On January 30, 2024, USA Boxing released an open letter in response to the widespread criticism surrounding its revised 2024 rulebook, which now incorporates a controversial “Transgender Policy.” The federation asserted that “safety [is] our primary consideration.” In an effort to balance the “health and safety of our diverse Olympic-style boxing community” with the obligation of “non-discrimination,” the federation introduced a stringent approach to trans participation that generated backlash from both supporters of trans inclusion and anti-trans woman boxers.

The Transgender Policy, formulated in August 2022, mandates that trans boxers aged 18 and above must have “completed full surgical reassignment and gone through multiple years of hormone therapy” to qualify for participation in the gender category they identify with. Criticism has been directed at the mandatory medical interventions, including hormones and surgery, as they are perceived as “jeopardizing athletes’ dignity and autonomy.” Additionally, trans women boxers are required to maintain serum testosterone levels below 5nmol/L for a minimum of 4 years before their first competition, a more stringent requirement than the 2015 International Olympic Committee’s guidelines, which stipulated that trans women need to sustain their testosterone level below 10nmol/L for at least 1 year.

Even more shocking is the equally extreme regulation applied to trans men boxers. It not only mandates gender-affirming surgeries and regular testosterone replacement therapy but also forces trans men to achieve a testosterone level above 10nmol/L to qualify for competition. The rationale behind this policy is argued to “provide fairness and safety for all boxers”.

While terms like “safety” and “fairness” are prevalent in sports regulations, they beg the question: what do we mean by safety or fairness?

Whose safety are we talking about?

In the ongoing controversy regarding whether trans women boxers should be allowed to compete against cisgender women combatants, the concept of “safety” is often invoked to justify safeguarding cisgender women from perceived risks posed by “biological men.” This rationale is problematic as it casts assigned-female-at-birth boxers as inherently vulnerable victims of male-dominant physiology. It presupposes that cisgender women are invariably weaker and biologically inferior, overlooking considerations of their combat skills and years of training.

But is biology the single decisive factor in winning a boxing match? Tatyana Dvazhdova, a cisgender woman boxer who conceals her female identity to compete under the pseudonym Vladimir Ermolaev, has achieved success by winning over half of her matches against men, challenging the assumption that cisgender women are inherently weaker. However, upon disclosing her true identity, she faced a ban from fighting male boxers. Her story prompts a critical examination of whether binary sexed categories are designed to uphold “fairness” in light of biological differences or whether they serve to protect presumed male superiority in sports.

USA Boxing’s policy takes the reductive notion of safety a step further by compelling trans men boxers to maintain their testosterone levels within a “normal” range typical of cisgender men. The move to regulate trans men is surprising because– in contrast to the controversy surrounding trans women in sports– trans men are generally not viewed as a threat. Patricio Manuel, a professional trans man boxer, has had a hard time finding cisgender male opponents since coming out in 2018. While a typical new professional boxer fights 4-6 times a year, Manuel has received only three match invitations from cisgender male boxers in four years. The scarcity of opportunities for trans men in boxing highlights the cultural shame and anxiety associated with potentially losing to someone assigned female at birth.

By regulating trans men’s hormone levels, USA Boxing emphasizes a perceived need for trans men to be “biologically” similar to cisgender men. The underlying assumption appears to be rooted in societal stereotypes associating higher testosterone levels with qualities like aggressiveness and violence, traits often linked to the perception of a “good” fighter. In other words, the exceptionally strict policy for trans men is an effort to preserve the integrity of “men” by maintaining a strict gender binary.

Safety from whom?

In boxing, there is a commonly held belief that younger, heavier, “biologically male” athletes have an advantage in the ring. To ensure a fairer competition, athletes are categorized based on sex, weight, and age. But combat sports, by their nature, are violent. Both men and women boxers have to display a degree of violence and aggression to excel in the sport.

In 2021, a tragedy occurred when 18-year-old Montreal boxer Jeanette Zacarias Zapata passed away after a bout with another cisgender woman boxer, Marie-Pier Houle. Zapata sustained brain trauma from “repeated blows to the head” after being knocked unconscious in the ring. Although Zapata’s death was deemed “violent but accidental,” a different scenario unfolded for trans woman MMA fighter Fallen Fox. She was forced to retire after causing a cisgender woman opponent to suffer a broken orbital bone, which is commonly considered a mild injury. The narrative surrounding Fox’s actions has been exaggerated by anti-trans voices, claiming she broke her opponent’s “skull.” This exaggeration has been used to justify the exclusion of trans women athletes from the women’s category, purportedly in the interest of “protecting” cisgender women from the perceived aggression of “men.”

Former NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines went as far as claiming that “it will take a woman getting killed [by transgender women] before these misogynistic fools wake up.” When examining these two incidents together, the double standard becomes obvious. The emphasis on safety has positioned cisgender women as hapless victims while protecting cisgender men from the supposed shame of losing to someone assigned female at birth. Meanwhile, trans people are only ever viewed as a threat, never deserving of care or protection.

What counts as safety?

Sports federations frequently echo the language of safety that narrowly focuses on avoiding physical harm or injury. While physical safety is undoubtedly crucial, especially in combat sports that have high risk of brain and head injuries, actual safety requires more than just physical considerations. Psychological safety in sports plays a significant role in athletes’ performance satisfaction, mental well-being, and positive development.

Given the many attacks on trans existence, it is no surprise that trans, queer, and gender-diverse athletes often struggle to find safety in sports. They often endure rejection, bullying, anxiety, and stress related to their sexuality and gender identity. The enormous pressure faced by Laurel Hubbard, the first trans woman weightlifter in Olympic history, likely contributed to her failure to complete a single lift and subsequent retirement.

Our limited narratives of safety serve to maintain hetero- and cis-normative sports environments, enforcing reductive and binaristic views of biology and sex. In doing so, they not only subject trans people to exclusion and persecution, they also prevent more comprehensive considerations of what it means to create genuinely safe and just conditions for all athletes.

Siufung Law (they/them) comes from Hong Kong, is a TEDx speaker, a nonbinary professional bodybuilder, and Ph.D. student at Emory University. They are a trans activist actively promoting the transgender-only bodybuilding competition in Atlanta, GA, organized by the International Association of Trans Bodybuilders and Powerlifters (IATBP). Website: www.sfunglaw.com. IG@siufung_law