This week on Five Ring Circus, Sara Gross and Kelly O’Mara ask: “Do we really need gender testing in women’s sport?”
From the days of nude parades to chromosome and testosterone testing, women who are too fast or too strong or do not look a certain way have come under suspicion that they are somehow not fully “female.”
Listen as Sara and Kelly discuss all the issues relating to gender including the history of “gender verification,” the fact that gender is not binary, and fairness for intersex and transgender athletes.
SG: Hi and welcome to our exclusive WiSP radio show, 5 Ring Circus, where each week we discuss the issues from the common to the comical as we head into the games of the 31st Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro. Today’s topic is testosterone testing, which has been referred to as femininity control, sex control and gender verification. I’m Sara Gross and I am here with Kelly O’Mara. Kelly, how do we know you’re really a woman?
KM: That’s a good question, a really good question. I don’t know, maybe I am just faking it.
SG: Maybe we will never know..
KM: Just so I can win my age-group at races, because that makes sense.
SG: Yeah, because that’s what a lot of people do I think. Sneak in and pretend to be women.
KM: Pretend to be women so they can have less glory, because women’s sports are such a big deal, you know.
SG: So in the news this week, let’s start where we left off last time. Doping: it looks like some Kenyan doctors may have supplied performance enhancing drugs to British athletes.
KM: Yes, a newspaper reporter went in and had an undercover camera and basically got doctors to be like, “oh yeah, here’s some EPO and we give it to all these British athletes.” So Kenya is like investigating, they have started their own investigation. They’ve said, I mean Kenya Athletics has had some investigations in the past… they’ve had some issues… maybe they will work through them.
SG: It seems like Kenya is on the back foot right now.
KM: Yeah, I know. I’m guessing they want to just keep this quiet until the Games start, and not be in the news too much between now and then.
SG: Right, and not be Russia.
KG: Russia is pissed off.
SG: So I guess now, one by one, some of the athletes are being allowed to compete but one of the athletes was branded a traitor. Because of her choice not to compete under the Russian flag.
KM: I think Russia sees this whole thing as a vendetta against them. I see Russia as if there is one opinion. Understandably I think it is pretty unfair, so there are individual athletes who are going to the international governing bodies, and saying “I’m clean, exempt me from this ban of Russia and I will compete under a neutral flag, not under Russia’s flag.” So Russian everyday people are like “you traitor. You abandoned us.” One of them compared it to the guy who turned against Jesus.
SG: The Judas of the Russian athletics team. So in golf, it seems like the woman golfers are taking the risk with Zika a little more. We’ve talked about this is past weeks, it seems that male golfers, it’s not the highlight of their year and Zika might be a convenient reason not to attend the games. But for the women, it is a bigger tournament and they are risking it.
KM: Yeah, I think that’s true across the board. They are going to be willing to risk more things, if this is the bigger reward. A lot of the male golfers just don’t think it is worth it because they have a lot of other things, like the PGA tour. Whereas the women golfers, this is a big deal for them. This is historic, it is the most attention that they are going to get. Have you ever watched an LPGA tournament. I haven’t. I don’t watch that many golf tournaments ever. Period. But you know what I am saying, this is the one time that people are really going to be paying attention.
SG: Right, so if enough men don’t show up to the Olympic tournament will that make the IOC reconsider their inclusion of golf.
KM: I would imagine so, because that is always the consideration about which sports stay, and which sports get cut… if it is the pinnacle of the sport. Sports get cut when the Olympic tournament is not the biggest thing. Which is why baseball got cut, unfortunately softball had to go too, and then it was really unfair because baseball, sure, the Olympics were not the big thing, but for softball, the Olympics were it. They were kind of all they had.*
SG: Exactly. What are some of the other sports that may be on the chopping board, do you know.
KM: They added golf and rugby this year. In rugby they added sevens, so it is faster and it is shorter, and smaller teams. They took away wrestling a couple years ago, and people got really upset so they brought it back.
SG: Wrestling. A quintessential Olympic sport, I mean you can’t take away wrestling.
KM: That’s what everyone said, so they brought it back. They talk about eliminating individual events within a sport. Eliminating the hammer throw in track, or eliminating some of the many, many competitions in gymnastics, that kind of thing. Although they added team ice skating, so who knows.
SG: Sometimes the additions do seem a little random.
KM: It has to do with the number of athletes. There were already ice skaters there so they were like “Hey, go and compete as teams now.”
SG: So let’s move on to this gender testing, testosterone testing, whatever you want to call it issue. You know, when I was thinking back to when I was doing my PhD, and I ended up down a really deep rabbit hole one time. I actually translated Greek texts, and I started to think, “Oh. what if there are texts about women’s sport.” And my PhD was nothing to do with women’s sport. And I started translating all of these Greek texts, and, of course, they were already translated and completely useless. But I found this interesting story about a woman who snuck into the ancient games, it was 7th or 8th century BC, around then, so we are like almost 3000 years ago… and she snuck in and posed as a man to watch her son compete. And the penalty back then for women to even show up was that they would be thrown off a cliff if they were found out.
KM: That makes sense. Seems reasonable.
SG: Obviously. Yeah. And so because her son was such a great champion, they found her out but they didn’t punish her. They didn’t do the cliff throwing in that instance. But in true Greek fashion, they decided thereafter that everyone was going to have to be naked. Even the trainers, everyone competing. So I figure that was the original gender testing.
KM: Interesting, I always thought it was like because there were homo-erotic overtones to the ancient games.
SG: Well there is that too. I was thinking with everybody competing naked, it would be a good time to be a gay man.
SG: Or a terrible time to be a gay man, depending on your perspective.
KM: That was the original, or what they officially call it: gender verification testing. Or what they call from there, once women actually got to compete, then they did the physical examinations for a while.
SG: Nude parades in the 60’s.
KM: Yeah, and then that changed and they decided they were going to upgrade their new chromosome testing. Because that’s science. It’s science that solves all of our problems.
SG: Of course. Well and you know, in the days of the nude parades and the initial chromosome testing, I found this really interesting story about this woman called Lindsay Schmidt. She is a long distance runner, and she was running further and faster than women were technically expected to run, or it was felt that they were able to run. So she was a woman, but she was kind of scared that she was going to fail the test because she thought that, well, women aren’t technically supposed to be able to do what I’m doing, but I can do it; therefore, I might fail the test. So it was kind of this backwards thinking based on the cultural assumptions about women.
KM: Of course she passed. I think that is sort of a lot of the undertones of these tests for me. You are going to find yourself subject to a lot of suspicious physical examinations if you are too good, or too fast.
SG: Or if you don’t look a certain way.
KM: But yes, they did chromosome testing until 1999, in track and field. In volleyball until 2004. I guess volleyball was really concerned. I don’t know. And of course you think it makes sense, it is logical… if you have a Y chromosome, you are a man. But the problem is that it is not how biology works. There are all these variations between 100% female and 100% male… there is a whole spectrum of gender. There were all these people that had XY chromosomes, but looked like women, thought they were women, never knew they had a Y chromosome, and then they fail these tests. For example, one of these people always thought she was a woman and she gets a silver medal at the games, fails the test and then she commits, or tried to commit suicide because she was like; “I’m not a woman, I don’t even know what to do with myself anymore.”
SG: Right. It’s a similar tragic story to that Maria Martinez, the Spanish hurdler. I think she is the one, who eventually, through the courts, ended the testing, didn’t she?
KM: Yeah, she brought a case all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and basically proved that she was a woman essentially even though she had a Y chromosome. The thing is that there are people that have XX chromosomes, XY chromosomes, appear like women… there are all these degrees of how sensitive to androgens and testosterone you are. She was, I believe, a certain type of XY chromosome that was sensitive to androgen and testosterone. They people, they are called like CAIS women, they have testosterone, but they cannot use it in the body. Even though they have a Y chromosome, they never got male characteristics, so they appear super, super feminine. What’s really fascinating about the fact that she got that overturned, and everyone was like “oh it’s fine, we will let the CAIS women compete, is that there is actually a higher number of CAIS women in elite athletes than the regular population. Which suggests there is some kind of biological advantage there. This has nothing to do with testosterone, because they literally can’t process testosterone, and yet, they decided it was totally fine to compete as women, because the argument on the books was “well they look like women, so it’s cool.”
SG: So it’s okay. I think that speaks to the fact that how difficult it is to decide what exactly a woman is. To divide it up biologically, it’s not even purely biological. What about the way you are raised and all the cultural assumptions. I don’t see how it can just come down to testosterone or chromosome.
KM: Or chromosome, or any one thing. The testosterone, they got rid of chromosome testing and they didn’t have any test, and then they had Caster Semenya racing, and she didn’t look classically female and she was beating athletes and they were like: well, she must be male. She got under a lot of suspicion and they actually made her undergo – she’s never verified this, but the assumption is this- that they actually went and physically checked her to make sure she was a woman. She fell somewhere in that spectrum and that was when they developed that guideline. So if you have higher than this certain level of testosterone you must take shots to decrease your testosterone or you can’t compete as a woman. And that seems so unfair: you must do something to alter your physical body, that is natural, in order to compete in a category that is your natural category.
SG: Right, and if a man has extra testosterone, he is a great champion, and we all cheer him.
KM: Right, and there’s nothing that says men who have testosterone over this 10ml limit, or whatever, have to lower it. There is this misunderstanding that testosterone automatically confers an advantage because all of the research (and there is obviously a lot of research) suggests there isn’t a direct correlation between natural testosterone and being faster, stronger, better. There is between artificial testosterone and doping, which is where we get confused. But it is not whoever has the most testosterone runs the fastest. That is not how it works. There is not a correlation, and there is also a lot of overlap between.
SG: I mean gender isn’t binary right. So that really is the problem for creating a women’s category in sport. At the end of the day, do we need to verify gender and how do we have a fair women’s category?
KM: It’s an interesting question and I’ve talked to a lot of advocates about this because a lot of advocates work to get the testosterone test overturned. Right now there is no testosterone test, so there is literally no gender verification test.
SG: So at these games there is no test.
KM: There is no test. There is no testosterone limit; you could still be brought up for suspicion and people could have suspicions if you looked man-like. And people would find you out if you were a man masquerading as a woman; that would happen, but there is not a test right now. I’ve talked to a lot of advocates about this fear that are men pretending to be women, or there are people who are in on this spectrum closer to the man side and it’s not going to be fair. It’s not going to be equal. And the thing is that 1) everyone has physical advantages who is an elite athlete. We don’t have a basketball division for under six footers and over six footers, right. That’s just how it works. And 2) there is no evidence that the inter-sex athletes are better. They are not just winning everything, that’s not happening, it’s not a real concern. It is just because we don’t understand inter-sex people, and I am saying we as a society don’t understand inter-sex people and so we are scared. We think what we don’t understand is frightening and we think that oh, they are more manly, therefore they will be better than me and it won’t be fair.
SG: I think there is a level too on which we depend so much on gender to understand ourselves, to understand our social identities for culture and that’s where the fear factor comes in. You know, I always say this, but, if someone walks down the street and they are not immediately identifiable as man or female, everyone around them will question “Is that a man or a woman.” Why is this so important? I’m not saying I care, but you see that reaction from people. This hits us on a deep identity level that scares people.
KM: It’s because it is that whole biological thing that you have to make quick assessments, to put people in boxes to judge people as to how you should react to it. That’s like back to caveman flight or fight stuff, which is what it is.
SG: So if gender isn’t binary, what do you think we do with inter-sex people?
KM: There are a lot of arguments and I’ve talked to a lot of advocates and they’ve argued that right now, essentially we’ve put people into these two categories that are basically socially created. And said, ok, and are arbitrary and said; ok, now go and compete. If we created a line on testosterone, or chromosomes or whatever you want to create the line on, and we say “ok, go compete” in those categories, then everyone over this level of testosterone competes in one and everyone under that level competes in another. There would be some men in one and some women in another, and that would be also weird, right. There is a thought that inter-sex athletes need their own category, but that would be really, really weird. For one it’s like 1.5% of the population, and secondly a lot of inter-sex people don’t know they are inter-sex because they have always identified as women or identified as men, and they just have some sex characteristics, not others, so that doesn’t really make sense. I think ultimately we are going to have to just go with the gender identity policy. You are who you identify as, and, if in the future, there turns out to be a problem because there is somebody cheating, then we will deal with that when it becomes a problem. But in the mean time we shouldn’t screw over lots and lots of actual women with this fear that something could be a problem.
SG: Yes, I absolutely tend to agree with you there. I think that the historical cases of men posing as women to go to the Olympic Games are pretty low in the percentages.
KM: Like maybe if women’s sports get to be such a big deal that you could become super super famous, then that will be a problem… but right now, not so big a problem.
SG: So are you feeling the same about transgender athletes?
KM: Yeah, it’s certainly interesting because, kind of in the midst of all of this relatedly, but kind of separate, the IOC adopted this gender policy for trans athletes essentially saying you don’t have to undergo surgery, you don’t have to undergo anything, you can just compete in the category you are. Assuming of course that you have legal verification because the thing is behind all of this, when you compete at these kind of levels you still need to provide legal verification of who you are, when you were born, what sex you are. So it’s not like anyone could just declare tomorrow that they are going to be a woman.
SG: You can’t just be a guy who didn’t make your team, the fourth guy in line for the Olympic team and be like “Oh, maybe I’ll just try and go as a woman.” It doesn’t work that way.
KM: Supposedly there are a couple transgender athletes that are going to be competing for Britain and other countries. Athletes who were born male, and now are female. But they don’t want to come forward because they are scared…
SG: Right that the press circus will surround them and their whole Olympic Games will be about that.
KM: Right, and they will get vilified in everything. You probably aren’t going to know because they probably aren’t going to be the ones winning, because most people don’t win.
SG: Exactly, so again I’m kind of with you on that… if we have a huge problem with transgender women coming into women’s sport and dominating everywhere, then we can look at that problem and say maybe we can do something about fairness, but as it is that is not happening.
KM: Because they want to be women. They are making the transition; they are taking the hormones. It doesn’t even make any sense.
SG: And I guess when they do the hormone therapy; this is what I talked about with Chris Mosier earlier, that the percentage, like in endurance sport, about 11% faster or slower, depending on what way they are transitioning. So you end up in about the same place as you would be in the gender that you are transitioning to – you end up in the right place whether you win or not.
KM: The numbers and exactly how much of a benefit certain things are and aren’t is very hard to come by because obviously there is a limited amount of research. I am going to be fascinated if we actually start to study this.
SG: And a limited number of cases, so right now we are looking case by case. We are throwing people like Caster Semenya into the circus, the Five Ring Circus, the press, and it’s not necessarily right or fair and there are still a lot of questions.
KM: A lot of people have pointed the fact that she started running a lot better this year after she stopped having to take the shots to decrease her testosterone levels. As proof that this is not fair, we need rules. I’m just like, man she got to stop dealing with this and that was probably a huge weight off of her shoulders.
SG: I think the thing that bothers me the most is the sexist attitudes about women in sport are attached to these ideas that we need to verify gender because women are somehow weaker and less strong and if we have a strong or fast woman, then somehow she is suspect. And I think if we were just allowed to be who we are and compete as women and continue to develop women’s sport, that we are going to continue to get faster and faster.
KM: Well, yeah. I get bothered by if we were treating all the women that met these certain scientific criteria the same, I would take it better. It’s the fact that we are treating the ones who don’t look feminine, look differently that bothers me.
SG: Yes, I understand that. Well thank-you, Kelly. I think we could go on for hours about this one, because I know we both love this topic and we are both individually working on it in our careers. Well, we aren’t exactly sure what’s going to happen in Rio, but whatever it is we will talk about it here every Friday right through the Olympics and Paralympics.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: Softball returns to the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020