Images: flickr / alvaro tapia hidalgo, cc licence
Images: flickr / alvaro tapia hidalgo, cc licence

A flaming hope

Is there a sporting chance that the Olympic torch will one day be held aloft by a transsexual sportsperson?

Laxmi Murthy heads the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange and is a Contributing Editor for Himal Southasian.

All eyes on London, where the Games have begun. Will the real girls please step this way? Telling the girls from the boys in international sport has been almost as contentious as cracking down on doping and performance enhancing drugs. Assigning gender, however, is way more complex than is popularly believed.

Recently, a retired track athlete living in Kolkata and working as a ticket examiner in the Indian Railways made headlines; not for her athletic prowess, but over whether 'she' was a 'she' at all. Twenty-six-year-old Pinki Pramanik was arrested in mid-June on charges of raping her live-in partner. The case was melodramatic on many counts, involving as it did a talented athlete who had bagged medals in 2006 at both the Doha Asiad Games and the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

A female live-in partner alleging rape is rare in itself. But a woman being charged of rape – and being accused of being a man – was the stuff of a Bollywood masala movie, and the Bengali press was particularly lurid in its coverage. Since a private doctor had declared that Pramanik was 'not a woman', male policemen felt free to grope her, manhandle her, and throw her into a cell in a men's jail. Far from proceeding along the established lines of medical and legal investigation in a routine rape inquiry, Pramanik was granted bail only 26 days later, after she was pronounced incapable of rape because she did not have a penis.

What Pramanik underwent is an everyday occurrence within the Indian criminal justice system: violation of human rights, and scant regard for the rights of people under trial. However, the added dimension of 'gender verification' brings to the fore the lack of sensitivity and absence of procedures to deal with gender ambiguity. Historically, Indian society has been more tolerant and accepting of gender ambiguities, and hermaphrodites – or hijras – had an important role to play in most communities. The 'Ardhanarishwar concept', or the notion that every individual has elements of the feminine and masculine, is part of Indian consciousness. But in the 19th century, the British created rigid categories of 'men' and 'women' for purposes of law, criminal law in particular.

Under current Indian law, only penile penetration is considered to be rape. Women's groups have challenged that definition, and are campaigning for a broadened understanding of sexual assault that goes beyond rape, or peno-vaginal penetration, to include other forms of sexual violence such as penetration by objects and other parts of the body. The Indian cabinet has just approved a new bill on sexual assault (SA Bill), one feature of which is gender neutrality, which means that men and transgender persons can also complain about sexual assault; that is, the perpetrator need not be a man, and the complainant need not be a woman. Had this law already been in place, Pinki Pramanik's trial would have gone differently.

Pramanik's allegation that her hands and legs were tied while 'gender determination tests' were conducted against her will, must be investigated with all seriousness, and those responsible for these violations punished. Far from according her privacy and dignity, it appears that an insider filmed one of the tests on a mobile phone, and that clip has been circulating wildly on the Internet.

Longer term, Pramanik's employers are reportedly pondering whether to let her keep her job, which was granted to her on grounds of being a 'female athlete'. Athlete she certainly was, but female? Will Pramanik also be stripped, in a summary manner, of her medals, just as Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of the silver medal she won in the 800 metres track event at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha after she failed a sex-determination test? These athletes, it is clear, are not faking being female, but are victims of a system that believes in the existence of only two genders, and none in between. Thus, all efforts are geared towards identifying whether an athlete is a 'real' woman.

Many athletes have not measured up in the past. South African Caster Semenya's 800 metres victory at the 2009 world championships was called into question after a failed gender test. Semanya was suspended, but was cleared for competition in 2010, and is now one of the stars of the London Olympics. Back in 1987, Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska, who won a gold medal in the women's 4×100 metres relay and bronze in the 100 metres at the Tokyo Summer Games in 1964, was disqualified following a test which revealed that she had an extra chromosome. Ironically, although experts opined that her rare genetic syndrome gave her no competitive advantage over other female athletes, she was prohibited from competing in the Olympics and other professional sports in the female category. Spanish hurdler Maria Patino, diagnosed with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), appeared female, but possessed XY (male) chromosomes. When she failed a gender test in the 1985 World Championships in Kobe, Japan, she was stripped of her titles and barred from competition, even though it was well known by then that in persons with AIS, the body does not respond to testosterone. Patino argued that since testosterone is the hormone that builds muscle and strength, a person with low levels of testosterone would not have a competitive advantage. Two and a half years later, in vindication of her stand, the International Amateur Athletics Federation reinstated her.

Making women and men

While routine sex testing has been abandoned as a norm, international sports governing bodies such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) have been adjusting varied guidelines in keeping with medical developments and the demands of organisations fighting for the rights of people with different gender identities. The IOC has come up with what is being described as a ‘civil’ method of verifying gender. From the discredited nude parades in the 1960s to examining anatomy via notorious ‘poke tests’, and from chromosomal analysis to hormone tests, gender verification in sport is gradually evolving. International sports regulating authorities seem to have fixated upon hormones as the definitive marker to tell the boys from the girls.

According to recent rules issued by the IAAF, women who want to compete in the female category must have specified testosterone levels not exceeding the male threshold. Likewise, the IOC’s regulations regarding female hyper-androgenism prohibit female athletes from competing in the women’s category if their natural testosterone matches levels considered ‘male’. Such females can then compete only in the male category, or consent to hormone therapy and regular monitoring. The long-term impact of these hormone treatments is not fully known, and is potentially harmful, given the delicate and complex human endocrine system.

These directives are based on the IOC’s debatable assumption that ‘men produce significantly more androgenic hormones than women and, therefore, are under stronger influence of such hormones. Androgenic hormones have performance enhancing effects, particularly on strength, power and speed, which may provide a competitive advantage in sports.’ However, in the arena of sports in particular, such a presumption is illogical, since strenuous exercise can elevate testosterone levels even in females. Thus, a woman athlete who trains hard and is tremendously fit can end up being disqualified due to an arbitrary ‘threshold’ level of hormones. The relationship between testosterone, sex and athletic performance is inadequately understood, as yet, and conventional notions of femininity could distort the scanty scientific evidence. 

Katrina Karkazis, a bioethicist at Stanford University, has challenged this regulation as ‘unfair, unscientific and possibly discriminatory against women who may not meet traditional notions of femininity.’ Critics also hold that individuals may have significantly varying responses to the same amounts of testosterone, and that this is only one element in an intricate neuroendocrine feedback system. Such a focus on a single hormone is ill-conceived, given that several natural factors such as height or muscle mass, which vary among ethnic groups, may give athletic advantage. Moreover, muscle mass, core strength, speed, stamina and resistance can legitimately be developed through training. As importantly, training for competitive sports also depends in great measure on the resources invested, both public and private, and on a country’s commitment to prioritise sports. Athletes are not born, they are made (and not all of them are made in China).

Likewise, there is nothing ‘natural’ or ‘inborn’ about gender. Gender behaviour – which encompasses our entire persona, including the way we look, dress, do our hair, talk, walk, sit, laugh, make love, relate to children or animals – is all learned behaviour. We ‘become’ girls and boys, and grow into being women and men. It is now increasingly clear that there is no universal or rigid boundary between men and women either in sex (biological) or gender (socio-psychological).

And what of those that fall in between when we draw lines between the sexes? ‘Intersex’ refers to any form of congenital (inborn) mixed sex anatomy; the term ‘hermaphrodite’ is more commonly used to describe this condition. According to estimates of the Intersex Society of North America, as many as one percent of live births exhibit some degree of sexual ambiguity, while 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent of live births are ambiguous enough to become the subject of specialist medical attention. A person born with an intersex condition has some parts usually associated with males and some parts usually associated with females, or she or he has some parts that appear ambiguous. Sometimes an intersex person can externally appear quite unambiguously feminine, although internally their sex anatomy is mixed (for example, a person with AIS).

To compound these problems of ambiguous gender definition criteria, a lack of awareness in the media means that it sometimes latches onto the most lurid aspects of a case, just as the Bengali press did in the instance of Pinki Pramanik. There are no guidelines for media reporting on such issues, and often insensitive reporting arises not from the deliberate effort to sensationalise but from the lack of awareness.

Some developments in the field of international sport are beginning to recognise that sex assignment at birth need not be the only criterion for classification. For example, the Stockholm Consensus, which emerged in 2004 after years of deliberation, regulates the participation of individuals who have undergone sex reassignment (male to female and converse) in international competitive sport. This move has come almost three decades after Renee Richards, an ophthalmologist and professional tennis player, was prohibited from playing in the 1976 US Open championships on the grounds of a ‘women-born-women’ policy. She appealed against the ban and won a landmark ruling by the New York Supreme Court in 1977, allowing her to compete in the women’s category.

Sex segregation in sport was aimed at ensuring a level playing field. It is doubtless one way to encourage fairness, but it is not the only one. Women with elevated levels of male hormones or ambiguous gender identities are not duping the public or bending rules, as those who consume performance-enhancing drugs are. The time has perhaps come to re-examine sex segregated sports and examine other ways of ensuring fair competition. Sports such as boxing and wrestling are categorised according to weight classes, for example. Nor are equestrian events sex-segregated, and judges evaluate skill and stamina rather than the sex of the rider, or of the horse, for that matter. Maybe there will come a day when an athlete who does not fit the description of either ‘man’ or ‘woman’ will be the emblem of true sporting spirit.

~ Laxmi Murthy is consulting editor at Himal Southasian, and director of the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange.

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