An Uneven Playing Field for LGBTQ+ Athletes
By Harrison Brown '20 and Amy Gastright '21
Controversial 2018/2019 Issue
The Greeks competed in the first Olympic games centuries before us. Today, we religiously root for our favorite sports teams. It makes sense that we would feel strongly about competing on an even playing field. We feel attacked by cheaters, and create rigid rules to keep the games fair.
While society works tirelessly to eliminate potential competitive advantages, according to Coach Koroma, athletic director for girls at SSSAS, there will always be an uneven playing field. In an interview, she said “there are certain socioeconomic statuses or racial groups that are going to be more likely to be successful based on their biology and based on their makeup than others. I think if we start nit-picking all of those pieces, [that’s] not fair to the individual. There's never going to be a way to necessarily equalize that playing field.” Athletes have used access to technology and private coaching to their advantage for years. For example, speed
suits in swimming can cost over $400, and the best racing bikes can cost well over $10,000. Not everyone can afford these luxuries, so regardless of what people say, “competitive edges” will always threaten the equality of competition level in sports. While differences in socio-economic status certainly represent one of these athletic advantages, one of the biggest disparities in competition levels throughout athletics is between male and female sports. According to a 2012 article by The Atlantic, female world records in swimming and track are generally about 10% slower than male world records.
In recent years, many athletes at all levels, whether professional, collegiate, or high school, have come out as transgender, intersex, or otherwise LGBTQ+. On one hand, many believe that a person should be allowed to compete under whichever gender they identify as. On the other hand, others believe that athletes who do not fit into typical psychological or biological gender boundaries may have an athletic advantage, and therefore should compete under a gender that may vary from their identity.
Intersexuality is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the condition of either having both male and
female gonadal tissue in one individual or of having the gonads of one sex and external genitalia that is of the other sex or is ambiguous.” Transexuality, however, is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a person whose gender identity is opposite the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” It is important to mention that directly below the definition, there is a note that states “transsexual people may or may not undergo surgery and hormone therapy to obtain a physical
appearance typical of the gender they identify as.” In other words, there are hormones, such as testosterone or estrogen, that transexual people can take to further align themselves with the internal hormones and bodily functions as their gender identity; however, their gender identity is not affected by their choice of whether or not to take these drugs.
The big question is: Which gender should a transgender or intersex athlete be allowed to
At the high-school level, some problems surrounding transgender student-athletes are logistical. While schools are usually accommodating and allow them to play on teams that agree with their gender identity, coaches have to arrange a separate bathroom for those students who may have specific traits of the opposite gender.
While St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School has no transgender athletes at the moment, our school community has made a commitment to accommodate future transgender student-athletes as best as we can. Dean McGuire and Mrs. Bays, the health and human sexuality teacher at SSSAS, spoke about how the school would handle that situation.
“Our policies are that we support students in how they identify and support transgender and gender non-conforming students. That said, we do not have specific policies and procedures in place because I think that the systems haven't been tested here,” Dean McGuire said. “I think policies should be in place before a student needs to advocate for them whenever possible in order to create the most supportive and inclusive community. We recently made single, private bathrooms, an easy enough fix, which is helpful to anyone who wants a private space. There are more things we have to do to align our locker room, for example, with our supportive intent. We are moving towards a gender-neutral dress code, and I see other ways that we think about creating the most inclusive space possible in the future.”
Mrs. Bays believes that most schools are waiting for something to happen rather than being ready when it does. She said that “Schools have independent policies and often make changes as requested by students and their families. We are fortunate to have the Episcopal Diocese support a more proactive approach to inclusion. I'm thrilled to have Dean McGuire as an advocate and excited to have gender non-specific bathrooms for students."
Despite the fact that a transgender athlete coming to the school would mean that the administration may need to provide private or unisex locker rooms, Dean McGuire and Mrs. Bays agree that a transgender athlete would not be treated differently from other athletes.
In an interview with Dean McGuire, she said, “This isn’t threatening. People who view it as a threat aren’t looking at the humanity piece of it.
What is threatening about allowing a person to simply be who they are?
What would be threatening is denying a transgender or gender non-conforming student any of the rights and privileges cisgender
Becca Mui, who works at nonprofit organization Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), works to support LGBTQ+ high school students and wrote to The Voice about her research. According to Mui, about 25% of LGBTQ+ students avoid sports teams, and over 40% avoid locker rooms because they feel uncomfortable, out of place, or unsafe. In fact, Mui wrote “LGBTQ students often get the message that they’re not welcome in sports, whether it’s structural such as the binary nature of “boys” and “girls” teams, the policing of gender based on stereotypes, bullying and harassment from peers, or from unsupportive or uneducated PE teachers and coaches.
More than 1 in 10 students (11.3%) reported that school staff or coaches had prevented or discouraged them from playing sports because they were LGBTQ, according to GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey.”
There are things high school teachers and administrators can do to combat the fears of LGBTQ+ students. Coach Koroma says that she has “done a lot of reading and attended a lot of workshops meeting with various individuals across the nation who work with transgender student athletes.”
In addition, according to Mui, GLSEN “[offers] professional development trainings for PE teachers and Athletic Directors/Coaches across the country. [They] also offer a number of videos and resources for LGBTQ-inclusive PE and athletics through [their] Changing the Game Program at www.glsen.org/sports. Finally, [they] encourage schools to utilize [their] resource, “Trans Inclusion In High School Athletics” to ensure they have the policies and procedures to support all of their athletes.”
At the professional athlete level, there are many examples of people who have broken through the gender barrier, and found the freedom to compete under the gender they identify as. Many others, however, have been subjected to persecution because of their identities.
At 18 years old, Caster Semenya of South Africa won the 800-meter dash by over two seconds at the 2009 World Championship. According to a 2016 segment by “All Things Considered” on NPR, her competitors found her incredible performance a little too impressive.
Hazel Clark, who missed the championship by one spot, remembers thinking “something’s not right with her.” In addition, after the race, many competitors openly complained that competing against Semenya was not fair. Why? Caster Semenya has several masculine characteristics that, according to her competitors, may have put her at an advantage. For example, she has broad shoulders, narrow hips, and an Adam’s apple. Semenya’s masculine appearance caused one Italian competitor, Elisa Cusma Piccione to say that she is a man.
Shortly after her victory at the World Championship, Caster Semenya submitted to an “invasive” sex-test. The results were two-fold. First, it was discovered that Semenya has a naturally higher level of testosterone than the average woman, about three times as much. This condition of having excessive levels of male hormones such as testosterone in the female body is known as hyperandrogenism. Second, the controversy surrounding Semenya’s ability to race as a female sparked an awareness of transexual, intersex, and hyperandrogenic athletes at all levels of competition. Semenya’s denigrators fear that her gender-defying condition provides her with an unfair advantage over her competitors and
is the reason why she is so successful.
This apprehension is not unfounded. According to a 2016 article by USA Today, in accordance with the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF’s, hormone regulating rules, Semenya began taking hormone altering drugs around 2010. From 2011 to 2015, her performance level slumped. In 2014, Semenya’s best time was 2:02.66 in the 800-meter dash, seven seconds slower than her personal best. It’s impossible to say whether this was evidence that her natural testosterone levels being reduced to accepted female boundaries affected her performance or or that she fell into a typical athletic slump.
A few additional examples of transgender athletes include transgender boy high school wrestling champion Mack Beggs, who must wrestle with girls to comply with Texas state wrestling rules, and triathlete Chris Mosier, who qualified for the 2016 Team USA roster at the sprint duathlon national championship and became the first out transgender man to make a U.S. National Team. With the help of hormone therapy, Mosier’s testosterone levels lay within the accepted male boundaries.
People have worried about athletes using gender advantages for decades. According to a 2012 article by Alice Park at Time Magazine, to prevent male athletes from competing as women, the International Olympic Committee forced women to walk nude in front of approved physicians to prove they possessed the appropriate genitalia during the 1960s. This policy was changed beginning in 1967 when intersex and hyperandrogenic athletes were not identifiable by this early sex verification test.
In just 2014, Indian track athlete Dutee Chand was asked to visit an approved physician prior to her first international appearance at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The physician drew blood, subjected her to an ultrasound, conducted a urine test, and, according to Chand’s 2016 interview with the New York Times, did a “mortifying” gynecological exam. The physician assured her that it was all standard practice. What she didn’t know, though, was that these tests were only standard practice for female athletes with extremely defined muscles, and seemingly inhuman stride length, like Chand. She didn’t know that the results of the tests would be examined for excesses in testosterone. She also didn’t know that the results of her test, which showed that her level of testosterone was well above standard levels for a woman, would prevent her from competing for years to come.
The worry that intersex and transgender women will use their biological makeup as an advantage is the most common reason to not want them to compete. Coach Koroma said that her opinion about whether transgender people should be allowed to compete as their gender identity “differs based on the level sport at which someone is competing. When they get to a point of them being in college or potentially competing at the professional level, there probably are additional steps that have to be put in place so that you don't have people that are then trying to manipulate the system, you know, for the purpose of gaining financial gain or for the purpose of any type of notoriety.”
According to an October 2018 op-ed article by the Washington Examiner, “the most amazing show of patriarchal domination is when a male pretends to be a female and bests actual biological women at their own sport.” In other words, the author fears that allowing transgender women to compete may end up pushing biological women out of the top of women’s sports. On the other side, forcing transgender and intersex athletes to take hormones should not be allowed because it is an invasion of free will and privacy.
Right now, most places accept athletes of all identities at the amateur level but ask that they agree with typical gender limitations as professionals. According to the IAAF’s new international gender policy, which was officially announced in April of 2018, professional athletes are expected to be legally recognized and biologically aligned with the gender under which they compete. While these new regulations may sound limiting, they actually open the doors to transgender or intersex athletes.
Here at SSSAS, Coach Koroma agrees that there is certainly a controversy surrounding transgender and intersex athletes. That being said, she believes that, especially at the high school level, everyone should be able to compete.
“I'm a pretty firm believer that, at the high-school level, our primary concern should be focused on supporting the individuals that want to compete in a manner that's consistent with their gender [identity],”
she said. “You're dealing with people who are not fully adults yet. In terms of what decisions they might make for their future, whether or not they eventually take hormones or do something in terms of reassigning a sex or having some type of surgery, those things can't happen until they’re legal adults and it's not recommended from a health perspective.”
Athletes in the SSSAS community, no matter what gender they identify as, are free to compete on teams that agree with their identity. They will be accommodated to the best of the school’s ability, and we will continue to strive for equality and fairness in the sports that we love.