Sports have always been a part of human life and culture that presents many ambiguities, especially when it comes to issues such as sex, gender, stereotypes and exclusion, and the situation is, today, no less complicated than it used to be.
Despite their immense success in games and sports, on an Olympic level, women and girls are still constantly told from a very young age, that their athletic performance is not as good as men’s. And yet, the problems that arise dig much deeper, having to do even with extremely problematic behaviors from the behalf even of women athletes, towards other identity intersections that do not fit in a fixed white, cis, straight norm of what is thought by racist, colonialist societies, to be a woman, a man, or anything outside the binary.
Such is the case of the control and policing constantly inflicted, in invasive and unacceptable ways, on people with intersex variations when it comes to competing in athletic events. The examples of Caster Semenya from South Africa and Dutee Chand’s from India in this year’s Olympic Games, and of the inappropriate public discourse that was raised, objectifying these athletes, had people’s problematic conceptions about sports, sex and gender reflected in phobic remarks like those of Shannon Rowbury’s.
This article, a response to these comments, is pretty explanatory of why the misconceptions society has about sex and gender can be extremely harmful for intersex and trans people. It mentions that the Summer Games of 2016 in Rio were the first to allow, after change of the rules, trans athletes to compete without having undergone sex reassignment surgery. There weren’t any openly trans athletes who competed this year, but this is still a remarkable thing for the inclusion of binary trans people.
However, these new rules don’t solve the problem of the participation of non-binary trans people. What’s more, sports in general don’t seem to be inclusive of non-binary identities, which is extremely harmful for athletic non-binary people who end up participating in teams they feel they don’t belong to, having to conform with a gender that doesn’t align with their identity and experience. Sports are supposed to be for everyone, surpassing borders set by race, gender and ability but for people like Lauren Lubin, this is not the case. Non-binary people may feel excluded and wronged by the gender segregation in sports, as their identities are downright denied.
Running is not a sport for everyone; running is a sport for two types of people.”
Running is indeed a sport deeply segregated by gender, something which is made obvious in almost every stage of the process. Non-binary people are forced to compete as something they don’t identify as: as either men or women.
There I was, unable to run as the person I really am – forced to either sit at the sidelines or run under a false identity in order to participate.”
Lauren Lubin is a non-binary runner living in New York City, who originally moved there in 2014 to work on a the We Exist documentary; a documentary that deals with and presents the lives of non-binary or gender neutral people. They initially took up on running in order to meet more people in this new city, but ended up being a devoted runner. What happened though was that such a deeply gendered sport in most of its connotations and processes soon started feeling restricting for Lubin’s identity and their need to express it and openly live by it.
This year Lubin ran in the New York City Marathon as the first ever openly gender-neutral athlete in the history of the marathon and for them, like for many non-binary people who are passionate for sports, separating people by gender in the sports they want to participate can be a huge issue. It’s not just about “giving things a label”. It’s about having your identity denied in every step you take, every practical process and every effort to belong in teams and communities that have no space for you. Non-binary people who are into sports are forced to either give up their hobby, activities, even their passion, or to try and blatantly disregard their gender and everything it means to their identity, experiences and entire existence.
There is no need for gender segregation in sports, and this is what Lubin supports as well. In our societies, sex and gender are still mashed up into one blurry, essentialist concept in people’s mind, but it’s vital to remember that both are spectrums, that they are not interchangeable terms, and that differences in athletic performance and the way individuals can be privileged over others, are determined by numerous factors that don’t have to do with sex characteristics or gender identity. People’s ability, including factors like their height or their eyesight, is not always determined by gonads or hormones, yet trans and intersex people have been submitted to a dehumanizing discourse that disregards their excellent athletic performances. This shows us that segregation by gender in sports can actually be avoided without negative results in athletes’ performance, inclusion and success.
The argument that still supports gender segregation in sports can still be seen as having sexist connotations and not being well looked into, is that stopping segregation would be unfair for women, whose physical competence is smaller compared to men’s. This viewpoint seems to be the excuse of problematic comments directed towards trans and intersex athletes who are harmfully represented in the invasive, hateful media rhetoric as “cheating”, simply because their bodies don’t fit in a narrow, non-representative Western-centric, cis-sexist norm of what a woman must be like. This all goes with false presumptions about the duality of genders and even sexes, which has been shown to be misleading and untrue.
But would anyone ever consider a taller person, a person with longer arms or with better eyesight as “cheating”? There is a debate on whether there is enough accurate medical research material that shows that testosterone levels can cater to an unfair advantage for trans or intersex athletes. According to medical professionals, the bodies of trans women don’t offer any level of competitive advantage over cis women after they’ve gone through two years of hormone treatment. And with some thought, it is rendered obvious that when we want to talk about “competitive advantage”, physiological factors are not the only ones to consider, since the privilege that some people have, against others, to perform professionally and compete in a high level of sports, most of the time has to do with the obvious effects of class, race, nationality, gender and other intersections that pose limits in people’s lives. Physical characteristics, obviously, vary between individuals in ways and for reasons that don’t always have to do with sex. The need to make sports more inclusive for all identities is immediate.
A quite remarkable example for how this could work in sports is roller derby. According to Alex Hanna, roller derby doesn’t enforce gender segregation and hasn’t done so from the very beginning. The whole philosophy of roller derby evolves around “DIY” and “for the skaters, by the skaters”, making the ground friendly for a more inclusive sport that has evolved on a quality amateur competitive level. LGBTQ+ people and allies occupy a central position in the sport’s organization, catering to the vast needs of inclusion for gender non-conforming, trans and intersex athletes. The United Front of Pioneer Valley Roller Derby is actually a team that accepts all players “regardless of assigned sex, gender identity (or lack thereof), or gender presentation and expression” and this is should actually be a point of reference in an otherwise hostile environment for trans and gender-non-conforming people to live truly as themselves. The largest roller derby association in the world is the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and its politics are actively directed towards the needs of queer people and of those who don’t conform in norms set by society.
What I experience today is a dire need for change – there is no place for non-binary athletes to freely compete. We can no longer move forward in the sporting world – or just in general – assuming that gender is binary or that even sex is binary. […] Sports at large is a microcosm of society at large. When we look at sports and how binary it is – how exclusive and often discriminatory it is – we’re looking at a reflection of our society.”