Trans American Revolution

This is a guest post by Laurie and Debbie. Debbie Notkin is a body image activist, a feminist science fiction advocate, and a publishing professional. She is chair of the motherboard of the Tiptree Award and will be one of the two guests of honor at the next WisCon in May 2012. Laurie is a photographer whose photos make up the books Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (edited and text by Debbie Notkin) and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (edited by Debbie Notkin, text by Debbie Notkin and Richard F. Dutcher). Her photographs have been exhibited in many cities, including New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, Toronto, Boston, London, Shanghai and San Francisco. Her solo exhibition “Meditations on the Body” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka featured 100 photographs. Her most recent project is Women of Japan, clothed portraits of women from many cultures and backgrounds. Laurie and Debbie blog together at Body Impolitic, talking about body image, photography, art and related issues. This post originally appeared on Body Impolitic.

Laurie and Debbie say:

We were deeply struck by this interview with Keelin Godsey, Olympic contender (who didn’t quite make it) for the hammer throw event. It’s worth listening to the whole thing.

Godsey identifies and lives as a man, and competes as a woman, for reasons that he explains clearly in this amazingly open conversation with Ann Schatz. The International Olympic Committee has had clear rules (the “Stockholm Consensus”) since the 2004 Summer Games. These rules are pretty stiff–to compete in the gender you were not biologically born into, you have to have had both top and bottom surgery and been on gender hormones for two years (if transitioning to male) and one year (if transitioning to female). The rules are also very gender essentialist, and don’t help in cases of indeterminate sexuality (such as Castor Semenya). At the same time, the very existence of clear rules for trans athletes was a major step towards legitimacy.

This year, Godsey was the first out American transperson ever to be a serious Olympic contender. As such, he was featured in a superb and sympathetic article in Sports Illustrated by Pablo S. Torre and David Epstein:

At 5’9″ and 186 pounds, Godsey is tautly muscular. He wears glasses and is dressed in black from his sneakers to his knit cap, which sheathes his blond, spiky hair. Over and over, from in front of a chain-link backstop, he grips the hammer’s handle and whirls in accelerating circles until it’s no longer clear whether he is spinning the ball or the ball is spinning him. His target distance, 226’4½”, is out on a gravel path beyond the frost-covered craters.

Godsey only learned the word transgender when he took a freshman seminar taught by Erica Rand, a women and gender studies professor at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Soon after, in another class, Godsey was shown a survey that had been administered by psychiatrists to judge gender identity. “In my head I was circling the answers,” he recalls. “I was like, Oh, crap.”

In the spring of 2005, shortly after shattering the Division III women’s championship hammer record (by throwing 195’4″), Godsey tackled his biggest challenge to date. After confiding in Rand, the then junior e-mailed Bates’s dean of students and athletic director to notify them of an impending change: Beginning with the fall semester, Kelly would permanently become Keelin and wished to be referred to as he.

Godsey still can’t remember what he said when he stepped in front of the bleachers that fall and informed his women’s track teammates of their captain’s new identity. … “It was a nerve-racking experience. I kind of blacked out.” All he knows is that the 30 or so girls around him were “pretty awesome” when they heard the news.

The article also includes a detailed survey of the history of trans athletes, from Renee Richards, who transitioned in the late 1970s, to a young soccer player, identified only as “Jazz,” who at eleven is living as female and fighting for her right to play competitive soccer in her chosen identity.

Looking at (and listening to) Godsey, we are struck by how difficult it is for him to choose between his deeply-felt identity as a championship track and field athlete–an identity which got him through years of bullying and harassment in high school and later–and his deeply felt identity as a man, which he believes is in some ways at odds with his athlete identification. He has consistently said that he would start medical transition after this year’s Olympic trials, whether he made the games or not. But now that he’s come so close, he’s not so sure. Transitioning will undoubtedly change his abilities. He’s in the uncomfortable (but familiar to many, and not only in sports) position of having to choose one “primary” identity over another. And he talks about it with remarkable candor.

In the article, we see something else. Sports Illustrated, the most mainstream of all sports journalism venues, has published a thoughtful, informed article about talented and likable trans athletes. This article says on every page, “These people deserve to be who they are.” That Torres and Epstein wrote the article is laudable, that SI published it marks an ongoing sea change in the world of sports.

Seeing this article called out on the cover of Sports Illustrated is both surprising and vindicating. The article surveys close to a dozen sports figures, in different sports, in different roles in the sports world, from different generations. All of these people have made or are making their life in the world of sports, being public about their birth genders and their current genders. This kind of social change can only happen when advocates are working tirelessly behind the scenes for change; at the same time, it only happens when the world is ripe for the advocacy.


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48 Responses to Trans American Revolution

  1. Nawtaskollar says:

    Why dont we have athletes compete regardless of gender?

  2. Nawtaskollar says:

    Why dont we have athletes compete irrespective of gender?

  3. Chuchundra says:

    Because if athletic competitions were not segregated by gender, female athletes would not be able to qualify for most events, let alone compete or win.

  4. Kristen from MA says:

    Impressive young man. Best wishes to him.

  5. matlun says:

    Because if athletic competitions were not segregated by gender, female athletes would not be able to qualify for most events, let alone compete or win.

    But this does not explain the existence of “men only” competitions. Why not have an open category and then a women only version if needed (ie depending on the sport).

  6. William says:

    I’m glad he felt confident enough to speak out and I’m glad he’s found a way to continue competing. I’m pretty certain I would have the courage for neither.

  7. Lauren says:

    Why dont we have athletes compete regardless of gender?

    There are also benefits to girls and women in particular competing among themselves in sports, especially group sports.

  8. LMM says:

    @5: That not only pushes the level of imbalance to the front (“You’re a female athlete but you can only make it to the women’s level? You must not be very good.”), but it also makes the category far more vulnerable to attacks for being useless. (After all, if there is an ‘open’ category, why do we need a women’s level? It’s not *our* fault that they’re biologically not good enough.)

    This isn’t just a question of awards, either — athletic scholarships, etc., would be *far* less evenly distributed if we got rid of separate men’s and women’s sports.

    Basically, this is a case where there is no really fair solution, short of eliminating athletic competitions altogether. The vast majority of competitive sports today are sports that women are very unlikely to succeed at on the highest levels in an ‘open’ category.

  9. Matt says:

    What exactly is the purpose of athletic scholarships at all? Aside from making rich universities even more wealthy? I mean, athletic scholarships are just thinly disguised bribes. You aren’t supposed to give kids gifts and stuff, but you can totes give them free housing, free food, free training, and such things that normal people have to pay 20-50k a year for. Plus what amounts to pretty serious legal immunity, access to booze and drugs, and other such things.

  10. nevermind says:

    I remember a similar discussion where someone suggested that instead of dividing between men and women we perhaps should use hormone levels or something. I thought that was interesting but don’t know how feasible/fair it would be since I don’t really know shit about biology.

  11. matlun says:

    That not only pushes the level of imbalance to the front (“You’re a female athlete but you can only make it to the women’s level? You must not be very good.”)

    It is not as if currently anyone is unaware that women are competing on a lower level than men, so I do not see that it would significantly change the situation in practice.
    (Just to clarify: I am specifically talking about the sports where women can not evenly compete against men. For sports where that is not the case I see no reason to have any sex segregated categories at all)

    In junior competitions the age categories are just upper limits and there is no problem with competing in a higher age bracket if you are good enough. What is the difference in principle?

    Another analogy are weight categories in boxing, weight lifting etc. If they are good enough, why should someone of a lower weight be disallowed from competing in a higher category if they want to?

    Beyond the general principle of removing unjustified sex discrimination, I see a couple of advantages:
    1. Those who do not fit into either category would at least have some competitions open to them. (As I understand it, a trans man in medical transition or recently transitioned would now not be allowed to compete in either category)
    2. If you want to compete with the men and do not fit well into the traditional binary sex category, you would not have to worry about intrusive and unnecessary medical checks.
    3. For high level female athletes there would be more training opportunities against strong competition, since they could for example enter the open category in local competitions.

  12. Donna L says:

    a trans man in medical transition or recently transitioned would now not be allowed to compete in either category)

    I believe that Keelin Godsey is free to compete as a man once he begins his medical transition. Even if he had to wait, his problem would be that even after taking testosterone for a prolonged period, his best results are unlikely to be at an Olympic level compared to cis-male competitors. So he’ll be kind of caught in between: ineligible to compete with women because of the testosterone; eligible to compete with men but unlikely to be able to succeed at the highest level.

    The rules are different, I think, for trans women athletes; a certain amount of time on estrogen, anti-androgens, etc. has to go by before they’re allowed to compete with other women. Because particularly for sports involving strength and speed and even stamina, the assumption is that they would have an unfair advantage over other women if they competed with their original levels of testosterone.

    I was hardly an athlete of any kind, but once upon a time I was actually quite strong for my size, at least in terms of upper body strength; the process of medical transition took a lot of that away. People who loudly oppose the participation of trans women in women’s sports, based (for example) on the fact that trans women tend to have a larger body size than cis women, generally have no conception of how much of an effect estrogen and anti-androgens have.

    So the concept behind the rules isn’t entirely absurd, especially if one is talking about Olympic-level competition.

  13. LMM says:

    @11: Again, because having ‘open’ and ‘women’s’ sections is *intrinsically* hierarchical — it *explicitly* states that women are not going to be as good as men at various sports. Separating the two categories means that there isn’t going to be official overlap. Gender-neutral competitions in sports which favor upper-body strength and specific builds just means that women have no chance of winning.

    It also doesn’t solve *anything* for anyone who is either intersexed or a trans* person who isn’t completely transitioned and who identifies as a woman. We’re back to the original argument — except *now* the solution is going to be “let’s eliminate the women’s category entirely.”

    Which, again, screws cis-women (and, as Donna L points out, post-transition trans-women, for that matter) over completely.

    There *is* no good solution here.

  14. matlun says:

    @Donna: I did some googling and it depends on the organization (unsurprisingly). The IOC specifies a minimum of two years on hormone therapy for both trans men and women, while the NCAA allows competition for a trans man as soon as he “has received a medical exception for treatment with testosterone for gender transition”. I am sure there are a lot of other policies out there…

    As the participation of trans women in sports, I have not seen any evidence making me second guess the sports and medical professionals who think a year or two on hormone therapy is enough to even out the playing field. Those loud complaints seem to me mostly uninformed opinion with a splash of anti trans sentiment.

  15. matlun says:

    @LMM: We will probably have to agree to disagree on the effect it would have on public perception.

    Those who want to compete as women will still have to put up with “gender testing” and messy rules for who should be allowed to compete. I do not see how that can be avoided since access to those competitions do need to be limited with some reasonable policy.

    I do recognize that the “open” category I am proposing would in practice be the same as the men’s competitions today. But the limitations today on who get to participate in them fills no purpose and is in my opinion simply unjustified discrimination. At least just let whoever wants to identify as male participate. But even that seems problematic to me. If there is some exceptional woman in one of these sports who is actually able to compete against the top men, why should we stop her? While this will probably never happen in weight lifting, surely there is some currently segregated sport where it could happen. For example Olympic skeet was barred to women in 1996 even though the 1992 champion was a woman. This just seems blatantly unjust to me.

  16. Donna L says:

    Shooting, sailing, and equestrian sports used to be, if I remember correctly, the gender-neutral Olympic sports. I know that shooting is now gender-segregated, but I don’t really understand why — isn’t success in that sport based largely on people’s eyesight rather than their strength? I’ve never heard that there are gender differences in how well people see.

  17. Jadey says:

    What about some kind of “weight class” system like there is in boxing or rowing, which categorizes people based on their actual physical characteristics for fairer matches rather than grouping them based on their *assumed* characteristics using a metric as imperfect as assigned gender?

    I can still see flaws, but it would be better than what presently exists. In my experience, there’s some hierarchy between weight classes, but not nearly so much. Though I suppose given rampant sexism, the lower weight classes would just become coded as “ladies” anyway. Still, it would open the doors for more crossover.

  18. Fat Steve says:

    What about some kind of “weight class” system like there is in boxing or rowing, which categorizes people based on their actual physical characteristics for fairer matches rather than grouping them based on their *assumed* characteristics using a metric as imperfect as assigned gender?

    The problem is that a large majority of modern day sports were invented by men, for men, and are therefore biased towards the male body, so they already are ‘men’s sports.’ Even something like darts, which you might not consider a sport, is biased towards men because it is necessarily more difficult if you have female breasts. This is why many people feel women’s sports shouldn’t be judged by rules made by and for men.

  19. DonnaL says:

    Even something like darts, which you might not consider a sport, is biased towards men because it is necessarily more difficult if you have female breasts.

    Archery I get, but why darts? (Not that I’ve ever played darts either before or after, but it doesn’t seem obvious to me that that would make a difference.)

  20. Jadey says:

    The problem is that a large majority of modern day sports were invented by men, for men, and are therefore biased towards the male body, so they already are ‘men’s sports.’ Even something like darts, which you might not consider a sport, is biased towards men because it is necessarily more difficult if you have female breasts. This is why many people feel women’s sports shouldn’t be judged by rules made by and for men.

    … except this is still making assumptions based on gender which would be better made by, in this case apparently, chest measurements. Because while there may be average differences in physique, there’s considerable overlap between the distributions as well. Plenty of women have chests as small as men, especially less pectorally-endowed men.

    And it’s not like people are being *forced* to participate in sports! This isn’t grade nine gym class. People volunteer to play and then are grouped by handicap or whatever (oh god, that sounds ableist, but it’s a golf term which seems applicable – just needs a better name) so that they can compete against people with similar physical advantages/disadvantages. What’s so unsporting about that?

  21. EG says:

    The archery thing is largely a myth. I’ve known many a large-bosomed woman who did not have any trouble with her breasts getting in the way.

  22. DonnaL says:

    Well, not that I fit that description, but it’s still good to know, in case I’m ever in a position where I need to shoot a bow and arrow.

  23. Bagelsan says:

    I know that shooting is now gender-segregated, but I don’t really understand why

    I’m going to go with “because women are actually better at this than men, hence re-segregation”… :p

  24. Fat Steve says:

    Archery I get, but why darts? (Not that I’ve ever played darts either before or after, but it doesn’t seem obvious to me that that would make a difference.)

    I would imagine that when you get to a competitive level any number of little things can have a bearing. I mean, it is what women’s darts players say, but it may just be a jokey apocryphal thing.

  25. DouglasG says:

    I think I’ve seen some explanation about darts, but can’t recall what it is.

    I did wonder recently, watching the late rounds of the U.S. Open 9-ball (sixth title for Allison Fisher!) tournament, what might produce gender equity in top-level pool. Perhaps, for instance, runout percentages might support a system for mixed matches in which the man would only break if the woman won two consecutive racks.

  26. Jadey says:

    @ Fat Steve

    I have a reply to you from last night still in mod (roughly comment 20).

  27. Fat Steve says:

    … except this is still making assumptions based on gender which would be better made by, in this case apparently, chest measurements. Because while there may be average differences in physique, there’s considerable overlap between the distributions as well. Plenty of women have chests as small as men, especially less pectorally-endowed men.

    And it’s not like people are being *forced* to participate in sports! This isn’t grade nine gym class. People volunteer to play and then are grouped by handicap or whatever (oh god, that sounds ableist, but it’s a golf term which seems applicable – just needs a better name) so that they can compete against people with similar physical advantages/disadvantages. What’s so unsporting about that?

    I was just defending people involved with women’s sports as trying to make things more rather than less equal. But, I’m just saying that is their intention, results don’t always match intention.

    Equally, I would be totally fine with a system like you describe, which also seems fair. One exception: I don’t think it would be a good idea for men and women to compete against one another in contact sports (I’m not just talking obviously ridiculous ones like boxing, but even something like soccer or basketball.)

  28. ibbica says:

    I don’t think it would be a good idea for men and women to compete against one another in contact sports (I’m not just talking obviously ridiculous ones like boxing, but even something like soccer or basketball.)

    (bolding mine)

    Soccer and basketball aren’t ‘contact sports’, unless there’s been a substantial change to the rules of which I’m unaware. Are you seriously suggesting that women and men can’t compete against each other in sports where they might do something as… unseemly as – gasp! – touch?!?

    Even in ‘contact’ sports (yes, even like Olympic boxing): we’re not talking here about an ‘average’ man wrestling an ‘average’ woman, where yes, you’d expect a substantial size/strength difference (at least for now) that would matter. We’re talking about elite athletes existing at an extreme of the human condition. We’re talking about sports that have rules describing what types and extents of physical contact are permitted.

    So I’d like to hear an explanation of exactly why a man and a woman of comparable size and strength, at comparable skill levels in their chosen sport, following a prescribed set of rules pertaining to physical contact regardless of gender, should not compete for fear of ‘contacting’ each other in competition.

  29. ibbica says:

    D’oh! Bolding fail, aisle 28! :( (Just reverse the bolding in the blockquote, if it doesn’t seem to make sense as written…)

  30. amblingalong says:

    Even in ‘contact’ sports (yes, even like Olympic boxing): we’re not talking here about an ‘average’ man wrestling an ‘average’ woman, where yes, you’d expect a substantial size/strength difference (at least for now) that would matter. We’re talking about elite athletes existing at an extreme of the human condition.

    Except the extreme of the human condition actually varies by sex. Integrating everything is defensible, but it would- inarguably- result in way fewer opportunities at the very top for women.

  31. Fat Steve says:

    Soccer and basketball aren’t ‘contact sports’, unless there’s been a substantial change to the rules of which I’m unaware. Are you seriously suggesting that women and men can’t compete against each other in sports where they might do something as… unseemly as – gasp! – touch?!?

    In “collision” sports (eg, boxing, football, and rodeo), athletes purposely hit or collide with each other or inanimate objects, including the ground, with great force. In “contact” sports (eg, basketball), athletes routinely make contact with each other or inanimate objects but usually with less force than in collision sports.
    —Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness, American Academy of Pediatrics

  32. ibbica says:

    Except the extreme of the human condition actually varies by sex.

    1. That seems to be the current condition in some (but not all) areas, yes. Do you really think those current differences are unrelated to how we view female athletes and what we expect of them? (Hint: what happened after the ‘obviously humanly impossible’ 4-minute mile was breached for the first time?)

    Integrating everything is defensible, but it would- inarguably- result in way fewer opportunities at the very top for women.

    2. But there would be opportunities “at the very top”. The current situation only allows women the opportunity to be “at the very top – of women“. I’d prefer the former, but YMMV.

  33. ibbica says:

    @Fat Steve, thanks – I really didn’t know that! Still not sure why that would make it a good idea to keep men & women separate, but thanks for the clarification :)

  34. matlun says:

    ibbica:

    That seems to be the current condition in some (but not all) areas, yes. Do you really think those current differences are unrelated to how we view female athletes and what we expect of them?

    There are actual intrinsic biological differences between the sexes. Surely that is not in dispute.

    For many sports that is a far larger factor than “how we view female athletes and what we expect of them”.

    This statement:

    But there would be opportunities “at the very top”

    just seems obviously untrue for many sports.

  35. Jadey says:

    There are actual intrinsic biological differences between the sexes. Surely that is not in dispute.

    Actually, not nearly as many as we believe. There’s more similarities than differences physiologically. There are some average differences, but also a lot of overlap (i.e., on average men as a group tend to be slightly taller than women as a group, but in terms of distribution of individuals, many women are taller than many men). I agree that in certain sports, people assigned male will have, on average, an edge over people assigned female. In other sports (someone above already pointed out, shooting may be one of these), people assigned female may have, on average, and edge over people assigned male. But these are *averages* – they don’t dictate individual performance, especially when we are talking about the most exceptional performers from each sex category.

  36. matlun says:
    There are actual intrinsic biological differences between the sexes. Surely that is not in dispute.

    Actually, not nearly as many as we believe.

    As who believes?

    Anyway, the most obvious differences are for sports that are basically tests of strength and physical power. For those sports it is easy to see that the well known and documented differences between sexes play a huge role. Track and field events (to somewhat return to the OP) would be good examples.

    There are other sports where there are significant performance differences but the reasons are unknown (for example pool, dart, chess). Even in those cases, there are no guarantees that the differences are caused by nurture rather than nature.

  37. Fat Steve says:

    Still not sure why that would make it a good idea to keep men & women separate

    While I’m sure you are the sort of person who wouldn’t dream of using a sport based contact as an excuse to touch up members of the opposite sex, but there are countless adolescents who don’t have your particular restraint. You brought up wrestling. Are you seriously suggesting that you can’t possibly see a problem if high-schools have non gender-segregated wrestling?

  38. mxe354 says:

    While I’m sure you are the sort of person who wouldn’t dream of using a sport based contact as an excuse to touch up members of the opposite sex, but there are countless adolescents who don’t have your particular restraint. You brought up wrestling. Are you seriously suggesting that you can’t possibly see a problem if high-schools have non gender-segregated wrestling?

    The problem isn’t non gender-segregated sports, though; it’s sexual assault.

  39. EG says:

    I see what you’re saying there, mxe354, but I also think that Steve is right, and concerns like that would definitely discourage young women from participating.

  40. Fat Steve says:

    The problem isn’t non gender-segregated sports, though; it’s sexual assault.

    Of course. But to not consider that it might be an issue in a sport where crotch grabbing is de rigueur is to deny that there is ever a potential for a sexual assault problem.

  41. Past my expiration date says:

    Are you seriously suggesting that you can’t possibly see a problem if high-schools have non gender-segregated wrestling?

    You know that there are actually is non-gender-segregated high school wrestling, right?

  42. mxe354 says:

    @EG and Fat Steve

    Considering the fact that sexual assault is still widespread, I do think that gender-segregation in sports is important. But sexual assault is not a necessary consequence of mixed-gender sports, even ones that involve touching and so on. That’s all I’m saying.

  43. Chiara says:

    While I’m sure you are the sort of person who wouldn’t dream of using a sport based contact as an excuse to touch up members of the opposite sex, but there are countless adolescents who don’t have your particular restraint. You brought up wrestling. Are you seriously suggesting that you can’t possibly see a problem if high-schools have non gender-segregated wrestling?

    i can see that to be true with wrestling… but u also mentioned basketball and football as being inappropriate for mixed groups?

    we played basketball with mixed groups in high school and sexual contact of any kind was never a problem. the thought never even entered my mind that it could be a problem. not letting boys and girls play basketball or football together because someone might get groped sounds a bit extreme to me

  44. EG says:

    But sexual assault is not a necessary consequence of mixed-gender sports, even ones that involve touching and so on. That’s all I’m saying.

    Absolute agreement here.

  45. Fat Steve says:

    we played basketball with mixed groups in high school and sexual contact of any kind was never a problem. the thought never even entered my mind that it could be a problem. not letting boys and girls play basketball or football together because someone might get groped sounds a bit extreme to me

    I’m not suggesting disallowing women who want to compete with the men from doing so. I was referring to the organization of competitive sports, and saying that women who might be uncomfortable with the potential of a boob grab being downplayed as a ‘foul,’ should not have to form their own leagues.

  46. matlun says:

    The sexual assault angle seems very strange to me. How would some public competition be a high risk situation for sexual assault?

    Is this just a theoretical speculation or is this a real issue? (Perhaps this is just me underestimating the general asshattery level…)

  47. Chuchundra says:

    In many instances, for Olympic events based on physical power, the minimum men’s qualifying standard exceeds the women’s world record for that event. In other words, the best woman ever on her best day ever would not be able to perform well enough to even be allowed on the field against the men.

    As an example, Florence Griffith-Joyner ran the 100 meters in 10.49 seconds. The “B” qualifying time for the 2012 Olympics for the men’s 100 meters is 10.24 seconds.

    As you see, men and women competing against each other would not result in fewer opportunities for women at the highest levels. It would result in no opportunity at all for women at that level.

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