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While transgender people have always existed throughout the entire timeline of humanity, the societal acceptance of deviating from assigned genders continues to be a contested debate. Particularly in modern western cultures, gender and sex are largely synonymous. While cultures throughout history have recognized transgender people, explaining the identity as a third gender or a soul trapped in the wrong body, modern cultures fail to separate biological sex and societal gender. There is interconnectivity among the two, as gender is a socially constructed application of expectations given to different sexes, but a lack of acceptance and knowledge has led to discrimination and suffering for transgender people.
The discussion of trans rights is again reaching the forefront of societal discussion. As western cultures begin to grant basic human rights to people within the queer community, trans people have begun to push for visibility and rights, as well. The fight for transgender rights is an uphill fight, as trans people in recent years have been denied access to public restrooms matching identities, banned from military service, and denied posthumous respect. For example, Leelah Alcorn, a transwoman from Ohio, sparked national discussion after committing suicide due to forced conversion therapy. After her death, some news organizations referred to her as a boy, using her birth name (commonly referred to as a “dead name” for transgender people who undergo name changes) in media coverage. Her family continued the unjust treatment of the deceased by burying her as a boy, using her dead name on the tombstone (Mohney).
Transgender rights made headlines again as Caitlyn Jenner debuted her post-transition identity, which led to Jenner winning the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs, fueling debate on the definition of courage. Jenner’s victory also forced the transgender debate into the world of sports, where it had been maintaining a fairly low profile, only making headlines at lower levels wherein high school athletes were denied participation due to their gender identities. This sudden intersection of sports and transgender rights inspired a debate very few were ready or willing to have.
As previously stated, transgender identities are not new, but academic research on queer identities are, in general, lacking. Because of the recent renewal of queer acceptance in western societies, research on specific identities has increased tremendously. Homosexuality is no longer a taboo research topic, but other identities are still working to gain the interest of researchers. Transgender research exists almost exclusively in medical and psychological research.
The basis of transgender research lies in the sociological idea of gender as performance. Harold Garfinkel led this research, studying Agnes, a transwoman, to theorize gender as “doing” and as a “choreography of micro-interactions” (Papoulias). This theory further led sociologists to study and argue social enforcement of gender norms, which was used frequently by feminist theorists such as S.J. Kessler and W. McKenna (Papoulias). Other theorists have continued this view of gender, distinguishing between performative gender and the sexed body, helping to draw lines between gender performativity in crossdressers and drag performers, who often identify with their assigned gender when out of costume, and transgender people, who exist entirely within their performed gender (Papoulias).
Beyond western cultures, anthropological studies of transgender people have been plentiful. The best-studied examples, as noted by Papoulias, “are the berdache (or two-spirit people) in Native American cultures, the hijra in India, the kathoe in Thailand, the xanith of Oman, and the mahu in the Pacific islands” (Papoulias).
Although queer theorists credit themselves with the initiation of transgender activism and research, recent activists and academics are beginning to distance themselves from the previously stressed roles of gender performativity and gender deconstruction. Activists and academics like Jay Prosser argue that trivializing gender undermines the strength of transgender people’s true gender identity (Prosser).
For transgender individuals, the pressure to conform to cisnormative gender identities throughout life is substantial and harmful, as found by Levitt and Ippolito. Both distal and proximal factors, such as media and family members, provide unrelenting pressures towards conformity. Beyond simple pressures of conformity, transgender people have been more prone to verbal and physical threats and violence than cisgender people. Daily fears of many transgender people include violence and curiosity – Levitt and Ippolito found that transgender people are often treated as an object to be examined rather than as a human being. Because of the lack of mainstream information regarding transgender identities, transgender youth often have to fight external and internal factors to reach peace, but have to do so without knowing that there is terminology to describe their experiences (Levitt and Ippolito).
Transgender politics in sports is even less studied and discussed than the spectrum of identities, itself. From 1968 to 2000, women competing in the Olympics were forced to undergo “sex testing.” The introduction of Title IX in 1972 opened doors to women athletes, but with no mention of what defines a woman. The 1990s saw the development of the Gay Games’s policy of transgender and intersex inclusion. In 2004, the International Olympic Committee introduced the Stockholm Consensus, which allowed “transsexual” athletes to participate, assuming the athlete had undergone gender reassignment surgery. While these advances seem to indicate positive changes towards transgender inclusivity, the overall world of sports remains glued to its gender normative binary (Sykes).
Very few examples of transgender athletes in top tier sporting levels have ever reached mass audiences – Sykes notes male to female athletes, such as tennis player Reneé Richards, golfer Mianne Baggar, cyclist Michele Dumaresq, and kick boxer Parinya, all of whom competed at elite levels of women’s sport. Sykes is unable to name any female to male athletes who have successfully competed at elite levels of men’s sports. For the success of the women previously mentioned, other women were denied access to women’s sports. Richards’s successful case against US Tennis was followed by discriminatory rules in other leagues, including the United States Golf Administration creation of a rule allowing only women who were assigned female at birth to compete, effectively destroying Charlotte Ann Woods’s increasing success (Sykes).
As the discussion of transgender rights in sports began gaining traction, organized sports began to panic. This is largely due to the threat of overthrowing the imagined bodies fantasized about within the context of professional athletes (Sykes). Sports have constantly tried to be exempt from transgender rights laws. In the United Kingdom, a case was brought against the country for violating an international law. The government responded with the Gender Recognition Act of 2004, designed to protect the civil rights of transgender individuals. UK Sport requested exemption from the act, and the exemption was granted (Sykes). Sport is exempt from civil rights laws in Australia, as well.
A key problem for transgender athletes is the difficulty of fitting into the two main categories of sports competition. Although transmen are men and transwomen are women, people often see transmen as transmen and transwomen as transwomen instead. This introduces what Hargie, Mitchell, and Somerville call “the changing room problem.” Discomfort with shared changing rooms and other facilities creates the largest barrier to entry for transgender people trying to become involved in sport. Because many transgender people are not out until after adolescence, transgender athletes often have no socialization experience in locker rooms matching their gender identity. There’s an equal level of discomfort in entering the locker room matching their assigned gender at birth because it is not a space for people of their gender. Locker rooms also create a fear of intruding on the safe space of others, according to findings by Hargie, Mitchell, and Somerville. Locker rooms and bathrooms are a public space of gender validation, which is understandably terrifying for transgender youth and transgender athletes.
One of the main arguments against transgender athletes being allowed to compete is the fear of an unfair advantage for male to female athletes. This argument stresses previous muscle development, high testosterone levels, greater muscle to fat ratios, greater heart and lung capacities, and a tendency to greater aptitude in motor skills (Sykes). Although this may be true for athletes before transition, it assumes that all males are inherently greater athletes than all females and that males will change gender to succeed where they may not have been able to in men’s sport. Reneé Richards was only allowed to compete in the U.S. Women’s Open Tennis Tournament because her testes had been removed and her body was physically “weakened” by the resulting loss of testosterone (Westbrook and Schilt). The Stockholm Consensus was passed to allow transsexual people to compete if they had undergone surgery to “minimize gender related advantages” (Westbrook and Schilt). These transphobic regulations ignore scientific facts – transwomen who have undergone hormone replacement therapy, with or without gender reassignment surgery, have testosterone levels and body fat ratios similar to those of ciswomen (Sykes).
As previously discussed, transgender athletes are not represented in sports media due to a lack of allowance of transgender athletes in competitive sports. Chris Mosier, an American triathlete, became the first known out transgender athlete to join a US national team different from his gender assigned at birth in 2016 when he competed on the Team USA sprint duathlon men’s team (Kellaway). Schuyler Bailar is the first transman to compete in NCAA Division I sports, and the first openly transgender NCAA Division I swimmer (Freed and Meagher). Harrison Brown, a transman, plays professional hockey for the Metropolitan Riveters in the National Women’s Hockey League (Steele). None of these athletes received any expansive media coverage.
The exception to the media silence is Caitlyn Jenner. Due to her success as a former Olympian and her current stardom as a Kardashian family member, her transition was forcibly public. Columnists and media outlets downplayed the intense emotional strength required for any queer person revealing their identity, and critics argued that she did not deserve the Courage Award at the ESPYs. Bob Costas famously called the award an exploitative tabloid play. Others argued that Jenner only won due to an alleged deal between the network and Jenner for the exclusive first interview post-transition, which Jenner granted to ABC’s Diane Sawyer (Braxton). Others in the media continued transphobic dialogue surrounding her award. Radio host Frank Deford continuously called Caitlyn by her dead name, using the wrong pronouns, and claiming that being transgender is something that Jenner “wanted” (Braxton). Jenner, in her incredibly difficult transition period, seemed to only gain criticism from mass media, with only queer-focused outlets providing any praise.
The response to Caitlyn Jenner’s Courage Award provides a heartbreaking view of how sports fans view transgender people. The negative media portrayal of Jenner was intensely magnified in the tweets posted the night of the ESPYs. Fans asked “What is this world coming to?”, accused ESPN of only caring about ratings, and even joked that Jenner should thank Ray J for the award, because of the connection to the Kardashian family (FoxSports). Sports fans still call Jenner by her dead name and refer to her as a man.
The transphobia shown by sports fans reveals a heartbreaking and scary truth about society’s acceptance of transgender people – we are not accepted in society. While this is well known, the increased number of media outlets and steadily increasing prominence of transgender celebrities create a greater space for hatred to reach transgender people.
Although I present largely feminine, I do identify as genderqueer, which places me on the transgender spectrum of identities. Because of this and my love of sports, the issues of transgender individuals in sports and acceptance among sports fans are very dear to me. I cannot view any queer issue as a political, social, or biological issue – queer issues are all personal. I fully support transgender athletes competing with their gender. Luckily, my personal life and personal stances are supported by facts. Transgender people are not inherently advantaged nor disadvantaged in sports. Transgender do not cause any reason for panic in public restrooms or locker rooms. Every argument against treating transgender people with basic human respect is founded on ignorance, fear, and hatred.
Transgender people deserve to compete in athletic competitions at every level, and should not be subjected to invasive gender checks like in our very recent history. Transgender people deserve to be treated with respect and should have access to the same opportunities as cisgender people. The ever present fear of change will likely fade, although it will likely fade very slowly. Before transgender people are treated with human decency, the rest of the queer community will likely have to finish their fights before transgender people can expect those in power to restore human rights to everyone.
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