See that blonde weaving through the strip on Rollerblades?” writes Details magazine in a March 2005 article. “Please puff up her denim miniskirt just enough for us to drink in the full length of her long, bronze legs.”
No, this isn’t a fluff piece on the latest centerfold hottie. It’s Details’ self-proclaimed “extraordinary” article on professional golfer Mianne Bagger, whose biggest challenge this year was winning the right to step onto the green with other women. In her quest to find acceptance in professional competition, Bagger has overcome the resistance of both golf’s governing agencies and other female pros who worried that Bagger would have an inherent physiological advantage. That’s because, although Bagger has played golf since she was 8 years old, she only turned pro in 2003—10 years after what she calls “a transsexual past.”
In his editor’s letter, Details’ editor-in-chief Daniel Peres describes feeling attracted to the golfer whose photos he spotted in the magazine’s art department. His response to learning she’s the “transsexual golfer”? “I froze.” We aren’t to take this literally, of course; Peres doesn’t mean that he became hard at the realization. Rather, he went limp.
Peres clearly feels he was tricked into a homoerotic response by the alluring visual of this “former man”; attempting to recover his masculinity by making light of both the incident and the subject, Peres closes his letter: “Back at the country club, they’d call [Bagger’s fight for transsexual rights] chutzpah. In other words, this chick’s got balls.”
Though female-to-male transsexuals (ftms) are also a presence in athletics, the stigma surrounding them is fainter; they are almost never a subject of debate, nor are they presented as viable threats to men’s sports. Japanese professional speedboat racer Hiromasa Ando, for instance, dominated the sport as a woman for 17 years before transitioning in 2002; Ando has found acceptance by both the general public and the Japan Motorboat Racing Federation. Closer to home, Alyn Libman, a 20-year-old UC Berkeley ftm athlete, has been granted permission from the U.S. Figure Skating Association to compete against other men. Male-to-female transsexuals, however, needle our culture’s most cherished assumptions about men, women, and “natural” abilities.
As the Australian Sports Commission reports on their “Transgender in Sport” web page, the long-standing debate about trans athletes revolves around a series of almost ridiculous assumptions: “That anyone exposed to testosterone at puberty will be a good athlete; that all males make better athletes than all females; and that males will change gender in order to reap rewards in women’s sport which they are unable to obtain by competing in men’s sport.”
The first well-known transsexual athlete was Renée Richards, who underwent sex-reassignment surgery in 1975 and then put an entire continent between herself and her old life by relocating to California from the East Coast. Spotted playing tennis in the women’s division of a local tournament, Richards was soon outed by an intrepid reporter. Richards sought to join the women’s tennis tour, but—thanks to the wave of press coverage—she was rebuffed.
“If I was allowed to play,” she sarcastically wrote in her 1983 autobiography Second Serve, “then the floodgates would be opened and through them would come tumbling an endless stream of made-over Neanderthals who would brutalize Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong.”
Richards took her case to the courts, and, in a groundbreaking 1977 judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that she was legally a woman and could compete as such. Richards went on to play professionally for five years, winning one singles title, and then coaching Martina Navratilova to a Wimbledon win.
Still, the competitive sports world remained largely closed to transsexual athletes until 2004, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that they be allowed to compete under strict guidelines. (Among them: Those who have undergone sex reassignment and associated hormone therapy prior to puberty can now compete; those who begin their transition after puberty are eligible for participation if surgical anatomical changes and hormone therapy have been completed.)
Though not meant to be discriminatory, the IOC’s ruling includes requirements that make complying easier for mtfs than ftms. Many ftms, for instance, do not have the complicated and expensive genital surgeries that would give them the “proper” anatomical equipment required to compete; those who live in states (like Ohio and Idaho) or nations that do not allow a person to change their sex on official documentation would also be excluded. Furthermore, intersexed, transgendered, or genderqueer individuals who may not have or want the IOC-required surgical anatomical changes or hormone therapy are subject to disqualification under these new rules. (Recently one of Zimbabwe’s leading junior athletes was outed as intersexed, legally declared a man, and subsequently charged with “impersonation” for competing as a woman in regional tournaments.)
While some pro-sports organizations have followed the IOC’s lead and changed their gender rules, Bagger’s fight for acceptance into the world of women’s golf continues. A few months ago, the U.S. Golf Association changed its rules, which will allow Bagger to play in the U.S. Open. Now her sights are set on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and its “female at birth” requirement.
As for Richards, she has recently surprised the sporting world with her vocal opposition to both the IOC ruling and Bagger’s fight to enter the LPGA. Arguing that mtfs are mere “facsimiles” of real women, Richards says that they should not be allowed to compete with female athletes. She has compared hormone therapy to steroid use, and claims that no amount of hormone treatment can change basic physiological differences.
Shortly after the IOC’s ruling, sportswriter Steve Nearman predicted that it would “prove to be a nightmare” simply because the commission had put itself “in the middle of one of the most basic questions of humanity: What makes a man a man and a woman a woman?”
The truth is that for nearly half a century, the IOC took it upon itself to determine exactly that. Patricia Nell Warren, athlete and author of the popular Front Runner series, has written extensively about the IOC’s gender testing. Originating during the cold war, the policies were, she says, a by-product of an anticommunist propaganda campaign. In the days of the Iron Curtain, when Olympic medals represented national and political superiority, many Americans felt there was a clear link between “not being a real American” and “not being a real woman or man.”
When Olympic officials began testing the chromosomal sex of female athletes, Warren says, “They made the fatal assumption that a big, strong ‘masculine-looking’ woman athlete would come up xy, whereas a ‘feminine-looking’ woman would always come up xx. When the genetics research started coming in, everybody got a big surprise! The athletes who flunked the test were mostly cases of ais—androgen insensitivity syndrome—meaning they were born xy, but their androgen deficiency meant that they had developed as ‘feminine and normal-looking’ women.”
But why was gender testing reserved for women rather than utilized to exclude feminine men? Warren points to a “deeply ingrained cultural stereotype in the West that any man who excels in sports is ipso facto ‘masculine’ and ‘straight.’ Whereas for females, there has always been the equally ingrained attitude that questions a woman’s ‘femininity’ if she went out for sports.”
Last year, much of the media coverage of the IOC’s decision focused on men’s “clear” advantage over women, which many pundits doubted would be sufficiently decreased by sex reassignment. “If we were in fact merely males with cosmetic surgery, with the strength of males, of course that would be unacceptable,” Bagger said when I spoke with her recently. “But that’s not the case.”
In fact, mtfs can lose their competitive edge when they transition, says C. Harmon Brown, a San Francisco–area endocrinologist and USA Track & Field Transgender Task Force representative quoted in a recent Runner’s World article. When you go from male to female, Brown says, “you lose muscle, so you’re losing power, and you’re gaining fat, which you have to carry around. And you’re carrying a male skeleton.”
Firsthand reports from mtf athletes seem to confirm muscle and strength loss due to hormone treatments, which effectively eliminate the production of testosterone. Canadian mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq—the subject of the new indie documentary 100% Woman—had sex-reassignment surgery in 1996, and reports that she lost muscle mass and has to “work out constantly” to even retain her current fitness level. Distance runner Janet Furman Bowman, who went through reassignment surgery as well, lost three minutes on her 5K after just nine months on hormone therapy. And Bagger, who didn’t play much golf during her transition, reports that her game changed when she returned to it. “It wasn’t something immediately apparent—as I played a different course—but I certainly don’t hit the ball as far as I used to.”
Patricia Nell Warren points out that the generalized “male advantage” turns out to be moot in certain sports, for reasons that can be chalked up to both nature and nurture. In distance running and swimming, for instance, “women’s higher body-fat index gives them an edge, because the body can directly break down fat and use it for energy when stored glycogen is exhausted.” She adds, “When the shot put was finally approved for women, females from the former communist-bloc countries dominated in the shot put. Why? Because their culture didn’t make women feel defensive about their ‘femininity.’ And let’s face it, it takes a woman built like a brick house to do well in the shot put.”
Owen Anderson, an exercise physiologist and U.S. editor of Peak Performance, argues that if “fair” comparisons were made between women’s and men’s performance, the chicks would already rule. Anderson writes, “When just two things—percent body fat and VO2 max [which measures the amount of oxygen the lungs can consume during exercise]—are equalized between the sexes, the running performances of similarly trained males and females become pretty much the same.” In addition, Anderson adds, men’s height and stride advantages make coed comparisons inaccurate unless appropriate compensation is allowed: “Using fair velocity comparisons, in heights per second, not meters per second, the fastest woman in the world is almost 2 percent faster than the quickest man.”
Of course, to really answer the question of whether transsexual athletes, and specifically mtfs, have potential advantages or liabilities, further research is clearly needed—for example, a comparison of pretreatment transsexuals to bio-born members of their new sex. But that would require significant funding, and such funding has been notoriously scarce when it comes to studying transsexual and transgendered individuals: Whether they are athletes or not, trans women (and men) are sadly still considered a small, fringe community with little to tell researchers about the rest of the world. And the kind of sensational coverage received by the likes of Mianne Bagger, and Renée Richards before her, indicates that the novelty of transgendered women in sports is unlikely to transcend its punch-line status anytime soon.
For now, we’ll have to settle for watching athletes like Bagger, Bowman, and Dumaresq as they compete alongside other women in their sports—and fight for the right to continue doing so—even as the popular media eroticizes, patronizes, and penalizes these pioneering women.