Have you ever thought about the language of sex and gender? While it may seem easier and more succinct to think of people in terms of the bathrooms they use, it’s a conversation that’s much broader than ‘this way for ‘ladies’ and that way for ‘gents.” It’s also more than just being able to say you’ve watched all of Transparent.
In short, people don’t fit effortlessly into two boxes: women, who reproduce; and men, who merely play a part in reproduction.
Someone who knows this well is professional athlete Kristen Worley, a trans woman and a champion cyclist. In addition to simply being a speedster on two wheels, she was also one of the first post-op athletes able to vie for a spot in the Olympics after a 2004 International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision that allowed post-op trans athletes to compete (as long as it was two years after surgery).
But her battle is not a one-woman crusade by any stretch of the imagination – a theme reflected by an upcoming episode of HBO Canada’s six-part original doc series Sports on Fire. In “She Runs Like a Man” (January 30 at 9 p.m. on HBO Canada), Worley is featured alongside Caster Semenya, an Olympic athlete, silver medalist and one of the fastest people in the world. Following a gold medal win at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Semenya was forced to undergo gender testing, because there was speculation that the findings might unearth some kind of “rare condition” that may put her at an unfair advantage. That “rare condition” was, simply, being intersex.
The reality is a lot different from the popular assumption that trans and transitioned women are at a distinct advantage because they don’t align with the sex assigned at birth. Popular thinking usually goes something like this: this person was born a man – and is now a woman – so she’s getting the benefits of being a man physically but is now able to compete against women. The truth is, “my body goes like this,” she says, gesturing a downward slope, which indicates how her body reacts to being unable to produce testosterone. “I have no gonads, so my brain says to produce testosterone, but it just doesn’t occur. And then I atrophy.”
It’s not just her, either. Golfer Mianne Bagger has faced similar stresses, says Kristen. “She’s trying to advance in her career, but she’s consistently atrophying from a lack of hormones and her shots get shorter and shorter, so she can’t make the next tour. It doesn’t matter how much she trains and lifts.”
“The impact on women that we’re doing this to is lifelong. Sports mimics what’s going on in society,” Worley says with emphasis, discussing situations like Semenya’s. “We need to be more educated and more open to the variations of human design.”
If you go to a coaches meeting at Sports Canada with 250 people, it’s mostly male and all white.
And yet that’s the struggle. “If you go to a coaches meeting at Sports Canada with 250 people, it’s mostly male and all white. Even when it’s female, it is all white,” Worley says of the people who decide how gender and sex are approached by official sports organizations. “You go into those meetings – I don’t go, because of [this] – and the issue is that they’re all white, government-paid and federally funded. So they won’t overstep on their relationship with the IOC.”
That’s telling enough, but Worley’s struggles exceed being a talented woman in a white-male-driven world. She tells me about a conversation she had with a high-ranking IOC official, one that’s rife with intrigue: “I asked him one day, do you ever get outside of your office? I’d be happy to introduce you to key women,” she recalls. “Would you like to hear how they’ve been impacted by IOC policies?”
“Kristen, that’s just the way it is.”
His response: “Oh no, Kristen, no.”
She talks a lot about how people in power take social concepts they don’t fully comprehend but then try to put science around it. She says it’s a lot like “asking human beings to change their physical bodies to fit an ideology.” It’s akin to “trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”
When she brought up this issue with the same man from the IOC, she says he told her, “Kristen, that’s just the way it is.”
So, if that’s the way it is, is there any hope that things will change? She tells me it really boils down to education and understanding, as so many divides do. You can learn more about Kristen’s story and other proud women who are fighting to change gender-based testing in sports organizations on Sports on Fire, January 30 at 9 p.m. on HBO Canada.