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What Qualifies an Athlete to be Eligible as a "Woman"?

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This is the title of a speech given by African-American abolitionist and former slave, Sojourner Truth, in 1851 at a Women’s Rights Conference in Ohio. Her speech was in reaction to the privileges that white women had and the comparative silence about the oppression of Black women within both the women’s suffrage movement and the abolitionist movement. Her words reminded the delegates that their definitions of “woman” excluded many women who were not white or middle class.

I am borrowing Sojourner Truth speech title to raise the question of how sports governing organizations determine whether or not an athlete “qualifies” as a woman eligible to compete in women’s sports events. I attended a meeting this weekend in Baltimore co-sponsored by Women’s Sports International and the American College of Sports Medicine. The meeting was focused on sex verification testing in sport. The purpose was to discuss this controversial issue and, if possible, identify some recommendations for the International Olympic Committee and other sport governing organizations as they work to clarify their own thinking about sex verification testing in the wake of the monumental mishandling of the Caster Semenya case at the World Championships last summer.

The discussion was interesting and revealed a variety of perspectives on sex testing in sport. We are now working via email to come up with a statement that will represent the aspects of our discussion where we are able to reach some consensus. It seems to me it will be fairly easy for us to agree that the health, safety, and privacy of individual athletes should be a central concern. I think we also can agree that education and research about sex and gender identity in relationship to sport performance is sorely needed at all levels of all sports. I believe that we can all agree that it is a good thing that mandatory sex testing has been abolished.

Beyond that, I am not sure if we can agree on specific policy recommendations. From my perspective, participants around the table represented views that run the gamut. That would be from - Stop all sex verification testing and declare eligibility to participate in women’s sports based on an athlete’s gender identity. Based on this hypothetical policy, women athletes who are intersex (or as the medical doctors prefer – have disorders of sexual development -DSD) would compete in women’s events. Period.

At the other end of the opinion spectrum – Case by case sex verification testing is warranted to assure that we maintain a “level playing field” in women’s sports by identifying competitors whose DSD could confer an “unfair” advantage because of higher than typical testosterone levels associated with that particular DSD. The other rationale for case by case sex verification testing is to prevent a man from pretending to be a woman in order to compete in women’s sports events (even though in the entire history of women’s sports only one possible and questionable instance of this kind of deception has ever been revealed).

I won’t try to recreate our conversations here. It’s just too complicated and incredibly smart and informed people come down in different places on this. At the same time, there is also an amazing about of misinformation and plain old ignorance surrounding this topic, not to mention some serious anxiety about challenging sex and gender binaries. Because we use “sex” as a way to divide competitors into competition categories – women’s and men’s sports – it becomes important to determine who gets to compete in which category. Unfortunately, this either/or binary we use in sport does not reflect the spectrum of sex and gender identities in the real world. So, we are this situation of needing to draw a line somewhere on that spectrum to make decisions about who gets to compete where.

Most sports people would probably agree that dividing competitors by sex is the most practical and effective way to approach a level playing field for competition, at least at this point in the history of women’s sports. This division affords the most participation opportunities for the most girls and women. I agree with this perspective, but it can lead to an arbitrary and painful determination that a competitor who identifies and lives as a woman should be disqualified from competing in women’s sports – Caster Semenya is the perfect example of this - because of a belief that a genetic condition she has affords her an “unfair” competitive advantage.

I think the whole “level playing field” argument is bogus myself. Why are our undies in such a bunch about women who are intersex and transgender women competing with other women when we don’t even think twice about many other kinds of competitive advantages that some athletes enjoy. Other genetic conditions confer advantage too, but we just accept them as part of the game. Our height, weight, cardio-vascular capacities, etc. are all largely determined by our genetics. Depending on the sport our varying genetic characteristics create a decidedly unlevel playing field that we accept. Genetic disorders that confer advantage, like Marfans Syndrome in height sports like basketball or volleyball are just part of the game. Non-intersex and non-transgender women have varying levels of natural testosterone production too, but we accept that. Why are disorders of sexual development the only conditions we get all hinky about?

The problem I have with case by case sex verification testing, in addition to my skepticism about the so-called “level playing field,” is that the criteria that is used to determine who needs a sex test are primarily based on gender expectations and sour grapes, not genes and science. “She looks too masculine. She plays like a man. She’s too strong, too fast. Her hair is too short” and most important of all, “she won and I didn’t”. I doubt this would even be an issue if Caster Semenya had finished last in the 800m.

Not only are the criteria for case by case sex testing based on social characteristics, but sex verification testing is too simplistic to fairly account for the incredibly complex spectrum of factors that determine our sex and our gender identity. Our physical bodies don’t always like up with our gender identities. Our physical bodies are incredibly diverse in genetic make-up, sexual and otherwise. Sex verification testing, at least as we know it, is inherently unfair and arbitrary.

What to do? We could eliminate sex as a sport category – do away with men’s and women’s sports. We could use some other criteria to determine where and with whom athletes compete. Testosterone levels, height, weight, ability to take up hemoglobin, whatever. There are advocates for this position. It would solve the problem of determining who gets to compete as a woman or man. Transgender women and men, athletes with disorders of sexual development compete according to other criteria just like everyone else. I am reluctant to support this approach because I think it would have a devastating effect on the opportunities for most girls and women to enjoy sport competition.

Or we could open up our minds, hearts and sex categories a little to include a broader and more realistic spectrum of who we acknowledge as women. I think that would enable the most girls and women the best opportunities to pursue their sporting dreams. Thus, I find myself on the far end of the continuum of perspectives advocating that we should let athletes who identify as women compete in women’s sports. I don’t want any more women to have to go through what Caster Semenya has and still is going through (we still don’t know if she will be able to compete again). I don’t want another woman to have to face a panel of “experts” and ask, “Ain’t I a woman?”


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