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Gender in Sports Needs to be Redefined

Mokgadi Caster Semenya is a name we probably all know after a fiery scandal divided the internet, scientists, and even sports regulators. Semenya is a South African track athlete who had already been repeatedly crucified in the media for her alleged intersex characteristics. Recently the issue surfaced again and she was barred from running in most events 800 meters and below. For the time being, it looks as though the International Association of Athletics Federations (the regulatory body for the Olympics and other major events) will stand by their ruling regarding acceptable testosterone levels in women who race.

Under the new IAAF policy, track athletes who happen to be women “will have to reduce their testosterone to below five nmol/L [nanomoles per liter] for at least six months if they want to compete internationally all distances from 400m to a mile,” the Guardian reports. For context, the average testosterone level in biological females is about 2.4 nanomoles per liter. While this seems reasonable, it’s anything but when you stop to consider the deeper meaning of policing testosterone, one of the two main “sex hormones.”

Testosterone is a hormone produced mainly by the testes in biological males. It can also be produced by the adrenal glands and is, in fact, also produced by the ovaries. While thought of as the “male hormone,” testosterone is naturally present in biological males and females and plays an important role in the regulation of bone density and muscle mass. There is a wide range of variation in testosterone levels among healthy biological males, with some men having almost 5 times as much as others. While adding testosterone artificially is considered illegal performance enhancement in most sports, testosterone levels are not regulated in men’s athletic programs. There is no IAAF minimum or maximum testosterone level for male runners, raising concerns that the policing of female testosterone levels could be sexist or transphobic.

According to the IAAF, the new regulations apply to any runner in the women’s category who have “Differences of Sex Development,” including:

  • “male chromosomes (XY) not female chromosomes (XX)”
  • “testes not ovaries”
  • “circulating testosterone in the male range not the (much lower) female range”
  • and “the ability to make use of that testosterone circulating within their bodies by having functional androgen receptors.”

The IAAF further states that “it is important to recognise that for an adolescent raised as female and experiencing a masculinising puberty, according to international guidelines for DSD, an extensive investigation should be carried out by a cross-professional team to reach a diagnosis, and to clarify the individual’s gender identity.” Now, according to Human Rights Campaign, gender identity is defined as “one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves.”

Caster Semenya running with others in a 2017 championship
Caster Semenya competes in the 2017 World Athletics Championships, via ESPN

Gender identity is a very personal and very individual issue. It is not necessarily based on muscle mass, bone density, chromosomes, sex organs, testosterone levels or any other factors that make a functional difference in the case of sports. Athletes who identify as female may have testosterone in the general male range, female range, or anywhere in between. Forcing female athletes who may be comfortable with their testosterone levels to lower them is a dubious choice.

However, the IAAF is well within their rights as sports arbitrators to make a certain testosterone maximum a requirement for participation in specific sports or events. “In any case, it is the athlete’s right to decide (in consultation with their medical team) whether or not to proceed with any assessment and/or treatment. If she decides not to do so, she will not be entitled to compete in the female classification of any Restricted Event at an International Competition,” the rules state.

The fact that the International Association of Athletics Federations has made this decision is not surprising, as it fits with past regulations and is intended as a temporary solution until more studies can be completed. However, it’s very concerning that they have also taken it upon themselves to police the gender identity of female-identifying runners. The idea that it takes a “cross-professional team” to validate (or deny) the gender of a person is unabashed discrimination, and the fact that only runners in the women’s category are being regulated makes it even more so.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport, the part of the IAAF that evaluates new rules, does not deny that the new rules are discriminatory. Instead, they wrote in a statement on the new regulations that “on the basis of the evidence submitted by the parties, such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the legitimate objective of ensuring fair competition in female athletics in certain events.”

In the past, athletes like Michael Phelps have been found to have genetic anomalies that helped them do better in their sports. These anomalies were not “exposed” or “revealed” to the public, but instead celebrated as examples of how amazing the athletes were. The fact that Caster Semenya is the one being hit with discriminatory rules hints at not only potential racism but also latent sexism and transphobia in the field of athletics. While the IAAF maintains that the new regulations are not directed at a specific athlete, there is no denying that they are directed specifically at females who have “Differences of Sex Development.”

That being the case, there are several other less discriminatory options that could be pursued by the IAAF if they have a desire to change the new discriminatory rule. These include:

  • Abolishing “male” and “female” race categories and instead having two or more groupings based on testosterone level instead of gender
  • Setting acceptable testosterone ranges for both male- and female-identifying athletes and requiring that all athletes stay in those respective ranges in order to participate, through either receiving testosterone shots to raise levels or through treatment to lower them
  • Recognizing that women and men are not defined by testosterone levels and allowing anyone to participate in a way that aligns with their gender identity

The IAAF, and athletics as a whole seems to be very behind when it comes to the definition of gender in the modern day, and their lack of education has led to intense transphobia and hate from people who really don’t know what they’re talking about. In order to be more aware than most, just remember this: Mokgadi Caster Semenya is a woman, gender is not determined by testosterone levels, and the most important thing is what you identify yourself as personally. Discriminatory rules will never be justified.

Featured Image: Toronto Star

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