SAN FRANCISCO (#1236) – Last week your Ed. received a long and thoughtful email from Karen Robertson (GBR), a lifelong sailor who currently campaigns, one hears with much success, an OK Dinghy at Scotland's Aberdeen & Stonehaven YC during the week, and Loch Earn SC on weekends. She is also transgender, having transitioned from male to female some six years ago. Karen's email concluded, "Returning to the sport of sailing has saved me from a depressive hell after having to transition, and I owe the sport so much because of that. If I can do a bit for people suffering from the same condition as me and get them sailing, that’s a bonus!"
We have since traded emails, and talked via Skype, and I am pleased to report that Karen has kindly – some would say courageously – agreed to come on Tuesday's TFE LIVE to discuss her life as a racing sailor, as a trans sailor, what the sport means to her, the interim Gender Identity policy adopted by US Sailing on May 13, 2019, and the Royal Yachting Association's (GBR) strikingly different policy adopted in late 2018 (which Karen helped draft).
When we did a tech check today, after a few minutes we moved on, as most any two sailors would, from Gender Identify to what's cool about Karen's classes and clubs, what problems the sport faces in her part of the world, and what can we do to improve the sport for all concerned. Karen, no surprise (given her compelling email), had some interesting insights on those topics, too.
With Karen's permission, her full email is reprised below. I urge anyone planning to watch Tuesday's TFE LIVE to read it ahead of time.
Hope you can join us for Tuesday's program (of course we will have our regular weekly international yacht racing news, too), as always on our Sailing Illustrated Facebook page at 1300 Pacific / 1600 Eastern / 2000 UTC / 0800+1 NZT, or catch the replay there afterwards.
Here's Karen's full email of 2019-05-22:
I was watching your sailing Illustrated show on FB on Friday and I saw you featured a piece about the US draft guidelines on trans sailors. I’m an active sailor (in OK Dinghies now, but a lifelong passionate sailor having sailed in Finns, Stars, 505s, ICs etc in the past), but I’m also trans, quite open about being so and have been involved on the edges of the RYA here in the UK helping draw up guidance on the same subject for clubs to use and for Youth Squads. To be honest I am lucky to be too old and not talented enough to have Olympic or world class considerations play a major part in my sailing anymore and while I did my first ‘international’ event in well over a decade a few weeks ago, I’m simply happy to be able to race again and be accepted as being part of the fleet. That’s important as I honestly thought I’d never be able to go to a sailing club or race again but getting back out there competing in sailing has done more for me than any shrink, doctor or drug has ever managed to do and for that I can never thank the sport of sailing enough.
So in the hope of being useful, I’ve noted down some thoughts below. If you need any input from me on the subject do let me know. I promise I’m not a campaigner in any way and only want to contribute to the discussion in a positive way and to be clear - I’m definitely a racing sailor first and trans second!
I do understand some of the concerns people have about men competing ‘as women’ and the whole self declaration thing but perhaps there’s a couple of key messages to bear in mind.
· Any man who wishes to win an ‘easy’ medal in a women’s event, faces n order to meet the IOC testosterone levels (apart from the potentially life changing social costs of transition), significant loss of muscle, loss of training ability, severe loss of libido and sexual function along with an increased tendency to be more emotional and cry a lot more! If an ‘easy’ medal is what they are after it would be far more sensible and straightforward to have a hand or foot chopped off and go compete in a para sport (I’m not seriously suggesting that btw!)
· Putting aside the East German tricks in the early 70s, the fact that there have been no trans participants or athletes in any sports at any Olympics since 2004 bears out the fact that the cost is likely to be too high for anybody to bear if they were not indeed trans by nature
· Your report mentioned Martina Navratilova saying that trans women in sport will always beat natal women or something like that. It’s worth bearing in mind that she played trans tennis player Renee Richards several times in her career and beat her every time - so teh outcome is not inevitable.
· We know now the standard XX or XY chromosome story is not accurate. It’s a useful rough guide to use in the same way as Newtonian physics is adequate to build bridges, but you need Einsteinian physics if you want your GPS to work accurately. Transgenderism is a complex area and I do not know the latest findings – all I have to go on is my own experience plus a bit of reading, but the experience is frighteningly real enough to convince me it is not just imagined and you might as well ask why some people are left handed instead of the ‘standard’ right handedness.
Going back to the issue of the guidelines - Due to my previous involvement with the RYA as a squad sailor and a RYA Scotland coach I was asked to help in a small way with the development of RYA guidance policy on trans people for clubs and for the youth squads. I’m not a scientist, doctor or a lawyer, so my input was more on the practical, human aspects of the policies rather than setting technical limits or defining applicability etc.
The IOC guidance on which the RYA Youth guidelines are based on, call for male to female (MtF) trans sailors to effectively have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and meet certain criteria regarding testosterone levels for sustained periods. As noted above, the effects on this on the body are quite profound and bring about significant changes in muscle, mental factors and sexual function and should not be understated. Depending on age of transition etc there are skeletal issues that cannot be changed but the loss of strength is profound in my experience
The RYA allows any youth to sail in their declared gender with the opening statement
‘ that a sailor who has a genuine and serious desire to identify in a different gender to that assigned at birth (‘trans sailor’) is treated fairly, sensitively and with respect. All reasonable steps will be taken to ensure that a trans sailor is able to participate in the RYA squad programme appropriate to their self-identified gender ….’. (my emphasis).
By stating the sailor must have a genuine and serious desire to change gender, the policy effectively requires anybody falling within it to be able to prove it if challenged. That would normally be taken to mean a medical diagnosis showing long term and persistent gender dysphoria and to me that is not an unreasonable position to take. Whether or not someone is ‘self declared’ or not depends on local laws etc but for me a credible medical diagnosis (which typically takes a year or two) seems a fairly reasonable starting point. The RYA allows anyone meeting these criteria to compete at National Level, but note that the ability to compete at international level is further qualified. This is presumably as the RYA youth squad system is aimed at WS Youth Worlds and even if a trans person was to win a place at an international event, if they did not meet the further requirements the place would pass down to the next eligible person. These additional requirements for male to female sailors are primarily to meet the IOC rules for testosterone are :-
The athlete has declared that her gender is female. The declaration cannot be changed, for sporting purposes, for a minimum of four years.
The athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage in women’s competition).
The athlete’s total testosterone level in serum must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category.
Conditions with these conditions may be monitored by testing. In the event of non-compliance, the athlete’s eligibility for female competition will be suspended for 12 months.
It may therefore not initially be possible for a young trans female sailor to compete at international level. (my emphasis)
While people are (thankfully) transitioning earlier due to easier access to information and social changes in how the condition is seen, many countries have a general policy of no intervention before the age of legal maturity (around age 16). While some lucky and outspoken youths will have been given puberty blocking drugs, many will not and considering it takes time for testosterone levels to drop (typically 1-2 years), many youths will simply not be able to meet the IOC requirements before they are out of the ‘youth’ classification. However, to me that is fair as transition is for life and they will have plenty of time in teh sport as an adult.
It's probably not perfect, but I firmly believe the RYA policy is a pretty reasonable starting point. I will not comment on the US guidelines simply because I don’t know the US culture and governing body well enough to read the subtleties. I’m sure the RYA guideline will change over time, if and when it gets tested, and my only real goal is to help make sailing open to accessible to trans people at all levels in whatever form that takes. I’d recommend you read the RYA policy and compare it to your own and make your own judgement from there.
Hope this email isn’t too rambling and let me know if I can help in any other way. Returning to the sport of sailing has saved me from a depressive hell after having to transition and I owe the sport so much because of that. If I can do a bit for people suffering from the same condition as me and get them sailing, that’s a bonus!
Best regards and keep up with the great show.