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Understanding gender identification and sport

This is an excerpt from Social Issues in Sport 4th Edition With HKPropel Access by Ronald B. Woods & B. Nalani Butler.

Sport plays an important role in giving a spotlight to how gender affects us in society. Gender equity and sport means advocating for equality in all aspects of sport and recreational activity, regardless of what gender someone may choose to identify with. The IOC views sport participation as a fundamental human right and advocates gender equality. The IOC also initiates the promotion of sport participation for humankind across the globe (IOC 2019).

While the terms sex and gender are often used interchangeably, they are in fact two different terms with different meanings (Page 2018).

  • Sex is the biological differences between males and females when referencing genetic and genitalia makeup
  • Gender is how a person self-identifies

The way a person chooses to self-identify may be influenced by their surroundings and how society terms characteristics and traits of a person who chooses to not identify as either a male or a female.

Achieving gender equity is a challenge. In North America, we tend to operate on the gender binary of the male and female sex, but there are several different ways for someone to identify their gender that may not include male or female. Gender is fluid, and a person may identify as transgender, intersex, or a combination of genders. Therefore, to be inclusive of everyone, we must operate on a nonbinary system of gender (Clayton and Tannenbaum 2016). Throughout this chapter, we will discuss the fluidity of gender and discuss the various barriers and obstacles marginalized gendered groups face and how they navigate within sport participation.

Gender Classifications

The gender binary is the classification system that only includes two genders: male and female. Most of the world, particularly in the West, is classified on the gender binary system at birth, with the doctor assigning a gender to an individual based on their genetic attributes. From a very early age, we are assigned a gender, and we are taught to adhere to those gender norms (Hyde et al. 2019). Boys are brought into this world; swaddled in blue clothes; and taught to watch sports, play with Legos, and resist the temptation of showing any form of weakness. Girls are pushed toward the color pink, and their learned behavior teaches them to play with dolls, be submissive, and not show dominant characteristics. While the Western world operates on a gender binary system, some places do not. Here are a few examples of how someone may choose to self-identify outside of the gender binary:

  • Cisgender: When your gender and sex are the same
  • Transgender: When your gender does not align with your sex assigned at birth
  • Agender: When you identify as not having a gender

Since Western culture operates on the gender binary, it is difficult for an individual who may self-identify as a gender outside of male or female. For example, when looking at sports, usually there is a men’s team and a women’s team, so someone who is intersex or transgender does not fit into the Western ideology of male or female.

For example, Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner) won the gold medal for the decathlon in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Winners of decathlons are considered to be the ultimate athletes, since they compete in 10 track-and-field events. When Caitlyn won, she was put on the cover of Wheaties boxes across the country, which is the cereal for the “breakfast of champions.” In 2015, Caitlyn came out as a transwoman and decided to no longer self-identify as male. Caitlyn eventually went through gender reassignment surgery, so that her sex and gender could align (Travers 2018).

This begs the question, where would a transwoman compete in the Olympics? Would she compete as a male or a female? The IOC has continuously tried to figure out a fair and ethical way to include transgender people within the Olympic fabric, but there have been many snags along the way with understanding the science behind gender reassignment surgery and if it could possibly give an individual an unfair advantage in competition (Takahashi 2019). Scientists have continuously disagreed on a period of transition, levels of estrogen and testosterone to categorize a male or female, and how hormone therapy plays a role. There are over 50 different genders that one can self-identity with, but within this chapter, we will focus on transgender and intersex genders in relation to sport participation.

Transgender Athletes

Transgender is a term used for a person born with a sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definitions of female or male. Within sport, many transgender athletes have competed in athletics. Keelin Godsey came out as transgender during his senior year with the Bates College women’s track team and changed his self-identification from female to male. Renée Richards, who changed her self-identification from male to female and underwent gender reassignment surgery, was denied entry to the 1976 U.S. Open. She disputed this ban, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court, where there was a landmark decision on trans rights, which ruled that the USTA was discriminatory toward her and violated her rights. She was eventually allowed to compete in the U.S. Open, but lost to British player Virginia Wade in the first round of singles; however, she did reach the doubles finals.

Renée Richards was one of the first professional athletes to successfully challenge rules that prevented her from competing in women’s tournaments after gender reassignment in the 1970s.
Renée Richards was one of the first professional athletes to successfully challenge rules that prevented her from competing in women’s tournaments after gender reassignment in the 1970s.

In the case of transgender athletes, athletes transitioning from female to male versus male to female differ. Within the regulations of different governing bodies, you will see that the transition period and when an athlete can compete is different, depending on which gender they choose (Genel 2017).

Intersex Athletes

Intersex is a term used for a person born with a reproductive sexual anatomy that does not fit into the common definitions of female or male. This may involve genitalia ambiguity and a person being assigned as a male or female at birth, but may have characteristics of both sexes (Gleaves and Lehrbach 2016). Therefore, their assigned gender at birth is based on the decision of the doctor or parent(s).

Within sport, this plays a role when an intersex athlete competes within female competition since they do not fit the gender binary and therefore may have an unfair advantage when competing in a female sport. The IAAF has established regulations and has conducted numerous amounts of research to try and figure out how to fairly distinguish if an athlete should compete as a male or a female (Wells 2019).

Sex Testing

Currently the IOC and many other sport governing bodies run on the gender binary system, and the rules and regulations may not address the ever-fluid landscape of gender and the role it plays as far as what team a person plays on. At one point, the IOC instituted sex testing into their practices, but it was focused on the discriminatory practice of testing women and not men (Genel, Simpson, and de la Chapelle 2016). Women would have to walk around in a nude parade in the 1960s to prove that their genitals were that of a female. The IOC has continued testing chromosomes and hormones, but the assigned experts still have not come to a consensus of what should constitute “normal” hormone levels for a female athlete. Problems with sex verification testing include the following:

  • Invalid screening tests
  • Failure to understand the problems of intersex
  • Discriminatory singling out of women based on lab results
  • Stigmatization
  • Emotional trauma