August 14, 2012

Gender and the Olympics

clip_image002By Sally Raskoff

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.

The 2012 Olympics gives us yet another example of the difficulties and diversity of how we categorize people. Olympic events are divided into two groups: those for men and those for women.File:Tower Bridge Olympics 2012.jpg

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.


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Enough is enough! Nothing can be simple anymore. No one is allowed to be themselves because society will not let them. I feel so sorry for the athletes battling chromosomal problems. It must be so difficult.

The definition of male and female have been put into nice round holes. So when you have a square peg you run into unbendable beliefs of others. Like physics has an equation for their way of thinking, you are differnet so you don't add up with us. We as a society must expand our way of thinking. A person is a person no matter what noun you use to describe them. They have the same rights as anyone, even of they choose to be different. That just makes them unique.

The more I think about this, the more mad I become. This is a perfect example of the Feminist Theory. Gender inequality has been and will continue to be a problem as long as situations like this are allowed to happen.

Gender and sex are things that we try to define societally while the science is pretty clear-cut. Societies for centuries have hated blurred lines when it comes to "man" or "woman." This is irritating at best.

For the IOC, wouldn't it be much better to just ask an athlete whether they are competing as a man or woman? Is there really any chance that an athlete would compete in the wrong division given the societal backlash that they would surely recieve?

One thing about society is it is made up of diversity. What one person may think right doesn't mean that it's right for everyone. one thing I've learned is it's impossible to please everybody. What may be good for one athletic competatior may be opposite for the other this causes conflict. All athletic competitions need to balance equality.

With every structure over time you are going to see faults that will need to be changed. The latent functions of this kind of chromosome testing seem to be out weighing the manifest functions. With the way that science is always evolving it may be time to look for other ways to classify genders. Society needs to open its eyes and realize that in some cases with gender it’s not always going to be cut and dry situations.

Gender and sexuality are a common aspect of life that as a society we see it as a challenge. But, as a society we need to realize that these are people that have just as many rights as any one else and that they should not be disregarded as anything but who they are as a person. Society today has become more aware of what is happening, but they still are having a problem with excepting the situation and embrace it because it is not going away.

There are a couple of transgender kids at my daughter's high school. I think it's great that they're comfortable enough to "come out" but it can be a bit confusing.

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