women in sport, and I think it needs to be done on a case-by-case basis, though once you've transitioned medically, you lose that advantage, by and large."
Nicola Williams is director of Fair Play for Women, who monitor the impact of transgender policy on women and girls in the UK. "Pre-puberty, there is little difference between the sexes," she says. "It is male puberty that brings huge and irreversible advantages. Sex matters ins port. Female-only categories exist because of the large and well-known performance advantage enjoyed by males. If we didn't divide categories by sex, women would never win, or even get selected to play. The purpose of female-only is to keep female sport safe and competitive. Sporting clubs are letting that understanding slip away. They are opening up the women's game in the name of inclusion, but failing to acknowledge how this directly excludes females from their own teams. They've not found a way to solve the conundrum, which is why groups like FPFW exist."
The ICC's transgender policy is based on International Olympic Committee guidelines, and allows trans women to play women's cricket at international level if their testosterone level has been under ten nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months, and stays that way during competition (typically, male testosterone levels are between 7.7 and 29.4, while Blythin says hers were always below five). All ICC member countries must abide by this in international competition, but the ECB and Cricket Australia have their own policies for domestic cricket.
Australia launched their transgender and gender diverse policy in August 2019, backed by former Australian captain Alex Blackwell and her team-mate at the Universities Women's Cricket Club in Sydney, transgender woman Erica James, who returned to the sport after transition, and became a poster girl for the new CA policy. Elite domestic cricket(including the Women's Big Bash League) shadows the ICC testosterone rule, with the possibility of a referral to an expert panel on issues of "strength, stamina or physique".
At recreational level, Australian players are allowed to self-ID - determine their own gender, without any medical assessment or treatment - with the onus on umpires or local associations to rule if there is too much disparity. In the current febrile atmosphere, it is easy to imagine this becoming problematic - for someone raising an objection, and also for the decision-maker. At both elite and recreational level, transgender players must "demonstrate a commitment to their gender identity, as nominated for the purpose of this policy, being consistent with their gender identity in other aspects of everyday life".
The ECB use the self-ID model up to and including county cricket and The Hundred (though no trans women have been drafted into the women's competition for 2020), despite the ICC recommending that their medicalised model be followed "at the level of national championships or similar". Clare Connor, the ECB's managing director of women's cricket, has hinted that the board may look at a change for The Hundred for 2021, but nothing concrete had been heard in the meantime. For any professional clubs or England pathway teams, the ECB's head of policy development can "decide whether the transgender woman should receive clearance to play in the requested competition(s) and match(es)". But at recreational level, the only advice to clubs is that, "a transgender woman may compete in any open competition, league or match or any female-only competition, league or match, and should be accepted in the gender in which they present".
Cricket is played on many levels. It requires concentration, tactical nous, and skill. But it is also a game based on strength and speed, which is why women use a lighter, smaller ball than men, and play with shorter boundaries. The fastest ball bowled by a man is 100mph, by Shoaib Akhtar; the fastest by a woman 77mph, by Cathryn Fitzpatrick. Some men hit the ball 100 metres; Raphael Brandon, the ECB's head of science and medicine, said in 2017 that the best women might soon clear 80.
Reducing testosterone to level the playing field is controversial. The IOC - and ICC - limit of 10nmol/l is seen by some as far too high, considering women's testosterone levels tend to range between 0.12 and 1.79. There was talk of the IOC reducing the limit to five before this year's Tokyo Olympics, but scientists were unable to agree a policy. And recent research suggests that, though reducing testosterone has an effect on transgender women, it doesn't reduce all the advantages of male puberty.
Tommy Lundberg works at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. According to his research, after one year of gender-affirming treatment a trans woman typically loses 5% of muscle mass ("quite a small amount"), but no strength. "Few sports are based purely on muscle mass," he says. "They usually include endurance and technique as well. However, I would say that, with hitting, throwing and sprinting, muscle mass and strength are important variables, so this matters in cricket. Some of the trans women lost far more than 5% of their muscle mass, some lost almost zero, and god knows what would happen if you were actually training during that period. We just don't have all the answers yet."
He is backed by evidence from exercise scientist Professor Gregory Brown for a lawsuit brought by Connecticut schoolgirl runners, who sued after transgender girls were allowed to run against them. Brown concluded that, at elite level, biological-male physiology is the basis for the advantage that men or adolescent boys post-puberty have over women or adolescent girls in almost all athletic contests, and that it was not undone by gender treatment. He details "more muscle mass, greater muscle strength, less body fat, higher bone mineral density, greater bone strength, higher haemoglobin concentrations, larger hearts and larger coronary blood vessels, and larger overall statures than women and adolescent girls".
Joanna Harper, a medical physicist, adviser to the IOC and a trans woman, was the first to do quantitative analysis of transgender athletes. Her study of eight transgender female athletes showed that, when runners took hormone suppressing medication, collectively they ran much slower, and did not outperform other women. Harper concedes her study isn't considered high quality research, though it was revolutionary. She also agrees that, even after hormone treatment, trans women are bigger and stronger than the typical woman. "But there are two things I would add," she says. "They have a larger frame and a reduced muscle mass, which is a disadvantage. Also, we allow advantage in sport: we allow, for example, left-handed fencers to compete against right-handed fencers.
"The jury is still out on the science: there is a balance to be struck. If one is being totally honest, there is a small infringement on cis women, but to suggest that sporting organisations have ignored cis women is not true. Nor have women's sports disappeared since the Olympic committee first allowed transgender athletes to compete in 2004, or when they dropped the demand for reassignment surgery in 2016. Trans women undergo hormone therapy because it makes us more feminine. If they choose not to, they should do men's sports, except in cases of self-ID at recreational level. At higher levels, self-ID is absolutely problematic."
Does she think the ECB's policy of allowing trans women to self-ID all the way to the top of the domestic game is fair? "It's difficult. Where do you draw the line? I'm no cricket expert. I don't feel qualified to answer." Blythin sees possible problems, too: "Obviously, you can't have Jofra Archer rocking up after a two-week self-ID period - I get that - but lots of the talk tends to be fear-mongering."
Where, then, from these murky waters? The ICC, CA and ECB all say their rules are subject to review. Fair Play for Women believe the answer is for trans women to play in a category appropriate to their sex. They also believe there should be a protected category for those born female, and an open category for everyone else. "I don't want to see trans women excluded, but they can play in the open game," says Williams. "There should be no stigma for a trans woman playing at the top level in the open game. Men don't need their own protected category, so it makes sense that the men's category should become more inclusive, not the female one."
If the science seems to point in one direction, the desire for inclusion looks in another. Yet inclusion of whom? The ECB drew up their transgender strategy in consultation with Gendered Intelligence (who work with the trans community) and Stonewall, an LGBT-rights charity. But they spoke to no representatives of exclusively female groups. The prioritising of gender identity over sex also results in the curious ECB rule that a non-binary person - described by the ECB as "someone whose gender identity doesn't sit comfortably with man or woman" - is forbidden to play in the female-only competition. This includes a biological woman.
Women's cricket has come on so much, in investment, media coverage, standards. A career as a professional, once unthinkable, is now feasible. But, even today, girls are not socialised to play sport in the same way as boys, and their participation drops off considerably at puberty. A trans woman playing women's cricket means a biological girl or woman misses out. Harper disputes this. "In a social sense, trans women are women. It is only because people suggest that trans women are really men that this argument is still being had. One in 150 people are trans. You wouldn't ever suggest a redheaded woman is preventing someone of another hair colour playing."
Sport can be so many brilliant things, improving mental and physical wellbeing, and bringing people together. For those suffering the torment of gender dysmorphia, playing alongside others of the same gender may prove a lifeline. It is also true that trans women are not swamping female cricket at any level, and blood testing at recreational level would be impossible.
What value kindness, compassion? Then again, what value safety - at 90mph - or the protected status of women's sport? And that's before even touching on the vexed issue of women's private spaces. At the elite level, tiny differences in performance can make or break a career. We are all constrained by our biology, and sport is, ultimately, a biological test: the gap between men and women is real.
"I don't envy the people making these decisions," says Lundberg. "What is their priority: to be inclusive, or to protect the female category?" All voices in the debate need to be heard; women's voices, disregarded in sport for so long, must not be ignored again. For, whatever the question, the answer has never been lots of people shouting at each other, fingers in ears.
Tanya Aldred is a freelance writer and editor.