Gender Identity in Sport: In Search of a Synthesis

Gender identity is a hot topic. As the Women's World Cup gets into gear, news and social media is awash with commentary on the event and the merits and demerits of women's Sport more broadly. Some of it is careful and considered, some of it caustic and controversial. 

Sensitivities are so heightened when it comes to discussing gender in Sport, that it can be difficult to have a reasoned discussion without one side or other resorting to mudslinging. The landscape is fraught with danger, and no doubt many disagreements lurk therein, but nevertheless, let's take a wander.

First of all, let me present three different examples of the interface between sport and gender.

Exhibit A: National Football Associations sending players to the FIFA Women's World Cup are required by FIFA to verify the gender of each of the players. These are not archaic rules left over from a bygone era: they have been in effect since 2011.

Caster Semenya
Exhibit B: Indian Sprinter Dutee Chand is currently serving a ban, not for cheating or doping, but for having a level of Testosterone in her system which is above the normal range for women. The term used for this is 'hyperandrogenism'. Her case is not dissimilar to that of Caster Semenya (right), who was forced to undergo gender verification by the IAAF back in 2009.

Exhibit C: Former US Athletics legend Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner, having chosen to embark on the lengthy process of gender reassignment. Jenner 'identifies' as a woman, and has recently posed on the front on Vanity Fair, with long flowing locks, heavy make-up and clad in a swimsuit.

These cases - each in their own way - raise the surprisingly complex question: what does it mean to be male or female? Are these categories biological, are they God-given and immutable, or are they self-determined, fluid and socially constructed?

On one hand, if gender is purely biological, by what parameters should we categorise male and female? Where is the line drawn between the two accepted genders? Is it simply a case of reproductive capacity, or a particular pairing of chromosomes? Is it a question of the relative quantities of selected hormones? This might seem the 'scientific' route, but it is not without its problems.

OH yes, that's testosterone!
It has been shown that when Testosterone is used as a verifier of gender, there simply is no 'gender gap' between male and female. Many women have natural Testosterone levels which fall outside the normal female range, and within the range for men.
What is more, testosterone levels vary depending on a large range of factors, and intense exercise can increase the natural production of the hormone. This type of testing has put paid to Dutee Chand's sprinting career, and livelihood.

Conversely, if gender is a purely social construct, then what is stopping an athlete who is still active in his sport doing what Jenner has done: selecting a female name, slapping on some make-up and competing as a woman? If all that is required to switch gender is a self-determination to 'identify' as a woman, then this seems to be a perfectly unassailable course of action.

Only it wouldn't be fair for the other athletes because identity is not the same as genetics. Here the IAAF, the IOC and FIFA have more sense than the social constructivists when requiring some form of gender verification. One of the reasons we scarcely hear the call for complete abandonment of gender distinctions in sporting contests is because of a fear that women in sport would be marginalised even further than at present.

A middle ground?

With the above in mind, I'm looking for a middle ground that affirms the traditional 'sexes' of male and female, but which acknowledges a variety of ways to practice these identities. There is not just one type of man, and there is not just one type of women, but there are men and women. "From the beginning of the creation" says Jesus Christ "God made them male and female" (Mark 10:6).

Where does this leave modern sport? Well, we cant very well abandon all differentiation between male and female sport, since I fear this would occasion the end of the great majority of female sporting careers. And we can't carry on subjecting sportswomen to the public ignominy of having their gender called into question every time the World Cup rolls around.

We need to press both sides of the debate to continue to dig more deeply, consider more carefully, and think more clearly, in search of a synthesis.

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