Tuesday, January 26, 2010

IOC Releases “New” “Gender” Verification Policy

On January 17-18 The International Olympic Committee (IOC) convened a meeting of medical experts in Florida to discuss policy recommendations for the inclusion of intersex athletes in IOC-sponsored events. Though they claim otherwise, it seems likely that this meeting was called as a result of the colossal mishandling of reactions to South African runner, Caster Semenya’s victory in the World Championships last summer (See my blogs on August 21, September 8 & 10, and November 23 on for more information).

First, a lesson on language here. I am getting so tired of regular folks, let alone medical experts, who use “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. They are not the same thing and the difference is important. Sex refers to our physiological, hormonal, genetic make-up that defines us as male, female or intersex. Gender is a social construct that refers to our self-identification as men or women or something else entirely. It encompasses a whole array of social characteristics that we use to express the gender we prefer, including clothes, hairstyles, mannerisms. The IOC is talking about sex verification, not gender verification. Can we please use the correct terminology?

Also, the language of pathology used by the medical panel, though not surprising since they are, well, medical people, biases the conversation when intersex people are classified as “disordered” and in need of “treatment.” Once we pathologize a group of people we are already on the road to discrimination. In the not too distant past (and the present, in some cases) medical science pathologized women, people of color, Jews, gay people, transgender people, disobedient children and people with disabilities and the results were not pretty. I hate to see us heading down the same road with intersex people.

Ok, back to the panel -

What this panel of medical experts came up is a major disappointment for anyone who was hoping that new IOC policy recommendations on the inclusion of intersex athletes would be more enlightened than the gender inquisitions of the past. The panel recommended that these “disorders of sexual development” be treated as medical problems and that athletes who are identified as intersex should be required to undergo hormone therapy and surgery in order to compete. The panel claims they are only concerned about the health of the intersex athletes. How noble of them. However, their recommendation ignores the many intersex people who live perfectly healthy lives without hormones or surgery. SIDEBAR: Setting aside the mind boggling human rights issues for the moment, I wonder who will be paying for all of this medical treatment? What if the athlete in question is perfectly healthy and happy just as they are? What if being intersex affords them no unfair advantage in competition?

Here in lies one of the mysteries for me in the panel’s recommendations – they completely sidestep the issue of unfair competitive advantage which is what drives this whole controversy. What could have been enormously helpful would have been for these medical experts to be clear about how being intersex can or cannot not affect athletic performance and whether or not it is even reasonable to worry that intersex athletes are enjoying an unfair advantage given the wide range of competitive advantage and disadvantage that already exists among female athletes. The implication is that the panel thinks they do. Why else would they require intersex athletes to take hormones and have surgery before they can compete. But for a medical panel to fail to address this issue is baffling to me.

How, you might ask, will intersex athletes be identified? Well, on a case-by case basis. The IOC is recommending that medical centers be set up around the world solely for the purpose of “diagnosing and treating disorders of sexual development among athletes.” Now this is one scary proposal don’t you think?

The IOC learned their lesson about mandatory sex verification already, but the case-by- case process sounds to me like the same policy that caused so much trouble for Caster Semenya. The problem is that the criteria for questioning an athlete’s sex are extremely subjective and dependent on perceptions of what a woman “should” look or act like based on socially constructed gender expectations. Will any woman who is “too” tall, “too” strong, has a voice that is “too” deep, wears clothes that are “too” masculine, win races by “too” big a margin now be at risk of being challenged and sent to the nearest sex testing center for poking and prodding?

I am really curious about why the IOC chose to invite only medical experts to this panel. Perhaps if they had looked at the issue from a broader perspective by including legal experts, intersex rights advocates and - hold the phone, Martha – even intersex people themselves, maybe the panel’s recommendations wouldn’t seem so narrow, unreasonable and backward.

Endnotes: A new advocacy group, headed by Canadian athlete, Kristen Worley, has some alternative recommendations for the IOC. Also see Patricia Nell Warren’s Outsports blog about the IOC panel here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Closeted Lesbian Coaches: Chicken Shit or Caught in a Web of Homophobia and Sexism?

Last week while I was in Atlanta at the NCAA convention, I got an alert on my trusty Blackberry that Pia Lundhage, the lesbian United States women’s soccer coach, came out on Swedish TV. I am always excited when high profile athletes and coaches come out publicly. There are still so few who do that it is still a big deal to me. In Pia’s case, it’s not as if she was in the closet anyway, it’s just that she had not talked about being a lesbian in public before. I think it provides an educational moment when the press covers it and people react and have to think about the fact that another accomplished coach/athlete in a position of high visibility and responsibility is queer.

Anyway, at one of the receptions at the convention that evening I was talking to a woman who is a faculty rep working with the NCAA and her school’s athletic department. She is also a very out lesbian. We were talking about Pia’s coming out and I was saying that I thought this news was exciting. She responded that she thought that lesbian coaches should come out because, when they don’t, they are part of maintaining a hostile climate for LGBT people in athletics. Her take on the news was that closeted lesbian coaches are basically chicken shits who could come out if they wanted to and have a responsibility to if we are ever going to change the climate in athletics for LGBT people. I’m sure there are other people who would agree with her. There is a perception out there that it is easier for lesbian coaches and athletes than it is for gay male coaches and athletes to come out. If so, it follows that the lesbians who remain in the closet must be cowards who are holding back the cause of sports equality for all, right?

I respectfully disagree with my colleague at the NCAA convention and anyone else who thinks it is easy to be a lesbian in college athletics or that lesbians who don’t come out are cowards who, by their silence and invisibility, perpetuate the climate of fear. Would I love it if more women did come out publicly? You betcha! Do I think the silence and invisibility of lesbian coaches and athletes perpetuates homophobia in women’s sport? Yessiree, I do. What I don’t like and have a visceral reaction to is blaming closeted lesbian coaches for the perpetuation of homophobia in sport. It feels like blaming the victim to me and it comes from a place of privilege and safety whether the person expressing this perspective is gay or not.

Before we start calling out closeted LGBT coaches and athletes, let’s take a look at the failure of heterosexual coaches and athletic administrators to step up (as they say in the locker room) and take on the outrageous acts of homophobia that are still an all too common daily occurrence in sport. Let’s call to account coaches associations, athletic administrator associations, athletic conferences and national sport governing organizations for their complicity and silence, for their failure to take a stronger leadership role in challenging and sanctioning schools and individuals who actively discriminate or turn their back on acts of bigotry on teams and elsewhere in athletic departments. That is what enables and perpetuates the climate of fear and silence in athletics, not the lesbians and women who are presumed to be lesbians who are targeted by homophobia and heterosexism. Some of whom are also dealing with racism or other institutional and cultural injustices that add to the weight of homophobia and sexism that women coaches and athletes face.

Every one of these organizations is responsible when their leadership has not made these connections or has not recognized that silence equals consent, if not support, for the discrimination against lesbian coaches and athletes that is the reality in far too many schools: The AD who backs a coach who kicks a player off a team for being gay or makes her life so miserable that she quits, the school president who backs an AD for firing a lesbian coach using trumped up or plain false justification to hide the blatant prejudice behind the decision, the silence of a coaches’ association when a member is targeted by negative recruiting by another member, the refusal of an athletic administrators’ association to include programs on LGBT issues in sport on their national conference agenda, the athletic conference that lacks coaching ethics policies addressing anti-gay practices, the school that celebrate the successes of a lesbian coach as long as she hides her sexual orientation and enforces a code of secrecy on her players. This is what maintains the climate of silence and fear in women’s sports, not closeted lesbians who work within this hostile climate.

For every school, conference, athletic or coaching association, or sport governing organization that is working to address homophobia in women’s sport, there are many others who are not. I celebrate the efforts of the schools and organizations who have chosen to address this injustice and I salute the individual lesbian coaches and athletes who come out. That is why Pia Lundhage coming out is still a big deal and any other lesbian coach coming out will remain so until all of us, not just the closeted lesbians, take responsibility for changing the culture of fear and silence that sucks the joy out of sport.

Monday, January 11, 2010

An Apology for My Absence

I apology for my absence here in the blogosphere. I cannot seem to focus on writing a coherent blog post right now. I know this is temporary, but until it passes, I got nuthin’. So in the interests of not appearing to be completely MIA, I am writing this post.

I want to thank everyone who has written to me personally or in their blogs about the elimination of my It Takes A Team position at the Women’s Sports Foundation. I appreciate the recognition of what It Takes A Team was accomplishing and the collective sadness that my position is terminated at the end of January. I’ve had some conversations with folks about future possibilities for me to continue this work and I’ll certainly keep you posted as I sift through the ideas. Right now I admit to feeling a little at loose ends. I think it reflects the reality that I am not ready to retire. I feel like I still have a lot to say and do with regards to LGBT issues in sport, but I’ve lost my focus temporarily.

On Wednesday, I am going to the NCAA convention in Atlanta. I will be on a panel with Helen Carroll of NCLR, Laurie Priest of Mount Holyoke College, Ted Rybka of GLAAD Sports Desk and Mark Schuster of Rutgers University. Our panel will focus on the role of Faculty Athletic Representatives in addressing LGBT issues in athletics. It will be one of my last It Takes A Team gigs.

The last ITAT gig will be the first week of February speaking to school counselors about the roles they can play in addressing LGBT issues in their school athletic programs. My final ITAT task will be to work with Helen Carroll on the report that will reflect the best thinking that came out of our October national think tank on equal opportunities for transgender student-athletes. We hope to have that finished and available by early spring. It can’t be too soon either. It seems like state high school athletic associations are becoming aware of the need to create policies for the inclusion of transgender athletes. In the last month, I’ve had conversations with people from four different state athletic associations looking for help and guidance in creating policy. We hope our report will provide the guidance people are asking for. That is, in addition to the Washington state policy which is the first and best policy out there right now. You can see that on the It Takes A Team resources page.

Well, that’s it for now. Here’s hoping I get some inspiration soon. You’ll be the first to know.