The Olympics are here and a new controversy is on the rise: its new policies for transgender and intersex athletes, will be put to the test for the first time in history.
The rights of trans and intersex athletes and the integrity of women’s competition are not mutually exclusive. What defines an athlete, or more specifically, an intersex or transgender athlete? Let’s dispel some of the myths surrounding trans and intersex people in athletics:
Myth 1 : Intersex athletes are so rare that their rights can be discounted
Despite the pervasiveness of the ‘male-female’ binary, somewhere between 1 in 1500 and 1 in 60 babies are born with some mixture of male and female sex characteristics. Intersex people are as common as redheads.
The presence of intersex people in elite athletics is even stronger – over 140 times more common than in the general population.
Last July, intersex Indian sprinter Dutee Chand successfully challenged the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF)’s hyperandrogenism regulations; now, women with naturally high testosterone levels can compete without taking hormone blockers.
Since the Olympics began, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has been tasked with drawing an un-crossable line between ‘male’ and ‘female’ that does not actually exist; the process has not been victimless.
Both Chand and Semenya’s careers fell under threat after they were subjected to extensive sex testing.
Both women were misled by sporting authorities about why they were being tested and, like many other athletes, neither had any idea what ‘intersex’ meant before they were subjected for years to dehumanizing media scrutiny.
Others were pressured into medically unnecessary surgeries to force their bodies to conform to an acceptable standard of ‘femininity.’ Such injustice has been shockingly common and cannot be overlooked.
Myth 2: Trans and intersex inclusion will encourage men to dupe their way into women’s trophies
This is an ancient argument with no real foundation besides misogyny. Since women were first allowed to compete in sports, a traditionally ‘manly’ activity, the rulemakers of elite athletics have obsessed over the non-existent threat of ‘gender fraud,’ likely fueled by doubt that skilled women athletes could even be women.
From ‘certificates of femininity’ to ‘nude parades’ to chromosome testing and coercive gonadectomies, elite athletics has immersed itself in gender policing perhaps more than any other arena.
In decades of intensive sex testing, not once have Olympics officials discovered a man masquerading as a woman.
Anyone who believes that this will now become commonplace underestimates the terrible stigma that trans women face from the public and from their fellow athletes. No man is about to jump at the opportunity to be ridiculed.
Myth 3: Trans women have significant athletic advantage even after hormone therapy
According to the IOC’s new policies, released last January, trans men are now allowed to compete ‘without restriction’ while trans women must go on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for at least 12 months, or until their testosterone levels drop below the ‘male’ lower limit.
Sex reassignment surgery is no longer required.
Despite ‘common knowledge’ that biological males are naturally better than females at sports, research has indicated that different average testosterone levels are the only reliable explanation for the 10-12 percent average advantage elite male athletes have over elite female athletes.
There is no evidence that trans women on hormone therapy (HRT) that lower their testosterone have any significant performance advantage over cis women.
In fact, a landmark study on the topic revealed that competitive male athletes, after transitioning with HRT to women and subsequently weakening their running times, become competitive to a similar degree in women’s races.
Plus, any elite athlete would balk at the assumption that biology is the only or even primary reason for their success. No one makes it to Olympic podium without the highest drive, discipline, and focus.
Myth 4: An ‘even playing field’ is an attainable goal
The question of ‘fair competition’ becomes problematic when dealing with the realities of the sex and gender spectrum. American 1500m record holder Shannon Rowbury has stated that intersex inclusion ‘challenges and threatens the integrity of women’s sports.’ On the contrary, intersex people should not be penalized for making best use of their natural physical state.
Many other biological differences – from high lung capacity to longer legs – offer competitive advantages, but none of these is regulated. Men’s testosterone levels go similarly unregulated.
Additionally, many factors apart from the biological contribute hugely to an athlete’s ability.
Chand grew up in poverty-stricken Southern India, with much less easy access to the good nutrition, coaching, and facilities needed to support a promising young athlete. Even if her higher testosterone is an advantage, why should she be punished for this advantage while athletes with wealthy upbringings are not?
An absolutely level playing field, while an admirable goal, can only be aspirational.
Myth 5: The fight for intersex and trans athletes’ rights is won
The Olympics’ new policies remain for the most part untested. No out trans athlete has yet competed in the Olympics, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport will reevaluate the IOC’s hyperandrogenism regulations in 2017.
But Rio may be our first taste of a morphing political landscape. If Semenya not only wins gold but demolishes a 30-year-old world record, she will likely be thrown to the media bloodhounds once again.
And don’t expect the two anonymous British trans women who may be competing to come out of the closet anytime soon, as trans advisor for sporting bodies Delia Johnson states that their ‘fear of ridicule and total humiliation is so massive’ that they plan to ‘probably drop back’ if their Rio performance earns them a spot on the podium.
Who can blame them? Recent coverage of their participation – sparse, but growing – has featured enough self-righteous transphobic rhetoric to launch a panic in the sports world that threatens the trans rights movement internationally.
We can only expect this backlash to grow as more out trans and intersex athletes begin to compete and, more contentiously, to win. Be a better trans and intersex ally, and brace yourself for a battle that is just beginning.
Ariel Hoffmaier is a member of OutRight Action International’s communications team. Founded in 1990 and guided by the values of collaboration, depth and feminism, OutRight Action International (OutRight) strives to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people to live safer, healthier, and more empowered lives worldwide. OutRight’s vision of change includes policy reform, legal challenges, coalition initiatives, and stronger LGBTI communities worldwide.