Seen and Unseen

By Cathryn Lucas

As I discussed in my previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot about passing for my dissertation. Passing is an integral part of sport – whether it be in form of sending a ball from one teammate to another or a form of embodied cultural meaning making. While an interesting and important history of the former is possible (which also provides a wonderful opportunity for procrastinating), it is the latter to which I draw my attention today.

I ended my previous post with a quote from Elaine Ginsberg:

 Passing is about identities: their creation or imposition, their adoption or rejection, their accompanying rewards or penalties. Passing is also about the boundaries established between identity categories and about the individual and cultural anxieties induced by boundary crossing. Finally, passing is about specularity: the visible and invisible, the seen and the unseen (p. 2)

 In order for someone to pass, there must be clearly distinguishable boundaries over/through which a person crosses. Sport is a major cultural force in producing and re-defining identity categories along racialzed, gendered, classed, (dis)abled, nationalized, and sexualized lines.

Some forms of boundary making are institutional, literally written into the rules. Sports have been and continue to be segregated along racial and gendered lines. Other forms are ideological, such as the media portraying black athletes as animalistic and hyper-talented while portraying white athletes as hard-working and intelligent. Like these other forms, contestation over “transgender inclusion” re-produces and co-creates our collective understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality as well as race, class, and nation.

Most policies regarding trans participation in sport requires hormone replacement therapy for a specified period of time. Some are two years, some are one year, some governing children and adolescents requires hormone blockers for a year. These policies re-produce a spatialized understand of sex differences already upheld in sport where sex segregated divisions are the norm and special co-ed rules are designed to account for the “natural advantages” of male players. Taken together, these create a vast and nearly un-crossable binary which requires a mythical and epic journey to traverse.

Transgender embodiment symbolizes that movement across space, through time. Transition is the metaphoric journey through which one’s body is transformed by medical intervention from male to female or female to male. There are clear beginning and end points, trans comes to stand in for mobility between spatialized places, and passing as one’s “new gender” is the ultimate goal. A transgender person must first be visibly trans to access medical interventions; then complete the spatialized transition, and finally disappear into their “new gender.”

However, ideology is a strong and powerful cultural force. Many people believe that transition is not possible, and that transgender people are merely masquerading as women/men. The full page ads in the Minneapolis Star Tribune rely on this logic. And because sex and gender have come to be understood as different, with sex being the immutable, biological and physiological based aspect of our bodies and gender being the malleable, social construct of ourselves, “true” sexual identity is commonsensically understood to lie in the realm of the biological. After Kye Allums began using he/him/his pronouns, the Conservative leaning, student run blog GW Patriot refused to used he/him/his because:

 It is factually inaccurate to refer to Allums as a male at this point. Once Kye has undergone the necessary hormone treatment and medical procedures, I will refer to her as a man. I see nothing wrong with pointing out that she is still technically a female. . . . I referred to Allums as a female in this piece because unlike other writers, I do not like to distort reality or create falsehoods. The fact that Allums is a female is an objective fact of reality. Once she medically changes this, I will be more than happy to refer to her as a man.

 While on the surface they are wildly transphobic, these sentiments speak to the power of medical and scientific authority, especially in the case of transsexuality and transgender embodiment. Here, Allums is stuck in the liminal space between male and female. Unlike the fear-mongering Star Tribune ads, Allums is not merely masquerading, but still is not male until he undergoes medical intervention. There is a clear end point where Allums will not merely pass as male but will become male.

However, like many of the trans participation policies, the GW Patriot’s reliance on medical authority fails to account for the hugely problematic state of transgender health care in the US. While an increasing number of health care providers use an informed consent model rather than a medical expert centered model, trans people still have to conform to some of the expected narratives, and this varies from state to state and physician to physician.

Medical professionals still have the power to turn people away from treatment if the medical professional doesn’t think that they will be “successful in their new gender role.” As Joanne Meyerowitz argues, medial professionals turned away many “unsavory” people including hustlers, drug addicts, sex workers, etc. — most of whom were people of color. Of the first 2000 applicants at the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic only about 20 were chosen for treatment. This reliance on a white racial frame to enforce gendered categories produced a very narrow definition of transgender embodiment. Those people who fit the medical professionals’ categories attracted media attention, further reinforcing a very particular kind of transgender embodiment.

This narrow form of embodiment fits well with sport’s binary gender logic. However, embodied aspects of sport continue to muddy these strict boundaries. Sex and gender (along with race and class) are marked through visual codes, and sport participation promises transformation of the body. Therefore, women athletes have long navigated the complexities of having muscles and being too big, too assertive, too powerful.

A friend of mine plays in women’s softball, volleyball, and bowling leagues. No one questions her participation because, as another friend puts it, she “looks like what people expect a woman to look like.” It is commonsense that if we just look hard enough, we can see the difference between men and women. And because trans people are alternatively masquerading as men/women or disappearing into their new gender, people think they know what a trans person looks like but are always surprised when they don’t. This cyclical, anxiety riddled process reinforces the notion that we must increase surveillance on athletes, especially those playing in women’s divisions because trans participation could mean the “end of girls’ sport.”

One thought on “Seen and Unseen

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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