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While Women’s Soccer Boasts Fierce LGBT Advocates, FIFA Reviews Transgender Rules

  • 4 min read

U.S. soccer veteran Megan Rapinoe raised the ire of retired tennis great Martina Navratilova when she said this week she would “absolutely” support a trans woman playing on the American squad.

The inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s events is one of the most contentious and divisive issues in sport with World Athletics and World Aquatics among global federations that have tightened their rules in recent months.

The Women’s World Cup which kicks off July 20 in Australia and New Zealand will feature some of the fiercest advocates for LGBT rights and visibility, but FIFA are reviewing their trans eligibility policies, a move announced a year ago after swimming passed their new tighter rules.

“We as a country are trying to legislate away people’s full humanity,” Rapinoe told Time. “It’s particularly frustrating when women’s sports is weaponised. Oh, now we care about fairness? Now we care about women’s sports?”

Navratilova, a trailblazer for gay rights, tweeted a one-word response: “Yikes . . .”

Rapinoe and partner, retired WNBA star Sue Bird, were among the 40 professional athletes to sign a letter to U.S. lawmakers in April, opposing a federal bill that stipulates Title IX compliance requires banning transgender athletes from playing women and girl’s sport. Title IX is a 1970s civil rights law which bars discrimination based on sex.

Critics of transgender inclusion in women’s sport say going through male puberty imbues athletes with a huge physical advantage that transition does not mitigate.

The U.S. women’s team, including Rapinoe, famously lost 5-2 to an under-15 FC Dallas boys team in an informal training match in 2017.

There is no timeline for FIFA’s updated guidelines as officials, like those in swimming and athletics did, try to balance the desire for inclusion with safety and fairness.

“Certainly the pendulum is swinging back in a negative way. There’s little doubt of that,” Joanna Harper, a Canadian-born transgender woman and author, told Reuters.

“In terms of FIFA, I’m reasonably optimistic that FIFA will continue likely to be inclusive, although I don’t know that for certain.

“I’m not necessarily optimistic about various more regional or national football organizations. In much of the world, trans people are just lucky to stay alive. So those countries will not be having trans football players.”


FIFA’s rules, first published in 2011, state that only men are eligible to play in men’s competitions, and the same for women.

Each participating member association must, “prior to the nomination to the national team, ensure the correct gender of all the players to be considered … by actively investigating any perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics.”

Swedish defender Nilla Fischer revealed in her recent book that she and her team mates had to “show their genitalia for the doctor” at the 2011 World Cup, after allegations that the Equatorial Guinea squad had male players.

A cloud of uncertainty hung over Zambia captain Barbra Banda after she was ruled ineligible for last year’s Africa Cup of Nations amid speculation of high testosterone levels.

The 23-year-old, who twice netted hat tricks at the 2020 Olympics, will captain Zambia at the World Cup in Australia, but she has been the target of unforgiving scrutiny.

LGBT advocates say the debate over transgender inclusion in women’s sport has also made for an increasingly hostile environment for gender diverse people in North America.

Quinn – who goes by one name – became the first openly non-binary trans athlete to win an Olympic medal when Canada captured women’s soccer gold in Tokyo.

The 27-year-old, who will make their second World Cup appearance in Australia, told the Toronto Star they have witnessed growing negativity towards gender diverse people.

“I think it is a scary time, for me,” Quinn said. “I think I do have a lot of points of privilege when entering this conversation, so I have to be mindful of that. But I think the reality is, it’s scary.”

According to LGBT website Outsports, a record of at least 87 out players will compete at the World Cup, more than double the 38 who played in the 2019 version.

Several teams including England had hoped to wear a “One Love” armband at the World Cup, but FIFA instead designed eight armbands with different “Unite” messages that teams can support. The “Unite for Inclusion” most resembles the “One Love” band.

Sarah Gregorius, of players union FIFPRO, said she thought it was a sensible solution given the geographic breadth of the teams at the tournament.

“You’ve got players who might feel something individually, but know because of their cultural context that that’s going to be a particularly dangerous stance to take, so it’s difficult to say ‘This is the position on behalf of all 32 captains of all 32 national teams’,” she told Reuters.