I’ve always struggled with the gender divide in sports. As a person who sometimes identifies as a woman, and sometimes more on the masculine end of the spectrum, and mostly something else or in-between, but am cis-female passing, I struggle with gender binaries in general. But this kind of bullshit here reinforces my frustration with separating competitive sports by sex:
I’ve heard the very accurate and important argument that prior to Title IX, there was no equity for women in competitive sports. (See the picture to the left to remind you that we still have a long way to go.) I totally get, and agree, that having a men’s and women’s division is actually really important in establishing equal access to competitive and recreational athletics. I totally support this. But the problems that gender flexible, transgender and non-binary athletes face in regards to how their gender is determined by competition organizers, and thus how and whether they can participate in competitive sports, bothers me.
A typical argument about why a transgender woman shouldn’t be allowed to compete with cisgender women goes like this: “Well she has a biological advantage because of her testosterone levels!” In fact, a trans woman who has undergone hormone therapy has about as much estrogen and testosterone as your “average” cis woman. And goodness knows each woman has a different hormone balance anyway regardless of her sex assignment at birth. (Check out this article by Washington Post with further links.)
But, I think what bothers me more is that there is a gender binary in these sports at all. It’s hard when every time I sign up for a competition I have to choose between genders, neither of which fit me. I get that women have a position in competitive sport because of the tremendous power and force from my ancestors like Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson, and Kathrine Switzer. These women fought for (cisgender) women to have increased access to sports traditionally populated by cisgender men. Just as we used to expect only men to participate in most sports, we have now come to expect a gender binary. So, yes, massive change has occurred; but we still have a long way to go before there is gender justice in sport.
This is where cisgender women (and cis-passing “women” like me who are comfortable-ish enough in our cis-passing bodies most of the time) have leverage. For decades we have had access to sports that have traditionally been reserved for cis men (though still with inequitable cash payouts in some sports). Cisgender women are in a powerful position to advocate for inclusivity when it comes to our trans siblings. It’s up to us to continue to fight for inclusion and equity for all people wishing to compete in this sport.
And, to speak to the picture above: When we are fighting solely against the patriarchy and the misogyny of the oppressor, we limit our fight. We also have to fight for something, for inclusivity, and we can do this by remembering our wins and that we have a lot of wins left to make for true equity in sport. We can do this by continuing to fight for cisgender women making the same amount of money cisgender men make in our athletic (and other) careers, AND use our platforms to leverage those of us who are not making anything at all, because the folks who can’t fit into someone else’s idea of the gender binary are not allowed to compete.
Culture and community can provide safety, structure, shared experience, and connection. But many cultures, including cultures of sport, can become exclusive and insular. With the emergence of CrossFit (which is a notoriously white space on the elite level), some women are increasingly likely to feel socially permitted to be strong, muscular, and physically powerful. But in addition to being a primarily white sport, CrossFit is also a heavily gender-binary sport, and historically has not allowed out trans athletes to compete on the elite level.
I hope we can bust through the binary in strength sports by being thoughtful about our positions and privileges when it comes to gender, and advocate for folks who are still trying to get access to competition space.
I’m super interested in hearing from trans and non-binary athletes to hear your experiences in sport, and your thoughts about what I’m saying here and what I can do better to improve access to sporting spaces and eliminate bias and divide. Feel free to email me privately through my contact page.