IOC cautions media from labelling transgender athletes as "biologically male/female"

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recently released its ‘Portrayal Guidelines’ where they urge media outlets to refrain from using terms such as “biologically male” or “biologically female” when referring to transgender athletes, deeming it as “problematic wording”.

This is the third version of the Portrayal Guidelines by the IOC, titled ‘Gender-equal, fair and inclusive representation in sport’. They were developed for stakeholders of the Olympic Movement, in accordance with the IOC’s Gender Equality and Inclusion Objectives for the period of 2021-24. It is recommended for members of the Olympic Movement to adopt and modify these Guidelines based on their cultural backgrounds.

The focus of the document is mainly on challenging traditional beliefs and prejudices surrounding gender, promoting the use of terms like “sportsperson/athlete”, “camera operator” and “partner” instead of “sportsman”, “cameraman” or “husband/wife”. It also recommends that equal opportunities and representation should be given to both women and men to ensure balanced reporting across genders.

The addendum entitled ‘Equitable, encompassing, and unbiased depiction of transgender sportspeople and athletes with gender variations’ contains a glossary that defines terms and expressions, such as “gender variations”, “transgender”, “non-binary”, and “pronouns”. Under the section “Language to Avoid”, there is a catalogue of “Inappropriate Terms” including “assigned male at birth”, “assigned female at birth”, “biologically male”, “biologically female”, “genetically male”, “genetically female”, “male-to-female (MtF)”, “female-to-male” (FtM), stating that these phrases “can be degrading and inaccurate when used to refer to transgender sportspeople and athletes with gender variations”.

The International Olympic Committee has updated their Portrayal Guidelines to ensure fair representation of all genders in media and communication, in line with the goal of achieving full gender parity at #Paris2024, the first Olympic Games to do so. The guidelines provide practical checklists and advice for all forms of media and communication.

According to the statement, an individual’s assigned sex is not solely determined by genetics and can be modified through the pursuit of gender-affirming medical treatment. The document also includes options such as “transgender girl/boy, transgender woman/man, transgender person” as alternatives.

The guidance states that it is better to highlight an individual’s real gender instead of potentially causing doubt about their identity by mentioning the sex category listed on their birth certificate. If there is a valid reason to mention the category they were assigned at birth, appropriate terms to use are ‘assigned female at birth’, ‘assigned male at birth’, ‘designated female at birth’, or ‘designated male at birth’.

The section titled “Additional wording to avoid” provides guidance on using the term “identifies as” and states that gender identity applies to transgender individuals in the same manner as it applies to anyone else. If necessary, one can simply state “Alexia is a transgender woman.” The section also recommends using “transgender” as an adjective rather than a noun.

The supplementary document, created in collaboration with GLAAD, formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, has received backlash from those who are against the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports. Renowned tennis player Martina Navratilova, who faced media scrutiny for her same-sex relationships during her professional career, expressed her stance on this issue through social media.

Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter from New Zealand, made history at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, becoming the first openly transgender woman to compete in the games. Assigned male at birth, Hubbard participated in men’s competitions until 2001, but later transitioned and began hormone therapy in 2012. At the age of 39, she made her international debut in March 2017.

Sportspersons who have variations in their sex development, notably the well-known Caster Semenya, have led the IOC and global federations to establish fresh standards regarding the qualifications of such athletes.

The situation involving Lia Thomas, an American swimmer who had previously been ranked 65th in the men’s 500-yard freestyle rankings, sparked controversy when she won the NCAA women’s title after undergoing gender transition. This ultimately led to World Aquatics implementing a policy that prohibits transgender women who have undergone male puberty from competing in elite women’s races. In an attempt to reverse this decision, Thomas appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in January.

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