Tag Archives: athletics

Trans American Revolution

Laurie and Debbie say:

We were deeply struck by this interview with Keelin Godsey, Olympic contender (who didn’t quite make it) for the hammer throw event. It’s worth listening to the whole thing.

Godsey identifies and lives as a man, and competes as a woman, for reasons that he explains clearly in this amazingly open conversation with Ann Schatz.  The International Olympic Committee has had clear rules (the “Stockholm Consensus”) since the 2004 Summer Games. These rules are pretty stiff–to compete in the gender you were not biologically born into, you have to have had both top and bottom surgery and been on gender hormones for two years (if transitioning to male) and one year (if transitioning to female). The rules are also very gender essentialist, and don’t help in cases of indeterminate sexuality (such as Castor Semenya). At the same time, the very existence of clear rules for trans athletes was a major step towards legitimacy.

This year, Godsey was the first out American transperson ever to be a serious Olympic contender. As such, he was featured in a superb and sympathetic article in Sports Illustrated by Pablo S. Torre and David Epstein:

At 5’9″ and 186 pounds, Godsey is tautly muscular. He wears glasses and is dressed in black from his sneakers to his knit cap, which sheathes his blond, spiky hair. Over and over, from in front of a chain-link backstop, he grips the hammer’s handle and whirls in accelerating circles until it’s no longer clear whether he is spinning the ball or the ball is spinning him. His target distance, 226’4½”, is out on a gravel path beyond the frost-covered craters.

Godsey only learned the word transgender when he took a freshman seminar taught by Erica Rand, a women and gender studies professor at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Soon after, in another class, Godsey was shown a survey that had been administered by psychiatrists to judge gender identity. “In my head I was circling the answers,” he recalls. “I was like, Oh, crap.”

In the spring of 2005, shortly after shattering the Division III women’s championship hammer record (by throwing 195’4″), Godsey tackled his biggest challenge to date. After confiding in Rand, the then junior e-mailed Bates’s dean of students and athletic director to notify them of an impending change: Beginning with the fall semester, Kelly would permanently become Keelin and wished to be referred to as he.

Godsey still can’t remember what he said when he stepped in front of the bleachers that fall and informed his women’s track teammates of their captain’s new identity. … “It was a nerve-racking experience. I kind of blacked out.” All he knows is that the 30 or so girls around him were “pretty awesome” when they heard the news.

The article also includes a detailed survey of the history of trans athletes, from Renee Richards, who transitioned in the late 1970s, to a young soccer player, identified only as “Jazz,” who at eleven is living as female and fighting for her right to play competitive soccer in her chosen identity.

Looking at (and listening to) Godsey, we are struck by how difficult it is for him to choose between his deeply-felt identity as a championship track and field athlete–an identity which got him through years of bullying and harassment in high school and later–and his deeply felt identity as a man, which he believes is in some ways at odds with his athlete identification. He has consistently said that he would start medical transition after this year’s Olympic trials, whether he made the games or not. But now that he’s come so close, he’s not so sure. Transitioning will undoubtedly change his abilities. He’s in the uncomfortable (but familiar to many, and not only in sports) position of having to choose one “primary” identity over another. And he talks about it with remarkable candor.

In the article, we see something else. Sports Illustrated, the most mainstream of all sports journalism venues, has published a thoughtful, informed article about talented and likable trans athletes. This article says on every page, “These people deserve to be who they are.” That Torres and Epstein wrote the article is laudable, that SI published it marks an ongoing sea change in the world of sports.

Seeing this article called out on the cover of Sports Illustrated is both surprising and vindicating. The  article surveys close to a dozen sports figures, in different sports, in different roles in the sports world, from different generations. All of these people have made or are making their life in the world of sports, being public about their birth genders and their current genders. This kind of social change can only happen when advocates are working tirelessly behind the scenes for change; at the same time, it only happens when the world is ripe for the advocacy.

Olympic Committee: You Can’t Tell the Boys from the Girls

Laurie and Debbie say:

Violet Blue is disturbed, as are we, by the news that the Olympic Council of Asia will be conducting gender tests on women (but not men) in the competition. The criterion for being tested is “looking suspicious.” Blue says:

You know, because we’re sneaky like that. We could, like, totally kick your ass at the pole-vault competition with more experience than a girl should probably have with a pole in China, and no one likes that.

In this context, women are being singled out as “suspects,” “gender cheats,” “getting caught,” “being abnormal” and “failing” to be female, and judged by a parade of endocrinologists, gynecologists, a geneticist and a psychologist.

In the links embedded in her column, Blue provides a lot of history: The Olympics have been struggling with the question of “proving” gender since the 1960s, when Ewar Kobukkowska of Poland, who won a bronze medal for the 100-meter sprint and was a member of a 4-person gold-medal winning relay team, failed an early form chromosome test in 1967. Although she was later found to have a rare condition which had no effect on her athletic ability, she was barred from further Olympic and professional sports.

In 1996, when the tests were much more advanced, eight female athletes showed up as male on the tests but were “cleared” later. And just two years ago, Indian middle distance runner Santhi Soundarajan won the silver medal in the 800 meters track event at the Asian Games in Qatar, and later failed a gender test and lost her medal.

Because of these experiences, and many others,

The practice came under increasing criticism in the 1990s by doctors, scientists and athletes who argued that the tests were not just invasive, but were also bad science.

“It was an unethical, unscientific and discriminatory practice,” said Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission and one of the most outspoken critics of the testing.

In 1999, Ljungqvist helped abolish the blanket testing of women, but international competitions have continued to rely on sex-verification tests in isolated instances.

Blue also quotes John Fox, senior lecturer in obstetrics and gynecology at the Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, as stating in 1992, ‘Personal experience of several such athletes suggests that the psychological impact of failing the test, interpreted as implying they are male, is so damaging that they seek instant anonymity and disappear without trace.’ How many fall into this category? Well, the 1992 article suggested as many as 1 in 400 female athletes fail to pass the tests, and other sources are similar, putting the ‘fail’ rate at 1 in 500 or 1 in 600 athletes. That’s a lot of women being disqualified from competition because they are not ‘feminine’ enough by pseudo-scientific tests which 30-plus years of experience have shown don’t work.”

Blue is focusing on two things: one is the hypocritical Chinese attitude on sex (she doesn’t mention the hypocritical Western attitude on sex, however) and the other is the inequity of testing women to make sure they’re not men, while not testing men to make sure they’re not women. Both of these are valuable points.

Leaving aside the Chinese testing, don’t you think it’s fascinating that the International Olympic Committee, hardly a radical gender group, has decided that it’s impossible to prove someone’s gender? In a worldview that has been in place for centuries, if not millennia, sports are an area in which gender is of paramount importance, in which you are supposed to be able to say “The men’s record in this event is X seconds and the women’s record in this sport is Y seconds,” where Y is almost always smaller than X. A place where gender matters. Gender is a defining characteristic anywhere in the world: any hospital outside of a gender clinic, any school, any job, any landlord will need to know your gender right off the bat.

Nonetheless the best scientific minds in the sports world have thrown up their hands and said, “No. We don’t know. We can’t tell. And we can’t help but see the pain it causes people if we pretend we can tell.” China may be behind the times; the International Olympic Committee, on the other hand, may just be so far ahead of it’s time that people are just now beginning to notice.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for the pointer.