Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Does Acceptance of Women's Sport Require Dismissal of LGBT Discrimination?

On Sunday ESPN’s Outside the Lines aired a segment on Kye Allums, the transgender man who plays on the George Washington University women’s basketball team. The segment focused on Kye and his mother with a follow-up interview with Helen Carroll from NCLR; Wendy Parker, a sportswriter/blogger and Kevin Blackistone, also a sports reporter. You can see these OTL segments here and here.

Kye impresses me as a young man with incredible courage who has a clear sense of his identity and is willing to be open about his transition journey so that others can learn from and benefit from his experience. I am also impressed with GWU staff and the basketball team who have addressed Kye’s transition and the public attention it has drawn with fairness and sensitivity.

Kye’s mother shared her struggles with his transition and still thinks of him as her daughter, repeatedly referring to Kye as “she” during the interview. I can empathize with the emotions a parent must experience when a child announces that her or his gender identity contradicts the gender she or he was assigned at birth. We have a long way to go before most people understand transgender identity let alone accept it. Kye’s mother is wrestling with her own feelings and her hopes for her child. She deserves more support in this struggle. I hope she will reach out to some of the great organizations and people who could fill that role. One I would suggest is Gender Spectrum.

One of the final questions the interviewer asked Kye was did he believe that it was “healthy” for him to be playing on the women’s team. What a curve ball question. Kye was clearly taken aback by the question and wasn’t sure how to respond. I don’t blame him. What was the interviewer looking for? Was he assuming that it is somehow not healthy for Kye to play basketball at all? To play on the women’s team? Is he concerned about the general “health” of women’s basketball or women’s sports in general when transgender people participate? What did he mean? I think the question reflects ignorance about transgender identity and also anxieties about gender, especially when our preconceived notions of gender as fixed and binary get challenged as they do by transgender people. I’ll pick this theme up in a discussion of the interview with Helen, Wendy and Kevin that followed the OTL segment on Kye.

Helen Carroll worked with GW to help them respond to Kye’s wish to make his transition public in a way that was fair to Kye, the team and the university. She has worked with other transgender student-athletes, their parents and schools on these issues. As a former athlete, championship coach and athletic director Helen knows what she is talking about when she discusses transgender issues and is also committed to women’s sports in general. Wendy Parker is a knowledgeable sports reporter who focuses on and is committed to women’s sports. How she was tapped for this interview however is an interesting question. Her comments reflected a lack of understanding of transgender issues and insinuated that somehow Kye’s participation on a women’s team threatens the mainstream acceptance of women’s basketball. That is a big burden to place on the shoulders of an athlete who is merely trying to live his life openly according to what is true for him. Wendy even questioned Kye’s integrity by implying that he was only participating on the women’s team to retain his scholarship. How cynical of Wendy. Kye was very clear that he is attending GW to get an education and play ball. Having a scholarship is enabling him to do both. He earned the scholarship. Why would he suddenly not have a right to keep it?

Wendy also wondered why Kye would want to be so public about what she apparently considers a private issue no one should talk about. She misses the point that Kye is probably saving lives by being public about his own experience. As Kevin points out, we have a suicide problem among young people who are bullied because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity. Wendy, though professing to admire Kye, seemed more concerned about the effects on his teammates of playing on a team with a transgender man. In, perhaps, her most ridiculous comment, Wendy even implied that the GWU team’s fall from the top ranks is somehow Kye’s fault and that Kye’s participation on the women’s team reflects a selfish disregard for the effects of his presence on the GW program and his teammates.

I know from reading Wendy’s blog and from her comments on my blog that she considers discussions of “social causes” in sport to be nothing more than politically correct distractions from more important issues in sport. Wendy’s message to LGBT people in sport: Shut up and keep your identities to yourself. You make women’s sport look like a freak show and impede our ability to draw mainstream sports fans and writers. Wendy was especially upset that ESPN aired this segment on the opening day of the women’s final four for this reason.

Wendy continues this line of thinking in her blog, where she expresses “some puzzlement over a self-identified male who wishes to be true to himself but still wants a place — and a scholarship — on a women’s team…Those were questions he avoided during the interview, and the lack of candor was obvious.”

There was no lack of candor in Kye’s responses, only a lack of understanding on Wendy’s part. I think Kye was incredibly open in his responses about his experiences and his relationship with his mother. It is really cynical to accuse him of lacking candor.

However, I am sure Wendy is asking a question that others who also lack information about transgender issues in athletics might also want an answer to. So, let me try. First, it is none of Wendy’s business (or anyone else’s) why Kye chooses to play on the women’s team. It is completely within NCAA rules for him to do so as long as he is not taking testosterone, which he is not. His teammates support Kye and have expressed that support publicly. His coach supports Kye and has said so also, even as he struggles to understand Kye’s identity. Kye’s basketball skills and abilities have not changed. He does not have any unfair physical advantage over his teammates or opponents. Don’t worry, Wendy, the women’s semi-final games were incredibly exciting Sunday night demonstrating the increasing talent and parity in the game so Kye’s participation hasn’t hurt women’s basketball as far as I can tell.

There is no relevant reason why Kye should not play on the women’s team. Perhaps the only reason is that having a transgender man on a women’s basketball team makes some people uncomfortable.

On the other hand there are lots of good reasons why Kye would want to play on the women’s team rather than the men’s team. His teammates on the women’s team are his friends. They are a source of support for him. Anyone who knows athletics understands the important role that teammates often play as a second family. Why would Kye want to separate himself from this, especially at this time in his life? Kye is a basketball player. For any student who loves the game and has played it throughout her or his school life, why would they give it up? To force Kye to play on the men’s team would mean, in all likelihood, that he would sit on the bench if he made the team at all. Why would he, why should he, give up participating on a team where he is accepted, supported and can get playing time when his participation is completely within the rules?

Wendy also writes in her blog that, “the women’s game is a full-fledged enterprise that long ago dwarfed narrow social causes but that still generate a very bright — and I think unwarranted — media spotlight.”

What on earth makes Wendy Parker think that sport, men’s or women’s, is somehow exempt from the need to address what she pejoratively calls “narrow social causes” that receive an “unwarranted” media spotlight? In other words she believes the expectation that sports, especially school sports, should reflect basic social justice values of equality, fairness and inclusion is only the concern of marginalized special interest groups who are forcing their agenda on women’s sports and impeding mainstream acceptance in the process.

Insisting that mainstream acceptance requires that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes and coaches must suffer discrimination in silence or give up their right to participate in sports is so 1950s, Wendy. I believe that both sports and the general public who watch it are better than that. Things are changing. Not because we have been silent about social justice issues in sport or dismiss them as distractions, but because some of us insist that sports must change with the times. Kye’s participation and acceptance on his team are only one sign that this is so.


Anonymous said...

Pat, I always feel a little less insane after reading your blog. I saw the piece on ESPN and was totally confused by Wendy Parker. It was as if I was watching an old show from the 90's. I was surprised at how totally uninformed she was. Perhaps that's exactly what ESPN wanted for their forum of participants.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that Kye, while identifying as male, is taking away a scholarship from a female athlete? It does seem hypocritical to play on a women's team when you identify as male. Perhaps GW can continue his scholarship while freeing up the athletic scholarship for a female athlete.

Wendy Parker said...

I understand where you and others come from on this subject, Pat, so I expected such a response.

The central reservation I have about this matter is that the story of Kye Allums is about more than him, and about more than the issue of transgender athletes.

He plays in a team sport and I don't think the overall interests of the team were taken into consideration here at all. GW people said all the right things but what else were they supposed to say publicly? They tried to limit media access -- something I'm not fond of -- because of all this during the season. Part of me doesn't blame them for that.

Nobody wants to come across as intolerant so I understood that what I was saying might be interpreted that way. But there were a few coaches and others who came up to me in Indy after this appearance to say how they appreciated the points I made. It was a delicate subject and I hesitated for a while when asked to talk about it. We're talking about a college student here, not somebody who's fully in the adult world.

You're right, I'm not an "expert" on transgender athletes but I am well-versed in the narrative of women's sports that can't seem to shake an obsession over causes and social issues at the expense of broadening their mainstream appeal.

Like it or not, for some viewers of "Outside the Lines" this issue might very well be the lens through which they see women's basketball. Anybody who likes the sport needs to be mindful of this.

Because of that, I took issue with OTL's decision to air this on the day of what turned out to be two terrific Final Four games, and wanted to use the opportunity to appear to point that out. Is this really the most pressing issue in women's basketball? I think not.

It's not a matter of Allums' decision to play on a women's team being "none of my business." If this were a biologically-born male, there'd be no end to the holy hell this would have caused.

I'm not the only one wondering about Allums' desire to be identified and referred to as a male while playing on a women's team. The OTL interviewer asked that question as well as the question about the scholarship. They didn't originate with me.

Allums was willing to put himself forward with his disclosure but I wonder what he and those advising him expected the response to be. Did they not think there would be some skepticism about his motives? Or at least some thought that he's trying to have it both ways, be a guy and play with the girls?

As I said on the air, if Allums made this painful public disclosure to be true to himself, that just does not add up.

Until those questions are satisfactorily answered they will persist.

Wyman Stewart said...

Congratulations! Everyone is right/wrong on this topic.

Wendy's questions had to be asked. If Kye answered them to the best of this human's transgendered brain's ability, then both did what they could at that moment. That has to be good enough for now. Pardon this, but this story is not for wimps.

None of you fully comprehend the mind of a person seeing this story. "Side-issues" are part of what's turning me off to pro and college sports? This website represents a few of those issues, but not all.

Fans who walk away, take their money with them. Then advertisers and supporters leave. Lots of folks suffer. Kye is a new "side-issue" to toss into the mix. Maybe worthy of study; maybe a waste of my interest in sports. I, the fan, decide that.

I will re-read this post. Check the links, which I hadn't intended to do. I will try to return to offer some objective thoughts.

The one I offer now is ALL OF YOU ARE WRONG/RIGHT ON THIS TOPIC. There is much to be thrashed out.

Some non-Wendy comments bring up relevant points. I am glad Wendy is taking part and I hope she can continue. "I'LL BE BACK!"

Anonymous said...

I'm glad there is someone like Wendy out there asking the questions and making the statements that none of her politically correct peers have the guts to become involved in. The fact that Pat is all over her comes as no surprise.

The final truth that even Wendy isn't willing to say is that it is painfully clear to everyone except the GLBT Community that their constant complaining and whining will never go away. Ever. They would rather screw up women's athletics for everyone than just shut up and compete.

Something Pat doesn't seem to understand is that in fact most people aren't comfortable with their community and that fact really changing in spite of their propaganda in the opposite direction.

They largely refuse to Come Out as members of their own community but they expect the general population to accept their lifestyle. Trust me when I say that the general public does not accept their lifestyle and they don't want it thrown up in their faces or pushed upon their children. No amount of complaining is going to change it.

It's not the general public's fault or responsibility that someone finds that they are part of the GLBT community. They are welcome to compete as competitors.

Anonymous said...

And the LGBT community will never accept your small minded bigotry or tolerate it being pushed upon our children.

Alex Warren said...

Does Acceptance of Women's Sport Require Dismissal of LGBT Discrimination?

Pat Griffin said...

Thanks, Wendy and Wyman for your responses to my post. I agree with you both that these issues require lots of thought and that there are no easy solutions. However, I ask you to remember that high school and college sports are affiliated with educational institutions and that they must reflect institutional values of non-discrimination and inclusion. Acceptance of women's sports cannot be based on an acceptance of some athletes and not others. I know this is difficult when it feels like including transgender athletes is perceived as having a negative effect on women's opportunities to participate, but we need to find a way to make room for all students who want to play regardless of their sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. That is our challenge as educators. It definitely requires more conversation and lots more education. Rather than calling blogs like mine a voice for "special causes" that are somehow outside the mainstream interests of most people in sports, it would be much more helpful to join us in looking for good policies and solutions to address discrimination of all kinds in sport.

li said...

I think the argument that transgender issues in women's sports is a "narrow social cause" is near-sighted.

From a historical standpoint, it wasn't more than a generation ago when women were fighting for their own right to play against a mainstream culture who labeled this plight a "narrow social cause." It was partially through the legal facility of Tite IX that allowed for women's sports participation to hit mainstream culture today...

It's disappointing to me to see that we are re-committing these oppressive acts on transgender people who deserve (just as all people do) the right to play sports and gain from the immense value that sports have to offer ALL people.

Wyman Stewart said...

Before I begin, I wish to point out something in connection with the following quote from you, Pat: "I ask you to remember that high school and college sports are affiliated with educational institutions and that they must reflect institutional values of non-discrimination and inclusion."

Many of those high school and college "educational institutions" are founded on "institutional values" based on their "religious affiliations," which if true to their moral values, reject the LGBT agenda. You have no qualms about instilling "LBGT values" of "non-discrimination and inclusion," as you define the terminology. That is preaching and dictating to a choir not-your-own, which you openly reject the same, when they preach to the LBGT choir, while feeling a moral obligation to YOU, to do so. QUITE A DOUBLE-STANDARD YOU HAVE THERE! But, I will save that for another day. Politics is often laughable; real life is often tragic for having politics applied to it.

Now, to Kye Allums. Since comments should not be in volumes, I toss the detritus encased in your Blogpost, various comments, and the research links you shared. (Worthy of reply though they may be.) There is a whole set of background issues, that led to the polished, media friendly revelation of this purported sports news, news story. For this comment, I toss that as detritus too.

It boils down to sincerety and right. We may never know those with absolute certainty. I'm going to assume Kye Allums is sincere and to the best of Kye Allums understanding and ability, Kye Allums has chosen to do what is right for Kye Allums.

Kye Allums story struck me as consistent from early childhood through to the public announcement. Kye Allums has lived through an evolving process. How many short-circuit this process, through denial; comes to mind. (An interesting side-issue.) So, Kye Allums, seemingly through much introspection and advice, which we know little or nothing about, feels the decision to go male is the right decision. Appears to make sense, since this doesn't seem a rushed decision.

Okay, Kye Allums on the women's basketball team? No one mentioned how this is dealt with or if it has been an issue, with deciding who hermaphrodite athletes play for, when their gender situation is encountered. That might serve as background-guidance history on this issue.

Because any student seeks clarity and regularity within a "normal" college life, it makes sense that Kye Allums expressed a desire within and with college officials to continue with the women's team and chose to delay any part of the gender change, that might create an in-balance in the game itself, which favored Kye Allums and George Washington U. Plus, removing Kye's productivity from the team, at this point, would materially damage the team. The NCAA decision made,that choice became Kye's to make and Kye made it. I concur.

A mountain was made out of a molehill, because this story has a sense of sensationalism to it. I don't think the Women's NCAA Tournament Final Four was the proper venue for the story, but Media will always seek to boost ratings. Kye Allums was aware the story would get out, so chose to tell it in a way to steer it in favor of Kye Allums. That makes sense too.

I saw both male and female traits in Kye Allums. Despite Kye Allums decision to try to control the story, (understandable) Kye made sense. What makes little sense is it has gone almost unmentioned that Kye Allums has suffered 8 concussions since high school, which could materially affect Kye's sex-change experience, as well as, Kye's basketball future. Whether Kye should ever play again or what problems a new concussion might create, either before or after a sex change, has been buried in the Kye Allums story. No one cares? No one asks?

Women's basketball, check. Sex change, check. Live happily ever after; we should all be so lucky, but you can pursue it, Kye Allums.

Professional Sports David said...

Hi Pat, this is such an interesting post. We know that this kind of issue is very difficult to discuss, nevertheless I agree with your points "First, it is none of Wendy’s business (or anyone else’s) why Kye chooses to play on the women’s team. It is completely within NCAA rules for him to do so as long as he is not taking testosterone, which he is not." It's none of anyone's business whatever Kye wants in his life and it is so nice to hear that Kye has a great team that loves and supports him. That's all he needs I think.

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