Transgender row deepens as sporting body calls for change in the law

Supporters of Nicola Sturgeon's Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill protest outside Downing Street last month - Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Supporters of Nicola Sturgeon's Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill protest outside Downing Street last month - Henry Nicholls/Reuters

The Government has become embroiled in a row over transgender athletes after a sporting body claimed that women’s sport is not protected by law.

UK Athletics (UKA) issued a landmark statement on Friday calling for “legislative change” to “ensure the women’s category can be lawfully reserved for female [at birth] competitors”.

The comments come just hours after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that “biological sex really matters” regarding policy in sport and prisons, and as the sector grapples with how to be fair and inclusive to both women and trans athletes.

It also comes amid deepening tensions between Westminster and Holyrood over Nicola Sturgeon's gender reform legislation. The First Minister faces a mounting crisis following the case of Isla Bryson, a transgender women who was convicted of raping two women when living as a man and housed in a women-only prison.

In a recent media interview, Ms Sturgeon refused to be drawn on whether or not Bryson was a woman, despite her own law stating that people can self identify their gender.

Following the UKA calls for new laws, The Telegraph understands that Michelle Donelan, the Sports Minister, will be contacting all sporting governing bodies later this month asking what progress has been made on balancing transgender inclusion with fairness where sex can impact results.

Government's responsibility

However, the UKA claimed that this is an issue for the Government, not governing bodies.

Ian Beattie, its chairman, outlined the organisation’s position confirming its preference for competition categories, but warned of “key challenges in achieving this under current legislation”.

He said: “Athletics is an incredibly inclusive sport and we want it to be a welcoming environment for all to enjoy competing in. I cannot think of another sport that encompasses such a diverse community and it is something to be proud of.

“At the same time, we also have a duty to ensure fairness in competition in the women’s category.”

Mr Beattie added that the statement demonstrates the challenges facing UKA and other sporting governing bodies. “Therefore we are calling for a change in legislation that will provide clarity for all and ensure the women’s category can be lawfully reserved for female-at-birth competitors,” he said.

“We would appeal to all those engaged in this discussion online to share their thoughts in a way that is respectful of the differing opinions and sensitive nature of the debate.”

The UKA statement comes amid what some claim are conflicting interpretations of current gender and equality legislation.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 means that those awarded Gender Recognition Certificates (GRC) may have their new gender recognised for “all purposes”.

However, the Equality Act 2010 carries a sports clause which says it is “lawful to restrict participation of transsexual people in such competitions if this is necessary to uphold fair or safe competition, but not otherwise”.

Following the UKA’s statement, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it is “likely to be lawful for a sporting body or organisation to adopt a trans exclusive policy in relation to gender-based sporting competition where they can evidence that it is necessary to do so in order to secure fair competition or the safety of competitors”.


The watchdog said that it reached out to UKA to discuss the legal advice underpinning their statement, adding: “We are disappointed that they have chosen to publicise their inaccurate advice and we would urge all organisations to consult our website which explains equality law and how it relates to these issues.”

Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) officials also said that “the legislation is clear” and that the more recent Equality Act “displaces the rule that a person with a GRC is to be treated as being of their acquired gender”.

Following the UKA announcement, Fiona McAnena, director of sport for Fair Play for Women, said “it’s perfectly clear that single-sex sport is permitted” as she called for “more clarity” from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

“And more courage from sports bodies – they know what’s right,” she added.

However, Dr Jane Hamlin, president of the Beaumont Society charity, which supports transgender and non-binary people, said that it expects all sporting organisations “to be sensitive to the needs of all participants however they identify”.

“It is up to the UKA to ignore misleading information and ensure that their rules are fair for everyone. It is not easy being trans - particularly in the UK at present - but it must be heartbreaking to be labelled a cheat just for pursuing a sport that you love.”

The DCMS declined to comment.