by Bruce Dunlavy

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There is an odd fear coursing through American athletics today. It is borrowed from the zeitgeist already controlling the political sphere, and in the past couple of months it has brought the two together in an unprecedented way.

Fear of “The Other” has always permeated American culture, and in sports it has until now been almost exclusively racial. With only a handful of exceptions, African-Americans were kept out of professional sports until the late 1940s, and out of the mainstream of college sports in the segregated South for 20 years beyond that. At integrated colleges Black athletes often suffered abuses, even at the hands of their own teammates, as Paul Robeson did at Rutgers.

In 2021, Fear of The Other is manifest in a flurry of legislation in at least 20 States, all designed to keep high school athletics free from integration by transgender participants. The law passed last month by the Florida legislature as an amendment to a bill about charter schools is typical, requiring that athletes participate on either boys’ or girls’ teams consistent with the gender listed on their birth certificate. Governor Ron DeSantis told Fox News he would sign the bill “to protect our girls.”

At the same time that States are rushing to protect female athletes from losing their places on school-sponsored teams from some presumed flood of boys claiming to be girls, the long history of such efforts was brought to mind by an international event. On April 26, the Russian track federation announced the death of Tamara Press, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in 1960 and 1964. Her late sister, Irina, won two gold medals at the same games.

Tamara Press
Image credit: The Olympic Games

At the time they competed, the Press sisters were followed by questions about their gender. Tamara, a shot-put and discus star, was often the subject of snickering about her bulky muscles and powerful build, and the two were sometimes called the “Press brothers,” even by other East Bloc athletes. In 1966, “gender verification” was implemented at the European Championships, and when both Tamara and Irina then retired from competition, the rumors took on an air of veracity. There has never been any proof that they were not women, and they lived out their lives as women, but the timing of their retirements ensured the speculation would remain.

There had been questions about the womanhood of Olympic athletes before, at least as far back as 1932, when Stella Walsh won Olympic gold in the 100-meter dash. Observers reported that she ran “like a man.” Walsh was a silver medalist in the 1936 Olympics, at which another controversial character, Dora Ratjen, took fourth place in the women’s high jump. Ratjen has often been described as a man masquerading as a woman, and he did indeed live as a man after being arrested for cross-dressing in 1938.

Later investigations revealed that both Walsh and Ratjen were of indeterminate sex. Walsh was born with mosaicism, a chromosomal condition in which cells of differing karyotypes exist in the same person. If, as in her case, sex-determining cells are involved, the individual’s gender is often ambiguous. Although her cells were a mixture of male and non-gender-specific, Walsh lived her entire life as a woman. Her true condition was not revealed until after her death in 1980.

Ratjen apparently had ambiguous genitalia at birth, and his parents, as well as the birth records registry, were told that he was a girl. Until about age 12, he believed he was female, but even after deciding he was male, he felt constrained to continue living as a woman. Although stories (including one in Time magazine in 1966) persisted in claiming that the Nazi government forced Ratjen to pretend to be a woman, he was in fact believed by all outside his own family to be female until his arrest. After that his birth certificate was changed and he lived as a man, taking the name Heinrich Ratjen, until his death in 2008. Two other 1936 Olympians were suspected of being male, and both of them eventually underwent female-to-male surgery and lived the rest of their lives as men. At the same games, American runner Helen Stephens was forced to be examined for male genitalia and was verified to be a woman.

Other intersex athletes have been turned out of competitions, including Dutch track star Foekje Dillema, who was the first athlete banned from competition after a sex-verification examination. In 1950, track-and-field’s international governing body, the IAAF, compelled all those competing in women’s events to walk nude in front of a group of doctors, and the intersex Dillema, who was most likely a true hermaphrodite, was expelled. This practice was picked up again at the 1966 European Games and 1968 Olympics, but abandoned soon after because it was both humiliating to the athletes and unreliable.

Chromosome testing then became the method for detecting “fake women” athletes, but by the early 1990s it was dropped as well because of its unreliability. The complexity of sex determination resists any simple analysis, because the choice of testing method defines the result. For example, people with an XY sex-determining karyotype who also have complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome will likely live their entire lives as females unless some other medical condition or test finds their true situation. The case of Spanish hurdler Maria José Martinez-Pitiño, who was banned and then reinstated, is the most notable of athletes with AIS.

The best-known contemporary athlete subjected to gender scrutiny is South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya. Her 13-year career is replete with medals and gender contention in equal measure. Semenya appears to have some chromosomal mosaicism, but the chief controversy is over the level of the male hormone testosterone present in her blood.

In 2011, the IAAF instituted a limit on the amount of testosterone allowed in female athletes, contending that more testosterone would give some athletes an unfair advantage. The rule was dropped four years later after a lawsuit, when it was shown that there is no evidence to demonstrate that a higher level of testosterone improves the athletic performance of women.

In 2019, the IAAF reinstituted testosterone limits. Semenya challenged the rule, maintaining that the use of one specific blood test to decide who is a man and who is a woman was arbitrary and unfair. Indeed, natural levels of testosterone have been shown to be higher in some women than they are in some men, and the overlap between genders makes the limit hard to defend. For example, does it mean that a male athlete with a testosterone level below the limit could compete as a female?

The IAAF rule stipulates that women whose testosterone level exceeds the limit may take hormone-reducing drugs to bring their level below the limit, which seems antithetical to the otherwise ubiquitous policy that athletes’ bodies should be free of performance-altering drugs.

Hormone levels vary from person to person, so it is hard to defend the idea that some particular level of some hormone should be used to decide who may compete. If an athlete’s natural level of a selected hormone is higher than some other athlete’s due to genetics, why must that level be altered? Swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps’s success resulted in part from the fact that his body naturally produces less lactic acid than most people’s. Thus he has a genetic condition that gives him a distinct advantage over other athletes. Why is there no requirement that he take a supplement to increase his blood concentration of lactic acid in order to diminish such an “unfair advantage”?  How is Phelps’s situation different from Semenya’s?

In the context of all this confusion about how to decide who is of which gender, why are States scrambling to find ways to keep boys from competing as girls in high school sports? As is the case with “bathroom bills,” these laws define gender based on what is on a person’s birth certificate. Should another Dora/Heinrich Ratjen appear, there would be no option other than competing as a female.

There seems no need for such a law, anyway, as the Florida High School Athletic Association has rules in place permitting students to “participate in interscholastic athletics in a manner consistent with their gender identity and expression,” and says there have been only 11 transgender athletes in the State since 2013. Other States have found similar results. Cited instances of boys dominating girls in athletics almost invariably are about one case in Connecticut, where in 2018 transgender athletes finished first and second in the girls’ 100-meter dash at the State high school track meet.

Elsewhere, examples are as close as can be to nonexistent. Do the legislators pushing these laws really believe that there is a huge contingent of boys claiming to be girls just so they can be stars in girls’ athletics? Really? Have they ever been in a high school? What male student would take on the abuse that would come with such a move solely to garner awards everyone else would ridicule?

Florida is only one of at least 15 States that have for years allowed transgender athletes to compete according to their gender identity and expression, and problems are almost unheard-of. Most people in those States likely do not even know that such rules are in place, because there have been no issues. The NCAA has had a policy allowing participation by transgender athletes for over a decade, and the Earth has not trembled nor has the sky fallen.

Why, then, are we suddenly presented with this explosion of laws providing a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist? Are we to assume that the legislators passing them and the governors signing them are somehow the only ones aware of dozens, if not hundreds, of hidden cases of boys pretending to be girls in order to obtain athletic glory? Or that the existing rules permitting transgender participants are creating a wave of transgender wannabes?

Or is it the case that, like bathroom laws, athletic laws are not about what they claim to be about. They are not about transgender athletes at all, but a gesture, an announcement that “trans people (and, by extension, anybody not typical) are icky and we don’t want to acknowledge that they exist”?