Tackling Cisnormativity: Redefining the Gender Division in Sports

Author’s Note: I recognize that I, as a cisgender person, have immense privilege and limited perspective and personal experience regarding the issues non-cisgender people face. I chose to write about this topic because I think it’s an exceptionally important issue and one that has not received the attention it deserves from other media outlets. If any of the terminology, opinions, or ideas included in this piece are offensive and/or upsetting, please feel free to reach out to me via email at michael_oneill@brown.edu and I will do everything I can to improve.

Mack Beggs smiled and stood proudly as his coach placed the first-place medal around his neck. He had just won the Texas state wrestling championship for high schoolers in his weight class, clinching the final match by a score of 12-2. His victory quickly hit national headlines, though not for his wrestling ability. The result became widely-known for more controversial reasons: Beggs won the title in the girls wrestling division, because the state of Texas refused to allow him, a transgender boy, to wrestle against other boys. He was given the choice of wrestling against girls or not wrestling at all, due to a rule enacted by the University Interscholastic League last August, forcing athletes to compete in the division aligned with the gender on their birth certificate. 

Beggs’ publicized plight left many demanding change. First, advocates decried the policy as being deliberately discriminatory towards transgender athletes and felt Mack should be able to wrestle against other boys. Others felt that the testosterone Beggs takes as part of his transition, though permitted under Texas law due to its medical purposes, put him at an unfair advantage in terms of wrestling. Several opponents felt strongly enough that they forfeited their matches against Beggs, and the parents of a few female wrestlers have filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent Beggs from competing in the girls division.

Going forward, scenarios like this one are only going to become more prevalent. The notion of gender as a binary is disintegrating: A 2015 poll found that half of people age 18 to 34 see gender as a spectrum, and that number may continue to rise over time. Transgender and gender non-binary people are becoming more and more visible in our media, with TV stars like Laverne Cox and Asia Kate Dillon and musicians such as rock duo PWR BTTM and singer Laura Jane Grace leading the way. The number of openly transgender people in the United States seems to be rising, too; a 2016 report stated that about 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender, double the 2011 estimate. Transgender and gender non-binary rights will become bigger political issues in the immediate future (some would argue they already have). The sporting world, which has traditionally been split along a binary concept of gender, will be no exception.

We’re already seeing questions arise in sports regarding the categorization of athletes by gender and sex. Hockey player Harrison Browne continued to play in the National Women’s Hockey League after coming out as transgender, electing not to begin testosterone treatments because they would be considered performance-enhancing drugs. Harvard swimmer Schuyler Bailar was recruited for the women’s swim team, but was allowed to join the men’s team after coming out as transgender during his gap year. Intersex athletes are affected by these rules, too: Intersex Olympic runner Caster Semenya had her sex investigated by the International Association of Athletics Foundation in 2009 after many publicly questioned her birth sex. The IAAF allowed Semenya to continue competing with women and never publicly released its findings, but soon after enacted a policy stating that women with the medical condition hyperandrogenism – which results in elevated testosterone levels and thus increased muscle growth – must either take testosterone blockers or withdraw from competition. The policy was suspended in 2015, but could be back on the table as early as this year.

The testosterone question is a fair one to ask, and a tricky one to answer. The hormone is known to promote muscle growth, which would obviously be advantageous in most sports. People of all sexes produce testosterone, but those born into a phenotypically male body produce on average over ten times as much of the hormone as those into a phenotypically female body. Those with more testosterone – either by birth or hormone therapy – have a leg up athletically over those with far smaller amounts. For transgender men, the solution is more clear-cut: If an athlete is taking testosterone as part of their transition, they would not have an unfair advantage over cisgender men (who would already have the hormone in high amounts) and thus should be allowed to compete with men. The major exception would be if the athlete’s testosterone levels greatly exceeded those of most cisgender men, but this would be no different than cisgender athletes who are also banned from taking excess testosterone treatments. Furthermore, if transgender athletes are not taking testosterone but still want to compete against men, they may be at a physical disadvantage, but that’s no reason to keep them out of men’s leagues if they so desire.

"Transgender and gender non-binary rights will become bigger political issues in the immediate future, and the sporting world, which has traditionally been split along a binary concept of gender, will be no exception."

Things get a bit more complicated regarding transgender women, who may take testosterone and thus gain an advantage over their cisgender women competitors. Forcing transgender women to begin testosterone blockers before allowing them in women’s leagues is far from ideal, but may be the only way to maintain parity in those leagues. The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) has taken a stance similar to this, allowing transgender women into the league after one year of hormone treatment. Leagues and teams could lower the financial burden on these athletes by paying for the blockers, since hormone therapy can be quite expensive. It’s a difficult situation to address, but ultimately a balance must be struck between respecting the gender identities of transgender women and making sure that transgender women don’t have unfair biological benefits over cisgender opponents. Even if leagues adopt a case-by-case policy, there would still need to be some sort of baseline or standard with which to judge each case, and hormone levels may need to be that baseline; perhaps a cut-off at about halfway between the typical testosterone levels found in males and females could be used as a benchmark to divide leagues up.

Of course, this is only one of the many questions that need to be addressed going forward. What about gender non-binary and intersex athletes? Any system that continues to designate leagues as men’s and women’s would be excluding the identities of non-binary athletes, and a sex-based system would do the same for intersex athletes. So, then, should sports leagues be divided not by gender or sex, but by hormonal makeup? If so, questions regarding invasions of privacy must be considered, even if a potential invasion is ultimately necessary. Further, discussion surrounding athletic contracts become relevant in the context of transitioning. If a professional athlete comes out as transgender while still under contract and wishes to switch leagues, is that team obligated to release them from the contract? All of these questions come alongside figuring out how to combat transphobia and other ugly prejudices that are prevalent in the sporting world.

Clearly, sports governing bodies need to start thinking about how to be more welcoming to non-cisgender athletes. So far, they’ve been very slow to react. The NWHL is the only professional sports league known to have formal policy regarding the participation of transgender athletes, and international bodies like the IAAF are far behind the times as well. There are some past legal precedents: Tennis player Renee Richards was allowed to compete in the women’s US Open post-transition in 1977 after suing the United States Tennis Association; and as said above, a court recently suspended the IAAF’s ruling on hyperandrogenic athletes – and it sadly may take lawsuits to get sports leagues to finally act.

The most important part of this debate is that the gender identities of every single athlete – and person in general – should be respected without exception. Sports leagues (and society) have conflated gender and sex for far too long, and are now starting to run into problems because of it. Going forward, the governing bodies of athletic organizations must make a concerted effort to be considerate, accepting, and fair regarding the treatment of non-cisgender athletes. The way leagues are divided requires restructuring in order to be respectful and inclusive to all athletes, not just cisgender ones. Figuring out how to do so is no easy task, but it is undoubtedly a necessary one.

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About the Author

Michael O'Neill '19 is a Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.

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