I grew up in an athletic household, with a coach for a father and a youth spent competing in long-distance running events. Though I struggle to run around the block these days, all four years of high school were spent on the cross-country and track teams, and I even medaled in various events at Hawai’i’s own Olympic-style multi-sports festival for athletes of all ages and abilities, the Aloha State Games.
As a girl growing up competing in sports in the 90s, I took for granted that athletic competition was readily accessible and available to me. This wasn’t always so in the USA. Prior to the passage of Title IX in the 1970’s, women's sports were often underfunded and received far fewer resources and opportunities than men's sports.
But now, Title IX is under attack. Recently, the Biden administration’s Department of Education has introduced a new rule requiring schools to allow biological males who “identify” as female to compete in women’s sports.
The very same thing is about to happen in Taiwan, the country I’ve called home for the past fifteen years.
What’s happening in Taiwan?
Female sport is at risk of being destroyed in my adoptive home country of Taiwan, despite Taiwan taking significant steps to promote and protect women's sports through legislation and policy over the last twenty years.
The Taiwan National High School Games (全國高中運動會) is the largest annual multi-sport event in Taiwan that brings together high school athletes from all over the country to compete in various sports. The event is organized by the Ministry of Education and the Sports Administration, and it is considered one of the largest and most prestigious youth sports events in Taiwan.
Beginning this year, trans-identified student athletes can enter the Taiwan National High School Games as the “gender of their choice.” So-called “non-binary” students may also participate in either male or female categories without restriction.
The eligibility rules and competition details have not yet been laid out officially by the National Sports Administration. This is riding on the coattails of a controversial court decision that happened in September of 2021, when the Taipei High Administrative Court issued a ruling allowing a trans-identified male calling himself “Xiao E (小E)” to change his legal sex to female without sex reassignment surgery — the first ruling of its kind.
Until then, individuals could not change their sex on an ID card unless they provided medical certificates confirming a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and proof of a sex change operation. I have contacted both the Chinese Taipei School Sport Federation (CTSSF) and the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Taiwan to try to find out how they will determine and standardize the qualifications of non-binary or trans-identified contestants, but none of my requests for additional information were answered.
The Taiwan National High School Games is incredibly important to young, rising Taiwanese athletic stars. The event is attended by many officials, including the Minister of Education and other high-ranking government officials, and it is covered extensively by the media in Taiwan. The games are an important part of the high school experience for many Taiwanese students, and they provide a platform for them to pursue their dreams of becoming professional athletes. In fact, many rising stars have gone on to participate as representatives of Taiwan (unfortunately referred to as “Chinese Taipei”, a term used in various international organizations and tournaments for groups or delegations representing the country of Taiwan in a way to avoid conflict with China) in the Olympic games.
If the sporting world changes its rules and trans-identified males dominate, it will be to the detriment of sport and will have destroyed the fair and level playing field for women and girls. Women and girls will lose out on scholarships, team places, medals, and the chance to make a name for themselves as professional athletes in their field.
There is not strong support for this from the public, either. The National Association of Principals has suggested that not enough research has been done on the subject, and that further studies should be done on how to identify and evaluate participants, and that it should take a minimum of three years before a decision is made. The National Federation of Teachers agrees that more research needs to be done. The National PTA has asked that the Sports Administration and other organizations involved should write out the entire plan that they envision for the National Games, and should hold a public hearing, so that parents and students have the right to understand what is happening and discuss it openly. Everyone should be involved in policy discussions to determine whether this model is acceptable, and to avoid the government hastily making decisions that will meet with public disapproval. Why hasn’t this happened already? Why are these suggestions and requests being ignored?
It only recently came to light that a trans-identified male competed as a woman in Taiwan’s National Intercollegiate Athletic Games in 2018. Many runners and coaches from other schools knew this athlete was male, and representatives of Taiwan’s National Tsinghua University questioned his ability to compete against female athletes in track and field events, but because there were no clear rules for transgender participation in Taiwan, he was able to compete in the female division, destroying the previous record held by a woman. Unfortunately, there appear to be no clear rules or guidelines now, either.
Let’s be more like Samoa
Samoan culture is often lauded as progressive for its cultural acceptance of fa'afafine, the traditional social category of effeminate males. Fa'afafine are identified at an early age by virtue of their propensity for “feminine tasks”, and so the concept is wholly dependent upon the sex role stereotypes. There’s only one acceptable way to “be a man” in Samoa, and if you don’t fall in line, you’re “othered”. Historically, fa'afafine do not deny their sexed bodies as men. In fact, there are several professional athletes who are fa'afafine, and they play on men’s teams.
Despite identifying as what we would call “trans”, they do not deny their biological sex nor seek to invade female spaces. Jaiyah Saelua, pictured above on the far right, is a footballer from American Samoa, he is fa’afafine, and plays on the men’s team. His life will be portrayed in an upcoming Hollywood film, directed by Oscar winner Taika Waititi, to be released later this year. He has had cross-sex hormones and cosmetic surgery to adjust his appearance, but he still remains a player on the men’s team. He is accepted by his teammates, and it seems society at large, because there is no push in Samoan culture to deny the biological reality that he is indeed male. In American Samoa, in other words, they aren’t compelled, or brainwashed, into lying about material reality, whilst simultaneously allowing men like Saelua to participate in professional sport. I’d call that a fair compromise.
In fact, when New Zealand trans-identified weightlifter, Laurel Hubbard, competed and medaled in the 2019 Pacific Games, the American Samoa Minister of Education, Sports and Culture had something to say about it; “It is not fair to have a transgender athlete compete against women.” Hubbard, even at forty-one years old (making him twenty years older than the average female weightlifting champion), displaced several young women of color, denying them a spot at the Olympics. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi made it clear he didn't support trans-identified male athletes competing in women's sport, despite his unwavering support for fa’afafine athletes and the overwhelming acceptance of fa’afafine in his culture. "This fa'afafine or man should have never been allowed by the Pacific Games Council president to lift with the women. I was shocked when I first heard about it," he told reporters. "No matter how we look at it, he's a man and it's shocking this was allowed in the first place."