The Gender Policing Of Women Athletes Is A Violation Of Human Rights

By Katie Matlack

Caster Semenya: Wikimedia Commons

I’m not a die-hard runner like I used to be. Still, the website LetsRun.com, and the community it creates, have been responsible for immeasurable joy in my life. LetsRun has been called “perhaps the most engaged online community of runners — particularly those at the front of the pack.” The site’s front page, a compilation of news on runners ranging from obscure eccentrics to world champs, pushes me to seek out other runners, who in turn have provided me with invaluable support.

But LetsRun has a shadow side: Its message boards are running’s equivalent of 4Chan — and sometimes, trolls make it all the way through to the news section. That’s what happened one day about a month ago, when the editors featured a “quote of the day” that I found indescribably unfair: “Untreated hyperandrogenism and transgenderism threatens the very existence of women’s sports.”

LetsRun’s selection of the quote resurrects a longstanding, contentious, and deeply problematic debate — the one over whether women with naturally high testosterone levels — like Olympians Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter, and Caster Semenya, a South African 800-meter runner — may have an unfair competitive advantage.

At the heart of this debate is the way the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and federations like the International Association of Athletics Federations, which governs track and field, were using hormone levels as a way to keep some women out of sports, by establishing an upper limit on how much testosterone a female athlete could have.

But last year, the highest court of sport in the world — the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) — heard a case that challenged these rules, and ultimately determined that the science didn’t back them up. The rules were suspended, leaving track and field’s governing body with two years to appeal by presenting more evidence; if they don’t provide any evidence, “hyperandrogenism regulation” will be suspended forever.

I myself have read the internet enough to become pretty outrage-immune. But reading the offensive statement LetsRun editors deemed worth highlighting was different. It was personal. Before I knew it, I was typing an email to the editor. I was very upset — but I didn’t know exactly why, until I re-read my own words.

“I have high [Testosterone],” I had written. “Am I the end of women’s sport?”

My own biological difference almost made me stop running. I led my high school cross-country team to league and county championships, after which I was recruited as a Division 1 athlete at Yale, where I captained the women’s cross-country team.

In high school, the respect and friendship of teammates who looked up to me was what I looked forward to each day. But there was a secret, something that constantly made me feel inferior and ashamed: My body never kicked into puberty. Most likely because of a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, I never started my period — and I delayed joining the track team until my sophomore year of high school in the hopes that it would appear. Taking hormonal birth control induces my body to menstruate; it does not ovulate.

PCOS is thought to occur in 5 to 10% percent of women. It is sometimes associated with differences in what are known as secondary sex characteristics, including more body and facial hair, a stronger build, and elevated testosterone levels. I’ve tested on the high-end of the range for testosterone.

For a long time, as a result of this condition, I hated my body. I felt defined by what it didn’t do; because my body never “officially” crossed the threshold into womanhood, I believed I was inferior. Without experiencing the most distinguishing event of a girl’s adolescence, I hadn’t punched my ticket to the party. This debilitating shame might seem unfounded — until you consider that research finds that sports media, by and large, treats girl and women athletes first and foremost as sexual beings.

In spite of this difference, though, being accepted wholeheartedly by the running community made me feel like at least somewhere, I belonged. No matter how it was different, my body could run.

The fact that LetsRun, like many other outlets, has used its platform to center someone who calls a certain kind of woman a threat to the very existence of female sports is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the site’s gender policing problems, which have kicked into overdrive as Semenya’s 800-meter times have gotten faster and an Olympic win seems more certain. In the meantime, for comparison, the site is fawning over Semenya’s comparably dominant male counterpart, Usain Bolt.

On LetsRun news items even tangentially related to Semenya this week, editorializing has been unabashedly oppositional; for instance, editors celebrated that Semenya had pulled out of the 400-meter run, which she had also qualified for, in order to focus on her signature event, noting that it would be one less race in Rio that would be “a complete farce.” Other sites have hinted as much as well, calling Semenya a “ticking time bomb.” (Funny, but the press never calls for Michael Phelps and his femur-sized feet to concede or do anything other than test his God-given body to its limit.)

And on any LetsRun thread on the women’s 800-meter run or Semenya, it’s certain that post after post will crop up to assault the very essence of the athlete’s identity — either using “he” or “it,” declaring Caster is a man in hiding, speculating graphically about her private details, or all three. Women who defend Semenya are also seen as fair game to target with personal attacks and gender policing on the site: You can’t even be an ally. When Stanford bioethicist Katrina Karkazis wrote an article defending Semenya last month, she was immediately mocked for her appearance, called “he” and “it” in a thread, and asked to provide a picture of her genitals.

But the problem is so much bigger than LetsRun. Stories — usually by white male journalists — in outlets including NBC Sports, USA Today, The Guardian, Deadspin, The Daily Mail, and The New American have been reporting on the story in ways that do violence to Semenya and Chand. Their most egregious journalistic flaws: All these pieces tend to suggest the definitive CAS ruling — which took into consideration the very best evidence in favor of hormone limits that proponents could muster — somehow was in error.

Furthermore, these pieces seek out as experts people who were on the losing side of the case — and do so even if the experts in question haven’t published a peer-reviewed article in years, and engage in speculation about athletes that any self-respecting health practitioner would recognize are a gross violation of their dignity. Meanwhile, experts who have authored relevant peer-reviewed academic publications are either left out of the conversation, or treated as if they hold dissenting opinions. This includes Karkazis, Peter Sonksen, and some of the many academic signatories of an open letter from 2014 that was used in testimony at CAS, and which was signed by over 50 people “including Olympians, elite athletes, human rights advocates, intersex representatives, women’s sports foundation executives, medical geneticists, clinical endocrinologists, bioethicists, sports medicine experts, and social scientists dedicated to fairness and social justice.”

These gender-policing stories make women bearing the brunt of the fear-mongering feel persecuted for pursuing their beloved sport. And this has a costly human toll that no one should ever be made to suffer in the name of sports (which, remember, are completely made up).

Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who has hyperandrogenism, was the one who brought the suit to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Her suit was prompted by an incident when, under the old rules, she was secretly gender tested, with her results leaked to the media. Chand described the experience in a recent New York Times article:

“Some in the news were saying I was a boy, and some said that maybe I was a transsexual. I felt naked. I am a human being, but I felt I was an animal. I wondered how I would live with so much humiliation.”

Semenya was similarly affected when the results of a secret so-called gender test leaked to the press on the eve of her championship at the 2009 African Junior Championships. Rather than celebrating her title, as a result of the leak, she went into hiding from press and social media went blood-wild with speculation. Though she was cleared in 2010, she later wrote of the experience: “I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.”

Saying women with strong or uncommon bodies are “the end of sport” also creates a significant threat to the morality of sports, and to human rights. Worse still, it can have deadly consequences. When I reminded the LetsRun editor of this fact in emails and in a phone call, he called my assertion — that dehumanizing rhetoric foments real-life violence — “absurd.” In doing so, he chose to ignore the many widely reported — even on his own website — cases where athletes attempt suicide after failed gender tests and the invasive speculation and harassment that followed leaks of the test results.

The consequences of stoking fear about Semenya and Chand also extend beyond the competitive sports arena. On dark streets, where the Olympic spotlight doesn’t shine, ordinary women live in bodies that challenge ideas about what a woman should and shouldn’t be. And some people lack the education and sense of humanity to question fear-mongering rhetoric. Some will commit acts of harassment, discrimination, extreme violence, and even murder against these women. An epidemic of anti-LGBTQ violence sweeps Brazil today, claiming bodies of those who don’t conform. Last year was momentous for trans visibility, but also — probably not coincidentally — deadly, with 23 transgender women killed in acts of extreme violence in the U.S. alone.

Fortunately, not everyone is supporting the demonization of female athletes like Chand and Semenya, and some are pushing back against this dangerous rhetoric. Even longtime advisors to the IOC — who didn’t dare speak out during the CAS trial last year — are now raising their voices.

Myron Genel, MD, and Joe Leigh Simpson, MD, who served as expert consultants to the Medical and Scientific Commission of the IOC, took the extraordinary step of publishing a piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association in early August that reiterated their recommendation, writing also that:

“[M]uch more must be done to adequately inform all stakeholders — participating athletes, sports officials, team physicians, the media, fans, and the public at large — regarding the complexity and fluidity of factors that contribute to competitive success as well as to sex or gender identity.”

People who intimately know the issues of morality, ethics, sport, and culture that are at stake with how we treat trans women, gender nonconforming women, and women with hyperandrogenism are also coming forward. Madeleine Pape, an Australian sociologist who raced Semenya in 2009 and testified at the CAS case in favor of allowing women with hyperandrogenism to compete, yesterday called out underlying factors likely explaining why gender policing in sports media has reached fever pitch with Semenya, and not Chand. As she wrote:

“Semenya is a black, queer, tomboy from South Africa, making her a marginal character in a sport that is predominantly straight, historically dominated by white Europeans, organised around strict gender segregation and objectification of women’s bodies, and where women are often fairly feminine in their self-presentation […] The celebration of female athletes comes with conditions, with which Semenya did not comply. Said the athletics tribe to their women, thou shalt be a fair champion, and here ‘fairness’ has a double meaning: do not cheat, and be sufficiently feminine. Black feminist thinkers have long reminded us that perceptions of femininity are not colourblind. Add to the colour of Semenya’s skin her queerness, her gender non-conformity, her athletic abilities, her African-ness, and many people can no longer see or accept Caster for the woman that she is.”

Janice Forsyth, former Director for the Center for Olympic Studies and editor of the academic journal Olimpika, brought more context in, chronicling the way “the International Olympic Committee, […] along with international sports federations, [has] a long history of using ‘science’ to monitor and control female bodies” in an article that began righteously: “Paternalism has always leaned heavily on its companion, pseudo-science, to preserve existing systems of privilege and power.”

And Karkazis, who is published in Science, BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal), and the American Journal of Bioethics, and who helped coordinate Chand’s successful appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, wrote a post on Medium in late July that decried the media’s continued violence toward Chand and Semenya, highlighting its consequences and the dire need for the media to develop a conscience moving forward:

“Even now, six years on, as she prepares for Rio, nearly every report on Semenya’s race times doggedly refers to […] questions about her gender […] Stories like these are harmful. They continue the cruel and humiliating media speculation she has endured and reignite the fires of speculation and gossip. They need to stop […]
“Chand and Semenya have won the right to compete in Rio on the track, after years of dedication and hard work, like everyone else. They have the support of the highest court in world sport. They’ve overcome prejudice with courage and determination. And they deserve our admiration and respect. Not only for their courage, but also for their exceptional athletic talent. […] Calling into question an athlete’s sense of self, their very identity, after they have said, explicitly, as both did, “This hurts and harms me,” is violence. Those in the position to tell their stories, and others who comment on them in the public sphere, have an ethical responsibility to refrain from assaulting their spirits, bodies, and autonomy.”

As a woman athlete who understands how harrowing it can be to have your athletic legitimacy implicitly questioned based on the biology of your body, I can only imagine how painful it is to have a vocal minority of your sport publicly question your status as a woman on a world stage. (Thank goodness Caster doesn’t give them the time of day.) I support a policy that allows all women athletes — including intersex women, transgender women, and women who are gender nonconforming — to compete in women’s elite events.

All this is not to shut down the conversation or the creation of new vocabulary; it’s to say that the narrow-minded conversations playing out in mainstream press are damaging . . . not only to individual athletes, but to the community of women’s sports as a whole, and to transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming women throughout the world.

Welcoming extraordinary women with diverse bodies into elite global sport won’t diminish me as an athlete or as a woman, as the quote on LetsRun implied. The inclusion would make me proud to be a part of two communities — women, and sports — that have their moral fortitude intact. We need to include contestants in a way that doesn’t institutionalize hazing, gender tests, or leaked “failed results.”

It’s disheartening to know that we’re not out of the woods yet. When asked to comment for this article, the IOC would only say that, “Following the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) interim award in the Chand v. [Athletic Federation of India] and IAAF case, the IOC is not in a position to introduce rules on hyperandrogenism until the issues of the case are resolved.” Which implies that the issues of the case haven’t already been resolved.

To be sure, conversations about how to evolve will be slow and difficult. But fear-driven policies and language must be replaced with building consensus on what’s appropriate for each league, for each sport, for each age group, for each region, and so on. That is the only humane answer.

We need these discussions as gender’s non-binary nature becomes clearer. Does having only two gender categories force non-conforming athletes to transition in order to be acceptable?

This question is only the beginning.

Note: I contacted LetsRun.com editor Robert Johnson to notify him of my intent to publish an essay calling him out for continuing a dated, bigoted conversation about gender in sports and to request comment. His response: “If believing that humans (whether intersex or transgender) that respond to testosterone shouldn’t be allowed to compete in Olympic women’s track and field with elevated testosterone levels is considered bigoted, then I’m proud to be considered a bigot. Such bigoted views are necessary to protect the future viability of women’s sports.” Later, he wrote to request quotes around his use of the terms “bigot” and “bigoted” in order to “help people understand I don’t view myself as a bigot. I’m trying to save an entire category of sports.”

Full disclosure: Mr. Johnson offered me the opportunity to participate in a podcast or contribute articles to his site, which I considered but declined because I could not detect a good-faith effort on his part to listen to the information I presented, and because I wanted to avoid legitimizing his views, which I find harmful and dangerous. I have disagreed with Mr. Johnson’s site’s treatment of issues related to women athletes in the past and have previously corresponded with him on those matters.

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