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Sex & Gender

how the gender binary in sport is weaponized by white supremacy

June 17, 2019
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Caster Semenya, a Black woman with hyperandrogenism, has spent her entire professional career having her womanhood questioned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the international community. As a Black lesbian athlete, Semenya’s hypervisibility stems from a culture of misogynoir that often follows Black women in sport but the broader discussion being hinted at through her persecution is: what is the nature of participation for athletes that do not fit into the gender binary in sport? Semenya adheres to that binary but her elevated testosterone levels exposed her to a wave of phobic treatment as the athletics community attempts to sacrifice her at the altar of testosterone’s relationship to gender and performance levels because she doesn’t adhere to white supremacy’s version of womanhood.

Sex-segregation is unanimous with almost all sports, at all levels. It has become the natural way to understand the separation and classification of the competitive sport even though, in the United States, that reality has only been around for 47 years. In 1972, Title IX was signed into law, stating “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” We forget that the participation of women in sport came about through a long fight that still persists today in the case of true equality in sport. We now live in a sporting culture that weaponizes a deliberately narrow view of womanhood to enforce an archaic gender binary.

The transgender presence in the world of international sport dates back to the 70s with tennis star Renee Richards who was born Richard Raskind. She transitioned to Renée (reborn in French) in 1975 and returned to professional tennis the following year under the alias Renée Clark, playing a tournament in California that she eventually won. A spectator recognized Renée’s epic left-handed serve and outed her, resulting in chromosome tests being introduced to keep her from competing. Renée sued on the premise that the policy infringed on her human rights and won, giving her the opportunity to play in 1977 US Open where she lost in the first round to Virginia Wade. She retired from tennis four years later and is now an ophthalmologist, on top of being the first transgender woman to compete in international sport.

In 2003, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) medical board announced that transgender athletes would be eligible to compete if they met three requirements: full gender reassignment surgery; legal recognition of their gender; undergoing hormone therapy for a period of about 2 years before competing. In 2004, the IOC allowed transgender athletes to compete in the Olympics, but only those that adhered to the binary. In 2015, the policy was modified to account for the fact that transgender people are still a targeted group worldwide and legal recognition of gender was not available for athletes that hailed from countries with transphobic policies. Forcing health individuals to undergo surgery just to compete also infringes on their human rights as well as the fact that the transgender identity is not defined by fully transitioning. New guidelines dictate that a transgender athlete declare their gender for no less than four years and male-to-female (m-f) transgender athletes carry a testosterone level of fewer than 10 nanomoles/liter for at least one year prior to competition and throughout the period of eligibility. Female-to-male (f-m) trans athletes can compete freely.

The IOC’s policies towards transgender athletes have always been described as coming with scientific backing but according to this Medium article, penned by Dr. Antonia Lee, that showed the initial policy was installed without the studies that they claim would “endanger the fairness” in female sport. The article also tore apart a study that the IOC likes to cite as proof that m-f trans athletes have an 11% advantage over cis women — a study conducted on six athletes that depict the kind of “bad science” used to fuel the phobias in the international sporting community. Bodies like the IOC and the IAAF are mired in corruption with former boasting a voting committee that is 83% male, all likely white. Sport is still controlled by men who share the misogynist ideology that they need to “protect” women’s sport from trans women, pushing policies that harass trans women and exclude the broad spectrum of gender identity.

The weaponization of testosterone is this generation’s new “chromosome test” and it displays the sporting community’s dated thinking on gender. Trans athletes can only compete if they fit into the binary but what does that mean for gender-queer and non-binary athletes? It’s naive to even think that they just don’t exist although that assumption can easily be made considering there is no policy in the expanse of sport that accounts for them. Non-binary athlete and advocate Lauren Lubin started the ‘We Exist‘ campaign to bring awareness to non-binary athletes. Athletes that exist outside of the binary also suffer under the imposition of testosterone levels because the hormone is used as a litmus test for gender — an indication that the international sporting community is nowhere near distancing itself from the binary. The case of expanding sport beyond the binary is a difficult topic to explore because of the addiction to outdated “norms” but it is possible given the fact that the science that holds up the ideology of the binary is shaky at best.

“Men usually have higher levels of testosterone in the blood than women, but not always, since hormone levels in the blood depend on a lot of different factors such as age, health conditions, other medications, menstrual cycle and stress,” said Dr Sheree Bekker, an applied health scientist at the University of Bath. Dr. Bekker told The Guardian that “Based on these circumstances, there can be overlap between blood levels of testosterone in some men and women, and especially athletes,” she said, adding that many factors – including access to training and funding – all contribute to who becomes a winning athlete.” Academics have said repeatedly that the science behind these regulations is invasive and in bad faith as there is no solid identifier of what constitutes male or female hormone composition. With the existence of intersex people, keeping to that binary is already becoming an outdated way to approach gender on a biological basis.

Activists advocating for the inclusion of trans and non-binary athletes have emphasized that the movement starts at the grass-roots level with local leagues, in hopes that trickle of change will shift upwards. It’s why athletes like Andraya Yearwood are so important. Yearwood is a Black transgender girl — the most targeted group of people in the United States and likely the world. The treatment that Yearwood receives from spectators and parents at a school level reveals a societal bias strong enough to be legitimized by the biggest sporting bodies in the world: the belief that trans women are still men and this Black girl is still a boy. Sports leagues at the local level are integral to change because they are the point of entry so an overhaul in gender policy and the integration of teams at that level, on a mass scale, would introduce a shift that international organizations would not be able to ignore.

Yearwood is a 100m star and because she is an impeccable Black female athlete, the “critiques” offered by transphobes mostly amount to “It’s an unfair advantage.” The swarms of bigots lament her mere existence, using the same argument of “fairness” when they speak about her, Caster and any (Black) female athletes that exist outside the scope of white femininity that still dominates global understanding of womanhood. At the heart of these beliefs is the misogyny that posits any form of “maleness” as having an advantage over “femaleness.” When we look at who is being protected and from whom, we understand that the policies pushed by sporting bodies are there to propagate the kind of white supremacist misogyny that seeks to harass and exclude anyone outside of its binary and anyone who challenges that supremacy — athletes like Yearwood and Semenya. As a society, there is a steady shift away from the binary and a growing understanding that gender constitutes more than male/female. The white patriarchs in charge are using their power to fight that reality, which is an issue because sport is sustained by the athletes, not the suits.

For sport to progress, it needs to shed its fear of life beyond the binary. It is not likely that, that kind of change will come from the top because all policies regarding gender essentially protect the supremacy of men in sport overall. To keep female sport in a separate and less equal box to be “protected” only limits its possibilities — that same box prevents an open and fair environment for all gender identities to compete freely. No one should have to hide who they are to do what they love and that’s why the gender binary in sport is on borrowed time. Change is inevitable.