Why have rightwingers made even parkrun a battleground for trans people?
When non-competitive, mass-participation jogging is annexed by the culture warriors, it’s clear there are other agendas at play
Last week a 16-year-old school basketball player in Utah was targeted by threats and online abuse, and had to be given police protection. A member of the state’s board of education had posted a photo on Instagram casting doubt on her gender, and these days, on the smoking tyre‑fire of the internet, that’s all you really need to destroy somebody.
“She cuts her hair short because that’s how she feels comfortable,” the girl’s parents told local news. “She wears clothes that are a little baggy. She goes to the gym all the time so she’s got muscles. It just broke our hearts that we needed to have this conversation with our daughter. Worst-case scenario, she could have ended her own life.”
The official in question, a Republican called Natalie Cline, later backtracked and apologised for her claim, although not without swinging some more punches. “She does have a larger build,” she argued. “It is normal to wonder if people are what they say they are, because of the push to normalise transgenderism in our society.” Nevertheless, she did affirm that the child “is in fact a biological girl and always has been”, which was good of her.
Just another week of fighting the good fight. Standing up for women. Protecting girls’ sport from – hang on, let’s see if we’ve got this right – 16‑year‑old girls. Then again, if you’re one of the growing army trying to restrict the access of trans people to sport, you’re probably not going to let a little minor inconvenience like logic or absurdity get in your way.
Take the recent controversy over parkrun, the mass‑participation 5km fun run that has become the latest target in the cross hairs of the radical trans‑exclusionary police.
In recent weeks parkrun has been doggedly pursued by protesters and the media, unhappy at its policy of allowing trans women to identify as female.
Never mind the fact that parkrun has always maintained that it is a running event and not a race, has no prizes and hardly any competitive apparatus at all. You can do parkrun on a mobility scooter if you want. You can do it with a pram. You can dope yourself to the eyeballs. Still, in order to head off the vitriol, it decided to delete most of its records to avoid any ambiguity. And that was the end of the matter.
But of course it wasn’t, because this isn’t really about parkrun records, and it’s not really about parkrun, and it isn’t really about sport at all. This issue began to gather traction a couple of months ago, spurred by a report from the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange calling for parkrun to be stripped of public funding unless it banned trans women from the women’s category.
The cause was quickly taken up by the press and their useful idiots on social media. Things were angrily written. Insults were slung. Noise begat noise. Last Saturday, rather amusingly, Sky News sent a reporter to a parkrun in London in an attempt to drum up some righteous fury, and instead encountered only indifference, comments like “it’s just a bit of fun” and “the debate has been blown out of proportion”.
Still, blowing debates out of proportion is the raison d’etre of Policy Exchange, set up to promote conservative talking points in the corridors of power: taking on “left-wing” views on campus, judicial oversight of government, leaving the European court of human rights. It helped to draft laws restricting the right of climate change activists to protest, not declaring that it had received funding from fossil fuel companies. And now it appears to have taken a sudden interest in women’s sport. Why might this be? Perhaps because, for all of the venom characterising this conversation, there is of course a genuine fear there: the feeling on the part of certain women that their space is being encroached upon, that trans rights are an extension of the patriarchy they have long been fighting. The problem is that this anger is being whipped up and exploited by malign actors, the media and politicians of on the reactionary right, to advance causes that go well beyond the remit of women’s sport.
And so once you erase trans women from physical sport, you move to sports such as chess and darts. From there it’s a short leap to scoffing at people’s pronouns, talking about “men in dresses”, perhaps even a cheap gag during prime minister’s questions while the parents of a murdered trans teenager are watching from the public gallery. Next you start denying the concept of gender fluidity entirely. You demonise the trans woman as a potential abuser or rapist. You describe transition surgery as “mutilation” or “child abuse”. All in the service of pushing the window, inching towards some sunlit horizon in which – as is already beginning to occur in parts of the US – trans people can be legislated out of existence entirely.
And really the telling part of the parkrun row is the way the anti-trans movement in sport has begun to broaden its focus beyond the Olympic 800m, or national swimming trials, or suppressed testosterone levels, into areas of identity and belonging. The proposed parkrun ban is – short of genital inspectors in the token queues – basically unenforceable. The cruelty is the point here: the desire to forcibly out trans women, even when it might threaten their safety. The message to trans women, trans men – or even anyone who looks like they might be trans – that this is not your space, and you will identify not according to your values but to ours.
The great shame is that for its many devotees parkrun’s appeal lies in its simple purity: a holistic, community‑driven vision of sport untainted by commercialism or top-down power, free of politics or culture wars. So of course, like the National Trust or the BBC, it needed to be defiled, made a contested space, made a more toxic and less welcoming space. Once the rage machine has finished eating, it can simply move on: to the next target, the next domino teetering in line.
Fare esplodere i dibattiti oltre ogni proporzione è la ragion d’essere [delle associazioni di destra], che sono state create per promuovere il conservativismo nei corridoi del potere: si battono per “rimuovere la sinistra” dalle università, per cancellare ogni controllo sul governo, per uscire dai trattati europei sui diritti umani. Hanno aiutato a scrivere leggi che diminuiscono la capacità di protestare contro il cambiamento climatico (senza dire di avere ricevuto fondi dalle aziende di combustibili fossili). E adesso, improvvisamente, si interessano degli sport femminili. Perché mai? Forse perché, indipendentemente da tutto il veleno che circonda la conversazione, c’è una paura sincera qui: alcune donne pensano che i loro spazi stiano venendo invasi, che i diritti trans non siano che l’estensione del patriarcato che da tempo combattono. Il problema è che questa rabbia viene alimentata e sfruttata con malizia dai media e dai politici della destra reazionaria, per mandare avanti cause che vanno ben al di là degli sport femminili.
E quindi una volta che le donne trans sono state rimosse dagli sport fisici ci si sposta ad altri sport come gli scacchi o le freccette. Da lì il passo è breve a deridere i pronomi scelti dalle persone, di parlare di “uomini con la gonna”, forse anche come battuta di basso livello fatta da un primo ministro in parlamento quando i genitori di un’adolescente trans pugnalata a morte sono in aula. Le donne trans vengono demonizzate come potenziali violenti stupratori. La transizione viene descritta come “mutilazione” o “abuso di minore”. Tutto quanto al servizio di spingere la finestra, avvicinandosi ad un orizzonte in cui, come già accade in alcune parti degli Stati Uniti, le persone trans sono rimosse dagli spazi pubblici per legge.
E quello che lo fa capire è proprio parkrun, il modo in cui il movimento anti-trans negli sport ha ampliato i suoi bersagli al di là delle olimpiadi, o delle gare di nuoto, o dei livelli di testosterone, in aree che si autodichiarano esplicitamente inclusive. Anche se Parkrun escludesse le donne trans dalle gare, il divieto non potrebbe essere applicato a meno di verificare i genitali delle persone in fila. Il punto è essere crudeli in quanto tali: è il desiderio di costringere le donne trans a fare outing, anche quando metterebbe a repentaglio la loro incolumità. Il messaggio che vogliono mandare alle donne trans, agli uomini trans, e persino a chiunque sembri poter essere trans, è il seguente: “Questo non è il vostro spazio, e voi dovete sottostare ai nostri valori, non ai vostri.”
Parkrun è uno spazio puro, uno spazo comunitario, in cui praticare sport senza contaminazioni commerciali o regole imposte dall’alto, senza politica o guerre di cultura. Quindi di conseguenza deve essere contaminato, deve essere reso politico, deve essere reso tossico e meno accogliente. E quando ciò sarà stato fatto, la macchina si muoverà al bersaglio seguente, alla prossima tessera del domino.