Category: Editorial

Editorials and opinions from members of the Lancaster LGBTQ+ community

On Gender Policing in Sports

Ellie Cochran

September 7, 2021

Gender policing in sports has a blatantly racist history, often being disproportionately performed on Black woman athletes regardless of whether their gender identity conforms with their birth assignment. Even just this year, former Polish sprinter Marcin Urbas requested Olympics organizers run a “thorough test” on Namibian athlete Christine Mboma to “find out if she definitely is a woman” after she ran a semi-final time of 21.97 seconds in the women’s 200-meter race. Mboma, an intersex athlete, was not allowed to run her signature 400-meter race due to “elevated testosterone levels.”

Including transgender athletes in sports categories that match their gender identity is the correct thing to do, full stop. Aside from being the affirming thing to do, the underlying assumptions most cisgender people make about trans bodies to justify their exclusion are incorrect from the start, and reactionary transphobes fail to consider the repercussions that gender policing in sports has on everyone, cis athletes included.

Olympic Athlete Christine Mboma

Since 2018, cis athletes including South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, Namibia’s Beatrice Masilingi and others have all been banned from competing in Olympic events due to regulations surrounding differences in hormonal development. What these short-sighted and racist policies fail to take into account is the fact that training always trumps biology.

Even the occasional mutations that give a genuine biological advantage—for example, Michael Phelps’ wingspan and double-jointed ankles—aren’t gendered and aren’t useful without relevant training and practice. “One high jumper could be taller and have longer legs than another, but the other could have perfect form, and then do better,” explained Andraya Yearwood, a student track athlete and ACLU client, “One sprinter could have parents who spend so much money on personal training for their child, which in turn, would cause that child to run faster.”

The idea that there are distinct “male” and “female” hormones is misleading. Who would accuse a female-assigned cisgender woman who has elevated testosterone levels of not being a woman? In fact, ovaries themselves produce testosterone. Everybody has varying levels of chemistry determining the effects their endocrine system has on their body. Why choose to discriminate on this rather than any other biological variable, such as lung capacity or limb length or foot size?

South African athlete Caster Semenya, who was subjected to "gender testing" after the 2009 athletics world championships
South African athlete Caster Semenya, who was subjected to “gender testing” after the 2009 athletics world championships

But what about trans athletes specifically? The thing is, trans people don’t have any specific advantages categorically, since trans people come in all heights, shapes, and sizes! According to New York Endocrinologist and Executive Director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery Dr. Joshua D Safer, “A person’s genetic make-up and internal and external reproductive anatomy are not useful indicators of athletic performance.” Even if a trans athlete is taller than a competitor, height doesn’t really convey an advantage either—Serena Williams is 5’9″ and still has many more grand slam titles than her taller peers.

Ultimately, the gender divide in sports is another example of a false binary that cisgender society has convinced itself is dictated by something other than consensus agreement. A trans woman who takes estrogen will have about the same muscle density and ability to generate muscle as a cis woman. Likewise, a trans man who takes testosterone can generate about the same muscle density as a cis man. Athletes regardless of hormonal chemistry achieve similar strength gains when training under the same program, and runners who are capable of similar performances do not vary widely in body composition. Wouldn’t it ultimately make more sense to bracket athletes by weight class or a similar metric rather than gender? The goal of making a talking point out of gender inclusivity in sports has never been about fairness or a love of competition—it’s a thinly-veiled push to exclude trans people from society and perpetuate a culture that sees trans identities as shameful.