When I was younger, the thought that a person might change their gender never crossed my mind. But now I personally know five people who have done so and they remain the same in most respects before and after the gender change. You realize that while gender is an important aspect of a person’s self-identity, it matters relatively little in the everyday interactions between people. Being transgender now seems like just another slice of the diversity of the human condition.
When writing about the attacks on some members of the Cleveland transgender community, I recalled that my first awareness that gender was not a fixed quality was the sensation caused by the case of Renee Richards. Born a man in 1934, she had sex-reassignment surgery in 1975 that changed her to a woman.
Richards was a professional level tennis player and there was opposition to her competing in major tournaments as a woman due to a sense that she had an unfair advantage. The United States Tennis Association instituted a rule in 1976 that said that you had to be born a woman to compete as a woman but the ruling was overturned by the courts in 1977, a case that is now considered a landmark victory for transgender rights. Richards went on to have some success, especially playing doubles, though her individual ranking never rose above #20.
Looking back, it seems strange that there was so much opposition to her. What did the USTA fear? That if Richards did well that there would be a spate of men undergoing gender reassignment surgery in order to try and win Wimbledon? It is like worrying that if Oscar Pistorius did well in the Olympics using his artificial legs, that others would amputate theirs in order to get those nifty blades instead.
In each of these cases, the people underwent major physical changes involving surgery. Now that there is increasing awareness that gender identity and physical characteristics need not match, the need for surgery in order for the new identity to be accepted becomes reduced. In most cases, this mismatch does not matter, and people’s self-identified gender can be accepted without controversy.
But it becomes trickier in the world of highly competitive professional sports with all that money involved. The social price that transgender people pay is so high, whether they undergo reconstructive surgery or not, that I doubt that anyone will announce a change in their identity just in order to compete in the other category. But I suspect that it is only a matter of time before such a case ends up in court.