With Liberty and Derby for All?
Non-Binary Gender Bias in Competitive Sports
By Blink 1SK8E2
In the mid-1980s, Maria Jose Martinez-Patino, an elite hurdler for Spain, lost her spot on her country’s Olympic team when it was discovered that she was intersex, meaning that her outwardly female form hid internal testes. This physical attribute was determined to give her an “unfair advantage” in the Olympic Games, and, when made public, ended her athletic career (Gleeson and Brady, USA TODAY SPORTS).
Since then, progress toward gender equality has been made in the Olympics. It is 2016, and Caster Semenya – a South African runner who is presumed intersex because her female body produces an unusually high amount of testosterone – is favored to win a gold medal in tomorrow’s 400m.
It’s 2016, and the International Olympic Committee has just instituted a new rule: transgender athletes no longer need to undergo gender reassignment surgery to compete. Female-to-male athletes now have no restrictions, and male-to-female athletes “simply” need to demonstrate that their testosterone level has been below a certain level for a year (Manning and Gallager, DAILYMAIL.COM). It’s 2016, and progress has most certainly been made.
But roller derby is not yet an Olympic Sport (though it is being considered for addition in the 2020 games as an exhibition). And, as derby players, it’s easy for us to roll our eyes at these so-called “advancements” in IOC policy. After all, WFTDA instituted a rule that was a bit more progressive in 2011. Women merely needed to demonstrate a testosterone level that was deemed “within the feminine range,” regardless of how long that range existed, and today the hormone requirement has been done away with entirely (Alex Hanna, THE GUARDIAN).
Not only that, but we play a CONTACT SPORT, and thus far Olympic controversy surrounding non-binary gendered athletes has been limited to sports in which hitting would be grounds for disqualification. Athletes in contact sports have yet to come forward as transgender at the Olympic level.
All that being said, I (as a cis-gender female roller derby player, a former competitive figure skater, and a varsity hockey player in a mixed-gender league) have mixed feelings about where we currently stand as a world of sports in relation to gender politics, from derby to the Olympics and everything in between.
We know, of course, that changing a rule doesn’t mean changing minds. Brown v. Board overturned segregation in the 1950s, and we still live in a world that is, on some levels, very segregated. Similarly, though she is more than allowed to compete in the Olympics, the controversy surrounding Semenya proves that, if she wins gold, there will still be those who believe that her win comes from her biology, not her merit.
On some level, I can see that there are facts supporting the argument that “it’s not fair” if someone with certain levels of hormones in his or her body competes with someone else with different levels of hormones in his or her body. Take my figure skating background for example. I know that women struggle to nail triple rotation jumps (1080s), while men need to land quadruple rotation jumps (1440s) to be able to compete at the world level.
Or look at tennis. Even Serena Williams would get crushed by the top male players in the world. But I also know that I’ve played contact sports with boys (mixed league hockey and mixed derby scrimmages), and I haven’t died. I’ve scored points. I’ve been competitive. And sometimes I’ve lost. Was it because I was a girl? Or because I wasn’t good enough?
I do realize the complicated nature of sports’ rules and the bodies creating them, but rules aside, I believe that all of us who consider ourselves both athletes (in any sport, at any level) and gender warriors need to be aware of the societal pressure we place on athletes in marginalized gender groups.
Imagine you’re a transgender woman, for example, and you’re continuously told that your success as a roller derby player is predicated on your biological makeup. Aren’t you going to feel, on some level, that you haven’t earned your accomplishments?
If you don’t believe that it happens in derby, just ask Bi-Felicia, whose article “Side-Lined: How Roller Derby Pushes Trans Women Out,” was what initially got me so interested in this topic. Bi, a trans-woman and roller derby player, writes that,while many of her fellow athletes are very supportive, some are…. not-so-much:
Some say my body chemistry has more to do with my ability to be safe than my years of experience. They tell me I’m out of control. They say I’m not a team player, and that I’m recklessly trying to prove myself worthy by playing hyper-aggressively. These people never seem to give me a chance to prove otherwise. (Bi Felicia, DERBY CENTRAL)
The fact that transgender athletes can feel this way in a sport that is among the most progressive only serves to further shine a light on how marginalized transgender athletes must feel in sports with more traditional rules, especially on stages such as the Olympics. I’m not saying the issue isn’t complicated, because it is. What I am saying is that we, as roller derby athletes are in a unique position to be gender leaders in the world of sports, not just by creating revolutionary rules about who can and cannot compete, but by creating a spirit of inclusivity surrounding all athletes with the skill and drive to compete as hard and fast as they can.