On the Basis of Gender
Examining the role gender plays in sports.
May 23, 2020
Left foot forward. Right foot forward. While that may well be the mantra playing in 18-year-old Caster Semenya’s head as she flies furiously down the length of the track towards the finish line, the spectators watching her would be lucky to be able to distinguish between her feet as she runs. Her high speed reduces her muscular figure clad in a South-African-colored uniform to a blur of green and yellow as she finishes almost a full second before her closest opponent at the World Championships in the 800 meter race.
Semenya didn’t just win her event —she dominated it.
But later that fateful night in 2009, instead of being celebrated for the young phenom that she had trained arduously to become, Semenya came under fire for potentially having an unfair advantage as the public began to question her biological sex. The intrusive testing and inquisitions that followed affected Semenya’s ability to compete, but she did her best to hold her head high and carry on as people picked apart her prowess. Semenya’s case was just one of many that deals with the complicated role of gender in sports, a topic that becomes increasingly relevant as athletic science improves and athletes of all genders become faster and stronger than ever before.
When people think of sports, their mind often divides men’s sports and women’s sports into two separate entities, with the athletes within them as strictly binary. Sports have been categorized this way throughout history with the intention of ensuring that competition that ensues will be “fair.” But how do we define “fair,” and will this rigid separation continue to be the norm in the future?
In some sports, such as distance swimming, the average percent difference between men and women’s times is a slim 5.5%, according to a 2010 study in The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. In other sports, such as weightlifting, this difference is more significant at 36.8% according to the same source. Because each sport is unique in the physical challenge it presents to athletes, the same standards for legislation and rules regarding gender and “fairness” cannot be applied universally.
Recently, there has been an increase in discussion surrounding transgender athletes competing in the gender category that best matches their gender identity. While some push back against trans inclusion in situations such as the Idaho bill passed in March that enforces genital and hormonal testing of athletes, others fight for equality in sport. Harvard graduate Schuyler Bailar — a trans swimmer who was accepted onto the men’s team and found great success and joy in living life as his most authentic self — is one of the athletes leading the fight for gender inclusivity in sports. The role that gender plays in sports is already complex—the way gender and sports will interact in the future is even more so.
Despite a social movement towards increased transgender inclusion and a general heightened understanding of what it means to be transgender, many major sports leagues, such as USA Powerlifting, have chosen to keep their original policies in place. In a statement of the organization’s transgender participation policy, the USA Powerlifting league cited both the physical advantage of males and a ban on the androgens often used to transition from female to male as reasons for their stance.
“While the term discrimination is used to catch the attention of the public, it is most often misused,” the statement read. “We are a sports organization with rules and policies. They apply to everyone to provide a level playing field.”
While some question whether the USA Powerlifting policies are discriminatory against transgender athletes, the organization said it is fair in a sport largely based on physical strength and compared gender discrimination to policies surrounding age restrictions.
At the high school level, some athletes have protested transgender participation in the gender category of their choice. Recently, at a high school in Connecticut, the families of female track runners filed a lawsuit against the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports, arguing that their female children competing against runners with male anatomy could hinder their personal chances of earning track titles and scholarships.
Those who share the same opinion as those parents have formed conservative groups and are supported by legislators throughout the states that are looking to ban participation of transgender athletes in both men’s and women’s sports. For example, the Idaho state Senate recently passed Republican-sponsored bill 24-11. If signed, this bill would prohibit both trans and intersex girls from competing in the girls heats of high school and college sports.
If a female athlete’s sex is questioned by a coach, parent, or administration of the other team, the future of that athlete’s participation depends on if their biological sex is confirmed by “a signed physician’s statement that shall indicate the student’s sex based solely on: The student’s internal and external reproductive anatomy; the student’s normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone; an analysis of the student’s genetic makeup,” according to the bill.
This bill fails to acknowledge that the inclusion and acceptance of transgender people and their identity is extremely important to their well being, both physically and mentally. By reducing someone to their biological sex characteristics, one is blatantly disregarding their internal identity.
Additionally, this bill only targets female athletes, requiring them to go the extra step if their sex status is questioned in order to play their sport, while their male counterparts do not have to endure this same burden. This suggests that, should a woman have success in an athletic event, her success may be attributed to genetic alterations rather than talent.
Kathy Griesmyer, a policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, is disappointed with this bill, citing that it is intentionally transphobic and that it makes things more difficult for athletes that already face many social hurdles simply for fulfilling their true sense of identity.
“This bill attempts to solve a problem that does not exist while slamming the door shut for transgender student athletes to fully participate in their school communities,” Griesmyer said in a statement in response to the bill. “Idaho has not seen any issues with trans girls competing in the girls sports. This unconstitutional and mean-spirited bill prevents trans girls from finding community and self-esteem in sports, and will certainly result in litigation to defend the civil rights of Idaho’s transgender community.”
In addition to being transphobic, this bill is an invasion of the athlete’s privacy and puts power in the hands of coaches or parents who may use it to place their competitors at a harsh disadvantage.
In a similar proposition, legislation announced in January could prevent transgender women in Arizona from participating in athletics teams based on their gender identity, requiring some females athletes to provide a doctor’s note stating their biological sex in order for them to compete in their sport.
However, this rule only applies to women’s sport and not to male counterpart sports. The vast majority of the arguments surrounding barring transitioned athletes center solely on male-to-female athletes. Those critics cite the biological differences between men and women that, they claim, could lead to significant competitive advantages for male athletes. Most of these changes take place during puberty: a biological male undergoing puberty will see a host of changes due to their significantly elevated testosterone levels compared with biological females. According to a study comparing female to male testosterone, an adult male will have seven to eight times the natural testosterone coursing through a woman’s body on average.
This testosterone is accompanied by scores of physiological changes, among them larger muscles, denser bones and a higher proportion of lean body mass—it’s these traits that lead to the “bigger, faster, stronger” notion surrounding male athletes.
While transitioning to female often involves the use of testosterone suppressants and estrogen, most in favor of barring trans athletes argue that these measures don’t reverse the increased bone density, superior musculature, and other characteristics of male puberty.
So despite the fact that female-to-male athletes who choose to undergo hormone therapy treatment will also have elevated testosterone levels, this isn’t seen as a threat: the vast majority of benefits will be derived from a biological male puberty, not from an addition of testosterone to a body that’s undergone female puberty.
But, of course, that’s not always the case. A 2016 Washington Post article examining the “trans advantage” cites that after a year of hormone therapy, “female trans distance runners completely lose their speed advantage over cisgender women.” Similarly, individuals like Nancy Barto, an Arizona state representative, recognize that regardless of whether a male-to-female athlete will have a greater advantage in sports than a female-to-male athlete, legislature that targets women specifically — cis or otherwise — puts up barriers to prevent their participation. This type of legislature in sport is counterproductive, introducing yet another in a long line of historical roadblocks for female athletes.
“When this is allowed, it discourages female participation in athletics and, worse, it can result in women and girls being denied crucial educational and financial opportunities,” Barto said in an interview with NBC News.
The recent passage of such legislation — such as the bill signed by Idaho’s governor on March 30 — raises questions about what, exactly, constitutes someone as being transgender. Legislators such as Representative Barbara Ehardt, a sponsor of the bill passed in Idaho, have said that genital exams and genetic and hormone testing could easily determine an athlete’s sex. However, in reality, sex testing may not be that simple, as it is difficult to come up with metrics to objectively distinguish between different sexes.
Some of the sex testing methods that Ehardt cited may even produce contradictory results. At the 1966 European Track and Field Championships in Budapest, Polish sprinter Ewa Kłobukowska passed a genital exam and qualified as female. The following year, Kłobukowska failed a chromosomal test, and was barred from participating in the European Cup women’s track and field competition in Kiev. An analysis later found that she had a set of XXY chromosomes.
A similar issue arises when it comes to hormone testing. The International Association of Athletics Federation, which sets testosterone limits for women in racing events ranging from the 400-meter to one-mile race, bans athletes who produce abnormally-high levels of testosterone from participating in women’s sports.
In 2011, the IAAF set the limit for women’s testosterone levels at 10 nanomoles per liter of blood, widely considered the lower end of the typical testosterone level among males. This limit barred Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter who naturally produces high levels of testosterone, from competition. Chand later won an appeal against her ban; the court agreed with Chand that there was no scientific evidence linking high testosterone levels to better athletic performance. The IAAF commissioned a study in 2017 and — justified with data that was highly scrutinized — lowered the limit to five nanomoles per liter seven years later, a change that was meant to “ensure a level playing field for athletes,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said. Critics argued that the data was flawed, and urged the IAAF to retract the study, which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
However, the IAAF stood firmly behind its study and said it would not retract the paper. “Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes,” Coe said. The press release goes on to state that most females have testosterone levels of between 0.12 to 1.79 nanomoles per liter, and that no female’s testosterone level would exceed the IAAF’s new limit unless they had disorders of sex development or a tumor.
An example of a female athlete with higher than usual levels of testosterone is track champion Caster Semenya of South Africa. She began running seriously at age 12, and by the time she became an adult, she was competing in the Olympics. Due to her incredible success and ability, suspicion arose regarding Semenya’s biological sex and levels of testosterone. She soon found herself the target of an extremely intrusive media investigation and was eventually barred from competing; after an investigation discovered that she was born with XY chromosomes, Semenya’s genetic makeup was ruled an “unfair advantage” over her competition.
On August 19, 2009, Semenya won the 800-meter event in the World Championship by a landslide, but following this impressive feat came a seemingly never ending public investigation into her biological sex and sex characteristics.
Along with stripping Semenya of any type of celebration or praise for her accomplishments, the public reduced her feats to her gender. The scrutiny Semenya endured is disproportionate to her situation, as she is seconds off the world record and is relatively competitive with other female athletes, disproving the idea that she has an unfair advantage — she is simply talented at what she does.
Typically, it is women who endure accusations of this nature. Michael Phelps’s abnormally long wingspan is never labeled as an unfair advantage; it is simply a tool that makes him successful. Most professional basketball players are extremely tall compared to the general population, making them genetic oddities, and this is never labeled as an unfair advantage. Yao Ming, for instance, is a staggering 7’6 tall, a height that’s inspired countless conspiracy theories about whether the star was bred in a lab rather than born to his 6’3 mother and 6’7 father. Tinfoil hats aside, Ming’s height enabled him to tower over even his fellow NBA competitors. Ming is nearly a full foot taller than the average NBA player, who stands at 6’7, and nearly two feet taller than the average American male, who stands at 5’9, which gives him a clear competitive advantage based on his genetics. And instead of protesting Usain Bolt, society hails him as the fastest man in the world, despite his body being described as “built for speed” due to his abnormal proportions. In a BBC News article, former Great Britain sprinter Craig Pickering said, “Bolt is a genetic freak because being 6’5 tall means he shouldn’t be able to do what he does at the speed he does given the length of his legs.”
The main goal of most professional athletes is to be the best they can, so why was Semenya punished for her gift? The examples listed above are few compared to the gifted male athletes celebrated for the genetic gifts that enable them to compete leaps and bounds ahead of most athletes. And the countless examples seem to point to one central notion: men who are good at what they do are not held to the same unreasonable standards or stigma as their female counterparts.
Maria José Martínez-Patiño: The Caster Semenya of the 1980s
Although Semenya’s case has gained notoriety, she is not the first female athlete to face restrictions from her sport when her performances were deemed, essentially, too good to be true. Maria José Martínez-Patiño, an internationally-recognized hurdler turned college professor, has a history that eerily parallels that of Semenya, so much so that Martínez-Patiño calls herself the Semenya of the 1980s, according to a profile with the United Kingdom’s Times. Martínez-Patiño faced little scrutiny or public attention initially; at 22, she was given a “certificate of femininity” after passing a sex test — the title is often awarded after enduring humiliating and intrusive tests such as gynecological exams, MRIs, and ultrasounds — enabling her to advance to the quarter finals of the 100-meter hurdles at the world championships in Helsinki.
But in 1985, her troubles began.
At the World University Games, a new test — karyotype analysis that examined her chromosomes directly — found that she had an XY 46th chromosome, the chromosomal pattern typical of a biological male. Martínez-Patiño’s story was more complex than her chromosomes — she has androgen insensitivity syndrome which means her body doesn’t respond to testosterone in a typical fashion, so any advantage she was perceived to have was likely naturally negated — but the storm of public backlash that poured down on her was indifferent to that fact. After her test, Martínez-Patiño was ruled ineligible to participate in female athletics, and even encouraged to fake an injury to leave quietly. She suddenly found herself barred from the sport she’d played and loved all her life and newly privy to information regarding her sex that would leave anyone’s head spinning — if not reconsidering what they’d thought was the truth about their gender their entire life. If the sudden onslaught that had struck Martínez-Patiño wasn’t already enough, the humiliation and shame of being pushed to lie, to leave gracefully — not to make a scene — was the final straw. Despite her initial compliance with the injury scheme, Martínez-Patiño chose to fight back. In 1986, despite the public media skewering she’d endured, she entered the Spanish national championship’s 60-meter hurdles event. She was told she had two options: withdraw from the event discreetly, or face public condemnation. She chose the latter. After competing and winning, she was stripped of her scholarship and athletic residency, and faced consequences in her private life that were far more hurtful than any Spanish press article.
In The Times article, Martínez-Patiño describes how she suffered after the test. “I lost my boyfriend because all the media said I was a man,” Martínez-Patiño said. “On many occasions, I thought the best thing was to die because I could not stand so much suffering and injustice. I had to leave my residence in a high-performance center in Madrid within 24 hours. I was on the street. The most complicated thing is having to publicly demonstrate your status as a woman before the whole world. You feel as if everyone is talking about the amount of woman that you are. And this stigma accompanies you for the rest of your life.”
Similarly to Martínez-Patiño’s situation, when she was told to cease competing until her chromosomal test results were returned, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, or IAAF, requested Semenya to refrain from competing until there was a definitive conclusion from sex verification tests. As this all occurred, Semenya, her family and her team upheld the statement that she was biologically female and had identified as a woman since birth, regardless of her abnormal hormone levels.
However, this type of testing is not as accurate or conclusive as many hoped it would be. According to many studies and Dr. Gerald Conway, an endocrinologist who worked on the study of Semenya’s hormones, while it is true that higher-than-usual levels of testosterone can give an individual an advantage in sport, this is not always the case.
“There is an advantage to exposure to testosterone, which is why people use testosterone as an anabolic steroid,” Conway said. “There are natural conditions, where women normally have more testosterone in circulation, and they would have a biological advantage in many sports arenas.”
But the quantitative level of testosterone in one’s blood isn’t the end all be all, as some women do not react to having high levels of the hormone because their bodies simply don’t recognize it.
Katrina Karkazis, a cultural anthropologist and research fellow at Yale, co-authored the book Testosterone: An Unauthorised Biography with Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist. In it, Karkazis and Jordan-Young critique and dismantle the previously believed effects testosterone has on the body.
In an interview with The Guardian, Karkazis discussed misconceptions about the actual impact testosterone can have on an athlete.
“Testosterone is a very dynamic hormone,” Karkazis said. “It’s actually responsive to social cues and situations. For example, if a coach gives you positive feedback, that can raise your testosterone level … Where we run into trouble is trying to make comparisons across individuals based on testosterone levels. Sometimes it’s individuals with lower testosterone who do better. So it’s not as simple as saying more testosterone equals better performance.”
Schuyler Bailar made history as the first openly transgender swimmer in the NCAA. As a member of the graduating class of 2019 from Harvard, the Virginia native took a gap year after high school during which he came out as transgender. After becoming a star swimmer in high school, Bailar had been recruited to swim for the women’s team at Harvard, although after coming out he was unsure if he would be able to swim on the men’s team once his education at Harvard began.
In an interview on the Ellen Show, Bailar said that while he has not been as competitive in men’s heats in comparison to the dominance he showed when racing against women, he doesn’t mind. Bailar admits that while he is no longer placing first, he is holding his own in races, defying people who support barring trans athletes from existing as themselves.
“I’m not winning anything, but I think I’m not awful,” Bailar said with a smile on his face. “I keep up with my teammates and I keep up with the people around me, but I’m not winning anything like I used to and that’s definitely humbling.”
While some people may argue that trans athletes fight to change which gender category they compete in for an advantage or other external reasons, Bailar is simply living life in a way that feels true to himself and because the sport is important to him. Along with being a swimmer, Bailar has become a public speaker, and aims to raise awareness about transgender youth in sports.
“It [not winning] has helped me develop something I was working on before, which was learning to love swimming just for swimming, and I think that there’s a lot of other kinds of glory in that,” Bailar said.
Bailar has found that having the support of his team and improving on his own personal times can be just as exciting and rewarding as a medal.
“In my last meet, I got sixteenth place, which obviously is not first place,” Bailar said with a laugh. “But the whole team was on the side of the deck and they jumped up and were screaming for me because I dropped a lot of time from my best, so I did really well relative to myself, and I was just ecstatic and it was as much glory as I would’ve gotten in first place. Probably more, because I was myself.”
Elizabeth Edwards, an 18-year-old senior at the Urban School of San Francisco and a transgender woman, believes legislation which requires sex testing doesn’t work and unfairly discriminates against transgender women like herself.
“The requirement of ‘gender reassignment surgery’ is ridiculous, especially considering the absurdly strict medical standards currently held in the US to qualify trans people to undergo them,” Edwards said. “Also, sex verification standards leads without fail to unfair standards of gender expression normativity that bear down on cis people, and result in cis people being disqualified on bases of uniquely high/low chemical levels that result from normal variance in such factors across the cisgender population.”
A study conducted by researchers from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University found that as many as 2% of the population have traits which deviate “from the ideal male or female,” including “hormone levels and the structure of the internal genital duct systems and external genitalia.” This seems to suggest that sex testing would not necessarily be as straightforward as critics suggest.
According to Edwards, at the professional level, the highest reasonable requirement should be proof that an athlete has undergone hormone reduction therapy for 18 months.
“By that point, trans and cis people are chemically identical, and such quote-unquote ‘biological dis/advantages’ such as bone density will have fallen to the wayside,” Edwards said.
While research on this subject has hardly reached a consensus, a meta-analysis of eight research articles conducted by researchers from the Nottingham Centre for Gender Dysphoria and Loughborough University concluded that there is “no evidence” that hormones such as testosterone give transgender female athletes an advantage.
The analysis also reviewed 31 sport policies from various national and international competitions and found that rules restricting participation from transgender athletes discourage transgender athletes from participating in sports.
“Within competitive sport, the athletic advantage transgender athletes are perceived to have appears to have been overinterpreted by many sport organisations around the world, which has had a negative effect on the experiences of this population,” the analysis reads.
The researchers also write that sports organizations need to improve their policies to be more inclusive.
“Given the established mental and physical health benefits of engaging in physical activity and sport, the barriers transgender people experience are a significant limitation to the promotion of healthy behaviours in transgender individuals,” the analysis reads.
Kay Svenson, a Paly alum and recent graduate of Wellesley college, is a trans activist and believes that trans people, like all people, have the right to be treated in accordance with their gender identity, and this includes sports.
“Sex-based discrimination is prohibited under Title IX, and that amendment is not up to the free interpretation of the (potentially transphobic) governing bodies of the state or local school district,” Svenson said. “We need to work harder to ensure that differences in birth anatomy do not shape our definition of athletic fairness.”
Svenson believes that it is important that transgender people have the means and support to pursue their personal athletic careers, free of judgment.
“Trans athletes have just as much of a right as cis athletes do to compete in the gender category that they identify with,” Svenson said.
While there is no explicitly correct answer or proposed set of regulations surrounding the role of gender identity in sports today, if athletes and fans alike continue to ask hard questions respectfully and work towards giving everyone the opportunities to enjoy sports, compete as themselves, and make sure matches remains competitive, it will be a victory for everyone. Nonetheless, as gender identity and societal views surrounding the gender spectrum become more well understood and all-encompassing, the issues described will only become more complex. It’s time to have conversations about this topic now so we’re ready for the more complex questions later.