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Intersex Athletes and the Intersection Between “Abnormal” Gender and Disability

A couple of weeks ago, I was somewhat perturbed by a discussion of intersex athletes competing in women’s sports.  The discussion took place on a National LGBT Bar Association call on intersex conditions and the law, generally, but it was the information on sports that I found most bothersome.  I’ve been thinking about the frameworks in which we approach trans identities and disability, finding interesting parallels, and the same is evident for intersex individuals.  In the context of women’s sports, athletes who live and identify as women can be disqualified for intersex conditions because they are thought to have an unfair advantage over men.  However, the line in the sand is far from clear.

A couple of months ago, in a dialogue with my friend Kyla on Girl w/ Pen around the classification of gender identity disorder, I mentioned the case of athletes with prosthetic legs being disqualified due to their “unnatural advantage.  In that post, I concluded that the distinction of “unnatural” vs. “natural” wasn’t as obvious as it might seem.  Other extreme body differences, for example being a very tall female basketball player or a very short gymnast, are not considered unnatural or unfair.  The basketball example was also mentioned on the intersex call, in explaining the use of androgen counts to determine who has an “unfair” advantage.

In women’s sports, chromosome tests are no longer used to determine gender, but androgen tests are.  The idea is that having more androgens does positively impact athletic performance, so it’s not fair to have athletes with “too many” androgens compete against women.  Of course, these athletes don’t compete against men, either.  At the same time, athletes with unusual height, lung capacity, or other advantages are seen as “fair” and “natural.”

This says a lot about the way we view gender, and the way we set norms.  We separate athletes by gender because, on average, male athletes and female athletes have certain differences.  But at the same time, there are huge variations within those two genders, so that a perfectly “even” or “fair” match would be difficult to find.  And really, why would we try?  If the point of high-level sports is to work to be the athlete with the most prowess, someone has to be better.  Many young people would love to play sports at that level, but their bodies don’t allow them.  We’re used to this idea.

What we say to intersex athletes when we do tests like this is that there is some line that divides the “normal” from the abnormal.  Folks with a certain number of androgens, like those who conform with their assumed gender, like those who have talents within a socially “acceptable range,” like those who run with legs made of muscle and bone rather than manufactured parts, are considered valid athletes and valid human beings.  Those who fall outside the range don’t get to compete.

It’s not just intersex athletes to whom this restriction applies, by the way.  My ears pricked when I heard that androgens were being used as the deciding factor, because I happen to have a hormonal condition that affects my own hormone levels and I do not have an intersex condition.  I asked whether women with PCOS, for example, who might have elevated androgen levels, but would not be considered to have an intersex condition, could be disqualified on that basis.  The answer is yes.  I’ll leave you to mull these thoughts over with me, and please do comment if you have anything to share on this topic!

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