FIFA, the world governing body of football, is currently considering its options on the issue of transgender and non-binary players in the sport. This comes as other sports such as swimming and athletics have implemented rules restricting or banning participation for transgender women at the elite level of female sport. In contrast, the German Football Association (DFB) has taken a first step by introducing a policy this season across the amateur and youth game that allows transgender and non-binary players to choose if they play in men’s or women’s teams. The policy was first trialled by the Berlin Football Association in 2019 before being rolled out nationwide for the 2022-23 season at amateur level. It does not extend to professional football.
The DFB policy does not require transgender women to lower their testosterone levels to play in women’s teams, unlike in English football where players’ gender eligibility is decided on a case-by-case basis. Transgender women wanting to play in women’s football are required to show their blood testosterone levels are “within the natal female range” for an “appropriate length of time so as to minimise any potential advantage”. The Football Association announced in June last year that it would prioritise “fairness” in a review of its participation rules.
FIFA is taking guidance from legal, scientific and human rights experts as part of a review of its gender eligibility regulations. Many sports are struggling to find a balance between inclusion, sporting fairness and safety in women’s sport at both amateur and elite level, particularly whether transgender women can compete in female categories without an unfair advantage retained from male puberty. A 2021 review of non-elite UK sport concluded that “transgender inclusion, fairness and safety often cannot co-exist” and sports should decide their priorities. It concluded that “testosterone suppression is unlikely to guarantee fairness between transgender women and natal females in gender-affected sports” and there are “retained differences in strength, stamina and physique between the average woman compared with the average transgender woman or non-binary person registered male at birth”.
Former Premier League player Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out as gay after he retired from football in 2013, believes that allowing transgender athletes the right to choose where they play in the amateur game should not be considered a danger to women’s sport. He insists that it takes more than just being strong and fast to play football, and argues that it takes skill and team effort. Women’s rights campaigners in Germany have expressed concern about the inclusion of even one transgender woman in female sport, arguing that it sets a “dangerous” precedent and will discourage “women working hard to be athletes”.
Charlotte Jerke has played as a defender for DFC Kreuzberg in Berlin since she transitioned three years ago. She says generally she gets a positive reaction from her opponents but admits there are always questions in the back of her head about how fast she is allowed to run or if it is OK to tackle another player. She insists she does not have a physical advantage, saying she is not the fastest or strongest player in her team.
When asked about safety, DFB diversity ambassador Thomas Hitzlsperger said no issues had been raised so far and that several other nations have been in contact with the German FA about the policy. The Football Association of Wales and the Scottish Football Association are both currently reviewing their policies on transgender players, while Fair Play for Women has advised the English FA as part of its review. The organisation has emphasised that it is essential that women’s needs are properly heard and considered when making decisions on this issue.
It is clear that many sports are still wrestling with how best to approach the issue of transgender inclusion in female sport. FIFA is taking guidance from legal, scientific and human rights experts as part of its review of its gender eligibility regulations, while other footballing nations are looking to Germany for inspiration on how best to handle this complex issue. It remains to be seen how this will develop, but one thing is certain – it is essential that women’s needs are properly heard and considered when making decisions on this issue.