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OPINIONPoliticsDecember 21, 2023

Would you really care if a trans player scored against your social soccer team?

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A new policy from NZ First and National suggests that yes, you would. Mad Chapman argues why you really shouldn’t.

When I was at primary school, I used to play either rugby or soccer every lunchtime with a group of friends. I was the only girl who played and it was always very competitive and very fun. Those who didn’t like playing rugby or soccer would do something else, literally anything else, with their lunch break. But there was one boy in our class who would wander around the field with his buddies and any time the ball we were playing with happened to bounce his way, he’d pick it up and kick it over the high fence into the neighbour’s yard. 

We’d all yell at him for being annoying, he’d shrug and say nothing, and one of us would climb the fence to retrieve the ball. He never offered an explanation for why he did it but seemed to enjoy that it stopped the fun for 10 minutes each time.

I don’t know what that boy is doing now – I can barely remember his name – but he violently popped into my head while reading NZ First sports and recreation spokesperson Andy Foster’s defence of the new government’s planned policy on gender in sport. The policy, as part of the NZ First-National coalition agreement, would require local sporting bodies to separate trans women and non-binary competitors from cis women in all levels of sport, from elite to community.

“With rugby, athletics, boxing, you can see why power, weight and speed become a real issue. If there’s a teenage girl against a former teenage boy, your child is going to get hurt,” Foster told the Herald, apparently believing that no other scenario in the sports of rugby and boxing might result in someone getting hurt. 

If Foster’s concern is that teenage girls might get hurt, I’d suggest banning all sports funding full stop. Or perhaps reconsidering his insistence that trans girls play in the boys team. Instead, potentially losing funding will only be a concern for those who wish to allow the 0.14% of the population that is trans women athletes to participate in their sport. “If a code says ‘We don’t want to do that’, that’s their choice but they shouldn’t then expect the taxpayer to say we’re delighted to support you doing something which we see as unsafe and unfair,” he said. 

Andy Foster back when he was mayor of Wellington (Photo: Getty Images)

“The taxpayer” may not be as homogenous as Foster thinks. An Ipsos global survey on LGBTQ+ rights earlier this year found that 84% of New Zealanders believed trans people should be protected from discrimination in employment, housing and access to business. A 2023 survey of rainbow youth found that few trans kids participate in sport (despite the known mental and physical health benefits of exercise) due to the many barriers. The new government is suggesting another, impassable, barrier is what’s needed now.

The people who will be hugely supportive of banning trans athletes from community sports will say they want it to be fair for (cis women) who want to succeed. Then in the next breath they’ll argue that women athletes shouldn’t be getting equal pay because no one watches women’s sport anyway. In other words, young women shouldn’t have trans competition so they can have a better chance of becoming a professional athlete where they will ideally be paid below minimum wage for full-time commitment.

 

Foster clarified that not all sports bodies would be required to implement these rules, as some already have events where men and women compete together.

Sports were quite literally invented for men to prove their worth and designed to showcase male physiology. It’s taken a long time for women to convince men that they also possess athletic ability worth acknowledging, while largely staying within the parameters set up for men. (Note that sports that showcase female physiology more – rhythmic gymnastics, synchronised swimming – have been systematically ignored and derided by men as not being “real” sports.) And yet on that backdrop, our focus is now on which women get to participate in an arena that wasn’t designed for any women? Honestly, who cares?

Who cares if a trans woman scores a goal against you in a game of social soccer? Who cares if non-binary athletes decide they’re all going to get really into speed walking? If the aim of community sport in New Zealand is to foster, well, community and promote active lifestyles, why are there so many rules around who gets to join in? This argument will inevitably boil down to whether or not those who currently enjoy the benefits of community sport without question believe everyone else deserves the same freedoms as them. And when you consider it through that lens, those who answer “no” suddenly seem less concerned and more entitled.

I can only assume that after Winston Peters spent the whole election campaign actively courting the conspiracy theorists of this country, he’s come to believe that their concerns (which jump incoherently, as conspiracy theories tend to, from vaccine mandates to election rigging to trans rights) are held by more than a vocal minority. But by putting it in writing in a coalition agreement and presenting it as a concern of “the taxpayer”, Foster has made a dangerous bed for sports and recreation minister Chris Bishop to lie in. Bishop will have to be the one to push this policy through, and despite his propensity for media appearances, I doubt he’d relish the opportunity to be the face of trans exclusion in New Zealand.

There’ll be plenty of tense discussion when that happens and many will entirely miss the point. But at the end of the day, it’s a policy that will harm a small number of already vulnerable New Zealanders and make no difference to the lives of virtually everyone else. So once again I ask: If on a Tuesdsay night or Saturday morning or Thursday afternoon, a group of people put a team together to play sport in a community league for fun and one of them happened to be trans, would you really care?

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