Cycles of gender testing

—Ellen Samuels

A friend who cycles competitively just sent me a link to the new policy on transgender participants in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference. It seems like a progressive and welcoming policy, stating that:

The ECCC particularly recognizes the challenges facing transgender athletes. Such members of the community should compete in the gender category most appropriate to their unique personal situation.”

The release of this policy highlights the growing centrality of issues of non-normative gender and sexuality in athletic competitions as well as in the wider cultural sphere. The prominence of such concerns, as well as the challenges ahead, were highlighted in the weeks leading up to the 2014 Olympic games, as tennis great Billie Jean King called for a LGBTQ “John Carlos moment”—referring to the African American 1968 Olympic medalist who stood on the winners’ podium with lowered head and raised fist, becoming an iconic symbol for social justice.

In Sochi, despite extensive media coverage of Russian anti-gay policies, that moment never came.

Meanwhile, a little-noted story out of Iran highlighted the extent to which international sports must still contend with its own legacy of gendered injustice. In February, on the cusp of Women’s History Month, it was reported that players in Iran’s women’s soccer league were being subjected to “gender testing” and that a number of players were subsequently expelled from the team for failing to qualify as “real women.”

Sex testing in female athletics has a long and tarnished history dating back to the 1940s, and has included requiring female athletes to parade naked before male doctors, performing invasive medical exams, and mandating genetic and hormonal testing. Indeed, from 1968 until the early 1990s, all elite athletes competing as female were required to carry “certificates of femininity,” issued by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Such universal sex testing was abandoned more than a decade ago, but female athletes who are perceived as overly “masculine” are still required to undergo sex testing and even medical treatment in order to remain eligible.

Representations of the Iranian soccer controversy in the Western media have invoked anti-Islamic stereotypes of backwardness, suggesting that gender confusion was caused by the body-masking uniforms worn by the soccer players. These stories ignore the long history of female athletes from all nations and in the skimpiest of running outfits being challenged and subjected to sex testing, their bodies closely analyzed for signs of masculine “hardness,” “strength,” and “power.”

Media reporting on the Iranian women’s soccer team also reflects a common and disturbing tendency to blur together the very different topics of transgender athletes, intersex athletes, and athletes suspected to be cisgendered men deliberately pretending to be women. The International Olympic Committee recently revised its gender policies in part to attempt to disentangle these categories—although the new policies are rife with their own problematic understandings of “sex” and “gender.”

To return to the ECCC policy, after appreciating its initial trans-positive language, I was dismayed to read the next paragraph:

“Competitors may be asked by the Conference Director(s) and/or their designee(s) to furnish two pieces of documentation from relevant legal, medical, or academic authorities documenting personal sex, gender, or gender dysphoria supporting their selected competition gender category.”

Such requirements show how assumptions about the necessity for biocertification can both underpin and undermine even the most well-meaning of policies directed toward people who do not fit neatly into gender binaries.  It is likely that, just as in international female athletics, the cyclists most likely to be asked to provide documentation are those who appear suspiciously “masculine,” yet identify as female.

However, I did notice a peculiar difference in this policy compared to those adopted in the Olympics and other sports settings: The athlete can provide material from “relevant legal, medical, or academic authorities” to support their gender identification.

To my knowledge, no other athletic gender policy allows for “academic” documentation, and I can’t help but wonder what such documentation would look like: Would a note from Judith Butler suffice? Certainly, this unusual addition to a biocertification policy indicates that queer, trans*, and feminist scholars should not discount the relevance of our work to the everyday contestations of gender in sports and other sites of global exchange.

Ellen Samuels is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is the author of Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race (NYU Press, 2014).

1 Comment on Cycles of gender testing

  1. Dr. Samuels:

    As one of the committee members who helped construct the new Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference (ECCC) diversity and gender non-discrimination policy, I appreciate your response to our policy, and am glad that it is being seen by people outside of the competitive cycling community. However, I would like to address a few of your critiques, many of which ironically seem to rely on assumptions rather than actual (easily verifiable) information regarding the policy and its writers. While I am fully aware that in many cases of gender policies in sports, your assumptions would be accurate (and it is important as a gender scholar to remain skeptical of such policies), in this instance, many of your assumptions about our policy and what I can only read as snarky comments about its nuance are fundamentally incorrect.

    Regarding the possibility of trans* athletes being asked to provide some form of documentation (purposefully left vague as to allow for almost any form of documentation), you write:
    “Such requirements show how assumptions about the necessity for biocertification can both underpin and undermine even the most well-meaning of policies directed toward people who do not fit neatly into gender binaries. It is likely that, just as in international female athletics, the cyclists most likely to be asked to provide documentation are those who appear suspiciously ‘masculine,’ yet identify as female.”

    Ironically, your critique of the “assumptions about the necessity for biocertification” is only supported by a fundamental misreading of the policy which never once requires biocertification, but rather lists it as one of the possible ways to affirm an athlete’s chosen gender. And, you are right to be suspicious of gender policies in sports, since, as you mention, historically these policies do not have a good track record of showing a nuanced understanding of gender by their creators. In fact, it is usually quite the opposite, particularly involving trans* inclusion in sports. That said, in this case, the “necessity for biocertification” that you critique simply doesn’t exist in our policy. Further, it would have been easy enough for you to contact one of the numerous people who helped construct this policy for clarification. But, you chose not to.

    Instead, you seemingly assume that everyone involved only has possesses the most basic understanding of gender, which atypical of sports policy makers or not, is wildly inaccurate concerning our committee. The primary reason that I wanted to help with this policy was to make sure that it reflected a nuanced and complex understanding of gender, rather than a biocentric binary model. The reason we left specifics about acceptable documentation vague was precisely to avoid the necessity of biocertification, which is why gender affirmation from an “academic” reference provider is an option. In fact, the only reason we included a “documentation” clause at all is to dissuade any obnoxious cis-dudes who might try to “game the system” by claiming to be trans* because they either think it will be easier to win bike races or want a way to make a public farce of the policy. Theoretically, someone who holds such beliefs would be made quite uncomfortable asking anyone for a form of gender documentation. As such, in the policy we attempt to create a balance that allows for as much flexibility as possible for trans* athletes to race in their desired gender category, while discouraging abuses from naysayers that would ultimately undermine the entire policy.

    What’s more, you even make a point of commenting on the “peculiar difference” between our policy and most others like it. But, again, rather than inquire about it, you seemingly make a snarky joke of it and blow it off. After you critique the policy for being something that it is not, you question our use of an “academic” reference as one of the forms of acceptable documentation to affirm an athlete’s gender. It is precisely this section of the policy that would ultimately unravel your critique if you took it seriously. Instead, you sarcastically assume that such a proposition couldn’t possibly be accounted for by the makers of the policy. (Sports policy-makers could never possibly know who Judith Butler is! Haha!) This also says something about exactly who you imagine college athletes and policy-makers to be, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

    Of your curiosity about our use of “academic,” you write:
    “To my knowledge, no other athletic gender policy allows for ‘academic’ documentation, and I can’t help but wonder what such documentation would look like: Would a note from Judith Butler suffice? Certainly, this unusual addition to a biocertification policy indicates that queer, trans*, and feminist scholars should not discount the relevance of our work to the everyday contestations of gender in sports and other sites of global exchange.”

    Yes, you’re correct. No other policy to my knowledge either has used “academic” documentation as an acceptable form of gender affirmation. And, YES! a note from Judith Butler (or, another professor, such as yourself!) would suffice. The entire reason we included “academic” documentation was to avoid the problems regarding the medicalization of gender and the reification of gender binary norms.

    But it seems you were expecting your proposal of Judith Butler as an official reference affirming someone’s gender to be too far-fetched for our apparently obtuse policy. This assumption seems to be based on the notion that it is simply impossible that scholars of gender and sexuality are also competitive athletes, and involved in creating sports policies that are more accommodating for the changing landscape of gender. Ultimately, this is what is most upsetting about your response to our carefully written policy. You repeatedly allude that the policy must have been written by people with little understanding of the complexity of gender, who are merely passively informed about gender by the ongoing rigorous work of gender scholars, when in fact some of the core policy makers here ARE scholars of gender. And, this policy represents some of our ongoing rigorous work to make sure that more complex and nuanced understandings of gender make their way into contexts where such understandings are often lacking. Why is that so inconceivable!?

    Again, it would have greatly helped if you had even tried to contact any one of us in the ECCC who worked on the policy; information that is easily accessible on ECCC’s webpage. Instead, you wrote what can only be understood as a lazy “critique” based on a fundamental misreading of our policy, which in fact accounts for ALL of your concerns. Is that too much to ask?

    Brandon Peter Masterman
    PhD Candidate
    Department of Performance Studies
    New York University

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