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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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IDAHO

Yes, I know I’ve kind of abandoned ship lately.  But never fear, I shall return!  I only have a month left of law school so I’m hunkering down and then joyously returning to blogging.

That said, I really wanted to get a quickie out there for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which is focusing on transphobia this year.  I thought this was particularly appropriate for me personally, because in the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about gender identity and am very thirsty at this point to learn more.

Though I was always conscious of the “T” in LGBT, I think I’ve spent a lot of time being at least partially transphobic, and very trans-ignorant.  The Global Arc of Justice conference really helped me understand how broad the fight for transgender rights is, though, and some personal acquaintances as well as some books I read helped clarify what gender identity is really about.  There are a lot of different ways to experience gender – it isn’t just male, female, FTM, or MTF.  Some people identify entirely as their “destination gender” after transition, and don’t want to be referred to in any other way.  Some identify strongly as transmen or transwomen.  Some prefer something more fluid, and don’t identify as trans but rather as genderqueer or something similar.  Some go from being a “straight male” to a lesbian, some from “straight female” to straight male, some stay bisexual or pansexual the whole way through.  Though I don’t think our society has very many set-in-stone stereotypes about gender identity, because we tend to simply cover up the variations, it’s definitely a bigger world than I initially thought, and it’s important to recognize these differences when thinking about discrimination, rights, and/or the law.

There have been some great steps in the law lately, perhaps most notably the House’s passage of the Matthew Shepard Act (c’mon, Senate!)  A lot of people think of this as a hate crimes bill to protect gay and lesbian people, and it does expand our protection, but actually we’ve already got a lot of it.  Trans and intersex folks have nada.  So this law would be a great step, but at the same time, there are a lot of things that need to happen that aren’t happening.  We need to educate ourselves about gender and not be afraid to discuss it, to ask questions, to teach our kids about different gender identities.  We need to educate law enforcement (big time).  And those of us who don’t really understand need to ask, read, educate ourselves, and become activists.  We also need to learn to listen.  I think a lot of people in the LGBT movement (myself being one) have a tendency to think we know what transpeople need (and intersex people, if we even consider their existence).  We lump transfolks into the gay rights movement and then get bitchy when they intrude on our women-only space.  I admit that when I first heard about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival incident, I was a little unsure about my opinion.  I wasn’t sure I wanted someone with a penis in a woman-only space, because I will freely admit that I hate and deeply fear the penis at this point in my life. But on the other hand, well, that’s my problem.  I need to get over it, or not show up.  We don’t have a right to identify as women if we’re going to exclude others who choose to do so.  My own acceptance is coming along slowly, and I appreciate any help from trans, intersex, and genderqueer folk who have advice or opinions, but I also know that it’s not your responsibility to fix my fuckups.  I think we all need to take responsibility for the discrimination and plain stupidity we’ve exercised in the past, and figure out how to do better in the future.  Hopefully this year’s IDAHO focus will be a strong first step.