Is it fair to make certain athletes take drugs in order to compete? It seems contrary to the very ethos of athletic competition, which punishes the use of steroids and instead encourages making the most of one’s natural talents. Yet this is exactly what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is recommending in cases of women whose bodies naturally produce higher levels of testosterone than other women’s, a phenomenon known as hyperandrogenism.An estimated .05% to 1.7% of the population is born with what are known asintersex variations, which means they are men with physical characteristics that are considered female, or women with physical characteristics that are considered male.
I became riveted to this issue because I am an intersex woman, and hyperandrogenism is sometimes caused by intersex variations (differences in sex anatomy that one is born with.) I always felt like a girl and fit in as one, even becoming a cheerleader in middle school and high school. Then, at twenty-six, I read an article through which I discovered that “intersex” is the word that describes my body’s unique traits. But instead of meeting others like myself when I contacted the group mentioned in the article, I met people who’d been traumatized and physically damaged by cosmetic genital surgeries and hormone treatments they’d been subjected to in infancy and childhood, and it moved me to become an intersex activist.
Last October, at the IOC’s second meeting on the topic of female athletes with hyperandrogenism, I advocated that these women be allowed to compete without having to take hormones in order to do so. After all, they have been women all their lives, not men, and there are only two sexes available to compete as. How can sporting bodies suddenly declare there is some other category, one that needs to take hormones in order to be “eligible” as female?
I noted, as others have, that many athletes have conditions that give them physical advantages, and that seeking to remove the advantages of only women with hyperandrogenism is discriminatory. This is demonstrated by the fact that men with the intersex variation Diplo, a.k.a. XYY, produce higher levels of testosterone than other men and could also be said to have an “unfair physical advantage” over their peers. Yet no one is insisting that they lower their testosterone levels to the “normal” male level.
The real issue is thus not one of unfair advantage, but of some people’s inability to accept women who appear masculine. This is evidenced by the fact that, although some claim it was only Caster Semenya’s stellar performance that called her into “suspicion,” runner Pamela Jelimo, who sports long hair, has outperformed Semenya and was not forced to undergo gender verification testing.
Discrimination against people who do not conform to social expectations of gender was also witnessed during the 2010 Winter Olympics, when French Canadian sportscasters Alain Goldberg and Claude Mailhot mocked gay figure-skater Johnny Weir. “We should make him pass a gender test at this point,” Goldberg said. Mailhot then suggested that Weir should compete in the women’s competition. Ultimately however, Weir was left alone.
Male athletes accept that some of their competitors have physical advantages that may give them an edge. However, certain female athletes do not, and are urging that their competitors be barred from the careers they have worked so hard at if they refuse to remove their natural advantages through reverse doping. Sadly, they do so despite hearing how damaging it can be to be forced to take hormones you have not previously wanted or needed.
In their defense, both the IOC and IAAF abandoned mandatory gender-verification testing over a decade ago because the tests never unearthed men masquerading as women (as was their intention), and they decided that disqualifying women revealed to have intersex variations was not scientifically sound or ethical. However, they left testing as an option if an athlete came “under suspicion,” which led to the testing of Caster Semenya and ultimately pressured them to re-examine the issue.
At the meeting, I argued that if sporting bodies insist on appeasing complaints, all women should be subjected to the same testing procedures, rather than singling out individuals, and that the exact criteria to be deemed eligible as female should be openly stated, rather than determined subjectively by private medical teams. I know first hand what it’s like to undergo examinations by unknown specialists who believe your natural variance is a flaw to be “corrected,” and it’s not something I would recommend to anyone. Instead, athletes’ testosterone levels could be tested in conjunction with the currently existing anti-doping tests.
Let’s hope that the regulations yield a transparent eligibility criteria determined by uniformly applied testing. After all, the top hyperandrogenism experts in the world were present at the IOC meetings. If they cannot state what deems one female, it is simply further evidence that men and women come in many varieties, and we should accept, not punish, the ones outside the norm.
Hida Viloria is the Human Rights Spokesperson for the Organisation Intersex International (OII), the largest intersex organization in the world with branches on six continents, and the director of OII USA. She has a degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of California at Berkeley, and has spoken extensively on the topic of intersex, including appearances in the documentary films Gendernauts and One in 2000, as well as ABC’s “20/20″ and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
She has also lectured extensively at universities including Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and N.Y.U., and written about intersex for CNN.com. In October 2010, she served, by invitation, as the intersex representative at the International Olympic Committee’s meeting of experts in Lausanne, Switzerland. She can be reached at www.hidaviloria.com.