In a society that finds comfort in a binary system, transgender athletes are often neglected, discriminated against, and left to navigate the unchartered streets of “otherness”. The arguments presented by those in defense of the binary male/female sporting system typically claim an unfair advantage of transgender women over their opponents, or a declaration that transgender women put cisgender women at risk in spaces such as changing rooms, toilets, etc. To put it simply, neither claim holds any merit.
In 2009, following her gold medal performance at the World Championships, South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya was made to undergo sex testing. The World Athletics, formerly known as the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), says it was “obliged to investigate after Semenya made improvements of 25 seconds at 1500m and eight seconds at 800m – the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use”. Journalist Ruth Padawer wrote in her article titled, ‘The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes’:
No governing body has so tenaciously tried to determine who counts as a woman for the purpose of sports as the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Those two influential organizations have spent a half-century vigorously policing gender boundaries. Their rationale for decades was to catch male athletes masquerading as women, though they never once discovered an impostor. Instead, the athletes snagged in those efforts have been intersex women – scores of them.
While Semenya, along with the athletes mentioned in Padawer’s article are not transgender athletes but rather athletes that display differences in sex development (DSD), their cases highlight the real issue organizations have against transgender athletes: they do not fit into their preconceived ideas of femininity and challenge the false-confidence of “fair play”.
The notion of “fair play” is a term developed and fostered by the wealthy, male-dominated, British public school system of the nineteenth century. They prized the idea of playing for the sake of the game and playing in a way they would want to be played against (the idea of do unto others as you would have them do unto you). On the other hand, they also openly shunned practicing, payment for play, and the poor. Today, the term “fair play” is determined by the rules and regulations of the sport and governed by the referees or officials in attendance. Athletes such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lebron James, and Michael Phelps have never been looked upon negatively for their athletic skills, whether nature or nurture and yet it is clear that they all have an “unfair” advantage over their opponents. However, female athletes (including those who were assigned otherwise at birth) are continuously tested, suspended, and banned from athletics because they fall outside the spectrum of what is accepted as a female in the binary system.
Recent bills have been presented across the United States seeking to wrangle and crush the inclusion of transgender athletes in the binary system; in other words, states are looking to force transgender athletes to participate in sports with the gender they were assigned at birth. Not only does this hurt any overall progress made for the LGBTQ+ community, but these bills put transgender youth in seriously precarious positions – positions that could lead to lasting harm.
The binary sport system not only negatively affects transgender athletes, but POC athletes, female athletes, and children in low-income situations. Sport is supposed to be a unifying and joyous activity; one that teaches camaraderie, teamwork, patience, and more. The current binary system is old and outdated for a 21st Century look on life that is progressing towards acceptance and encouragement of being one’s true self. Therefore, it is time the current sport system underwent a change in its makeup.
To learn more about transgender athletes, as well as athletes with DSD, and their relationship to sport, please visit the following:
- “They’re Chasing Us Away from Sport”: Human Rights Violations in Sex Testing of Elite Women Athletes
- Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies
- Gender Discrimination in Sport in the 21st Century: A Commentary on Trans-Athlete Exclusion in Canada from a Sociohistorical Perspective
- Transgender Women in the Female Category of Sport: Perspectives on Testosterone Suppression and Performance Advantage
- Transgender people in sport: Is the perceived athletic advantage real?
 David Smith. “Caster Semenya row: ‘Who are white people to question the makeup of an African girl? It is racism’. The Guardian. 23 August 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2009/aug/23/caster-semenya-athletics-gender
 Ruth Padawer. “The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes”. The New York Times. 28 June 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/magazine/the-humiliating-practice-of-sex-testing-female-athletes.html