Imagine that you have fingers longer than the person sitting next to you in a written exam setting at college or high school. You are called out and denied permission to write the exam alongside with your fellow classmates because it is believed that longer fingers will allow you to write faster, giving you a competitive edge. The institution you attend claim that the separation of students with longer fingers from those with shorter fingers was done to uphold fairness. You want to write with all of your classmates. Yet, people around you shame you for wanting to mask “long” fingers as “shorter” fingers.
You are probably thinking how ridiculous this situation sounds at the moment, right? First off, how could longer fingers necessarily be faster or better than shorter fingers? Second, what constitutes a “long” or “short” finger? What is considered the “normal” finger length? And moreover, why should finger length be the deciding factor to how well or how poorly you perform on an exam? Well, the sad truth of the matter is that the same kind of scenario is happening to transgender athletes right now. Transgenders will be defined here as those who see themselves as a gender that differs from the one that were assigned to them at birth (McClearan, 2015, p. 74).
Fallon Fox, an MMA fighter, faced negative criticisms because she was a transgender female athlete. Ronda Rousey, a high-profile MMA fighter, did not fight Fox because she believed, unsupported by medical evidence (Brekke, 2016), that there are male bone-structure competitive advantages at play (Noble, 2013). Rousey is not a feminist per se but she has strongly spoken up against the view of being characterized as a “masculine” fighter just because she was not a “do-nothing” female (Valenti, 2015)—supposedly discarding a patriarchal view. However, her comments on “do-nothing” women and on Fox further a male-dominant hierarchy, which she was so set against, that places women in a vulnerable position and implies that females should have physical attributes which comply to that hierarchy (Schultz, 2005, p. 349).
Many in areas of sports today see MTF (male-to-female) transgender competitors as problematic because they are envisioned to have more bodily advantage than their non-trans female counterparts (McClearan, 2015, p. 79). In one instance, Steven Crowder (2013), a Fox News contributor, after hearing that Fallon Fox is a trans athlete, mentioned (and imagined) the helplessness of mothers who want to protect their daughters who may fight face-to-face with someone who was “once a man” (as cited in McClearan, 2015, p. 79). However, such “female-protecting” rhetoric generates a patriarchal perspective which seems to 1) come more out of a fear of the loss of male-dominance when the female is seen as the inherently weaker one and 2) reinforces a deeper gender inequality.
I thought to myself, if those like Fallon Fox were already facing such male-dominant rhetoric being thrown upon them in professional sports, what would be the situations and challenges of those who do not have the same platform as Fox to cast their voices, such as transgender athletes in school? Fox herself has voiced on this issue and noted that the delay that has kept schools and institutions from looking into policies imply that non-cis people are not seen as equals (Kanno-Youngs, 2015). A cisgender individual is someone whose “sex and gender align with the ones they were assigned at birth”(McClearan, 2015, p. 76). Now to rephrase the questions stated in the second paragraph, I ask: how could physical traits constructed as masculine be better than those constructed as feminine? Second, what constitutes a “stronger” or “weaker” body? What is considered the “normal” body? And moreover, why should the “maleness” or “femaleness” of a body be the deciding factor to how well or how poorly you perform in a sport? Perhaps looking into the accounts and policies of transgender politics can reveal the societal hetero-normative expectations which not only oppress the transgender athletes involved, but also affect unknowing non-transgender counterparts alike.
Transgender Athletes Winning: A Problem
Now, winning should be something that is celebrated. However, that is not the case when Nattaphon Wangyot, a transgender female born in Thailand, finished third and fifth in the 200-meter and 100-meter dash, respectively, against girls representing other high schools in Alaska (O’Neil, 2016).
Saskia Harrison, a senior at Hutchison, who almost made it to the 16-competitor for the state, took to disagreeing with the fairness of the situation, saying, “‘I’m glad that this person is comfortable with who they are and they’re able to be happy in who they are, but I don’t think it’s competitively completely 100-percent fair” (Edmonds, 2016).
Alaskan Family Council member, Stephanie Leigh Golmon Williams, also saw Wangyot competing as problematic, commenting,”it is not fair and it is not right for our female athletes and we have a responsibility to protect our…our girls that have worked really hard” (KTVA CBS 11 News, 2016).
These opinions against the inclusion of trans athletes into the sports competing field seem to come from the historical line of thought that gender segregation should be done to create a fair environment for males and females (Lucas-Carr & Krane, 2012, p. 30). The separation of teams into boys’ and girls’ was done to ensure that male bodies (perceived as stronger) would not threaten the performance of female bodies (perceived as weaker) and thus create an equal “level-playing field” (Lucas-Carr & Krane, 2012, p. 30). However, statements like the one made by those surrounding Wangyot ultimately create a rather unfair environment for trans athletes and oppress the very females who are making them.
When I heard Harrison’s and Williams’ statements in that short video clip shown above, I noticed how it oddly echoed the familiar rhetoric of female helplessness that was supported by Crowder (in my introduction) and even by popular sports personalities. Joe Rogan, a UFC commentator, once said that he believes Fallon Fox should be able to behave as a woman but ironically, has no right to fight as a woman (McClearan, 2015, p. 80). Saskia Harrison’s statement on Wangyot seems to reflect that of Rogan’s on Fox. Both perceive superiority of strength in male-assigned bodies as a permanent truth (McClearan, 2015, p. 82) and in turn, imply that females must be inferior. In addition, Williams’ repetitive use of “our” in her comment (“our female athletes” and “our girls”) seems to draw a line between Wangyot and cis females as if transgender athletes can not be considered as females and that the body you were assigned with at birth dictates your gender. Furthermore, the gender boundaries created by a patriarchal system which unequally see females as weak are ironically used in this scenario to call for an equal fair game.
For those that believe that gender is innate, like Harrison, Williams, Crowder, and Rogan, even their supposedly “biological” argument lacks proof. On the contrary, trans woman athletes may be less “manly” and have even less competitive advantages than many cis women if biology-based gender were to be drawn into the equation. Fallon Fox has mentioned, on Inside MMA, that her hormone treatments and surgeries over the years have rendered her testosterone levels to “almost nothing” (MMAWeekly.com Staff, 2013). Dr. Marcie Bowers, a gender reassignment surgeon, and other medical professionals, have even noted that bone density and muscle mass significantly decrease post-surgery and that Fox’s current performance will be within the range of non-trans females that have similar builds (MMAWeekly.com Staff, 2013; McClearan, 2015, p. 86). Similarly, Wangyot has undergone hormonal replacements which lower her testosterone levels, mentioning that being a girl is not an overnight phenomenon (Garcia, 2016).
However, we need to note that classifying testosterone and estrogen within a gendered binary is problematic as both males and females on average possess both hormones to some extent (McClearan, 2015, p. 86). Moreover, these remarks on perceiving testosterone as the “superior” hormone, although voiced for the interest of trans athletes, perpetuate both cissexism and sexism (McClearan, 2015, p. 76). Their (bio)logic seems to say that transgender players have to “prove that they are unexceptional” (McClearan, 2015, p. 86) to justify their right to compete alongside cis females—as if one has to be “weak” enough to be considered a female. Winning becomes attributed to testosterone levels rather than a player’s technique or strategies (McClearan, 2015, p. 86). It’s a lose-lose situation for trans athletes when winning is seen as stepping over the line or illegitimate (Lucas-Carr & Krane, 2013, p. 30). Rather than showing that this is a leap forward for trans athletes, Wangyot’s qualification into the states perhaps points to the deeper issues that trans sports participants experience on a daily basis.
The Problem with “Acceptance” and the Gender-Binary.
Constantly, we hear heart-warming stories about transgender athletes coming out. Caitlyn Jenner, a world-time Olympian, is now embraced by Vogue. Alex Singh, a transgender male athlete at New Trier High School, came out to his lacrosse team (Smith, 2016). Yay, everyone from his teammates to his coaches accepted him. He told PBS News Hour how supportive people were:
…it makes me very happy to know that I’m going to a school that’s so accepting that I’m allowed to be on a full guys sports [team] and be accepted as one of the guys, so to speak…They all treat me as if I were biologically male, and that makes me the happiest person on earth to know that the people at my school and in my community are capable of understanding and accepting me for who I am.
As I scrolled to the bottom of the article where I found this piece of touching news from, I see the concluding sentence made by the author, Cam Smith (2016): “it [Singh’s coming out moment] also provides clear anecdotal proof that athletes can go beyond traditional gender barriers in the name of teamwork and competitive success, right at the top“. Unfortunately, if anything, I would say that the positivity surrounding acceptance has reinforced “traditional gender barriers”. Why should Singh strive to be “biologically male”? Now that he is “accepted as one of the guys”, does that imply that it is alright for those who do not or are not giving off a unified male image to not be accepted? Are “feminine” traits then discouraged? Billings et al. (2015) have noted that oftentimes, the media has restricted gender representations to those that fit within the hetero-normative ideal (p.145). Nohelani Lawrence, who is a part of the LGBT committee at USC, mentioned that in the past, acceptance was always the main focus (He, 2016). However, she found out that “even accepting has a negative connotation because that implies there might be something wrong” (He, 2016).
In a Metro Weekly interview, Schuyler Bailer, an NCAA D1 transgender male swimmer, shared the uncomfortable experiences that he encountered when he was transitioning from female to male (Riley, 2016). In many instances, he struggled with finding the “proper” bathroom to use in middle and high school. He felt that he was only allowed to use girl bathrooms (his assigned gender) but at the same time, cis girl classmates, after seeing Bailer’s short hair or his boyish appearance, would either tell him to leave or give unwelcoming looks—leading him to use isolated “adult” bathrooms or “hold it in” for long periods of time (Riley, 2016). It was not until after Bailer “apologetically” (Couture, 2016, p. 130) decided to dress like a girl and grow his hair out that the negative reactions would stop. It felt like he had to get permission from non-transgender females in order to use the restroom (King, 2009, p. 276).
It seemed like trans athletes were viewed as problematic until they chose to cooperate with strictly a female or male appearance. Somehow, whether people are considered safe or not lied more in the dress code than the individuals themselves. The construct of “biological” gender is evidently seen with Bailer’s case when a simple switch in clothing made him “acceptable” or not in a gendered setting; and also further implying that his transitioning self, falling outside of “normal” male/female gender binary, is unacceptable (Travers, 2006, p. 432). The locker room and bathroom have become even more contentious with regards to trans athletes now as policies and the lack of policies involve discourses of sexism.
Policies or Policing the Body?
Although there are 30 states which have public school policies that considerably allow transgender athletes to participate in sports as their preferred gender (Edmonds, 2016), there are still other states which have policies grounded in discriminatory practices. A controversial one is North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (or HB2). It demands that trans individuals can only go to restrooms which match the gender with which they were assigned to at birth (Gleeson, 2016). Now, fortunately, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athlete Association) has pulled out 7 of their championship games from North Carolina in response to HB2. Unfortunately, this does not mean equality has been achieved and we’re already there. Cyd Zeigler, from Outsports, has pointed out that many within NCAA are still “against LGBT people” and that more needs to be done to show that this was not simply a “P.R. move” (Gleeson, 2016).
The NCAA luckily has become more specific and have transgender-including policies on the hormonal intake requirements to participate. However, the way these policies have been made does not treat all students equally. On page 13 of their handbook created in 2011, the NCAA allows a trans male, after obtaining permission for testosterone treatments, to play on a men’s team. He can also choose to play on a women’s team if the team has a mixed status. For a trans female, however, the situation is not as flexible. She can still play on a men’s team but must take one year of testosterone suppression treatment to play on a women’s team. Logan Brouelette, in a TEDx talk, mentioned that this meant that out of the four years an athlete has under NCAA, trans female athletes have one year less than others to play and also that this was a double standard.
Again, this situation is very much like Fallon’s, however probably less mentioned because these involve students, not mega-celebrities. At the core of this testosterone-focused policy seems to lay the sexist assumption that the trans female athlete cannot compete immediately because she was “biologically” a male and thus must be inherently stronger than non-transgender females because she is presumed to have more of that “male” hormone (testosterone). On the flip side, it just seems odd that if testosterone were such a vital hormone to playing, why would the trans male then be given the green light to play with “biological” males without requiring one year of testosterone treatment? This contradiction shows the constructed nature of testosterone as strength and the “biological” male as superior. All people and players come in various shapes, sizes, and physical makeup and many of the times, “biological” traits which can be performance boosting are not seen in the same vein as testosterone is to define playing results. McClearan (2015) mentioned that height and the number of twitch fibres are not seen as competitive advantages which segregate basketball players and sprinters from the average person, respectively (p. 78).
In addition, hormonal treatment requirements can be humiliating for trans athletes during their developing age in school. Asher Wells, a Lincoln High student, feared of applying to the boys’ tennis team because of the body-checking procedures of the Gender Identity Eligibility Committee (Michaels, 2016). So although the NSAA and high school associations wanted to progress by following the NCAA’s footsteps in standards, hormone replacement can probably mean something different when applied to students who are not in college yet. Some have said that hormonal treatments are costly and can lead to unwanted gender scrutiny (Michaels, 2016). Wells’ incident reflects that of Bailer’s need to conform (Lucas-Karr & Crane, 2012, p. 35) because coming out is not easy when people are constantly policing the gender boundaries. Usually, schools place the responsibility on the transgender individual to come out and this blaming of the individual can make coming out a difficult process, reinforce the gender binary, and, in effect, prevent trans athletes from participating in sports at all.
Trans-forming Our Thoughts
As can be seen over the course of this post, transgender issues also affect non-transgenders. The root of transphobia comes from a belief which positions non-trans females as inferior. Such a belief can sometimes be perpetuated simply through the language used (Angelini & Billings, 2010, p. 367) and can subvert even the people voicing them, such as Rousey and those who were against Wangyot’s participation on the track field. After seeing the paradoxes and double standards in trans athlete settings, the portrayal of gender as a fixed binary is a social construct which arises from efforts to preserve the patriarchal system, rather than from actual observations of physical capabilities.
Although the capacity of the individual is limited when facing inequalities in policies involving transgenders, Chris Mosier, the first transgender athlete to be on Team USA, has noted that “[Change] happens from the bottom up just as much from the top down” (Moitozo, 2016). Logan Broulette, a prior transgender student-athlete, noted that small acts like using the proper pronouns can be life-saving. Attend talk sessions and reach out to transgender advocates to contact policymakers. Inform policymakers why a policy is problematic and how it could be changed or what could be added. Many times, institutions, such as the NCAA, who claim to want to be more transgender inclusive, do not notice the issues with their policies. We can all take a step by being more informed, start a dialogue with those who have come out, network, and enact top-down movement from bottom-up connections. Ask questions, even when it means clarifying the seemingly simple things. The language you use can affect the way gender is framed. Change is not easy, but it all starts with trans-forming our thinking.
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