Gender identity and professional sports

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.


  1. cafink says

    When I was very young, I overheard part of a news report about a tennis player (I assume it was Richards) who had undergone a sex change. In my naïveté, I was left with the impression that the changing of one’s sex was some kind of medical condition with a spontaneous onset, and was afraid that I would one day wake up to dicover that I had transformed into a girl overnight.

  2. hyphenman says

    Good afternoon Mano,

    Before there was Renee Richards, there was Christine Jorgeneon.

    I know two people in the community, one is in transition (saving up for the very expensive surgery) and the second transitioned about 20 years ago and is happily married with a primary-school-aged son.

    We had a discussion of this at one of the schools where I teach and a segment of the students still have difficulty understanding how a person can feel that different, but they are far more accepting than my peers would have been when I was in high school.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,


  3. Sassafras says

    Even if you do undergo physical changes up to and including surgery, people still won’t accept it. Fallon Fox is an MMA fighter who is trans, and despite her having been on hormones for a decade and having had GRS almost as long ago, she faced a tidal wave of macho transphobia claiming she would have an innate advantage. This is despite informed medical opinions as well as the fact that she’s visibly slimmer and less muscled than some of her cis opponents. People want to believe sex is immutable and they rage at the possibility that it isn’t.

  4. says

    I’m not really convinced by the unfair-advantage argument. I would imagine that it’s very difficult, as a top-level athlete, to transition into a different body. I think it’s a major adjustment for girl gymnasts, figure skaters, and other athletes who start competing at a very young age to work through puberty. It affects your balance and all of your movements, and sports at that level requires precise muscle memory. It’s impressive that so many can make the transition relatively smoothly, and we’re talking about a less radical transformation over a period of several years. It’s pretty amazing for anyone to succeed at that level after gender reassignment surgery.

  5. doublereed says

    I don’t think the fear is that men will undergo treatment to compete in women’s leagues. I think the fear is that transwomen will be significantly overrepresented in female sports.

    Wow, I didn’t realize that hormone treatment could have that much of an effect on the human body though.

  6. says


    This is despite informed medical opinions as well as the fact that she’s visibly slimmer and less muscled than some of her cis opponents.

    Joe Rogan quoted at that article:

    Look, she’s huge!

    No, she isn’t.

    She’s not just huge, she’s got a fucking man’s face.

    No, she doesn’t. (And I’m lost as to what advantage that could be thought to confer.)

    She’s a transgender, post-op person. The operation doesn’t shave down your bone density.

    I have the distinct sense Mr. Rogan doesn’t understand what “density” means.

    It doesn’t change.

    Yes, it does.

  7. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Mr Rogan is a bit of an idiot.

    If you aren’t breaking bones as a normal part of your competition, where breaking fewer bones would lead to a measurable increase in available training and competition time, then an increase in bone density is **actually a negative**.

    Why carry around more weight than you need?

    Hating trans folk: it’s natural!

  8. Nepenthe says

    I think if one has gone through Puberty 2.0 that one should be able to compete sports against one’s new sex. I’m unaware of any sport where one’s genitals come into play*, so genital sex is irrelevant. The presence or absence of male-typical levels of testosterone and thus male-typical muscle building ability seems to be the most relevant sex characteristic related to most sports.

    Of course, this only applies to high level sports. No one should be giving high school kids shit about which team they’re playing on.

  9. Pen says

    Maybe we should categorise people for sports in a way that’s non-gender related. Like weight, or height or bone density or muscle mass or whatever is relevant to that particular sport. I’ve always thought they should regroup children in schools on that basis, because their physical development is on such different timetables and it’s important for them not to get discouraged from physical activity by completely unachievable competition – and social rejection that goes with just being too small to be any use on that particular team.

  10. colnago80 says

    As I understand it, the advantage that men have over women in certain power sports, such as weightlifting, is due to production of testosterone. A man who undergoes a sex change operation no longer produces testosterone so advantage goes away. However, there have been scandals in women’s sports such as bodybuilding and weightlifting. For instance, female body builder Bev Francis has been the subject of numerous accusations of testosterone use. As I understand it, she was source of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s retirement from body building. It is told that he showed up at his gym one day and observed Francis bench pressing 400 lbs, convincing him that he was in the wrong profession.

  11. ibbica says

    Frankly, I don’t understand why we still segregate sports by gender (or rather, sex, as it seems is more common) at all.

    As for testosterone and success in a given sport… T levels are themselves affected by success in competition, so even when a correlation is found, the causal link isn’t always clear. But sure, let’s say we did have good evidence that plasma testosterone concentration determined success in some sport: why not separate into classes based on T levels? Or even “T – E”, or “E/T”, or whatever measure you manage to demonstrate determines success. Why should gender (or sex, however you want to determine it) have anything to do with it?

  12. doublereed says

    Men and women have physical differences from each other. Body fat is distributed differently. Center of gravity is significantly different. That’s why women’s gymnastics is all balance-related and men’s gymnastics is all upper-body strength related. It seems that men in general have more endurance for some reason, judging by the way track-and-field works. Combining such sports would simply mean that women don’t win.

    I have no idea what biologically regulates the differences, though. I would think “testosterone” is an oversimplification, but I don’t know.

  13. ibbica says

    Yes, ‘testosterone’ is definitely an oversimplification 😉

    BUT… that an “average woman body” is different from an “average man body” does not mean that there aren’t men with more woman-typical body fat distribution, nor does it mean there aren’t women with men-typical upper body strength. That those difference translate to different performance in particular sports doesn’t justify gender- or sex-segregation. Figure out a reliable way to quantify the difference(s) you think (or better yet, can actually show) are important, and separate athletes into classes based on that measure(s). Don’t worry, some of those classes will end up with more women than men, and vice versa.

  14. doublereed says

    Uhh… I would think any kind of classification like that would affect the sport too much, by garnering it to whatever restriction you’re judging it by.

    Like take the Testosterone thing. You make brackets of 1-10 testosteronis (my unit of testosterone), 11-20 testosteronis, and 21-30 testosteronis. Then obviously people with 10, 20, and 30 testosteronis will be victorious simply by the development of your restrictions.

    I think the sex segregation seems to work fine. Really, unless the trans thing actually becomes a problem, I don’t see any reason why it should matter. When transwomen make up the top five female track champions, then maybe we can revisit our policy. But it very much seems like the burden of proof should be on the other side.

  15. doublereed says

    Although, I don’t know how much the variation between the body types change between men and women. Like, are there actually men with female center of gravity (lower and further back)? Because it’s like a pretty significant difference.

  16. ibbica says

    Sure, just imagine the problems if we divided people based on something like weight! Er…

    Why is separating based on gender – which, contrary to popular belief is NOT actually binary – better than using a quantifiable physical measure?

  17. ibbica says

    Yep, such people exist. Take a good look at any study showing a statistical difference between men and women, but pay extra attention to any overlapping regions rather than focussing on the gap between peaks. And of course keep in mind that any differences that we find in humans are unlikely to be unrelated to social/societal circumstances… and that most (all?) studies only look at a restricted subpopulation of “humans”.

    Sure, we often find differences between the averages of women and men, on all sorts of measures. Nevertheless, you simply cannot determine whether a given individual is “a man” or “a woman” based on any particular (suite of) physical characteristic(s). Any relevant characteristic is going to have exceptions within either sex, so why rely on gender (or sex) to separate athletes into different classes? Why not just use the characteristic(s) itself as a discriminant?

  18. doublereed says

    Yea, and that becomes a huge focus of the wrestling/boxing world. That’s actually kind of proving my point…

    What, are you suggesting weight classes for track/field and gymnastics? Tennis? I’m a little confused here.

  19. doublereed says

    Okay, I actually cannot find data on the center of gravity thing. If you have some, I would like to see it.

    Yes, I am aware that there is plenty of overlap of the sexes. And Bev Francis. That doesn’t really address the actual issue though. If that were actually true, then why not just have a single tier with no gender separation. Oh, because then men would win most of the stuff and women would win significantly less. And that doesn’t seem to be what you’re suggesting. So I’m confused about what you actually want.

    I mean, if you want to find the combination of characteristics that give you whatever you’re trying to come up with, then go for it. But you’d have to show that it is less arbitrary than man vs woman. You’re asking “why not” but that has an obvious answer: we don’t know the exact characteristics…

  20. lochaber says

    The center of gravity of pretty much everyone is in the hips/pelvic area. There may be variations for extremely unusual bodies, but both men and women have their COG in the hips.

    Every now and then I run into someone claiming men’s COG is in the chest, which is just kinda absurd. Try laying on and balancing on something like a railing – it’s going to be right on your pelvic area. This also comes up in martial arts – a lot of the throws focus on lifting the person below their COG.

    In general, men tend to have wider shoulders and more muscle mass, and women tend to have longer legs and wider hips, but that all varies so much on an individual level that you can’t make any determination based on those qualities alone.

  21. Sassafras says

    I believe the idea is that she’d have more weight behind her punches/kicks. Aside from it being not true in trans women’s case, muscle weighs far more than bone and cis women aren’t disqualified for heavy muscles giving weight to their attacks.

    Not that it matters because I watched these conversations unfold at the time, and as soon as you show that there’s not actually a significant difference in bone density, they say she has longer bones. When you show that’s wrong (and that cis athletes with long bones aren’t disqualified but are lauded as physically gifted), they say more muscle mass. When you show that’s wrong they claim muscle density. When you show that’s wrong, they claim stronger tendons. When you show that’s wrong it branches out into any other desperate ridiculous thing they can grasp at. I saw one guy claiming that males have a better sense of spatial relations than females and thus Fallon would have a Spiderman-like combat sense compared to cis women. These guys are just really invested in the idea that men and women are indelibly separate physically, and that men are physically more powerful than women in every way. Anything that challenges that makes them go off the deep end.

  22. ibbica says

    Proving what point? That we shouldn’t have class subdivisions at all, or that there’s a reason to have classes based on physical characteristics, or something else? Because it seems to have nothing to do with separating athletes based on gender.

    And no, I didn’t say divide by weight. I’m using it as an example of one physical measure that is currently in use to divide athletes into classes. If you think leg length is relevant, use that; if you think upper-arm circumference is relevant, use that. If you feel you must divide into classes, why not rely on a relevant and quantifiable measure?

    If there isn’t a need or desire to divide into classes based on some physical measure(s), then why divide by gender or sex?

  23. ibbica says

    doublereed, there’s a straightforward test for COG, if you’d like to separate athletes based on that. Take a look at the couple of graphs at that link, and note the overlap again 😉

    Incidentally, I might as well as you for any data you’ve found showing the spread and magnitude of the claimed sex difference, since my google-fu is failing me and I haven’t been able to find much myself outside of vague claims without supporting data.

  24. filethirteen says

    Can’t say I agree. I’ll use the terms XY for men and XX for women (indicating chromosomes, no discussion of XXX or XXY or others here though because this comment is long enough already) to try and avoid giving offence.

    Just because the experts can’t determine precisely what gives XY people sporting advantage over XX doesn’t mean that an XY should be permitted to compete on even terms with an XX, no matter how much they might wish to be XX instead. Not unless you want to remove gender bias completely and have everyone compete on even terms. Some people think would be fair, but IMO XX is already disadvantaged in many areas in this world without having to compete with those with the advantage (in sport anyway) of a Y chromosome.

    If it were all down to testosterone then the East German XX weightlifting records last century would be on par with their XY records, and they weren’t even close. There’s more to it.

    In my opinion Renee DID have an advantage and should have been prevented from competing with those professional XXs that had worked hard all their lives to achieve the heights of ability available to them. To say that Renee “only” achieved the #20 ranking in the world is disingenuous – that’s a colossal achievement. Renee never achieved any notable ranking in the XY lists. I don’t believe it would be fair for an XX to have to face Renee on the tennis court when the XX had laboured to achieve a huge ranking, albeit not top 20, when other XYs weren’t allowed to compete in the XX league. You can’t have discrimination in order to compensate one gender for a perceived (I say perceived, but few would argue that it isn’t part of reality) innate disadvantage and then make such exceptions.

    My opinion. I realise the courts ruled otherwise.

  25. colnago80 says

    Absolutely. Suppose for the purpose of discussion that Pete Sampras had undergone a sex change operation in his prime. Does anyone in his/her right mind think that any woman tennis player who ever lived could have competed on anything approaching equal terms with him? Even Bev Francis, quite possibly the strongest woman who ever lived, couldn’t have competed on an equal basis with Olympic class male weight lifters.

  26. colnago80 says

    To add to my previous comment, Pete Sampras’ serve was clocked at 135 mph in his prime. I would bet that no female tennis player who ever lived would come anywhere close to that.

  27. filethirteen says

    Are you taking the piss?

    – Some above have stated the opinion that males that have sex changes, in part because of the loss of testosterone, are no longer on par with other professional male sportsmen (likely) but have become on par with professional female sportsmen. The latter is the point I’m attempting to take issue with. Imagining male sporting greats in the female circuit is muddying the waters.

    – Pete Sampras is a terrible example. He didn’t have a sex change and the thought experiment where he might have done leads only to complete conjecture as to how it would have affected his prowess at tennis. Moreover, in his prime he was better than everyone so you could argue that anyone who played him, male or female, would be disadvantaged.

    – Renee OTOH was NOT competitive as a male. It was only after the sex change that Renee became competitive, because Renee was permitted to play in the women’s circuit. I am asserting that this was unfair on women tennis players.

  28. doublereed says

    I would mostly just say that separation by gender or sex is the best we have. I would imagine other attempted physical class divisions would be just as arbitrary (or perhaps more arbitrary), or there would be significant gender disparities. Gender is not entirely arbitrary just because there’s overlap.

    We have two competing desires: we want women to be competitive athletes, and we want a sensible division measures.

  29. doublereed says

    Let’s take height in basketball. So let’s pretend we have different “height classes” in basketball, and let’s pretend that this is in fact the defining characteristic. A woman of equal height has an “equal natural chance” or whatever you’re going for.

    So men are taller than women, so they’re going to be more represented in the higher classes right? Sounds fair enough. But basketball players are all going to be pretty damn tall, so people in the higher classes will also be exceptional. There aren’t going to be many 7’4″ men. But there will be lots of 6′ men and considerably fewer 6′ women.

    So you’ll actually find that the distribution of men and women is essentially going to favor men over women until you get down to average height. Everything above the average height will be dominated by men. This is what we’re trying to avoid.

    When you get mixed classes, then I would say anything lower than like 40% women participation is probably going to be unacceptable.

  30. filethirteen says

    No actually, and admittedly I was being lazy with the term “competitive”, mainly because I was annoyed at having to explain myself again. But it’s a matter of degree.. The top ten national junior ranking was a long time ago. And there is a huge difference between featuring in an over 35 national championship and being in the world top 100. At that time Richard (before he became Renee) would never have threatened the top 100 again.

  31. filethirteen says

    I went to and looked as far back as records began (1973, Richard was in the national men’s over 35 rankings at that time, don’t know if she was going as Renee then, she had the operation in 1974) and there is no Richard Raskind or Renee Richards in the top 200, which seems to be as much as they recorded then.

  32. Sassafras says

    I fail to see what the ATP rankings are supposed to tell us, since her accomplishments as Renee don’t even seem to be listed. If anything that undermines the idea that she was at an unfair advantage as a woman since she didn’t even rank there.

  33. filethirteen says

    Renee’s accomplishments wouldn’t be listed because ATP is men’s tennis. It was the men’s ranking history I was looking for, to see whether she ranked among the elite prior to her sex change.

  34. Sassafras says

    Well, the WTA lists Renee, but unless zero rank points in every competition is some obscure tennis jargon for “shockingly successful”, then she still didn’t have a meteoric rise indicating a severe advantage. The poor cis women who worked so hard (as if Renee didn’t) weren’t cheated if they had far more success than her.

  35. filethirteen says

    Yes, they were cheated. You’re perceiving this issue as cis versus trans discrimination, when in fact it’s a clear cut issue of female versus male discrimination.

    Professional tennis players work hard for their ranking, but there isn’t room for everyone in the top 100. I put it to you that the number 100 player in the female rankings would still easily beat any other female whose greatest achievement was once reaching the finals in a national women’s over 35 championship. So explain again how a male tennis player who never achieved more than a similar amount in the male league was eligible to slot in seamlessly into the women’s league just because the male had become a trans male, had an operation and taken drugs to facilitate the change?

    In the male league Richard was a has-been. Is that truth too unfair for you? Consider the reverse situation, where a female whose best success was achieving the finals in an over 35 national women’s competition has an operation to become a trans female and takes drugs – testosterone and whatever current medical science can provide. Do they then go on to achieve number 20 in the male’s ranking lists? Like hell they do, don’t fool yourself.

    Unless the two trans, one originally male one originally female, players are on an appropriate PHYSICAL footing after everything medical science can do for them, then allowing the male the benefits of being considered female when the female is physically unable to compete on an equal footing with other males is discriminatory. Don’t let your sympathy for Renee cloud your judgement.

  36. Sassafras says

    Except that you have no proof that any trans woman is not on physical level with cis women except your subjective goal-post-moving interpretation of this single case. Medical experts and sports boards have both found that a trans woman on long term HRT does not have a significant advantage over cis women, and you saying “yes they do!” Isn’t convincing at all.

  37. filethirteen says

    Medical experts and sports boards have both found that a trans woman on long term HRT does not have a significant advantage over cis women

    Citation needed. And while you’re at it, feel free to show the medical exports and sports boards findings that trans men on long term HRT don’t suffer significant DISadvantage over cis men.

    Or, as I don’t expect you to be able to do that, please post your final words and we’ll agree to differ.

    You saying “yes they do!” Isn’t convincing at all.


  38. Sassafras says

    The Olympics allows trans athletes who have undergone HRT and SRS to compete, which they obviously wouldn’t have done if their regulatory board and physicians thought it conferred unfair advantage. Yes, that is one of the most renowned and important sports organizations in the world giving trans athletes the OK. Doctors with expertise on transition have stated that trans women do not have unfair biological advantages after transition. The only doctors disagreeing happen to be ones with little to no experience with trans people.

    Also? You don’t own the default here. Assuming trans people are unfair to compete is not the default. Your ideas need to be proven beyond “this one example performed somewhat better and therefore trans is cheating!!!” The fact that when this comes to the test with sports boards they don’t side with you ought to tell you something. I fully expect it won’t, though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *