One of my best friends is a butch genderqueer lesbian who competes locally in womens’ sports. Recently she told me “I think it’d be fascinating to find out if I’m at all intersex like you.” I said “not if you know what the Olympics are trying to do to intersex people.” The International Olympic Committee (IOC) isn’t playing fair with intersex athletes. They’re playing gender and appearance police on female athletes, and only female athletes, in a witch-hunt against butch and intersex women. The IOC is using hateful language against intersex women and demanding that female athletes found to be intersex submit to forced hormone treatments or forced surgery akin to female genital mutilation if they want to compete as the women they are. This violates basic human rights and a 1990s international court ruling in favor of intersex women in sports.
Intersex refers to being biologically in between or outside medical/legal definitions of male and female due to natural variations in sex hormone balance, chromosomes, or internal & external genitalia. Many people don’t know they’re intersex. As the same fetal tissue can develop into either male or female genitalia, many people have some variations in either internal or external genitalia, which can include men with ovaries or uterine tissue (including some cases of men who menstruate), women with internal testes, people with an ovary and a teste and people with ovatestes (a combination of both) to name a few variations. Everyone who produces sex hormones (some people don’t) has some balance of estrogen and testosterone. And the average person doesn’t know what their sex chromosomes are unless they’ve had a medical need to know or competed in sports before the Maria Pettino ruling.
Intersex differs from transgender, which is living as a gender other than the one assigned at birth. Some intersex people identify as transgender (this is known as intergender), some as men or women. Intersex people who live as men are men, and intersex people who live as women are women.
The IOC refuses to consider intersex as a valid human population with natural biological variations. Instead they’re using disease language. The phrase “DSD” (Disorder of Sex Development) was imposed on intersex people in 2006 without our consent or input. Think about it, who would want to be refereed to as being a “disorder?”
DSD was created by doctors who see intersex people as diseased and want the world to agree. One of the most infamous, J. Michael Bailey, has written a book and articles defaming the transgender and intersex communities, claims Latin women are inferior (as in his now-discredited book The Man Who Would Be Queen), belongs to a racist and anti-immigrant think-tank known as the Human Biodiversity Institute and publicly advocates aborting “gay babies.” Since 2006 the intersex community and our allies have devoted much activism to challenging DSD. Many places people who started using it are dropping it – except now the IOC.
The “current” controversy over intersex women in sports actually goes back over 60 years. In the 1930s Stella Walsh, a Polish Gold-medal Olympian, who set the world discus throwing speed record, was taunted by detractors as “Stella the Fella” and claims that she “isn’t a woman” until her supporters threatened her rivals with similar accusations. After Walsh’s death she was discovered to have been intersex.
During the Cold War chromosome, testing was added to the Olympics. This was apparently from fears that the Soviet Union would, as one writer of the day said, “sneak hermaphrodite super-athletes into womens’ sports.” Under chromosome testing many women were told they weren’t women, despite the reality of their bodies and lives. In the most ridiculous incident, a 1960s Eastern European womens’ swim team were all disqualified and told they “aren’t really women.” They all went home and every single one of them became pregnant soon afterward.
“Gender testing” policies for female athletes continued to be used to deny women opportunities and have been used to physically harm women. Several women in the last 20 years have been targeted under an appearance profiling system. This means that the officials have singled out women for seeming “too masculine,” “too butch” and other ways of saying that because they don’t fit stereotypes of femininity that they “mustn’t really be women,” which is plainly misogynist. That this system has been used primarily against women of color shows this to also be a racist policy. One of the most horrific uses of this policy was in the 1980s when Brazilian judo champion Edinanci Silva was forced to either undergo what the IOC called “Feminizing surgery,” to remove part of her genitalia or be banned from competing. This is akin to female genital mutilation.
The Pettino decision is supposed to have ended chromosome testing. In 1985 Spanish hurdler Maria Pettino faced being banned and losing her medals because of the results of her chromosome test. Pettino has an intersex variation known as AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) where her body does not respond to testosterone; this can lead to a woman having a female body with male chromosomes. Pettino fought the IOC in world court and won in 1992 on the basis that she is a woman and her body is female and she should be allowed to compete in womens’ sports. The courts ruled that intersex women are women, and chromosome tests were supposed to be dropped … until now.
In 2009 South African runner Caster Semenya found herself in world headlines because the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) targeted her for being butch, claiming Semenya couldn’t be a woman because she’s muscular, has short hair and deep voice. They demanded she submit to several types of biological gender tests, including a highly invasive internal examination. Semenya has been found to have internal testes, though this was not about her being intersex so much as her being found to be intersex because they targeted her appearance.
While Semenya is seen as a hero in South Africa, the IAAF and several other sports bodies are trying to keep her from competing. They claim her levels of testosterone give her “an unfair advantage.” This is nonsense. Almost all women also produce testosterone, some more than others. What flows naturally in your veins is not a “performance-enhancing drug.” Athletic excellence isn’t about who’s bigger, faster or stronger. It’s about who trains harder, works longer and is willing to push their body to its limits, even sacrificing time with family and friends to be the best. Lindsay Van (not to be confused with athlete Lindsay Vonn) just broke a world record for ski-jumping, but the IOC won’t let her compete because she’s a woman and “womens’ parts aren’t made to handle that sort of jumping.” Can they think they can get away with even saying that in 2010?!
The Olympics’ reaction to Semenya’s existence is to pretend the Pettino verdict never even happened. They want to make Caster Semenya have her testes removed. They’re also demanding that female athletes be put through biological gender tests, and many say these tests will be selectively enforced on butch women.
Organisation Intersex International (OII, website: www.intersexualite.org) is not about to let the IOC have their way. OII has been raising awareness about this whole situation for some time now and is currently working to urge the IOC to stop discriminating against intersex women and allow intersex women to compete without fear of being singled out for harassment, pathological labels or the kinds of barbaric “treatment” the IOC has been demanding. Activists are working on various awareness raising measures, including a petition which can be found and signed at http://www.intersexualite.org/IOC-petition.html
The goal is a Games where even the officials have to play fair.
1) DSD Fact Sheet, Organisation Intersex International, found at www.intersexualite.org/DSD_Activists.html
2) Edinanci Silva’s story, Organisation Intersex International site, found at www.intersexualite.org/Edinanci_Silva.html
3) J. Michael Bailey’s statements about wanting to abort “gay babies, found at ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/Bailey/HBES/Bailey%20on%20homosexuality.htm
4) KQED interview addressing J. Michael Bailey’s claims about Latinas, found at www.tsroadmap.com/info/alice-dreger/bailey-kqed.html
5) Maria Pettino’s Story, found at www.medhelp.org/ais/articles/MARIA.HTM
6) “Queer Science,” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report (about Bailey and the Human Biodiversity Institute), found at www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?sid=96
7) Rachel Maddow on Lindsey Van, youtube clip at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/#35375415
8) Stella Walsh articles, found at www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/1462
9) TS Roadmap archive of transgender community criticism of found at www.tsroadmap.com/bailey/