Sports Illustrated puts spotlight on transgender athletes

Keelin Godsey is aiming to be the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics.

Last week, reader Ilyse sent me this Sports Illustrated article about transgender athletes that pretty much blew me away.  The article focused on Keelin Godsey, the first openly transgender athlete to qualify for the Olympic Trials, as a lens through which to examine the issues surrounding trans athletes in the United States.

Godsey has already made history by competing on the U.S. team in the Pan-American Games.  If Godsey qualifies for the Olympics in the hammer throw, it will make him the first openly transgender athlete to ever participate in the Olympics.  He would compete on the women’s team.

(The entire SI article was really well-done and I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in sports, gender and sex to give it a read.)

One of the many, many things I found interesting about this article were the ways in which various athletic governing bodies determined on which teams transgender athletes should compete.  As we’ve seen time and time again, the line between “man” and “woman” is not as clear-cut as people would like to think it is, but because we live in a society that still looks at sports through the prism of the gender binary, governing bodies find themselves in the position of finding ways to allow trans athletes to compete while still maintaining fairness for the cis athletes.

The International Olympic Committee took a big step forward in 2004 by becoming the first international governing body to make way for transgender athletes to compete.  In order to do so, the IOC requires that the athlete undergo at least two years of hormone replacement therapy, be legally recognized as the sex they want to compete and they also had to have undergone sex reassignment surgery.

The last requirement throws some pretty high barriers up for entry and excludes a lot of trans athletes. As Lindsey Parks Piper put it for On the Issues:

The Stockholm Consensus maintains a Western, elite bias and discriminates against individuals from poorer, less-industrialized nations. Sex-reassignment is expensive, which means it is available only to affluent athletes. Several countries do not even have the medical care necessary for performing sex-reassignment operations, and, in any case, surgery for female-to-male transsexuals has yet to be perfected. As a result, for many, surgery remains impossible or undesirable.

Besides, what matters most is not the equipment in the pants but the fuel flowing through the pipes.  Check out this paragraph from the SI article about the effects of testosterone blockers on a trans woman who was a competitive runner:

Medical physicist Joanna Harper, 55, who was born male, began hormone therapy in order to transition to female in August ’04. Harper had been competing as a male age-group distance runner for years, and she carefully documented the impact that suppressing testosterone and taking estrogen had on her running. “I thought I would get slower gradually,” Harper says. Instead she started losing speed and strength within three weeks. “I felt the same when I ran,” she says. “I just couldn’t go as fast.”

A 2005 article in Bitch actually goes in depth on this, rebutting the idea that a trans woman would seek to compete with women because she wanted to exercise an unfair biological advantage.  Almost all of the trans athletes the author quotes said they experienced a loss of athletic ability once they transitioned.

What makes the IOC’s guidelines even more problematic is that a lot of organizations have opted to adopt them, thereby putting up those same barriers for elite athletes whether they are capable of competing for the Olympics or not.  For instance, USA Track & Field is just one governing body that has chosen this path.

That said, the IOC gets some credit for being the first to aim for inclusiveness.  It’s certainly a step up from the LPGA’s “female at birth” rule, which was the subject of a federal lawsuit in 2010, brought by Lana Lawless.

The question of sex and gender testing has been a big issue in sports for quite some time, going back at least to the controversy surrounding tennis player Renee Richards (and probably even further).  Jacob Anderson-Minshall notes in the Bitch article that some have made a connection between increased anxiety about “men competing as women” and Cold War politics (which is something else I’ve read in research about sex testing in sports).

The debate over who can compete as a man and who can compete as a woman is not a new conversation.  However, what I find notable is how things have changed in the last decade, away from setting up policies deliberately intended to exclude (ahem, LGPA) to policies that are meant to be inclusive.  They are not perfect, not even close, but considering how complex this subject is, it’s not surprising that the first few attempts might be clumsy and full of problems.  What matters is that people keep looking for better solutions, and if the incredible number of essays and research papers I read while doing research for this post is any indication, I am optimistic that this will happen.

Other reading of note:

4 responses to “Sports Illustrated puts spotlight on transgender athletes

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  2. Step by Step we’ll get there, towards a more liberal tomorrow. Great article and I’ll be honest, this takes me by surprise. I have to admit that I haven’t even thought about this issue. We’ve taken a step back the last week with all the Oreos “scandal” if you even want to call it that, but hey it will pass. Regardless good for Godsey. Sport, even from the beginning, was about representation, a culture, a country, a city or a specific demographic. And it’s good that transgender people started to get some exposure.

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