The Olympic Games have brought to the fore a simmering issue that political leaders, sporting bodies, athletes and fans are grappling with: What is the best way to include transgender athletes in sport without compromising the fairness of women’s events?

The science is clear that, in many sports, males benefit from biological advantages, which is the rationale for existing separate competition categories for women and men. Many of these biological advantages, such as size and muscle mass, are present in transwomen athletes – those born male but who identify as women – who seek to participate in women’s sporting events. In this context, balancing inclusion and the integrity of fair competition in women’s sport is proving to be challenging for policy-makers and sporting authorities.

The issue could not be more timely. The International Olympic Committee has promised to revise its rules for how it manages the participation of transgender athletes in competition. Policies and guidelines in Canada and around the world vary. Some, such as the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, would allow athletes’ self-identification to determine which category they are allowed to compete in. Others including the IOC, require some medical interventions, hormone standards, and/or waiting periods before athletes can participate as per their gender identity. World Rugby has banned transgender athletes from women’s competition at the highest level.

These challenges have often pitted those who are concerned with the well-being of trans individuals against those who have concerns about the fairness of sport. But little has been known about what most Canadians actually think about this challenging topic, or what policy options are on the table to address it. That is, until now.

Opinion research commissioned by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute reveals significant findings. A substantial majority of Canadians support separate male and female categories in sports. A similar majority of Canadians are also concerned about the fairness of allowing transgender athletes who were born male to compete in women’s sports. Respondents had mixed opinions as to the right approach for including trans athletes in competition, but a majority support options other than “any sex they wish to.” The project was undertaken in consultation with noted Canadian pollster Conrad Winn, a political science professor at Carleton University and founder of COMPAS Research.

MLI’s polling results are consistent with US and UK research. Earlier this year, Gallup reported 62 percent of Americans believe that in competitive sport, transgender athletes should only be allowed to “play on sports teams that match their birth gender.” A July 2020 YouGov poll revealed that 55 percent of Britons opposed “transgender women” participating in “women’s sporting events.”

Poll results: A large majority of Canadians support separate categories for men and women in sport

The July 2021 poll[1] commissioned by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute shows that most Canadians tend to support separating men and women athletes in sport. Respondents were asked: “With safety and fairness for women in mind, is it right or wrong for men and women to compete separately from each other in sports like hockey, rugby, cycling, martial arts, track and field, and weight lifting?”

Among Canadians as a whole, those favouring the conventional separation of sexes in sport outnumber three-to-one those against separation – almost 56 percent believe that men and women should compete separately from each other compared to just over 18 percent who take the opposite view.[2] The ratio jumps to six-to-one among respondents with the strongest views (either 7 or 1 on the seven point scale) – 35.5 percent believe most strongly that men and women athletes should compete separately from each other while 6.6 percent believe most strongly that they should compete against each other.

Canadians believe it is “unfair” for transgender athletes to compete in women’s events by a four-to-one margin

The same poll shows an even bigger majority opposed to transgender athletes competing against women. Respondents were asked: “Increasingly, athletes who were born male but who identify as female, referred to as transgender, are allowed to compete in women's events despite often having greater muscle, strength and speed from being born male. Is this fair to female athletes in your view?"

Sixty-two percent believe it is “unfair” compared to 15 percent for who think it’s “fair” – a ratio of roughly four-to-one against. Among Canadians with firm[3] views, 39.4 percent are opposed compared to 6.6 percent for it, or a six-to-one ratio.

Canadians were especially divided when asked the question: “Transgender athletes should be allowed to compete with …”:

  • Seventeen percent say that transgender athletes should be able to compete with “any sex they wish to” on the basis of their self-identification as a man or woman.
  • Nearly 23 percent of respondents prefer that transgender athletes only be allowed to compete with athletes “of the sex that they were born with.”
  • Seventeen percent believe that transgender athletes should compete in divisions alongside other transgender athletes.
  • The notion of allowing transgender athletes to compete within “an open or mixed category” was the most popular option, supported by 25 percent of respondents.
  • Eighteen percent of Canadians surveyed were unsure about what the right policy approach was or believed that the right approach depends on the circumstances.

Little or no division by education, gender or province but age a factor

Canadians’ views on this issue are remarkably consistent regardless of gender or level of education. That being said, older Canadians (55+) tend to be somewhat more guarded than the young (under 34) about transgender participation in sport. Younger Canadians are more likely than older ones to believe that transgender athletes should be able to compete against any sex they wish to (33 percent vs. 7 percent among those 55+) while being less likely to believe that transgender athletes should only compete against transgender athletes (10 percent vs. 21 percent among those 55+).

Conclusion

What can we say about Canadians views with respect to gender identity and competitive sport? Polling data present a clear picture in some respects: Canadians believe that separate categories for men and women make sense in sport, and that the participation of transgender athletes who were born male in women's sport provides unfair advantages to those athletes. That being said, Canadians are divided on what the best approach is to ensure both inclusion and fairness. As issues of gender identity continue to interact with gendered institutions of society, decision-makers must consider the best ways to balance these competing priorities while also considering the opinions of Canadians.

For more information:

[1] The poll of 888 Canadians was completed July 16th, 2021. By convention, polls of this size are normally deemed accurate to within three percentage points 19 times out of 20.

[2] Responses were on a 7 point scale. Respondents choosing the midpoint, 4, are deemed neutral. A response of don’t know/it depends was also offered.

[3] Firm opinions are the opinions of those respondents who chose the number 1 or the number 7 on a 7-point attitude scale as a reflection of their own opinions.

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