The case of Valentina Petrillo and the controversy surrounding transgender sport

As she crossed the 400 meter mark and thus reached the final finish line, Valentina Petrillo hoped that the newspapers, radio and social networks would report on how tenacious she had been in conquering that third place. However, she knew it probably wouldn’t have happened because in Italy – and almost everywhere – every time a transgender woman enters a sports competition where the objective is to compete with other women, the debate that had been dormant for a while flares up again.

The sporting world – and the rest of society in general – grew up with the idea of ​​having to organize itself around a clear binary divide, that between man and woman, determined by the person’s initial biological situation. But while the community, on the one hand, is trying to reshape itself to respect and include the rights of transgender people, sport, on the other hand, has proved completely unprepared to do the same. This created such confusion around him that even the public debate could be baffled.

As in the case of Petrillo, whom some people on social media have described as the athlete who allegedly “stealed first place from biological women who competed in the Paralympics.”

The first swindle is easy to spot – and debunkable: Valentina came third at the Paralympic Athletics World Championships. The second is more hidden, as it requires knowledge of some preliminary information. Let’s start with the context. Valentina Petrillo is the first Italian trans athlete to take part in an international competition. In 2021, the visually impaired sprinter represented us at the Paralympic European Athletics Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, where he placed fifth in the 400m final – setting a new record for Italy – in the T13 category, i.e. for the visually impaired without a guide by their side. But that wasn’t his only success.

However, we recently spoke about her again, mainly due to her presence at the tenth edition of the Paralympic World Championships in Athletics (which ended on July 17, 2023 in Paris). Event in which, as mentioned at the beginning, the athlete managed to win a bronze medal in the 400m special. Her podium sparked controversy and outrage, probably due to a lack of knowledge of the regulations: many of the “opponents” actually argued that Petrillo could not compete alongside the other women. From a regulatory point of view, however, the situation is not quite so.

It is true that Sebastian Coe, President of World Athletics – the world athletics federation – did so last March explained that only female trans athletes who started the transition as children can participate in women’s competitions. Excluded, therefore, are those who instead took this path after puberty — a time when some critics argue that men crucially mature those advantages in bone and cardiovascular capacity that prevent them from competing fairly with women. A rule previously adopted by the swimming, rugby and cycling federations. Until then, transgender women could compete with other women as long as they kept their testosterone levels high is below a certain threshold (five nanomoles per liter) for all twelve months prior to the competition.

However, it should be borne in mind that Paralympic competition is not legally controlled by world athletics. Its regulation is set by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), which allows individual sports to make their own decisions about trans people. Therefore, in principle, Valentina Petrillo has the right to participate in national and international competitions in the women’s category, at least as long as the regulations of her discipline allow it.

In fact, in certain situations of such development, it is difficult that there are immutable rules. Coe himself indicated that World Athletics’ decision could be reversed at any time. In fact, science and studies on the subject have never shown with certainty that male puberty actually confers objective advantages on trans athletes over competitors. There is not enough data.

As confirmed by Eric Vilain, a genetic expert on differences in sexual development about whom “we know very little and there is no compelling evidence of the advantages of trans women and athletes over their cisgender peers.” In fact, James Barrett, director of the Adult Gender Identity Clinic in London, who, among other things, is collaborating on a study commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, argues that “trans women could be disadvantaged by their heavier muscles”. The latter is an aspect often emphasized by those who say they oppose the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports competitions. Emily Bridges, a transgender cyclist who was recently banned from competing, decided to undergo a scientific study looking at the effects of hormone therapy on a professional athlete’s body. The same reported a little over a hundred days after starting the treatment that she had noticed a clear “deterioration” in her aerobic performance, which had caused her to cover shorter distances and with much more effort than the other cyclists.

However, many associations have taken advantage of the current situation of uncertainty, preferring to opt for exclusion in order to satisfy the part of politics and society pushing in this direction. In doing so, they are fleeing what the human rights organization Human Rights Watch has defined as an intrinsic duty: protecting the rights of male and female athletes. It is therefore not surprising that more than half of transgender people feel left out because of their gender identity or have stopped exercising (says). the report by Outsport, a project co-funded by the European Commission) and that more than a third of the people involved (non-cisgender) had had a negative sporting experience in the 12 months prior to the interview (almost half of the cases were transgender women).

In fact, discrimination starts in the first years of school. In America, for example, in the last three years, dozens of states have banned transgender girls from participating in school or college athletic competitions in a bid to “protect sports and women’s categories.”

On the other hand, it is less common for the opposite to occur, and therefore for a transgender man to become the focus of sporting controversy: indeed, his participation in men’s competitions is not expected to disadvantage his opponents. This was confirmed by Chris Mosier himself, a well-known American transgender athlete who has won more than one win in the men’s track category, but who has never received the same treatment reserved for fellow transgender women.

Instead, “transgender women in particular are constantly being portrayed as a threat, negatively affecting public perception and leading to more discrimination and hatred,” particularly in the field of sports. “The bans directed at them are discriminatory and unfounded, and dangerously contribute to a pre-existing climate of hostility towards the trans community,” he said. called Apparently a member of Mermaids, an English charity that campaigns for transgender rights. “Nobody should be forced to choose between their own life and the sport they love.”

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