Sexual dimorphism in species propagates a lot of phenotypic differences between sexes that concedes distinct strengths and weaknesses to different sexes. The result of this is more evident in sports than anything else. The physical strength of men allows them to perform better than women in most sports but the inherent ability of incredulous balance makes women formidable in gymnastics and water skating.
But as the perplexing science of genetics has revealed, genes and chromosomes can align in inconceivable number of ways and beget numerous paradigms which transcend mathematical permutations. This leads to the birth of men who can push the borders of ordinary human ability to distances beyond the cognitive ability of humans.
At the same time, it also engenders women who can challenge any man physically. But when a woman peels of the ordinary feminine qualities and emerges as a super woman gleaming with virility, shattering all fallacies, often she is found having her gender questioned. Can science define who a male is and who a female is? Does testing someone’s gender yield any benefits? Shouldn’t a woman perform beyond a certain ‘mythological’ level? Let’s dive deep into the topic that has left many women athletes living in the dark corner of the celebrated terrain of sports.
Gender vs. Sex
Both sex verification and gender verification are used for the process of verifying one’s sex/gender and this leads to the state of confusion where people are not sure whether sports authorities want someone to be biologically belonging to a particular sex or psychologically belonging to a certain sex. The presence of a psychiatrist in the panel of doctors who verify gender, compounds the confusion further.
The fear of men intruding into women’s game to win a medal in the guise of a woman lead to female athletes being tested to verify their gender. The first sex test was carried out a month before the European Championships in Belgium in 1950 where IAAF conducted sex test on women in their respective countries. Gender test for all female athletes existed until the 90s after which compulsory gender testing on all female athletes was abandoned. But suspicious athletes could be tested to verify gender.
Why is gender testing important?
As aforementioned the fear of men competing in women’s sports initially forced female athletes to be tested to verify their gender. At the same time tests were carried to exclude intersex individuals who can neither be classified as males nor females. Most of the controversies arising due to gender tests are not from female athletes but are from intersex athletes. Since intersex individuals are naturally stronger than normal females, it is deemed that intersex individuals who exceed a certain level of “masculinity” to be exempted from women’s game, no matter what sex the athlete thinks she belongs to.
While the participation of intersex individuals may not have much impact in men’s sports as it would in women’s sports, feminists consider it a discrimination to gender test only female athletes. Even though there have been instances of fellow female athletes questioning another athlete’s gender, many believe that a female athlete should not be ostracized for a congenital disorder.
How is sex determined?
Well the answer to this question should be really simple. Genetically anyone with an XX chromosome pair is a female and anyone with an XY chromosome is a male. But this widely held belief has no scientific basis, since an individual with XX chromosome can be a male and an individual with XY chromosome can be a female. What makes a baby a male is not the presence of the Y chromosome but the presence of a gene called SRY which is usually present in the Y chromosome.
But during chromosomal cross over- a process in which genes are exchanged between chromosomes within cells, this SRY gene can get into the X chromosome. Hence, even with the presence of XX chromosome an individual can grow up as a male. Now imagine a Y chromosome that has lost its SRY gene to an X chromosome. The SRY deprived Y chromosome can give birth to a female. Hence testing one’s chromosomes are not going to yield credible results.
So why not test for the presence of SRY gene? Well, the presence of SRY cannot alone make someone a man. SRY gene is responsible for the development of male parts in a human body. SRY acts on androgen receptors initiating the action of Testis Determining Factor (TDF). But in the case of individuals with Androgen Insensitivity syndrome, cells become unresponsive to the SRY gene, which results in an individual being born a female. So the presence of SRY genes cannot vouch for the masculinity of an athlete.
So what about checking the genitals of an athlete. This was the method of testing an athlete used in the past, where female athletes were asked to shed clothes to have their bodies examined by doctors, which was notoriously known as “nude parades”. This method was abandoned since it was humiliating and disparaging.
Although the external genitalia can easily demarcate a male from female, intersex individuals can have intermediate external genitalia. Since penis (the male genitalia) and clitoris (the female genitalia) arise from the same set of cells, hormonal difference can affect the growth of these organs. Women with a larger clitoris are considered to have a partially developed penis, hence are pigeonholed as males, even though there is no black and white rule on the size of the clitoris to be deemed a semi-developed penis. Even doctors seem to have different opinions on whether one is a man or a woman depending on the size of clitoris.
Furthermore, a person who looks like a man may posses female sex organs and vice versa. There are men born with uterus and women born with internal testes. So the presence of certain sex organs cannot define a man or a woman.
The modern method employed to test gender is to measure the amount of testosterone in an athlete’s body. Females possessing testosterone levels in men’s range are rendered ineligible to contest in women’s game. The production of testosterone differs from individual to individual. Male athletes have higher testosterone levels than other men.
So female athletes with a higher testosterone level tend to perform better than their counterparts. If a woman with a higher testosterone level cannot compete then what about men with lower testosterone level? Even though the consumption of synthetic testosterone is a crime, is possessing a naturally higher level of testosterone wrong?
Usain Bolt has an athletic body that allows him to run faster and jump longer. Is he penalized for that physical advantage? Then why should a woman with a physical advantage be penalized?
To conclude even though science can give circumstantial evidence on which gender a person may belong to, but it can never conclusively draw a line between males and females.
The earliest case of a gender based controversy was of a Polish athlete named Stanis?awa Walasiewicz who won a gold medal in the women’s 100m at the 1932 Summer Olympics, but who after her death was found to have had a partially developed penis.
Dora Ratjen a German athlete competed in the European Championship games as a female but was later found to be a male. The ambiguity in his genitals made his parents bring him up as a female even though he himself felt like a male.
Recently, Pinky Pramanik of India was accused of rape and medical research found her to posses a semi-developed phallus. But doctors have split opinions on whether she is a male or a female.
Santhi Soundarajan of Tamil Nadu was considered to not to posses the sexual characters of a female and hence was banned. She actually had XY chromosomes but suffered from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome which made her a female.
Gender testing in the modern era
There is opaqueness in the process of testing one’s gender, since revealing such sensitive information is deemed to be an invasion of an individual’s privacy. There is no clear consensus on how gender should be determined, even among scientists.
Bruce Kidd, an erstwhile Olympian who is a professor in Kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, believes that an individual should be vested the luxury of naming one’s gender if the idea of self-expression is to mean anything.
The idea of gender testing is to preserve the purity in female sports while giving females a fair chance of winning. But in actuality women are humiliated, discriminated and demoralized by the process. Caster Semenya, who had her gender questioned, according to the former British hurler Collin Jackson, intentionally finished second in the 800m race in 2012 Summer Olympics, in order to avoid having her gender questioned, once again.
Just as men who outperform men are considered to be supermen, superwomen who outdo all women needs be recognized instead of having their gender questioned. The natural maleness in a female should not deprive her a chance of competing.
Gender tests should be performed only to exclude men from women’s competitions. Even though no man has been caught masquerading in a woman’s sport hither to, the test to verify gender should exclusively be done to check whether an athlete is a male and should not be carried out to test whether an athlete is a female. If an individual cannot be considered a complete male then she should be allowed to continue to play the particular sport.
Movements worldwide, clamour for the right of an individual to name his/her gender. Though a man claiming to be a woman is unfair in sports, letting an intersex name his/her gender cannot be deemed unfair since an intersex cannot be clearly identified as a male or a female.
If policies of free and fair competition are to have some meaning, then women born with physical disorders should not be side-lined. A woman if she grew up as a woman and considers herself a woman, and no matter what, she should be deemed a female in the realm of sports too.