Policing Women’s Sports Does Not Protect Women’s Sports

The World Athletics Council just barred trans women from competition if they transitioned after puberty — mind you, in much of the country, it isn’t as if transitioning as a teen is an option! They’ve also declared that all athletes with “a difference in sex development [will] be barred from competing internationally in all events unless they reduced their testosterone to 2.5 2.5 nanomoles per litre for a minimum of six months.” This feels quite specifically aimed at Caster Semenya, who, under the previous regulations was barred from running her preferred events (e.g. 800m). She had been allowed to compete in the 5000m. No more, however.

I’m reposting, reframing some paragraphs from a 2016 article I shared here—even then I was exhausted by the fascist obsession with women athletes who are “not really women” but are, it seems, always black. The men running this sport (track & field) just cannot let the idea of Caster Semenya go—Semenya, by the way, as great as an athlete as she is, is not the super dominant Godzilla storming through women’s sports with some freakish advantage that leads to the total destruction of all world records in her events. She’s just one of the best athletes out there.

Let me make it clear, for those of you who have been sleeping on this for the past 15 years.

Trans women are women and have competed in women’s sports for DECADES. And it’s been fine!

Some women have above average testosterone levels. This doesn’t make them not women. This is not an unnatural advantage. It is literally their bodies. Even if it gave people an advantage, and much research refutes that claim, that should be OK. The best athletes have advantages! And it’s never reducible to a single feature of their physiognomy. That is just not how it works and frankly anyone with even basic awareness of sports gets this.

These rules impact all athletes who can, through these regulations, be subject to truly invasive gender policing—e.g. medical examination, by which I mean pelvic exams. This can be forced on an athlete by sporting officials, shitty parents, abusive and homophobic coaches. Anyone with short hair, delayed puberty, facial hair (not uncommon for girls and women), broad shoulders, flat chests or just plan swagger can cause gender panic. Lots of people decide NOT to play sports because they consider this kind of social ecology murderous. They are not wrong.

This end-of-women’s-sports fantasy imposes on women’s sports a surprising fragility given that almost every women’s sport we can think of has survived being actively suppressed by men with arbitrary regulations and outright bans (limiting, for example, women’s tennis matches to three sets instead of five; barring women from marathons, virtually outlawing women’s soccer).

Women’s sports will not disappear because women with different hormones and gender presentation are allowed to compete against each other. PERIOD. Pun intended. If I weren’t menopausal I would write this in my own menstrual blood.

Women’s sports is not a “protected category.” It is, instead, the category that takes the most beatings.

Athletes compete as women by virtue of the alignment of their identity (as they perceive it, as others perceive it) with this already-existing category of gender. That alignment is not stable; it is a site of constant negotiation. And it is compulsory. We do not have women’s sports because women need to be protected from men. We have women sports because the world has women athletes. We also have women’s sports because gender difference is such a powerful, defining aspect of our experience of being in a body that we enjoy – as athletes and as spectators — the spectacle of gendered subjects in competition with each other as gendered subjects.

That enjoyment is NOT biological. It’s political.

Quite a few of us, furthermore, also enjoy direct physical competition across gender and know to our bones that women must be allowed to lose to men in order to win against them. And so when it comes to mixed-gender competition, there are a lot of us out here who say: bring it on.

IAAF regulations police gender in more way than via “sex hormones” (which, by the way, is not a biological category). IAAF stigmatizes the speed of women racing against men by moving marathon records set by women into a special category when those records are set in races in which women have run alongside men. The fastest marathon run by a woman is the fastest marathon run by a woman whether or not she is running alongside men. People run faster when they run with faster people. And to create the weird sense that women, as a category, are slower than men as a category, we have to minimize our awareness of the fact that, in fact, girls and women excel in a wide range of context when allowed to go toe to toe with male wrestlers, runners, soccer players, basketball players. Protecting women from direct physical competition against men holds women back. (Lindsey Vonn, the downhill skier, has bumped up against even more intense rules whose explicit aim is to slow women down. Men’s and women’s courses are mapped out differently, women’s courses are designed to be slower. When Vonn petitioned to race against men, she was petitioning to be allowed to race the same course as men — in order to achieve faster times. That petition was denied.) The practice of making women ski a slower course, or run only alongside other women do nothing other than slow women down — these other rules attempt to root out from women all traces of their own masculinity in order to shore up a sense of absolute gender difference.

Women’s sports is not a defensive structure from which men are excluded so that women might flourish. It is, in fact, the opposite of this: it is, potentially, a radically inclusive space which has the capacity to destroy the public’s ideas about gender and gender difference precisely because gender is always in play in women’s sports in ways that it is not in men’s sports (with a few exceptions — e.g. figure skating). Because men have been so committed to the “end of women’s sports” for so long, women’s sports thrives in the zone of destruction. It has its own character thanks to the gender trouble at its origin. If women’s sports has one job that really is different from men’s sports, it is the destruction of sex/gender difference. Men’s sports (again with a few exceptions which prove the rule) reinforce ideologies of gender difference. Women’s sports destroy them. Magic happens when the difference between men’s and women’s sports crumbles.

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