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Is Applause For I.O.C.'s New Rules For Transgender Athletes Premature?


On January 24, 2016 the International Olympic Committee announced new guidelines for transgender athletes’ eligibility to compete in the Olympics.  While hailed by one trans athlete as bringing the IOC "into the modern world," the applause for the IOC may be premature.

Although the IOC abandoned its much-criticised chromosome-based ‘sex test’ before the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the general practice of ‘gender policing’ of women in elite sport has continued ever since, although the last six months have seen some important developments addressing the complex questions of athletes’ sexualities and gender.

In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) agreed, somewhat surprisingly, with the broader scientific community that ‘there is no single determinant of sex,’ thereby challenging traditional biologically-based definitions of what it means to be female.  Hearing evidence supporting Indian runner Dutee Chand’s appeal for reinstatement, the CAS suspended for two years the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) rules on hyperandrogenism, a condition where females like Chand have higher than ‘normal’, naturally-occurring levels of male hormones.  Chand is eligible to compete in women’s events - at least for now.

The second surprise came in November 2015, when the IOC released a report from its committee of medical and legal experts. The IOC Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism recommended that gender reassignment surgery and legal changes to gender identity should no longer be required for eligibility. Under its recommendations, trans men would be allowed to compete without restriction, while levels of serum testosterone for trans women would need to be at a specified low level (10 nmol/L) for 12 months before competition and throughout their competitive careers. [To put these levels in perspective, according to the ‘scientific consensus’ cited by the IAAF last year, so-called normal levels for females are .01 to 2.8 nmol/L(itre) of testosterone, and for males, above 10.5 nmol/L (the abbreviation nmol refers to a billionth of the amount of a substance). The mainstream media reported extensively on this recommendation in January 2016, citing approvingly the committee’s conclusion that "to require surgical anatomical changes… is not necessary to preserve fair competition and may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights."

Sprinter in blocks on track

For an organization that pays little attention to human rights when it comes to selecting Olympic host cities – Beijing and Sochi, for example – the concern for trans athletes’ rights, however, seems somewhat out of character. Significantly, the recommendation reinforces the longstanding view of the male athlete as the ‘gold standard’.  Whereas a female-to-male (FTM) trans athlete is apparently presumed to pose no threat to ‘fair competition’ and may compete as is, without restrictions, rigid rules apply to MTF athletes.  No one is asking whether FTM athletes have an unfair advantage in the (admittedly few) sports where success rests equally on flexibility and grace as on speed and strength – as, for example, in gymnastics, figure skating and diving.

Moreover, few media reports mentioned the final paragraph of the IOC committee’s report dealing with the Chand case. Restating the need for rules that protect women and fair competition, it specifically encouraged the IAAF to "revert to CAS with arguments and evidence to support the reinstatement of its hyperandrogenism rules," a recommendation that clearly signaled the committee’s true position – one that won't be good news for Dutee Chand and other female athletes with naturally occurring high levels of testosterone.  It seems that the IOC will need to clear up the hyperandrogenism debate before it can implement the transgender recommendations, and it’s unlikely that this can be done by August 2016 when the Rio Summer Olympics begin.

Strange creature

The CAS is a strange creature, an arbitration body set up by the IOC, rather than an actual court.  Just as the IOC defines itself as the moral authority on world sport, the CAS is positioned as the ultimate judicial authority in the realm of international sporting competition, dealing with cases of athletes’ and sponsors’ contracts, media rights, doping violations, etc.  In fact, many athletes’ contracts require them to agree that any disputes must be resolved through the CAS.  In signing this clause, it appears that they forfeit the right to pursue complaints through the mainstream courts, although lawyers have argued that in democratic societies that right cannot be taken away.

In yet another example of Olympic industry exceptionalism, supporters of the CAS claim that it has unique expertise in sports law and avoids potential problems of conflicting laws across different jurisdictions.  In other words, elite sport is so special that only sporting ‘insiders’ can understand it and adjudicate disputes. They fail to acknowledge, however, that it helps sports governing bodies and commercial interests that want to avoid national courts; that the costs ($50,000 to $100,000) are a serious deterrent to individual athletes; and that it attempts to deprive athletes of access to the justice systems of their home countries.

Its lofty status was challenged last year in a Canadian court, when Olympic cyclist Kristen Worley, a MTF trans cyclist, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario regarding the IOC’s gender verification policies. In her case, she claimed that the required hormone levels set by IOC would pose a serious threat to her health and she would therefore be unable to compete. The IOC filed a counterclaim, stating that Worley’s complaint violated Switzerland’s sovereignty, and further alleged that it would "undermine the independence of the IOC" – that is, its power to control world sport and to overrule decisions made in its member countries’ courts of law.  That case is still pending.

Implications for youth athletes and their parents

All these developments have important implications for young athletes and their parents, particularly since children’s sporting preferences are often interpreted, correctly or not, as predictors of future sexual preference and gender identity: the ‘tomboy’ girl who likes soccer is redirected towards gymnastics, while the ‘sissy’ boy who likes to dance is pushed into karate.  There is increasing public awareness of gender variance (gender dysphoria) in childhood and adolescence, and, in general, more enlightened approaches on the part of medical professionals.  Teachers and coaches have a particular responsibility to prevent the widespread bullying of non-conforming and gender-variant children, and to respect their right to express their identities safely and freely through their choices of clothing, friends and interests.

Contrary to the old belief that children cannot possibly know if they’re gay or lesbian, or gender-variant until they reach adolescence, there’s ample evidence today of children who from a young age have no doubts about their sexual and gender identities.  If a child is approaching, or has reached puberty, and strongly identifies as the other gender, medical treatment can facilitate the transition process, including puberty-blocking hormones to prevent the development of secondary sex characteristics, followed by cross-changing hormones.

Such early intervention is designed to minimize the trauma that the child would otherwise experience if their body began to mature in the ‘wrong’ gender. If, after a few years, they have a change of mind, the hormones could be stopped with no lasting effects. In jurisdictions where these interventions are allowed, hormone therapy decisions are usually made by teams of doctors, including psychiatrists, endocrinologists and adolescent physicians, in consultation with the child and their family. At the heart of the process is the weighing of risks and benefits; for many trans children, the risks of self-harm and suicide are very high, and the risk of regret very low.  (A 2014 Australian documentary gives valuable insights into these issues)

In societies with rigid gender-role expectations - that is, most western countries - trans children and youth are particularly vulnerable.  A quick online search reveals that some medical advice on gender dysphoria suffers from the same kind of damaging stereotypical thinking that is found in the broader society.  ‘How do parents know if they should let their son carry a girls’ lunchbox…?’ asks WebMD.  A better question might be, ‘How can parents challenge the thinking behind the concept of ‘a girls’ lunchbox’?  Celebrating Pink Shirt Day would be a good place to start. Celebrated this year on February 24, the campaign, begun in Nova Scotia, Canada, encourages children in the US, Canada and elsewhere to wear pink clothing in support of anti-bullying initiatives.  Another is campaign begun in Britain in 2014 called Let Books Be Books, in which publishers are encouraged to stop labeling and promoting books as 'for boys' or 'for girls' and remove gender-specific titles from their catalogs, and avoiding labels that are ‘limiting and restrictive’. 

In the realm of youth sport, limiting and restrictive labels are equally damaging, and for gender-variant children, the harm may be extremely serious.  In most sports and for most age-groups up to puberty, there is little justification for segregating boys and girls, and co-ed options would be well-suited to the needs of gender-variant children.  Safety concerns in some team sports could be addressed by grouping children according to height, weight and skill levels, while avoiding gender as the default selection method.  

We’re now in 2016, more than half a century since the dramatic social changes of the women’s rights and gay rights movements. Binary thinking about gender is outdated, and in the case of trans children and youth, it can do irreparable damage.

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj is a Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto, Canada and an internationally recognized expert on issues of sex, gender, and sport.  Her latest book is Sexual Diversity and the Sochi 2014 Olympics: No More Rainbows (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan 2014)