Sporting Gender

Sporting Gender

by Joanna Harper
Genres: LGBT, Nonfiction
Published on December 11, 2019
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover Source: Library

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are likely to feature the first transgender athlete, a topic that will be highly contentious during the competition. But transgender and intersex athletes such as Laurel Hubbard, Tifanny Abreu, and Caster Semenya didn’t just turn up overnight. Both intersex and transgender athletes have been newsworthy stories for decades.

In Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes, Joanna Harper provides an in-depth examination of why gender diverse athletes are so controversial. She not only delves into the history of these athletes and their personal stories, but also explains in a highly accessible manner the science behind their gender diversity and why the science is important for regulatory committees—and the general public—to consider when evaluating sports performance.

Sporting Gender gives the reader a perspective that is both broad in scope and yet detailed enough to grasp the nuances that are central in understanding the controversies over intersex and transgender athletes. Featuring personal investigations from the author, who has had first-person access to some of the most significant recent developments in this complex arena, this book provides fascinating insight into sex, gender, and sports.

The issues in this book are so complicated. The science and the ethical discussions are ongoing and have even changed since the publication of this book a few years ago.

The author is a transwoman who is a runner. I learned that there are tables you can look up if you run a set distance. You could look for the table with your age and that distance. You find your time and it will tell you what percentile you are in for people of your age and sex running that distance. Her research has shown that people tend to stay in the same percentile after transition that they were in before transition. So say a person was in the 50% on 10K times as a 30 year old man. After transition to female, they would get slower. But they are like to remain right around the 50% mark as a 40 year old female. They aren’t suddenly going to dominate the women’s 10K.

While most of the uneducated invective around protecting women’s sports is currently being hurled at trans athletes, most of the most complicated issues surround intersex athletes.

The history of intersex athletes in women’s sports was one of the most interesting aspects of this book to me. Intersex athletes have always been a presence in elite competitions and the question of how to handle that is a long standing one. Over time it has been addressed by measures such as required genital exams for all female competitors. That evolved into rudimentary chromosomal testing, that as we know now, doesn’t tell the whole story.

There is a very good overview of differences in sexual development. Some people have bodies where some cells have XX chromosomes and others have XY. Some people have XY chromosomes but their body doesn’t respond at all to the testosterone that the body makes so they develop as a female. Others partially respond to the testosterone but not as much as a cis male would. Others make testosterone but it doesn’t work correctly at a chemical level so the body doesn’t receive as much as a cis male would. Many of these people are assigned female at birth and may not know there is any issue until they don’t menstruate as a teen. However, the sports world relies heavily on testing testosterone levels to prevent doping and to determine who is male or female. Should these women be made to decrease their naturally occurring hormone levels in order to compete or is this a natural athletic advantage that they should be allowed to take advantage of?

There aren’t any easy answers. The book covers some of the major trials where the author was a witness. This section of the book bogs down in my opinion.

Ideas presented include:

  • Basing the male/female divide on testosterone levels
  • Letting athletes identify by the legal gender they have in their home country. One problem with this is a lack of consistent standards around the world.
  • Regulating participation on an event by event basis. This is aimed at the female track middle distances like the 800 m where intersex athletes dominate because it maximizes the power advantage gained from added testosterone. Sprints and longer distances like the marathon don’t favor intersex athletes as much as these races do.
  • Having athletes divided into a “sporting gender” not based on their legal status but on their athletic advantages due to increased natural testosterone.

“Regardless of what personal beliefs any individual reader might hold, I would hope that this book has made it abundantly clear that the question of what is or is not fair is far from straightforward. If I have opened people’s eyes to the complexity of gender and sport issues while providing some enlightenment about the lives of those athletes who do not fall within the gender binary, then I have accomplished my goal.”

I loved this book. In my ideal world, people would need to read and understand this book before being allowed to run their mouths about “protecting women’s sports.”