What’s “Level” and Fair for Trans, Intersex and Disabled Athletes?

What’s “Level” and Fair for Trans, Intersex and Disabled Athletes?

By Avory Faucette

May 21, 2012

As the Summer 2012 Olympics in London gear up, the media will be presenting a number of inspirational stories about athletes who have overcome odds, worked hard and sacrificed tremendously to achieve their dreams.

These stories speak to an ethos that has long been embedded in the collective imagination: athletics are about determination, grit and ambition, and they take place within a fair system by which anyone can emerge victorious. Unfortunately, some people will be missing from this inspirational pretty picture — namely transgender athletes, intersex athletes and athletes with disabilities.

Not everyone in these categories is excluded from the Olympics or other high-level competition, but the rules applied to these populations raise some tough questions about the way we as a society think about sports. Everyone, it seems, loves the heroic story of someone who has overcome all odds, and, as such, are drawn, for example, to stories of “miraculous” people with disabilities who achieve great things “in spite of their handicap.”

The same is true for transgender and intersex people: the public likes stories with happy endings, the tales of pioneers.

However, the lines of these inspirational stories are carefully drawn by those outside of the group. Those who are gender-normative and able allow people in those categories to be inspirational, but not in a way that actually brings “magical” persons inside their normative circle. The trans, disabled or intersex “hero” is a misnomer: when it comes to “hero” status, people in these groups are still stigmatized.

Often, athletes are cordoned off inside their own Olympics-like events. There is a Special Olympics, a Gay Games, a World Games for the Deaf. These events are not a bad thing, as they allow huge community gatherings and celebration of athletes in these groups (the World Games for the Deaf, for example, invites participation based on cultural affiliation, not level of hearing loss.) When some athletes can only compete in these special “versions” of the Olympics, the inspirational stories are told in a nonthreatening way, off to the side.

Some athletes are allowed to compete in the Olympics proper — people with disabilities who do not use assistive technology deemed “unfair,” transsexuals who have completed sex-reassignment surgery and hormone therapy, and intersex people who meet a certain androgen test.

But the question isn’t so much about who’s let in as it is about who’s excluded.

This narrative in the collective imagination about fairness means that the rules come down hard on those who are perceived to be taking advantage — athletes found to be doping, for example, or judges who mark unfairly. The fairness narrative is a form of magical thinking, however, because not eveyone who has an advantage in competition is penalized. Some advantages are okay. Everyone knows that some athletes do better because of body composition, because they were born into a family with thousands of dollars to devote to the sport or a country with an intense dedication to athletic victories, or because they were lucky enough not to get an injury. These are seen as “fair” or “natural” advantages, and we celebrate these athletes.

When a person who has differences related to gender or doesn’t fit ability norms is able to compete against the highest level athletes without these differences, accusations of unfairness immediately start to fly. Our collective magical thinking about the pool of “fair competition” does not extend to those we fear, revile or want to think of as objects of pity, rather than triumph.

When an athlete is able to run faster using a prosthetic leg than athletes who does not need this assistive technology, for example, the “advantage” conferred by technology is seen as an “unnatural” advantage that amounts to cheating, and the athlete with the prosthetic cannot compete in the Olympics. When a female athlete has too many androgens, or is taking hormones but has not completed sex reassignment surgery long enough ago or at all, she is positioned as a male in disguise with an unfair advantage over her competitors of “the weaker sex.”

Certainly, there are some legitimate questions about what is fair and unfair in athletics. I’m not sure exactly what sports should do about the gender issue, for example, though I agree with Lindsay Parks Pieper that a standard based on actual physical characteristics would be more fair. If sports are to allow more athletes using assistive technology to compete, then there will be some line in the sand that will need to be drawn, and I’m not sure exactly where that line should fall.

I believe the solution to these problems, though, is not any particular change in the rules, but rather a change in the way these issues are discussed. Public conversations need to get away from a theme of deception when discussing trans, intersex and disabled athletes.

Will men simply present and identify as women in a ploy to win Olympic gold, skeptics ask. This question ignores the real lived experience of trans and intersex women, just as claims about cheating with assistive technology ignore the real lived experience of people with disabilities. This is about authenticity, and the myth of fair and just “leveling” of the playing field through discriminatory rules denies several large groups of people the right to show their authentic human selves and legitimate accomplishments.

Wherever sports authorities draw the line, the athletes involved must be a part of the conversation, and their experiences must be included when making the rules.