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Defining Gender In Sport

Given that the dreaded Olympics have once again cast their dark cloud over us, raining fire and nationalism as the rivers run red with the blood of those who blaspheme the sanctity of LOCOG, I thought the timing was right to have a bit of a discussion about the issue of how gender and sex are determined and defined in relation to sports, and the segregation of athletes into female or male competitions.

This is something pretty firmly connected to transgenderism in the collective consciousness. We’ve all heard jokes about men posing as women, or “getting sex changes”, in order to compete in the women’s divisions in order to gain an athletic edge. We’ve seen this concept explored in TV, too, in shows like Futurama and Strangers With Candy and The Simpsons, often as an excuse to drag out some very typical, very easy transphobic gags. There is, altogether, an imagined concept that this is a thing, something that happens, one of the reasons people “get sex changes”.

But does it really have much substance? Or is it as divorced from reality as fears that men will pose as trans women in order to infiltrate bathrooms to listen to YOUR DAUGHTERS go pee (!!!!!1!) DUN DUN DUNNNN.

And why does it matter? Why are we actually segregating male and female athletes in the first place?

Fears of this kind of thing are probably as old as the initial development of female athletic leagues, and connected to the concept that men have an inherent edge in athletic competition (leaving aside the obvious truth that a trained woman at peak athletic ability in her chosen sport is going to wipe the floor with a male amateur). But actual realities on which it hinges are pretty few and far between.

The practice of gender verification in sports didn’t begin until the 1950 Olympic games. Prior to that, there had only been one alleged instance of anyone “abusing” the segregation of male and female competitors, German high jumper Dora Ratjen in the 1936 games. They were determined to be “really a man” by German police after investigation following their success in the European championship two years later. Dora, however, was not a man posing as a woman for the sake of an “athletic edge”. They were indeed born Dora, and had been assigned female at birth on account of ambiguous, intersexed genitalia. Dora genuinely believed himself to be female, having been raised as such, until early adolescence when a physician determined his actual sex to be male. This being Germany in the 1920s, although Dora was aware of the truth, he and his family decided that he should continue living as female, given the embarassment and confusion changing any of that would entail. Dora didn’t begin living and identifying as a man (taking the name Heinrich) until much later in life, after his athletic successes had led to his history being exposed.

(Prior to this, in the 1932 Olympics, there was a Polish runner and gold-medalist named Stanislawa Walsiewicz who after her death in 1980 was found to be intersex, with partially developed male genitalia)

Gender testing didn’t become instituted until 1950 by the IAAF for woman athletes in the lead-up to the European championship. One woman, a Dutch sprinter, was expelled from her national team due to refusing a test, and was later to be found to be intersex by way of mosaicism, posessing both 46 XX and 46 XY cells. Gender testing did not, however, become a part of the Olympic games until 1968, and it arose primarily in accordance with unfounded suspicions that various Soviet nations were submitting male athletes to compete as women.

Gender testing was common in the Olympics from that time until the 1996 Atlanta games, where it was finally discontinued (possibly a result of 8 athletes having “failed” the gender test only to be cleared by subsequent physical examinations). Throughout the decades of gender testing being a common practice, it never once revealed a male athlete posing as a woman in order to cheat. In every single instance it was a result of intersex conditions, all but a very, very few (like Ratjen) being of the kind that couldn’t conceivably lead to an “unfair” athletic edge.

Many of these athletes were likely unaware they even were intersex until submitting to the tests. Can you imagine facing that? Losing your dream in that way?

Controversies, however, persisted even after the discontinuation of widespread gender testing (Olympics officials reserved, after 1996, the right to conduct testing in individual cases that they deemed exceptional). One of the most notable was that of South African middle distance runner and gold medalist Caster Semenya, who was singled out for highly publicized gender testing that had severe consequences for her career and ability to pursue endorsements. These were motivated by suspicions that seemingly had no substantive cause other than her not looking sufficiently “feminine” under certain standards (something undoubtedly connected to the racial biases implicit in standards of “feminine” appearance) and her significant talent. After the damage had already been done, the results of these tests while not being revealed did not result in her disqualification, leading one to the assumption that she was never anything but a just a particularly talented female athlete who wasn’t normatively feminine enough to be trusted.

Throughout the history of gender testing in sport, and notably in the Olympics and other international championships, from the very inception of the practice as a product of cold war paranoia meeting misogynistic notions of athletic ability all the way through recent controversies like Semenya, it has always been deeply and unmistakably connected to questions of racism and national distrust. Which women are or are not suspected, or singled out for testing, or used as reason to insist upon the practice in the first place, has always been connected to which nations and races are on the receiving end of hostile, prejudicial attitudes on the part of whichever powers currently hold the most sway over the governing bodies of those competitions. Whoever is seen as “exotic”, “unfeminine”, “sneaky” or “untrustworthy” enough to have the mythic paranoid fantasy of cross-dressing cheaters projected onto.

It is notable, also, that this fantasy, and along with it the notion of gender testing’s necessity, and every serious application of the process, has exclusively been applied to female athletes, never men. Male competitors have historically simply assumed to be “really” men, simple as that. There’s a lot of misogynistic subtext here, and not simply the assumption of men’s “inherently” superior performance in athletics. Along with it is the idea that athletics is a “male” domain, and being an athlete is a “manly” thing to do. Being an accomplished, competent, talented, driven female athlete somehow immediately calls the legitimacy of a woman’s sex into question, while the same qualities and pursuits in a man only reaffirm the legitimacy of his own.

Something worth questioning is whether or not the concept of men having an inherent advantage over women in athletics is really as certain as we assume. It seems like an intuitive thing, “common sense”, in that men are generally taller, heavier and bulkier than women, and testosterone has a serious, noticeable, documented effect on the development and maintenance of muscle, functioning not unlike a “performance enhancing drug” in this regard. However, like all instances of “common sense”, we have to be careful about assuming things are as clear-cut as they seem.

Not all sports are all that dependent on muscle, height or weight, and there are many in which there’s a cap on the point at which these things became advantages, a cap which theoretically can fall well within the range attainable by elite female competitors. Men and women also typically have different centers of gravity, different levels of flexibility and balance, that don’t always fall down a line where men come out ahead. There are many sports, such as those heavily based on stamina and endurance, where the general physiological differences between sexes even out to not being a significant factor.

There are easily quite a few sports that could be desegregated without conferring any real disadvantage to female athletes.

It’s arguable that even in those sports where things like height and weight become relevant factors, the competitions could be broken up and classed in accordance with the actual factor rather than doing so by proxy through gender. For instance, imagine having basketball leagues broken up not by sex but by maximum or minimum height of the players. There might still be issues with mass, weight and injuries, but these could be accommodated by adapting the rules about charging, drawing fouls, and those fouls most likely to result in injury. One could also just have women generally play guard positions with men playing forward.

To be honest, a “6’1 or under” basketball league could probably be more interesting than the NBA, in that it would get rid of a lot of the cheesier plays.

Gender desegregation, however, is not necessarily going to be the ideal solution, and I imagine that most athletes would be uncomfortable with its proposal as a solution even in those sports where sex is a minimal factor. And the athletes, honestly, are who I think we should care most about. However, I don’t think cis athletes should universally take precedence over trans and intersex athletes. An attitude as surprisingly common as it is suprisingly callous is that trans and intersex athletes should just plain not be permitted opportunities to compete, or should simply be given “their own competitions” (which seems fine, until you remember how few of us there are, and what an enormous “fuck you” that would be to elite competitors who are talented and driven enough to pursue their sport on the world stage rather than simply dominating little local gender-variant softball clubs or whatever). And really, there ARE sports where sex definitely IS a serious factor… if North American football were desegregated, it would completely cease being viable and safe for female athletes, no matter how talented, to play on the professional level. Which, again, is not fair to the athletes.

So, like it or not, we have to find ways to define gender/sex in sport.

I’ve talked to some people who believe it should be as simple as the way we define gender in day-to-day life, within trans-friendly circles. You initially just judge by presentation, and if there’s ever question or ambiguity, you politely, discretely ask. What takes precedence over anything else (like hormones, genitals, dress, hair, facial hair, breasts, whatever) is always self-identification. The idea, applied to sport, would be that each athlete would simply be asked how they self-identify, and those who identify as female would play in the women’s competitions while those who identify as male would play in the men’s. Easy-peasy.

Except… as lovely a notion as that is, and as much as I wish we lived in a world where that could work, I don’t think it would. Even though there is absolutely no historical precedent of men “cheating” by disguising themselves as women, it’s not unthinkable, in the context of elite events like the Olympics, for someone to take advantage of a system that easy… even if only for the sake of the fleeting notoriety and infamy it would generate. More likely, though (which is not to say it would be common or widespread, just something that needs to be considered) is the possibility pre-op or non-op trans competitors taking advantage of that system such that they’d be able to go off their HRT when training and competing and thereby gain an advantage.

And what’s very, very likely is that just the possibility of that kind of thing breeding widespread hostility, suspicion, contempt and resentment, added on top of existing cissexism, transphobia and gender binarism, which would create a pretty awful environment for trans and intersex athletes to compete in. As much for the sake of not-quite-binary athletes as for the sake of the sport, some kind of way of making everything feel like a roughly even playing field, physiologically, seems important. Some kind of actual definition and line, drawn as fairly as it possibly can be, for what “female” and “male” mean in the context of athletics.

This line has historically often been drawn in very absurd, silly ways that really were purely symbolic, and had no connection to the actual physiological differences between men and women that could affect athletic performance. Instances of how trans athletes have been permitted to compete professionally as women come to mind, such as Renee Richards, in which the justification for that permission was based on their having undergone lower surgery. This policy, that trans women could compete as women as long as they’d had SRS, was connected to all the usual problems that employing SRS as the line between “real” women and not, like the exclusion of people who don’t desire SRS or don’t feel its worth the expense and hassle, the exclusion of those who can’t afford it or can’t undergo it for medical reasons, and then obliging anyone who would want to compete professionally to meet all the deeply problematic systems of gatekeeping that surround access to SRS. But it is also absurd in that the presence or absence of a penis, testes or vagina has no bearing whatsoever on athletic ability.

And a lot of the time, even that hasn’t been enough to satisfy cis athletes and have them accept a trans woman as legitimate competition in a female event.

Michelle Dumaresq is another well-known trans athlete who was the subject of considerable controversy. She was an accomplished, professional mountain biker from Canada who, despite having had SRS and having been on HRT for a long period of time, thus meaning she’d absolutely no meaningful advantage over her competitors at all, was nonetheless subject to considerable suspicion, resentment and efforts to have her removed from competition. A lot of the attitudes surrounding her, often from athletes she was racing alongside / against, were utterly steeped in the usual transphobia, such as the tired old fears that trans women somehow pose a threat to the safety of women’s spaces. There was also plenty of other cissexism, including the prioritzation of cis women’s comfort, the “makes women uncomfortable” trope (I’ve lately noticed there’s a deeper level of trans-misogyny and even de-gendering present in this attitude. It’s in the phrasing: makes women uncomfortable. There’s an implication that the cis women are the only party who are women, along with the larger implication that so-called women’s spaces “belong” to cis women. The thing is, being excluded from women’s facilities, spaces, groups, events and competitions.. that also makes women uncomfortable).

However, it seems like being able to point towards the biology, the medical fact that Dumaresq wasn’t in any meaningful or significant way different from the women she was competing against, was vital to her being able to successfully compete and, all in all, be accepted as a legitimate competitor in her sport. And I can’t help but imagine that education on these facts, and helping build a concrete, working understanding of what aspects of sex do and don’t affect performance, and how transsexual bodies do and don’t differ from cissexual bodies, can only help. That understanding these things, and building working definitions, can over time ease the difficulty faced by athletes like Michelle Dumaresq or Caster Semenya.

I think for now focusing on whether or not an athlete is endocrinologically female or male seems like the best solution, at least until something a bit better comes along. Testosterone, after all, is the factor that creates the largest difference between men and women in the context of athletic performance. It’s certainly a far more meaningful factor than genitalia. It’s not perfect, as not all trans people can or choose to undergo HRT, and not all intersex people will have hormones within the broader range recognized as that of whatever sex they wish to compete as, but I honestly think it is the best option without having to face the far more thorny, difficult and complex sociological problems that would go with choosing not to locate some objectively measurable definition. After all, while HRT is not a universal aspect of medical transition, it’s the most common, widespread and accessible of transition-related medical treatments.

Roller derby has successfully adopted this model, wherein anyone whose hormones are within a generally female range (allowing for atypicality, but not extreme atypicality that crosses over into the male average) is permitted to compete on women’s teams. If I remember correctly, things like gentials and identification aren’t considered important, so non-op trans women, people with non-binary identifications, and trans men who don’t or don’t yet have male hormone levels, are all permitted to compete (with the male teams, presumably, accepting those whose hormones fall in the male range, similarly disregarding identification). It’s also my understanding that testing isn’t mandatory, only when requested by other athletes who might have feel things are a bit unfair. It’s not an ideal system at all, but it seems a whole lot better than anything we’ve yet had.

I also hear the Olympics have recently instituted hormone testing as part of how they conduct gender tests when such tests are requested. I read an article saying this had the unfortunate side-effect that some women are now taking HRT and anti-androgens in order to suppress their testosterone levels to within the range accepted by by the Olympic definitions. That, in and of itself, suggests that this system is not being applied properly; it should allow for exceptional hormone ranges, given that athletes, by definition, are physiologically exceptional, and only be a loose system whereby you’re making sure the hormones aren’t in the male average, not simply above the female average, and there should be at least a bit of gray area if defined properly. But what also worries me is that I understand this is only being instituted as an addition to prior Olympic standards of sex/gender definition. All the old potential disqualifiers, such as chromosomal or genital abnormalities, remain in place. This means it doesn’t make things any simpler, any easier, any better for any athletes. It just makes things stricter and harsher… so strict and harsh that now, apparently, cisgender, completely binary women are being forced to modify their physiology to meet the standards.

Of course, it’s not exactly surprising to see Roller Derby be an example of how to deal with gender in sports in a good, functional, queer-and-trans-friendly way, and for the Olympics to be an example of how to deal with it in a creepy, complex, byzantine, strict, debilitating way.

Hooray for the Olympic spirit!

At least we do now have some examples of doing things a bit better. That’s often the hardest step… for someone, somewhere to have a better idea, and to actually make it a reality, however small. A small reality at least provides something to guide the rest of us forward. And failing that, it at least provides hope for those who might otherwise abandon their dreams for fear of being unwelcome where they could be realized. That’s more than enough to make it worth fighting for.