December 1, 2022 - 12:58pm

Few subjects are as contentious as the involvement of trans athletes in women’s sport. Pictures of the transgender American swimmer Lia Thomas towering over female athletes on the podium are a vivid illustration of the unfairness of allowing biological men to compete alongside women.

Or are they? According to ITV Wales, it isn’t the women we should feel sorry for. Earlier this week, the channel broadcast a documentary about a trans cyclist who wants to race against female athletes. ‘Transgender cyclist Emily Bridges has opened up to ITV about her journey’, its Twitter account gushed. Beneath the tweet was a link to an interview with Bridges, which began uncompromisingly: ‘I’m a sister, a daughter, a partner, a friend, an athlete and a person.’

A word about language here. It has become customary for stories about trans athletes (usually men who now ‘identify’ as women) to use their preferred nouns and pronouns, even when they have taken female hormones but remain biologically male. The argument that it’s kind to do so makes it harder for female athletes to protest that they’re expected to compete with individuals who have the advantages of male puberty and physique. 

ITV Wales was evidently unprepared for the response it received. ‘This is not news, it’s ideological promotion,’ the Wales Women’s Rights Network tweeted. ‘It’s not fair sport for females, it’s male entitlement.’ The original post was swiftly deleted but the link was posted again, this time with comments disabled. So much for the ‘debate’ we’re assured that supporters of trans rights want to see.

In an interview veering between self-pity and entitlement, Bridges claimed to be ‘heartbroken’ after being refused permission to ride for Wales as a woman in the Commonwealth Games. (British Cycling has suspended its policy on transgender athletes while it carries out a review.) Bridges also claimed to understand the anxieties of female athletes who don’t want to compete with biological males, but dismissed them because ‘I am not a man’. 

Not many people, one would guess, really believe that men can become women, but trans activists have created a climate where the fear of being labelled ‘transphobic’ inhibits honest responses. Bridges’s interview is an egregious example, linking criticism of trans participation in women’s sport with the murder of five people in an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs last month. The deaths of two trans people in the attack ‘are directly related to dehumanisation and demonisation of trans people in the media, online, and in debates such as those about sports,’ the cyclist claimed.

It’s tempting to observe that ‘directly’ is doing a lot of work there, but it’s more important to ask whether anyone at ITV Wales actually read this piece of malevolent hyperbole before they tweeted a link. Doesn’t anyone at the channel feel uneasy about publishing a claim that female athletes who defend sex categories in sport are in some way responsible for the actions of a mass killer in the U.S.? (Someone who, according to his lawyers, identifies as ‘non-binary’ and uses they/them pronouns.)

When I started out as a journalist, there used to be this thing called ‘balance’. It’s been one of the principal victims of gender ideology, which appears to have persuaded sections of the media that treating opposing views with the seriousness they deserve is akin to encouraging murder. You have to admire the cheek: what other group is allowed to invade other people’s categories, police their language, and still represent themselves as helpless victims?

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.