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Gender bend it like beckham?

Publishing Date : 18 February, 2019

Stuart White
The World in Black-N-White

I’m going to talk about a transgender issue today but I hasten to clarify that I’m not planning on entering the area of sexual orientation, nor the debate on self-identification per se.   Also I know I’m going to have to tread carefully because this whole area is a moral and metaphysical minefield but as the songs says ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’!

I restrict myself to one aspect only and that is the area of sports, specifically professional athletes and it is here where some of the  problems of the gender fluid society are manifesting themselves.  Let me begin with a name with which you will probably be familiar – Caster Semenye.  You will probably recall that  Ms. Semenye, a professional South African sprinter, caused a great deal of debate and controversy when she first burst on to the athletics scene about 10 years ago. 

There were those who questioned her gender, based on her looks and physique, and therefore questioned her rights to compete as a woman.  She was subsequently required to undergo gender testing before being allowed to continue competing and there the matter seemed to end, until now.   This report is from the AFP and The Times:

Women's 800m champion Caster Semenya could be forced to take testosterone suppressants if she is to compete in women's competitions, athletics chief will tell a court.  The IAAF, the International Association of Athletics Federations, is to argue that Semenya should be classified as a 'biological male' and forced to take testosterone suppressants if she is to compete alongside other women.

Ahead of a landmark hearing at the Court of Arbitration (CAS) next week, The Times said that the IAAF will contest Semenya and other athletes with 'differences of sexual development' (DSD) should only be able to compete with lower testosterone levels to ensure a level playing field. However, the IAAF hit back at the 'biological male' claims on Wednesday.  'The IAAF is not classifying any DSD athlete as male. To the contrary, we accept their legal sex without question, and permit them to compete in the female category,' the IAAF said in a statement.

However if a DSD athlete has testes and male levels of testosterone, they get the same increases in bone and muscle size and strength and increases in haemoglobin that a male gets when they go through puberty, which is what gives men such a performance advantage over women.  'Therefore, to preserve fair competition in the female category, it is necessary to require DSD athletes to reduce their testosterone down to female levels before they compete at international level.'

Semenya, along with South Africa's athletics association, is challenging the IAAF's new eligibility rules that would oblige DSD runners in women's middle-distance races to have significantly reduced levels of testosterone for the previous six months. As well as Semenya, the silver and bronze medallists of the 800m at the Rio Olympics, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Kenya's Margaret Wambui, have also faced questions about their testosterone levels.

'If the CAS rules that legal recognition as female is sufficient to qualify for the female category of competition, and the IAAF is not permitted to require athletes of female legal sex who have testes and consequently male levels of testosterone to reduce those levels down to the female range, then DSD and transgender athletes will dominate the podiums and prize money in sport,'

To clarify, high levels of testosterone, known as the male hormone even though it also is present in females, greatly affect the physique of the individual, boosting upper body strength, muscle development and stamina.  It is for this reason that almost all professional sports have historically been separated into men’s and women’s events, so that players of each sex literally and metaphorically play on a level playing field. 

In practical terms this means that men’s sport is effectively played at a higher level in terms of how far a ball is kicked, batted or thrown, how fast a swimmer can power through the water and of course how quickly an athlete can run round the track.  Without separation, then, there could be no fairness.  In the words of Jonathan Taylor, the IAAF's London-based lawyer , otherwise   “women with normal female testosterone levels will not have any chance to win.”

There is, of course, no suggestion that Ms. Semenye is a closet transgender, merely that her body might produce an excess of testosterone but her case does lend itself to the debate in as much as any male athlete self-identifying as a female would clearly have an unfair physical advantage where they to compete in a female event.  Under present IAAF rules, this is not permitted; however it is permissible for a male who has transgendered to a female to compete in the new gender but they can perform professionally only after they have taken testosterone suppressants for a specified period of time. 

In amateur events, however, there is no such restriction and therefore such trans athletes could presumably compete and qualify for professional status by unfairly trouncing the female competition at lower levels , thereby fast-tracking themselves to the entry ranks of the professional sport.

Like I said, it’s a minefield  when it should just be a playing field.

I now move on to a related issue and one which would seem to be more clear cut but in today’s semotive climate  can apparently be raised as a serious point.  A female MP in the British parliament this week made a speech in which she pointed out the disparity in the pay gap between male and female footballers. 

Specifically she cited the anomaly that in the  women’s FA cup leagues, the prize money was a mere £1/4m  ( P3,75m) whilst in the men’s league the trophy netted a cool £30.6m (P459m).  This she  branded a national disgrace and she called on her fellow MPs to support her call for equal pay in the footie ranks.

Begging your pardon, Honourable member but It will never happen!  Professional men’s football is less a sport and more big business.  It generates huge income from ticket sales, television rights, sponsorship deals, club clothing, souvenir and memorabilia sales and advertising.  Top players and managers earn silly money salaries with so many zeros  even they lose count. 

And so long as punters keep on coming through the turnstiles it will ever be so.  The women’s sport, however, languishes in the shadows for all the reasons laid out above – the men compete at a higher level and that’s a biological fact, not an opinion.  Sorry, ladies, it is what it is.  I have made no judgements here, merely laid out facts and its for you to draw your own conclusions.   I will, however, come to a close on a much lighter note which is from a posting on the internet by what must be a puzzle-loving wag who pointed out that an anagram of the name Caster Semenye comes out as ‘Yes, a secret man’.  You couldn’t make it up!



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