What Are Little Girls Made Of: The Dangers of the New Olympics Gender Tests

08/06/2012 06:54 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
  • Maya Rupert Policy Director, National Center for Lesbian Rights

One of the most problematic aspects of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) new gender testing policy was relegated to a single sentence in the Los Angeles Times' article on this controversial issue.

According to the new IOC rules, the test won't be administered to all female athletes and instead will be given only when "the chief medical officer of a national Olympic committee or a member of the IOC's medical commission requests it." While this may have been designed to make the process less onerous, it creates an entirely new problem that will disadvantage any woman who is perceived as not being sufficiently feminine.

The test itself will disqualify women from competing if they have testosterone levels in the range of 7 to 30 nanomoles per liter of blood, which is the range typically seen in males. However, the decision to test an athlete will be entirely subjective. There are no "objective" indicators of which women may have heightened levels of testosterone. Under the new policy, only women who raise a specter of doubt in the minds of members of the IOC will be asked to prove their gender. In practice, this means that whether a woman will have her eligibility called into account and be forced to undergo testing will be based on stereotypes about gender. If past history is any indication, this will have a devastating impact on gender-nonconforming women and will disproportionately affect women of color.

History is replete with examples of talented female athletes facing accusations about the authenticity of their gender based on stereotypical notions of femininity. South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya was famously forced to undergo gender testing after winning in the 2009 World Championships in Athletics when competitors complained that her "masculine" features indicated that she wasn't really female.

This issue is further complicated by racial bias that also seeps into these perceptions. There is a widely held standard of beauty and femininity that is based on white racial characteristics. Because an assumption of whiteness has permeated gender norms, many features typically associated with white women are popularly mischaracterized as features of all women. Thus, women of color are often perceived as being less feminine. In a system where perception determines whether an athlete's gender will be tested, the inevitable result will be that women of color are more likely to be challenged.

The new policy creates a curious system that is both overly and underly broad. Because the test will be administered only to those who appear "suspicious," it will miss women whose testosterone levels are outside the "approved" range but whose outward appearance conforms to mainstream gender norms. At the same time, it will result in countless false positives, disproportionately targeting women for testing only because they do not match stereotypical expectations about gender, not because their testosterone levels are atypically high. These gross disparities are troubling, and they raise a fundamental question: If a test doesn't have to be administered to everyone, and if there is no objective way to determine ahead of time who is likely to fail the test, then why does it need to be administered at all?

To be sure, the challenge of how to allow people to gender-identify for themselves and maintain a fair and competitive sports system is a difficult one, and the IOC is working in earnest to try to strike a workable and respectful balance. As the Times' article notes, it may not be realistic to simply allow any person who identifies as a woman to compete as a woman.

However, while it may be insufficient to end the inquiry at how a person identifies, it is equally insufficient to ignore the way a person identifies. It would be easier to talk about these issues if they were merely thought experiments about gender theory, but they're not. They are real-world policies that challenge the identities of real people. It is impossible to disregard the psychological impact on these young women, who are in effect being "tested" to determine whether they can call themselves female. That consideration must inform the way we deal with this issue and demands sensitivity. A system that by design singles out only those who do not conform to stereotypical notions of femininity -- especially when those notions are inherently based on gender and racial bias -- is simply not an acceptable solution.