Two women enter the cage in a mixed martial arts (MMA) featherweight bout. From all appearances it looks like a good match between equals – one is 5 foot 7 inches and 144 pounds, the other slightly larger at 5 foot 8 and 145 pounds. Both are muscular, fit beyond belief, and determined. But something is different – in the crowd, there are boos and catcalls when the smaller fighter takes the cage, and hand-drawn signs are held up demanding she forfeit. Some signs even contain Bible verses, taken out of context, condemning the smaller fighter to a host of unholy torments in the afterlife.
The television announcers are cordial, but some cannot help but refer dismissively towards the smaller fighter. Extra security is present in the arena, due to anonymous threats which arrived at a steady pace leading up to the contest. Fellow MMA fighters tweet messages of support for the larger fighter, using slurs and crude insults towards her opponent. Some are interviewed on television, and spout nothing but disdain for the smaller fighter.
The match begins, and the larger fighter clearly takes the initiative. The smaller fighter looks out of her league in the match, and by the end of the second round she is hurting. She falls to a technical knockout in the third round, and the crowd and the internet go wild, with thousands of MMA fans celebrating the defeat of the smaller fighter, posting messages of thanks to Jesus, Allah, even Buddha for her loss. Message boards are flooded with declarations of victory and virtual high-fiving that the smaller fighter lost.
Not long after the fight, the winner has the audacity to proclaim in public that despite meeting all qualifications of the sport, the loser had an unfair advantage in the match. So great was this unfair advantage, in fact, that the larger fighter feels the loser should be banned outright from fighting either women or men. Across the blogosphere heads nod sagely in agreement – yes, of course, the loser deserves never to fight again. It’s only common sense.
The loser – the one with the reputedly unfair advantage – is transgender woman Fallon Fox. Her opponent and the victor, Ashlee Evans-Smith, is a cisgender woman.
This scene and all of its related psychodrama has been repeated numerous times over the last few decades, and will likely increasingly be witnessed as transgender persons take their rightful and long-overdue place in mainstream society.
Transgender and intersex persons are a lightning rod for controversy because their existence calls into question the pre-established boxes which most of us place ourselves in: “boy, or girl?” However, even some of those who have no difficulty accepting and welcoming transgender and intersex persons into the mainstream of society draw the line at certain cross-gender participation. The most common situation which leads to unease is sharing of public restrooms, and sports is typically the next-most common.
The resistance to transgender persons competing in sports can be broken down into four aspects.
- An assumption that transgender persons are not real – they are merely mentally ill or playing some sort of game – and therefore they do not deserve any competitive opportunities.
- Transgirls and transwomen, having been born with an XY chromosome, have an innately unfair competitive advantage against XX women.
- A fear that cisgender boys and men would pretend to be transgender in order to compete at an advantage against girls and women.
- Simple, everyday transphobia. Typically this manifests itself as transgender toilet terror (TTT), which is the irrational fear that transgender individuals are faking or using their status to sneak into restrooms for deviant or criminal purposes. But another manifestation in sports involves the concept of shared locker rooms.
One irony of the situation is that discrimination against transgender athletes is actually somewhat discriminatory against women, in that it assumes that all men will be better than all women at any sport, regardless of the body morphology, training, skill, competitiveness, etc. of the woman. It’s also somewhat discriminatory towards men, because it assumes that all men are so desperate to win against women that they will feign a serious, social and legal-altering medical condition over years or decades just to win a few ribbons and medals, perhaps a little money (because let’s face it, only a rare few can earn a high income at sports).
What I intend to do in this article is to examine the historical and current challenges faced by transgender and intersex athletes, and to address and dispel the myths surrounding transgender and intersex participation in sports. In short, to prove that no actual significant concern exists for transgender athletes competing in sports. The progress will be historical, roughly following the chronology, with adjunct discussions regarding the physiological differences between transgender and cisgender athletes, and some exploratory vignettes into recent cases where a transgender advantage was alleged.
Sex segregation has existed in sport since earliest records, and sports programs overwhelmingly maintain this segregation. The reasons for this were social rather than physical, with women’s sports historically receiving second or third-billing. Bizarre notions of chivalry and chauvinism led women to be discouraged against participating in most sports past very young ages, and those who continued to play would do so with less support, fewer resources, poorer facilities, and much fewer opportunities than male athletes. In the latter part of the 1800’s, doctors rejected exercise for women as physically dangerous, while men embraced the concept of Muscular Christianity, where virility, toughness, and strength emphasized the rightful Christian role of masculine dominance – and any woman who tried to adopt the same was guilty of anti-Christian behavior. (Wamsley) For example, in my personal sport of fencing, women were forbidden from fencing full matches for decades due to their being “the weaker sex”, and their participation in the epee and sabre were limited even more.
Most of us are unaware of the sexist attitudes which pervaded even “enlightened” sporting organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) well into the latter half of the 20th century. Women did not really have a significant participation in the Olympic Games until 1924, and since that time women athletes have lived a dual life of sorts. They are forced by the exigencies of their sports to develop highly muscular and lean bodies, to the point where their breasts are nonexistent and their menstrual cycles seriously disrupted, but also must portray a “feminine” attitude in order to be popular and attract sponsors.
Most of the early days of transgender sports is actually the intersex history, as before Christine Jorgensen’s grand entrance at Idlewild Airport in 1953 vanishingly few members of the general public were aware that transgender persons even existed. Nonetheless, it’s certain that transgender and intersex athletes have likely competed in sports since prehistory. I could write about transgender individuals such as the incredible fencer, the Chevalier d’Eon de Beaumont, but I think it’s best to keep the focus limited to recent history. Therefore, I will discuss some of the more notable cases of the 20th century before the rise of sex testing at international events.
- “The Devonshire Wonder,” English shot-putter and javelin thrower Mary Louise Edith Weston, is notable not just for her series of award-winning performances from 1925-1934, but for the fact that in the mid-1930’s she underwent a series of operations at Charing Cross hospital, and emerged as Mark Weston. Mark further made the news by being the first transsexual person in England to marry heterosexually, wedding his long-time friend Miss Alberta Bray in 1938. (Heggie)
- Zdenek Koubek, a Czechoslovakian 800 meter world record holder, had a successful athletic career until 1936, when she petitioned the state in 1935 or 1936 that she should be legally recognized as male. He retired to pursue a career in cabaret. He was interviewed by Time magazine, which ran two articles focused on sex fraud in the Olympic games. (Heggie)
- When Helen Stephens took the gold in the 100 meter dash at the 1936 Olympics, she was accused by fellow competitor Stella Walsh of being a man, and the sporting press took up the bait. Ironically, Stella had previously earned the derogatory nickname “Stella the Fella” for her masculine features. (Ritchie) Stephens was forced to take a sex test, which she passed. However, when her accuser Walsh died, she was found to be the one with ambiguous genitalia and abnormal chromosomes. (Shy, Adair) The two women are shown in the photograph below, and it’s really undeniable that they both appear virilized.
- Claire Bresolles and Lea Caurla were both members of the French 4×100 meter relay team, helping bring their team to silver medals at the 1946 European Championships in Oslo. Later in life they both adopted male social genders, Pierre Bresolles and Leon Caurla (but it is unknown if they ever underwent surgery). (Wamsley)
As a sidebar note at this point, entirely coincidentally in 1946 the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) required all female athletes to bring a certificate proving their eligibility to compete. (Heggie)
- Indonesia’s Karnah Soekarta originally competed as a woman, and in 1960, she was the official national record holder in several events, such as the 100 meters and 200 meter sprints, as well as javelin. She placed third in javelin at the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, and made the semifinals in the 100 meter sprint. Her javelin performance was once listed in the official IAAF statistics handbook, but was deleted in the 1987 edition after she underwent gender transition to male. (Pilgrim)
In summary, we have several vignettes from around the world, but no overwhelming flood of athletes which should have caused any problems in any sport. In our next section, we discuss the introduction of widespread sex testing in women’s athletics.
Part 1 – Introduction and Early History. (Current page)
Part 2 – The Cruelest Test
Part 3 – Post-Richards to the Stockholm Consensus
Part 4 – Current Events
Part 5 – Let’s Get Physical
Part 6 – Why, oh Why, Must it be This Way?
Part 7 – Are There Any Cases Where an Advantage Seems Possible?
Part 8 – Final Summary and References