Gender and the Olympics
Many people struggle with the idea that gender and sex could have more than two categories, while some cultures have many ways to define who we are.
Over the years, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) has used a variety of techniques to verify gender. Evidently their first efforts were with visual inspections followed by more scientific and less invasive means such as chromosome tests. They abandoned the chromosome testing in the late 1990s due to its unreliability. Now their approach involves measuring testosterone, because they assume that the males will have more and the females less.
How do they define more and less? What amounts of testosterone will determine male or female? Good questions. The answers are not clear.
What to do with the XY females who have Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS)? They have plenty of testosterone but their female bodies do not make use of it.
It seems the Olympic Committee is measuring testosterone, then if there’s “too much,” assessing if AIS is part of the picture and, if so, giving the ok to compete as women.
I wrote this blog about intersex people when the Caster Semenya case emerged in 2009 – she has since been “cleared” to compete as a woman.
What, you may ask, is the importance of this for the rest of society?
There are parallels in many areas of life in which we assume that women are XX females and men are XY males.
Bathrooms and clothing departments are only two of the more mundane areas in which we think this is important.
More important for the big decisions in life are marriage laws. They are often defined by chromosomal pairings (XX, XY) or by sex (male, female) or by gender (women, men).
People’s lives are confounded when they don’t fit those expected categories. On the other hand, people’s lives may be enhanced when their situation gives them a work-around to the established laws.
For example, if Texas defines its marriage laws by chromosomes – an XX person must marry an XY person – then one could have a same sex couple marry if one is an XX female woman and the other is an XY female with AIS. The chromosomes match up with the law and even though same-sex marriages may not yet be legal in that state, that couple has a legal loophole that allows them to marry.
We live in a society that is rife with dichotomies. We have trouble understanding social phenomenon that involves something more complex than man/woman or boy/girl.
We grow up with very strong messages about how we are men or women, male or female, XX or XY, straight or gay, tall or short, fat or thin, young or old. Rarely do we fully allow ourselves to see (or accept) the other options that might be possible. We do not see the middle categories even if it might be normative or logical to do so.
One logical question is how do we draw the line between these two supposedly opposite categories?
For gender, the IOC is using hormone levels and a medical diagnosis to verify gender for competition. It is important to realize that they have said specifically that they are not defining gender identity, just gender for the purpose of athletic eligibility. Who we feel we are is an individual thing – who society thinks we are is a policy decision.