Heroes, Martyrs, And Myths: The Battle For The Rights Of Transgender Athletes
The history of transgender athletes tells us that the U.S. and the world still have a long way to go to achieving true equality.
Photo via Chloie Jönsson
The Minnesota State High School League recently tabled plans to vote on a new policy designed to allow transgender student-athletes the right to compete in high school athletics. The decision came after anti-LGBT activists mounted a campaign crafted to generate public outcry against the proposed policy. Said anti-LGBT activists argued that trans athletes have an unfair advantage over their cisgender (non-trans) counterparts, and manipulated the public with scare tactics.
For example, in a recent Minneapolis Star-Tribune op-ed, Autumn Leva of the Minnesota Family Council alleged that trans athletes would have an "unfair advantage" over other student-athletes. Leva went so far as to suggest that the new policy would hinder the careers of cisgender student-athletes. She painted a touching story about a young woman with a dream of playing Division I volleyball:
"She practiced for hours on end, even breaking a garage door while developing that stubborn overhand serve. Come freshman year, she lifted weights and conditioned every day at 6 a.m. with the seniors.
"With her family's support, her hard work paid off. During her freshman year, she earned varsity playing time. And she did indeed go on to play Division I volleyball."
But, Leva writes, what if a—gasp—trans athletehad taken this poor hypothetical girl's spot on the team? Then how would her parents feel? Only Leva somehow writes it more offensively than that:
"All those hours driving and helping your daughter hone her natural skill; seeing her earn varsity playing time as a freshman—only to watch years of hard work and a chance at that Division I dream fall flat if a boy (who identifies as female) trumped her for her spot on the varsity team?"
The argument is so wrong, so bizarre, and so offensive that it's hard to know where to begin. Hell, it's the plot of the movie Ladybugs. Leva obviously hasn't noticed that in the states and districts with pro-trans policies, boys are not exactly lining up to dominate girls' leagues. She is arguing that less competition means greater likelihood of success. While this is true, it ignores that the world is better if we can all compete. Competition, after all, is the point of sports.
Unfortunately, Leva's argument is also typical. The fact is, even as controversies like the one in Minnesota persist, there have been trans athletes for decades. And examination of the history of trans athletes in international competition reveals that for as long as trans men and women have been competing, bureaucracies and buffoons around the world have attempted to discredit them.
The Early Controversies
Many of the earliest transgender athletic controversies stemmed from intersex individuals. That is, someone who may have been born with ambiguous genitalia, have a chromosomal abnormality, or other such condition that might result in development outside the societal norm.
During the 1920s, Mary Louise Edith Weston was one of the world's premier track and field athletes. Known as the "Devonshire Wonder," Weston was a frequent British national champion in javelin, discus, and shot put; even finishing sixth in the two-handed shot put in the 1926 Women's World Games. A decade later, at the conclusion of her athletic career, Weston—who was born intersex, but raised female—began publicly identifying as a male. Weston changed his name to Mark Weston, and later married Alberta Matilda Bray.
Czechoslovakian athlete Zdenek Koubek won two medals during the 1934 Women's World Games. Two years later, Koubek petitioned the Czech government to recognize him as male, at which time he was forced to retire from athletic competition.
At the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympic Games, 18-year-old American sprinter Helen Stephens was accused by rival athlete Stella Walsh of being a man. In a twist of irony, an autopsy eventually revealed that while Stephens did not appear to have any sort of intersex condition, her accuser did. Walsh was revealed to have both 45X0 and 46XX chromosomes, along with "male sex organs."
For years, the International Olympic Committee used karyotype (chromosome) tests to determine eligibility among female athletes. The testing, designed to ensure a level playing field, was famously controversial and flawed, failing to take into account the large number of athletes who were unknowingly born with an intersex condition, hyperandrogenism, and other conditions that would result in a female athlete developing stereotypically masculine features or attributes.
In 1950, Dutch sprinter Foekje Dillema became the first female athlete disqualified from competition as a result of testing positive for a Y-chromosome. In 2009, South African runner Caster Semenya made headlines after finding herself under investigation by the International Association of Athletics Federations and subjected to "gender testing." The following year, she was cleared to return to competition, but by then, her athletic dominance had waned, and a year of undue scrutiny had taken its toll on the South African phenom. She took home a silver medal in the 800 meters at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Since then, still only 23 years old, Semenya hasn't had much impact in the sporting world.
In 2012, the IOC released updated guidelines on "gender testing," shifting from the practice of testing chromosomes of athletes to testing hormone levels:
"Competitions at the 2012 London Olympic Games are conducted separately for men and women (with the exception of certain events). Human biology, however, allows for forms of intermediate levels between the conventional categories of male and female, sometimes referred to as intersex. Usually, intersex athletes can be placed in the male or female group on the basis of their legal sex. However, as explained below, intersex female athletes with elevated androgen production give rise to a particular concern in the context of competitive sports, which is referred to as 'female hyperandrogenism.'"
The guidelines go on to outline how certain hormones, particularly testosterone, can have an impact on one's ability to generate muscle mass, in addition to its effects on height, weight, metabolism, and bone density. The IOC went on to set "circumstances in which a particular athlete will not be eligible to participate ... in the female category," and adding that "in the event that the athlete has been declared ineligible to compete in the female category, the athlete may be eligible to compete as a male athlete."
While this is undeniably an improvement over the extraordinarily invasive process of testing athletes' chromosomes, the 2012 IOC standards remain controversial as many view them as trying to set a standard of normality among athletes, which is at odds with the very concept of high-level athletic competition, where abnormality is prized.
All of these have been examples of athletes becoming targets of controversy for attempting to compete in the gender they were assigned at birth. When athletes began seeking the right to compete in a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, they only faced increased scrutiny.
The Activist Athletes
In 1976, trans tennis player Reneé Richards was thrust into the spotlight when she sought the right to compete in the U.S. Open. Despite pushback from both the United States Tennis Association and the Women's Tennis Association, Richards followed her dream, entering the singles tournament. Initially denied entry on the basis of a rule change enacted with the sole purpose of preventing her from playing, Richards took her case to the New York Supreme Court, and in the landmark Richards v. U.S. Tennis Association case, was granted the right to compete as a woman.
Despite fears that Richards would parlay her status as a transgender individual into pro sports dominance, she was, at best, average. She didn't make it past the first round of the 1977 U.S. Open. She later went on to coach tennis star Martina Navratilova before returning to work as an ophthalmologist.
Critics—the Levas of her era—believed that the Richards case would result in an influx of men claiming to be trans simply so they could dominate female competition. But the years went on and only a handful of trans athletes came forward. There remained little incentive for them to try to compete. After all, if one was "too good," the public would accuse them of having some form of innate advantage over their counterparts. If one wasn't good enough, people would question why they bothered to compete at all. The only acceptable way for a trans athlete to perform seemed to be measured mediocrity.
Despite the fact that high-profile trans athletes remained rare, that didn't stop people from accusing cisgender athletes of being trans (or, in many cases, accusing a woman of "being a man"). For example, during the 1999 Australian Open, tennis star Martina Hingis vaguely accused Amelie Mauresmo of being trans, saying, "[Mauresmo] has a guy's shoulders, and looks better suited to the shot put."
In 2010, transgender golferLana Lawless sued the Ladies Professional Golf Association, arguing that their "female at birth" policy violated California's civil rights law. Later that year, the LPGA voted to change the rule. Though she never competed on the tour—nor did she want to, as her goal was simply to compete in long-drive contests —the action taken by Lawless set the stage for fellow golfers, like 63-year-old Bobbi Lancaster, to compete with other women.
In 2010, Kye Allums made history when he became the first out transgender man to participate in Division I NCAA competition. Allums competed onGeorge Washington University's women's team That year, the NCAA outlined a set of rules that would allow trans athletes to participate on the team that best matches their gender identity. Though Allums could have returned in 2011 to try out for the school's men's team, he decided against continuing his athletic endeavors.
The NCAA's rules, issued by the NCAA Office of Inclusion, outline requirements that trans student-athletes must follow in order to participate in school sports. Unlike the IOC, they do not require student-athletes to undergo genital surgery in order to participate. Medical experts support the NCAA's stance on transgender inclusion in sports.
"Research suggests that androgen deprivation and cross sex hormone treatment in male-to-female transsexuals reduces muscle mass," says Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., professor, and director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology and Chief Medical Genetics Department of Pediatrics at UCLA. "Accordingly, one year of hormone therapy is an appropriate transitional time before a male-to-female student-athlete competes on a women's team."
Despite the ever-growing mountain of evidence debunking the idea that trans athletes have some form of advantage over their cisgender counterparts, many members of the public remain skeptical. This skepticism remains the largest barrier to trans athletes' participation in sports.
The Persistent Myth of Competitive Advantage
In a 2010 study titled On the Team, Dr. Pat Griffin and Helen J. Carroll debunk the notion that trans athletes have biological advantages over their cisgender peers:
"According to medical experts on this issue, the assumption that a transgender girl or woman competing on a women's team would have a competitive advantage outside the range of performance and competitive advantage or disadvantage that already exists among female athletes is not supported by evidence."
Indeed, the question of competitive advantage has long since been settled by the medical community. But that has not stopped detractors from questioning trans athletes' participation.
During a 2013 episode of his podcast, comedian and MMA commentator Joe Rogan railed against recently-out trans athlete Fallon Fox, weaving back and forth between ignorance and bigotry.
"She wants to be able to fight women in MMA; I say no fucking way," Rogan began his rant against Fox. "I say if you had a dick at one point in time, you also have all the bone structure that comes with having a dick. You have bigger hands, you have bigger shoulder joints. You're a fucking man. That's a man, OK? You can't have... that's... I don't care if you don't have a dick any more."
Rogan's attacks on the 5'7", 144 lb. fighter continued, remaining divorced from anything even remotely resembling science, taking on the form of flat-out personal attacks and pseudo-science:
"Fight guys, yes. She has to fight guys. First of all, she's not really a she. She's a transgender, post-op person. The operation doesn't shave down your bone density. It doesn't change. You look at a man's hands and you look at a women's hands and they're built different. They're just thicker, they're stronger, your wrists are thicker, your elbows are thicker, your joints are thicker. Just the mechanical function of punching, a man can do it much harder than a woman can, period."
Rogan's assertions about bone density, being "built different," and so on have no basis in science. As Dr. Vilain and other medical professionals have stated, hormone replacement therapy has a way of adjusting bone density, muscle mass, and eroding other advantages trans athletes may have. Sadly, the world seems far more interested to hear what a washed up stand-up comedian has to say than actual medical professionals, or sports governing bodies like the IOC and NCAA that have studied these issues.
Fox continues to fight. Despite the hate hurled at her by the likes of Rogan, her opponents, and fans in attendance at her bouts, she pushes on. When she wins, she's accused of having an "unfair advantage." When she loses, she's considered a gimmick. In 2014, being a trans athlete remains one of the most unenviable positions in all of sport.
Earlier this year, CrossFit athlete Chloie Jönsson was denied entry to the annual CrossFit Games on the basis of her trans status. In an e-mail from CrossFit general counsel Dale Saran, Jönsson is denied entry on the basis of debunked myths about trans athletes.
"We have simply ruled that based upon [Chloie] being born as a male, she will need to compete in the Men's Division," the letter reads. "The fundamental, ineluctable fact is that a male competitor who has a sex reassignment procedure still has a genetic makeup that confers a physical and physiological advantage over women. ... Our decision has nothing to do with 'ignorance' or being bigots — it has to do with a very real understanding of the human genome, of fundamental biology, that you are either intentionally ignoring or missed in high school."
The condescending nature in which the letter is penned, accusing those who side with trans inclusion of being ignorant of "fundamental biology" that must have been missed in "high school" is nothing new. Soon thereafter, self-professed LGBT ally Wendy Williams used her talk show as a platform to host an immensely transphobic panel discussion that included a joke about Jönsson's last name and unqualified medical advice. The easy dissemination of this type of misinformation seems to be making the world a less friendly place for trans athletes. As LGBT rights advance in so many other areas, trans rights lag to the point where a woman wanting to compete in a women's sporting division is somehow controversial simply because she is transgender.
The reality is that even today, nearly four decades after Reneé Richards won the right to compete, trans people remain largely unwelcome in the athletic world—a world that is already well behind when it comes to LGBT inclusion. The NFL still hasn't had an openly gay athlete on a regular season active roster. The NBA just recently had their first. Baseball and hockey remain a refuge for straight individuals.
Trans athletes strong enough to brave this harsh world are pioneers. Richards to Allums, Fox to Jönsson; unfortunately, they are sometimes also martyrs. As Leva and her ilk look to hamper competition, we should aspire to a world in which all athletes can perform free of hormone testing, "gender testing," or the pseudo-scientific ramblings of the world's Joe Rogans; a world in which all are welcome to compete. But such a world remains far in the future. We should start with Minnesota.