On 8 August, Cricket Australia announced a new policy on transgender and gender diverse inclusion in the sport. Under the new guidelines, players at both the elite and community level are eligible to participate in accordance with their gender identity, irrespective of whether or not this aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans women can now join women’s teams and trans men can join men’s teams. Cricket Australia CEO Kevin Roberts described the policy as an effort to eliminate discrimination and ensure that ‘Cricket is a sport for everyone.’
In the wake of the announcement, Prime Minister Scott Morrison took a break from running the country to denounce Cricket Australia on the radio. In an interview with 2GB, he described the new policy as ‘mystifying’ and a ‘sledgehammer’, saying it was ‘beyond him’ why CA had moved to welcome trans players. ‘I think it’s pretty heavy-handed, to put it pretty mildly,’ was the PM’s assessment. These comments were then broadcast in the print media, appearing in The Australian under the headline ‘PM canes transgender policy’.
The Australian was on board with Morrison’s alarmist stance. As part of its ongoing campaign against the transgender community, the newspaper misrepresented the new policy as an attack on ‘mums and dads’. Under the headline ‘Gender bias laws warning,’ readers were told to fear for neighbourhood good Samaritans: ‘Mums and dads who run suburban and country cricket clubs could be prosecuted under state and federal discrimination laws for failing to allow anyone who identifies as female to play in a women’s team,’ claimed the paper.
Former head of the Australian Christian lobby and prominent anti-LGBT campaigner Lyle Shelton adopted the same line of attack, writing that ‘Mums and Dads who question the wisdom of allowing boys who identity as girls to play on the girls’ team will be punished under anti-discrimination law.’
Within hours, a laudable attempt to make cricket clubs a ‘safe and inclusive’ environment for all had been twisted into a story of cisgender victimhood.
This was an extraordinary backlash to a policy that is, in truth, quite tame. Despite protestations to the contrary, Cricket Australia has taken a fairly conservative approach to transgender inclusion.
At the elite level, the policy includes numerous checks and balances to allay concerns about unfair advantage. Most significantly, trans women are required to undergo testosterone testing. To play in women’s teams, their concentration of testosterone in serum must have been less than 10 nmol/L for the previous twelve months – a requirement that reflects a medicalised understanding of gender transition. Under this model, trans women who socially transition (adopt a female name, wear women’s clothes, use she/her pronouns) but do not take hormones are likely to be barred from female teams.
Cricket Australia, then, only admits a subset of trans women into elite cricket: those who have undergone medical transition. The transfeminine community as a whole is yet to be welcomed into the sport (although the requirement does not apply at the community cricket level). The policy also affirms the gender binary. Although it refers to ‘gender diverse and transgender people’ and defines ‘non-binary’ identities, it is structured around the assumption that cricket is divided into male and female competitions. There is no mention of non-binary clubs or teams. The accompanying publicity material also invokes the ‘born in the wrong body’ narrative, which defuses the subversive potential of trans identities by emphasising the desire to become a ‘normal’ man or woman through bodily modification. According to this model of transgenderism, trans people merely seek to assimilate back into the gender binary, rather than threaten the binary altogether.
Far from pioneering a radical new direction in regard to gender in sport, Cricket Australia’s policy merely brings local practice into line with the International Cricket Council’s Eligibility on the Basis of Gender Recognition, introduced in 2017. The national body’s approach was also informed by the Australian Human Rights Commission’s guidelines for transgender and gender diverse inclusion in sport. In the future, the policy may serve as a template for other national cricket bodies such as the English Cricket Board, which is reviewing its own transgender policy with a view to possibly following the Australian example.
Finally, trans inclusion also has the support of leading cisgender cricketers, with former Australian women’s captain Alex Blackwell helping to spearhead the reform.
If there is nothing about the policy that can be regarded as radical or provocative, why has it triggered such an intense backlash? After all, the prime minister felt no need to comment when Westpac and Deakin University recently introduced policies similarly designed to foster transgender inclusion.
On one level, the backlash is part of a larger moral panic about transgender people (especially youth) that is currently coursing through Australian politics and our media, and which has been stoked in part by the birth certificate legislation passed by the Victorian legislative assembly on 15 August. However, the frenzied reaction to the prospect of trans inclusion in cricket can also be linked to the sport’s unique status as our national pastime.
The cricketer in the baggy green has long been imagined as the archetypal Australian – the heroic symbol of our nation embodying the spirit of the Anzacs. This association dates back to the First World War, when the AIF recruited soldiers via cricket imagery and Australian soldiers were photographed playing cricket at Gallipoli. After the end of the war, our cricketers took up the job of doing the nation proud where the soldiers left off. As the London Times noted in the wake of the 1921 Ashes, the Australian team was of ‘magnificent fighting stock’ and played ‘as they fought in France and on Gallipoli’.
This rhetoric continues to thrive, with remarkable little change, into the present day. Just this year, the Australian cricket team undertook a tour of Gallipoli intended to imbue them with ‘Anzac spirit’. In his account of the tour, vice-captain Pat Cummins stressed that ‘Australian values’ were forged during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign and are kept alive today by cricketers like him.
This long history of linking sport and nation means that cricket is a powerful arbiter of Australian ideas about citizenship, gender and belonging. More than any other pastime, cricket has power to delimit who gets to represent and define Australia.
Historically, this mythology evoked a nation of athletic white men and excluded women, Indigenous Australians, people of colour and the disabled. In recent decades, however, the sport has slowly come to evoke a more diverse and inclusive Australia, most notably through the increased profile of women’s cricket and the growing number of non-Anglo players. Although it was once acceptable to insist that cricket should be ‘exclusively a game for men’, today we take it for granted that women pad up to represent Australia on the international stage.
The Cricket Australia transgender policy takes this process one step further. By welcoming trans people into the sport, the policy helps expand our ideas of Australianness beyond cisgender men and women. At a time when trans lives continue to be culturally invisible and transphobia remains pervasive, Cricket Australia has signalled that trans people exist and are fully-fledged citizens entitled to partake in what Blackwell has described as ‘Australia’s favourite sport, and a sport for all Australians.’
In other words, it is the symbolism – not the content – of the transgender policy that is truly radical. Cricket Australia has wielded its significant cultural power to normalise transgender inclusion in national life – a commendable act of leadership. We are starting to see cracks appear in the overwhelming cisnormativity of mainstream Australia.
This is the real source of the anxiety behind Morrison’s cry of ‘it’s just not cricket’. The policy is acutely threatening to conservative interests invested in a ‘traditional’ Australia built on a masculinist mythology of mateship and hardy (white, male) diggers battling the odds. For the likes of Morrison and Shelton, the recognition of trans people in cricket is a full-frontal attack on the socially conservative and narrowly defined nation they embody and seek to preserve.
In response, trans cricketers have been demonised as a group of deviants who threaten the interests of ‘Mums and Dads’. This, to be clear, is total nonsense. Far from being powerful and predatory, entrenched stigmatisation means that trans people are among the most vulnerable in our communities—disproportionately prone to anxiety, depression, suicidality and homelessness.
The anti-trans sentiment spouted by the Prime Minister and on the pages of The Australian only exacerbates this marginalisation – and should be roundly condemned by anyone committed to a just and inclusive Australia.
For the time being, let us rejoice that Cricket Australia, at least, has recognised that our national diversity – including gender diversity – is something to be cherished rather than feared.