Opening Pandora’s Box?: Transgender Athletes and the Fight for Inclusion

Zeam Porter loves basketball. Last season, through great perseverance and resolve, the Minnesota high school junior earned the honor “Most Improved Player” as a sophomore. Yet, according to Porter, who identifies as “trans genderqueer,” the title was misleading. “The plaque said the wrong name,” Porter explained. “The cheers I received were the wrong name. ‘Go girl’ does not go for me. I’m not a girl.” Sadly, due to the anxiety and depression caused by being forced to compete on the girls’ team, Porter quit. “My love for basketball . . . made me believe I could handle being on the wrong team. That was wrong,” said Porter. “Constantly being misgendered and called the wrong name took away my soul. I already feel like I don’t have my own body—now I am soulless.”

Over 150 community members gathered to discuss the MSHSL's proposal. CBS Minnesota

Over 150 community members gathered to discuss the MSHSL’s proposal.
CBS Minnesota

Porter shared this personal anecdote in an open forum near Minneapolis, Minnesota. Along with the high school junior, more than 150 Minnesotans gathered on October 1, 2014, to discuss the Minnesota State High School League’s (MSHSL) intent to outline a gender-inclusive sport policy. The MSHSL had initially sought to follow the examples set by other states and release guidelines for the inclusion of transgender athletes in high school sport. Yet, the seemingly mundane plan quickly became a contentious topic of conversation in all corners of Minnesota.

As the MSHSL finished drafting its recommendations, the Minnesota Child Protection League released a controversial advertisement in the Star Tribune. The full page ad asked: “A male wants to shower beside your 14-year-old daughter. Are YOU ok with that?” Consequently, the MSHSL received over 10,000 emails—comprised of both positive and negative messages—and convened the standing-room only community meeting to debate the guidelines.

At the well-attended forum, athletes, parents, educators and community leaders alike shared their views on transgender participation in high school athletics. Porter characterized the policy as a “great start” for inclusivity. Alison Yocom of the Transforming Leadership Team similarly called the plan “the right thing to do” and asked “since when does Minnesota exclude individuals from any activity?” Unfortunately not all shared such sentiments.

Retired educator Norene Shepherd suggested that “we are about to open a Pandora’s Box” and urged board members to vote against the proposal. “Our anatomy is what it is, not what we would like it to be,” she reasoned. Parent Daphane Edwards noted that “activities that are organized by gender have been organized that way for sound reasons.” Many echoed these thoughts, and further cited locker room difficulties and fears of unfairness as evidence.

Such anxieties, however, are not new.

transgender_map

Conversations surrounding transgender athletes typically highlight issues of (un)fairness and advantage, and also reaffirm a belief in separate and distinct sex/gender categories. Moreover, resultant policies have historically upheld sex/gender-segregated competition rather than recognize gender variance. Despite different historical contexts and shifting sex and gender norms, the rules implemented to control transgender athletes frequently upheld a binary notion of sex, bolstered gender differences and reified assumptions of male superiority in sport.

Policy Assumptions

Historically, the idea that gender fluidity existed as a potential “Pandora’s Box” for sport stemmed from an assortment of concerns. Most frequently, opponents highlighted the need for fair play, stressed the existence of biological advantage and argued for sex-segregated sport. The angst displayed in Minnesota was, therefore, not newfangled as such anxieties have underscored most transgender athletic policies.

Foremost, discussions of transgender athletes focused on the possible disruption of the mythical even-playing-field. According to sport scholar Heather Sykes, the “unfair advantage thesis” suggested that sex/gender transgressive athletes are likely to have physical-strength-advantages over other—usually women—competitors. For example, male-to-female transgender golfer Mianne Bagger once complained that “my biggest gripe is the assumption that I have an unfair advantage and hit the ball a country mile longer than everyone else.”

In conjunction with the unfair advantage thesis, transgender policies also hinged upon the social belief that all men are superior to all women in all sports. As Knutte Jonsson argued, biological arguments of difference “are used to legitimate the gender hierarchy . . . by seeing women’s (inferior) gender roles as something that is natural.” This mentality notably shapedsex_symbols_track the reception transgender athletes received; the emphasis on male-to-female transgender competitors stemmed from the conception of male sporting prowess. In addition, as Sykes argued, the suggestion of biological advantage also posited that men will change sex in order to reap the benefits of women’s sport—the benefits they are unable to claim in men’s sport. As male-to-female transgender tennis player Renée Richards sarcastically recalled, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) believed that if she competed on the women’s tour, “the floodgates would be opened and through them would come tumbling an endless stream of made-over Neanderthals who would brutalize Chris Evert.” This interminable flow has yet to materialize.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the history of such policies in sport illustrates the impossibility of drawing a clear line between men and women. The various procedures and stipulations enacted repeatedly demonstrated the fallacy of such a demarcation. According to Laura A. Wackwitz, by “situating people into seemingly distinct, but nevertheless constructed categories, governing bodies of sport wield oppressive power that serves to create and reinforce a system of difference based upon hierarchy.” Not only does this attempt to uphold a dichotomy persist, but the dedication to the male-female divide in sport maintains deep historical roots.

The Rise of Women’s Sport and Fears of the “Transsexual Empire”

Women’s sport increased in conjunction with the women’s liberation movement and tennis player Billie Jean King was among the first to embrace the cause. Led by the vocal advocate, female tennis players began to work for equality in tennis and eight of the top competitors started the Virginia Slims Tour in 1971. Shortly thereafter, King earned $117,000, becoming the first female athlete to breach the 100-grand mark. Her easy defeat of Bobby Riggs in 1973 also provided justification for the expansion of women’s sport. King’s on-court efforts buttressed the women’s movement and provided a strong symbol of successful female encroachment into traditionally masculine realms. Yet, the discovery of Renée Richards, a male-to-female transgender competitor, in women’s tennis raised questions of fairness and masculine biological superiority.

After competing in a local California tournament in 1976, Richards vied to compete in the U.S. Open. After she announced her decision to participate, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) took an oppositional stance and denied Richards access, claiming that “entry into women’s events at the U.S. Open, the leading international tennis tournament, of persons not genetically female would introduce an element of inequality and unfairness into the championships.” The USTA ordered a chromosomal test for all female competitors in the 1976 U.S. Open, successfully barring Richards—until she filed a lawsuit. Richards sued the USTA for overt discrimination and the deprivation of her civil rights. The New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and the decision required the USTA to accept Richards as a woman and allow her to participate in women’s tournaments. Richards won the case; however, her victory did not force dramatic change beyond the tennis courts.

Notably, not all sects of society applauded the decision. Some feared male-to-female transgender athletes diminished the

achievements of women’s sport and belittled the goals of the women’s liberation movement. Gloria Steinem, for example, embraced the unfair advantage thesis and wondered “if Richards had changed identity only to prove that any man, even a former one, could beat any woman.” Janice Raymond, a self-identified radical feminist, expressed even more hostile opposition to the possibility of transgender athletes’ inclusion in sport. Raymond argued that “transsexuals” were reconstructed men, living under a guise of femininity, who wanted to gain women’s power in an attempt to maintain patriarchy. Essentially, she posited that male-to-female “transsexuals” served as the male solution to women’s liberation. Richards’ inclusion, therefore, was an effort to dismantle the triumphs in women’s tennis. According to Raymond:

The latest transsexual notable has been Renée Richards who has succeeded in hitting the benefits of sex discrimination back into the male half of the court. The public recognition and success that it took Billie Jean King and women’s tennis years to get, Renée Richards has achieved in one set. The new bumper stickers might well read: ‘It takes castrated balls to play women’s tennis.’

Concerns over Richards’s participation forced the USTA to try and delineate the difference between a “man” and a “woman.” Other organizations later faced a similar task.

In 1987, male-to-female transgender golfer Charlotte Ann Wood finished third on the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Tour and reached the semi-finals of the inaugural U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur. Her presence drew outrage and female competitors protested her “extra power” and “unfair advantage from the tee.” Resultantly, in 1989 the USGA introduced the entrance requirement “female at birth” for all women’s competitions. Focused on the gendered assumption of biological strength discrepancy, the USGA implemented the clause in an effort to deter supposed unfairness. Tellingly, the USGA did not reciprocate with a “male at birth” stipulation for entrance into men’s contests.

Following suit, in 1991, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) also incorporated the “female at birth” stipulation for all competitors. Clearly the concerns about transgender athletes’ involvement in golf stemmed from a belief in female athletic inferiority. The resultant stipulations of the USGA and LPGA thus popularized notions of male advantage in the sport. Moreover, the USGA and LPGA both assumed the existence of two separate and distinct sex/gender categories based upon biologic difference.

In contrast to the “female at birth” clause instituted by the USGA and the LPGA, Women’s Golf Australia (WGA) instituted a policy in 1999 that allowed transgender golfers to compete. Aided by the WGA’s seemingly progressive gender stance, male-to-female transgender athlete Mianne Bagger competed in an amateur tournament that year and defeated former winner Lyn McGough. After defending her title in 2001 and 2002, Bagger was asked to compete in the 2004 Women’s Australian Open, becoming the first transgender athlete to participate in a professional tournament.

Prior to each of Bagger’s debuts, as an amateur and as a professional, conversations focused on her supposed masculine strength and the possibility that she possessed an unfair biological advantage. For example, Warren Sevil, the general manager of the Australia Ladies Professional Golf (ALPG), explained:

It’s just that golf courses are set up differently for women because of the fact they’re not as strong. Long par fours for men are par fives for women. Otherwise, Greg Norman, say, or any other male professional who decided to have a sex change would be entitled to join . . . and they’d dominate.

This discourse forced Bagger and her advocates to repeatedly downplay her skills for acceptance. In order to gain approval, she had to appear appropriately female, which entailed performing at a level lower than men. As Bagger explained, “I’m on hormone replacement therapy which means I’ve lost the muscle tone and strength I had.” The degradation of her talent and minimization of her physical strength emphasized a supposed difference between male and female golfers, one which placed women below men.

Shortly after Bagger’s participation in the Women’s Australian Open, the ALPG and the European Tour both dropped the “female at birth” entry requirement. Influenced by Bagger’s warm public reception and the implementation of the Stockholm Consensus, the USGA followed in 2005. The USGA, however, demanded extensive medical scrutiny for all potential transgender competitors. Five years later, the LPGA dropped the discriminatory clause, only after the threat of a lawsuit forced the organization to remove the restriction. The LPGA eventually adopted stipulations based on the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Stockholm Consensus.

The IOC, the NCAA and the Trickle-Down Effect

The IOC’s 2004 policy, the Stockholm Consensus, attempted to address the potential “Pandora’s Box” of transgender athletes. The policy divided transgender athletes into two groups. For those who had undergone sex-reassignment surgery pre-puberty, the Stockholm Consensus allowed them to compete without restriction. For the other group, the IOC established a narrow set of problematic stipulations:

  • Surgical anatomical changes have been completed, including external genitalia changes and gonadectomy.
  • Legal recognition of their assigned sex has been conferred by the by the appropriate official authorities.
  • Hormonal therapy appropriate for the assigned sex has been administered in a verifiable manner and for a sufficient length of time to minimise gender-related advantages in sport competitions.

In addition, the Stockholm Consensus noted that each athlete must undergo individual investigation prior to Olympic participation.

Through the Stockholm Consensus, the IOC prioritized gender classification and privileged sex-segregation. Moreover, the Olympic protocol created amended sex/gender definitions that forced individuals into a specific category: men or women. The debate of fairness again focused primarily on male-to-female participants and the IOC proved persuaded by the assumption of biological masculine superiority.

Yet, more disconcertingly, in the wake of the Stockholm Consensus, several sport organizations implemented strict sex/gender policies which mirrored those of the IOC. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Office of Inclusion, for example, published the “NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes” in 2011 as a guide for athletic directors, administrators and coaches. Based on “current medical and legal knowledge,” the resource articulated two areas of concern for intercollegiate athletics: mixed teams and the use of banned substances. Tellingly, a biological male participating on a female team made the squad a “mixed team,” whereas a biological female competing on a male team did not. Conviction in male biological superiority in sport again underscored the stipulation. To combat supposed advantages and resolve the issue, the NCAA required one year of testosterone suppression for male-to-female transgender competitors.

transgender_table

Finally, even more alarming is the trickle-down effect such policies have had on high schools. In February 2014, the Virginia High School League adopted guidelines for the inclusion of transgender athletes into sport. According to the policy, athletes must undergo sex reassignment surgery, including the surgical removal of external sex organs. Additionally, he or she must also receive hormonal therapy “such that it minimizes gender-related advantages in sports competition.” To require surgery not only forces high school students into a socially-circumscribed sex/gender category, but also mandates a painful procedure—one often not covered by insurance—and severely limits athletes’ access into sport. Regrettably, other state associations proved similarly exclusive. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association passed a resolution that requires each student-athlete to “participate according to the gender they were assigned at birth.” In parallel fashion, the Georgia High School Association, New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association and North Carolina High School Athletic Association ruled that a student’s team is determined by the gender noted on his/her birth certificate.

Fortunately, the MSHSL had planned to implement different stipulations—guidelines that did not require sex reassignment surgery or solely use birth certificates to classify gender. In the draft, the organization sought to allow “participation for all students regardless of their gender identity or expression” in an environment “free of discrimination.” Therefore, the MSHSL suggested schools use high school transcripts, personal statements, parental letters and “appropriate medical documentation” to determine team placement. The guidelines recommended male-to-female transgender students undergo testosterone suppression; however, sex-reassignment surgery was not a requirement. Although such a policy would have encouraged Zeam Porter to return to basketball, the community outcry sparked by the shower advertisement convinced the MSHSL to table the policy until December.

Assumptions of advantage and notions of fairness have historically underlined transgender athletic policies and clearly continue to do so in Minnesota.

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu.

5 thoughts on “Opening Pandora’s Box?: Transgender Athletes and the Fight for Inclusion

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