episode 23. Too Tough & Not Enough: Trans Women in Sports

The issue of trans women in sports is absolutely not a new one, but has recently been in the headlines of many news stories over the last couple of years. This week, we dive into the history of trans girls in sports, looking at the background of gender divisions in sports, how gender binaries have played into the dynamics that we see today and big changes that have occurred over the years that have led us to this point. We then get into the present, talking about salient news stories and events that have brought the topic of trans girls in sports back to the forefront of discussion. Join us this week to get a historical perspective on the topic and gain information to hopefully have a discussion with someone else about it! 

ALSO, for Pride month we have a CALL TO ACTION. Support the Equality Act to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in all 50 states. Here are some ways you can!! 

Feminist Corner:

Women’s sports are already viewed in a certain light. How do you think that has impacted the way that trans girls are viewed in sports?

There is a hyper focus on trans women in sports and there’s almost no talk about trans men. Why do you think that is?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

The topic this week: trans girls in sports. Why? It’s been a controversial issue for many years and continues to be a point of contention. 

Important definitions:

  • Trans woman: a person who was assigned male at birth but lives as a woman currently. This may mean that they simply identify themselves as a woman or that they underwent hormone replacement therapy and/or gender-affirming surgery so that their biological features align in the ways that they want with their gender identity.
  • Intersex and transgender are often intermixed and used interchangeably but they are not the same. Intersex refers to having ambigious genitalia at birth while transgender more so relates to how someone sees their internal gender identity.
  • Gender is a spectrum, not a binary and it is also a social construct

Throughout the 1900s, there were big shifts in cultural practices but thoughts about what the “ideal behavior” of men and women were, the binary model, stayed pretty intact. And sport is part of the fundamental fabric of our society.

19th century sport clubs reinforced the binary by making sure that women were seen and known as being well-dressed admirers of men’s sports.

“Muscular Christianity” was the idea that strength, virility, and toughness taught to men through physical activity would instill good christian values into them and this just made the divide between men and women playing sports worse.

In the 1920s and 30s, women’s softball and hockey became more popular but female athletes still had to maintain a level of “ladylike” behavior. 

Around this time, sports also became quantified, and this is important because it made sports something more and just winner and losers, but the numbers mattered now.

During the 20s and 30s, the Olympics became the world’s most important international sporting competition. It was at the Olympics that athletes’ appearances gained value and it was here that women wanted to show that they rejected the constraints placed on them that they weren’t athletic or fit. 

They defied people’s expectations of them by showing serious athleticism at the olympics, but the problem is that since everything became about numbers and values, even though female athletes were challenging the binary, they didn’t have the same numbers as men. 

During the Cold War, women were brought more into the spotlight because any chance to defeat Russia was taken. Also synthetic Testosterone was brought into the spotlight because Russian women were defeating “Western women” and it was believed that they were taking exogenous testosterone because they tended to not fit the western ideal of feminine.

With all this distrust came Sex Testing, where elite level female athletes would often have to get a letter from a physician confirming their sex as female, or have their genitalia visually examined, or get genetic testing or even have their hormone levels measured to determine whether they were male or female.

More presently, Title IX and lawsuits against high school athletes have been taking place regarding whether or not trans girls can play women’s sports in high school. 

Similarly, stories in the news about two time Olympic athlete Caster Semenya of South Africa who is a trans woman and has received backlash about whether she should compete. 

All of the sides to the arguments about this topic basically boil down to fairness in sports. Is it fair to have a really tall Dutch woman compete against a really short Indian woman? Is it fair to have a girl with XY chromosomes who has never been able to respond to the testosterone they make compete as a boy because of her Y chromosome? Is it fair to test people’s hormone levels to determine their gender? Is it fair to have spent decades segregating sports by two genders and to now tell people that those lines must be crossed? 

Sources:

Barnes, K. (2020, June 23). The battle over Title IX and who gets to be a woman in sports — inside the raging national debate. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://www.espn.com/espnw/story/_/id/29347507/the-battle-title-ix-gets-woman-sports-raging-national-debate

Cooky, C. (2013). Policing the boundaries of sex: a critical examination of gender verification and the Caster Semenya controversy. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23320629/

Gessen, M. (2021, March 27). The Movement to Exclude Trans Girls from Sports. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-movement-to-exclude-trans-girls-from-sports

Longman, J., & Macur, J. (2019, May 2). Caster Semenya Loses Case to Compete as a Woman in All Races. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/01/sports/caster-semenya-loses.html

NPR Cookie Consent and Choices. (2021, March 18). Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://choice.npr.org/index.html?origin=https://www.npr.org/2021/03/18/978716732/wave-of-new-bills-say-trans-athletes-have-an-unfair-edge-what-does-the-science-s

Turban, J. (2021, March 16). Trans Girls Belong on Girls’ Sports Teams. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trans-girls-belong-on-girls-sports-teams/

Like the episode? Send us your thoughts and questions!

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