Tag Archives: gender

Olympics Gender Rules Reach New Lows

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Caster Semenya

Debbie says:

Laurie and I have written about Caster Semenya, Dutee Chand, and Olympics gender testing, viewing the whole crooked game through a sexist lens … and there’s no doubt that the gender rules have a nasty sexist streak. But I didn’t realize before this month how racist these rules are as well.

The International Association of  Athletics Federation (IAAF), the organization that oversees track and field rules, has released its new guidelines. A visitor from another planet might wonder about the new rules, which set a maximum testosterone level for female athletes … only in “international track events from 400m to one mile.”

Lindsay Gibbs, writing at Think Progress, breaks it down:

If that selection of factors seems curiously specific to you, your suspicion is justified. Caster Semenya — a South African Olympic champion runner who has been subjected to rigorous sex testing and unfathomable levels of scrutiny about her body during her nine years in the international spotlight — just happens to compete in the 800m and 1500m events.

Make no mistake about it: This is a racist, sexist rule implemented by rich, white men solely to control the bodies of women, primarily women of color from the global south with intersex traits. It’s a rule propped up by ersatz science and logic that don’t pass even the most basic of inspections, and while the rule appears custom-made to derail Semenya’s dominance, its existence will damage the bodily autonomy of many others.

The IAAF has some studies — financed by *drum roll* itself — which purport to support these rules. And of course, they claim that the purpose is “to be fair.” Read Gibbs’ article for the statistical flaws. And then notice, again, that the events targeted are ones where Semenya (who is from South Africa) and Dutee Chand (who is from India) are standout competitors. Pole vault and hammer throw showed the highest performance advantage for competitors with higher testosterone levels, and are not included in the new regulations: We note that when dark-skinned women from the global south are not key competitors, somehow the sports don’t seem to need the same protections.

Dutee Chand

Jeré Longman also wrote a somewhat less political piece about this issue for the New York Times.

Many factors affect performance, and the I.A.A.F. has struggled to show conclusively that elevated testosterone provided women with more of a significant competitive edge than factors like nutrition, age, height, weight, access to coaching and training facilities, and other genetic and biological variations like oxygen-carrying capacity.

In a follow-up article today, Gibbs chronicles how South African professor Steve Cornelius, an expert on sports law, has left the IAAF over these issues. Cornelius,  who had only held his post a short time, resigned in an open letter to the IAAF, which says in part:

Sadly, I cannot in good conscience continue to associate myself with an organization which insists on ostracizing certain individuals, all of them female, for no reason other than being what they were born to be. The adoption of the new eligibility regulations for female classification is based on the same kind of ideology that has led to some of the worst injustices and atrocities in the history of our planet.

Neither Semenya nor Chand–nor probably dozens of other affected athletes–ever had a reason to question their gender, or identify as anything other than simply female–until the predominantly white male IAAF decided to be the gender police. Of course, they are not ashamed of themselves … but they should be. Along with Steve Cornelius, Lindsay Gibbs, and a host of other justice-minded people, I’m ashamed of them.

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for the link to the New York Times article.

 

What’s In a Headline? That Which We Call a Scientist …

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Laurie and Debbie say:

We each separately saw obituaries for Ben Barres, who died of pancreatic cancer at the end of December.  Laurie saw one from the New York Times, with a headline describing him — accurately — as a “neuroscientist and equal opportunity advocate.” Debbie saw one from the Atlantic, with a headline describing him — accurately — as transgender.

We know that headlines are written by newspaper staffers, not reporters, and it is interesting that the Atlantic article doesn’t focus on his trans identity until several paragraphs down, while the Times article mentions it very early.

Barres himself was clearly a remarkable scientist:

While most of his fellow neuroscientists studied neurons, the branching cells that carry electrical signals through the brain, Barres focused his attention on another group of cells called glia. Even though they equal neurons in number, glia were long dismissed as the brain’s support crew—there simply to provide nutrients or structural scaffolding.* But Barres showed that glia are stars in their own right. They help neurons to mature, producing the connections that are the basis for learning and memory, and then pruning those connections so that the most useful ones remain.

In showing how important glia are, Barres revolutionized our understanding of the brain.

And he was a remarkable human being:

“I interviewed for grad school with Ben Barres and he stopped mid-interview to call another school and advocate on my behalf,” said Alycia Mosley Austin from the University of Rhode Island. As Kay Tye from MIT succinctly said: “Ben Barres was a role model for role models.”

Beyond direct mentorship, Barres repeatedly spoke up for groups who have been historically marginalized in the sciences, including women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ people. He would repeatedly talk about the biases and systemic barriers that keep such groups from succeeding in their careers, often raising the topic in the middle of keynote talks about glia. “Since I have you all trapped on the top of this mountain … I would like to talk about the many barriers women face in science,” he once told neuroscientists at a conference in Lake Arrowhead.

 

His role as an equal opportunity advocate was inextricably intertwined with his gender history.

An article he wrote for the journal Nature in 2006 titled “Does Gender Matter?” took on some prominent scholars who had argued that women were not advancing in the sciences because of innate differences in their aptitude.

“I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able,” he wrote. “Historically, claims that disadvantaged groups are innately inferior have been based on junk science and intolerance.”

The article cited studies documenting obstacles facing women, but it also drew on Dr. Barres’s personal experiences.

Of course, a cis male scientist can be a gender equity advocate, but no cis scientist can have the lived experience of someone who transitioned when they were already studying in their field, and saw the difference in how they were treated. Outside of neuroscience, Barres is perhaps best known for this quotation:

By far, the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I’m transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.

What’s important is remembering him in his fullness: for his science, for his directly trans related advocacy, and for his other advocacy, while knowing that his friends and colleagues also remember him for his food preferences, what he was like at the end of an all-nighter, and what jokes he preferred.

The two headlines open a complex conversation about how people are identified in the news. Barres was a groundbreaking scientist who did transformational work, and that’s what he should and will be remembered for. Because he was also out as a trans man, and called upon that experience in his advocacy, an obituary which didn’t mention that he was trans would be incomplete. And because he did such important scientific work, calling him a “transgender scientist” subordinates his work to his less central  gender history.

Because the two articles are in direct opposition to their two headlines, we get a chance to look at how much the headlines affect what else we read. If you put the Times headline on the Atlantic article,  his trans history would come as a surprise to the reader who read far enough. If you put the Atlantic headline on the Times article, you get a story that focuses on Barres as a trans man, more than his important work.

So, kudos to the Times for keeping trans out of the headlines, and also featuring it up front as part of Barres’ story.

And endless kudos to Barres, whose good work will continue to flourish both through the ways he transformed brain science, and through the students he mentored.