Let’s talk about dyadism and biological essentialism.
Above is an image of María Patiño, an Olympic hurdler from Spain, who in 1988 was barred from competing based on gender verificiation testing. María was born with XY chromosomes and Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), essentially meaning her body “never heard the hormonal messages” (Patiño, 2005) that would result in secondary sex characteristics that we typically associate with men. Stripped of her titles, barred from competition, she was publicly shamed and harassed. Her fiancé left her and when she finally was allowed to compete again, “my momentum was lost,” Patiño said. “I trained, hoping to qualify for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, but missed the mark at the trials by ten hundredths of a second” (Patiño, 2005), (Fausto-Sterling, 2000)
This is not an anomaly. Of all the women who underwent gender testing in the history of the Olympics, many have been found to not meet the standards put forth by the test, all either stripped of their title or put through public harassment and ridicule trying to defend it. But here is the problem: Foekje Dillema in 1950, the Press sisters of the 60s, Renée Richards in 1976, María Patiño in 1988 (Fausto-Sterling, 2000) Santhi Soundarajan in 2006, Caster Semenya in 2009, Pinki Pramanik in 2012 - all of these well-known cases involved intersex or transgender athletes.
So why gender testing, and why only on women? I’d like to argue it is the natural result of sexism, dyadism, and cissexism meeting in our society. From what I understand, there is an assumption that men are both stronger and better athletes than women on some inherent, biological level. This assumption is both dyadist and cissexist, meaning it assumes that these men and women are definitely not intersex or transgender. (Is it sexist? I’m not a biologist, so I won’t weigh in on whether dyadic, cis men have an advantage over dyadic, cis women by virtue of their physical makeup. I’ve no idea.)
Ultimately, it is assumed that a man might pretend he is a woman in order to compete in women’s competitions and have an advantage; but If there is a documented case of a dyadic, cisgender man ever attempting to pass as a woman in order to gain an athletic advantage, please inform me because I have never read or heard of it.
A mini history lesson:
Anne Fausto-Sterling, professor of biology and gender studies at Brown University, reminds us in her 2000 book Sexing the Body, that “Until 1968 female Olympic competitors were often asked to parade naked in front of a board of examiners. Breasts and a vagina were all one needed to certify one’s femininity.” Women felt this was humiliating, and in response to complaint, “scientific” gender testing began in 1968, forcing all competitors to undergo weeks of tests with a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, etc. to prove their gender. As a result of intersex and trans* women challenging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), compulsory gender testing was stopped in 1996 but can still be performed at any time someone is suspicious of an athlete’s true gender, resulting in cases like Semenya’s and Soundarajan’s.
So where is the scare coming from? My book for a graduate class on substance abuse says, “Female hormones have been used to feminize men, so that they could compete in women’s events. The women’s gold metal sprinter in the 1964 Olympics was shown by chromosome testing to have been a man, and he had to return the medal” (Hart and Ksir, 2013). Try telling that to Ewar Kobukkowska, the gold medalist they’re referring to, who held the world record for women’s 100m. As a result of a chromosome abnormality, she was barred from competing in women’s athletics and in 1970 the IAAF removed her from the record books. (Smith and Ferris, 1991) But still in 2013, textbooks are upholding these cissexist and dyadic views of women’s bodies.
tl;dr Gender testing needs to stop in athletic competitions. There is no record of a cis, dyadic man pretending to be a woman to compete with an advantage. It is time that we recognize that gender is self-defined, and that the only definition of a “real woman” is one who identifies as woman, no matter her chromosomes or phenotype.
Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books.
For another blog on this topic, go here