Navigating the Gender Binary: Trans* people in sports

Recently in the world of mixed martial arts, there was a major hubbub when the woman fighter Fallon Fox was outed as a trans person. Predictably, there was a lot of question about whether she should be allowed to compete in the UFC (or in other MMA leagues), and a lot of people deplored the fact that she had not been open about her trans status prior to fighting (and soundly trouncing) her first opponent. My instinct in this case is that of course her medical and personal history is no one’s business, and it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise. But at the same time, I found myself wondering about the implications to the other fighters ability to give informed consent to fight this woman, and what kind of advantages her particular history might give her.

Because the thing is, many people’s knee-jerk reaction was that Ms. Fox’s trans status gave her an unfair advantage in competition with the other women in the league. I am reluctant to give this suggestion much weight on its face – yes, her physiological development may have been very different from the average woman’s, but the thing about professional sports is that I can promise you that none of the other women are even remotely average, themselves. And I am loath to start defining what kinds of natural developmental patterns should be considered “unfair” – because, while Fox’s physical development was likely affected by her biology, and the consequent mix of hormones and whatever other differences might be there, it’s not as if men and women are two such distinct groups with respect to physical development and natural hormone cocktails – people, as a group, exist on a variety of spectra, and each individual’s developmental process is different.

At any rate, I figured the issue of consent could be easily dealt by having the league clearly and explicitly define the requirements to be eligible to fight – if, upon signing on to the league, all of the fighters had to acknowledge and accept that some of the fighters might be trans (in the sense of being informed that trans women are eligible to fight in the league), but they would not be informed as to who those people were, they would be making informed consent to the fact that they might, at some point in their career, be up against a trans opponent. But I have been informed that this isn’t how the UFC works – each bout is individually contracted and negotiated by the fighters involved, and each fighter explicitly consents to each individual fight (so some fighters may choose not to fight others, for any reason).

Now, I have trouble objecting to this kind of set-up, particularly in a sport like MMA, where fighters put themselves at serious risk of permanent physical injury. They should not have to justify their decision to not let another woman try to beat them up – I really think that we should apply the same standards of consent here as we do to sex, because the stakes are simply so high, and just because a woman consents to let some women fight her should not mean that she is obligated to be an equal opportunist about who she allows to do so.

And, in fact, I have been convinced that Ms. Fox’s prowess is such that it is reasonable for other fighters to choose not to fight her out of a sense of self-preservation, if that’s how they feel about it. She does have a distinct physical advantage over most of her potential opponents on many counts, including lung capacity and just plain endurance. And while I wouldn’t call these advantages unfair, in thinking about this situation and all of it’s complexity, I’ve come to realize a number of things about the ways in which we segregate sports these days.

In MMA, boxing, and the like, fighters are split into weight classes in order to ensure they bouts are relatively evenly matched, and to reduce the chances of really serious injury – no matter how fast and agile a featherweight may be, a good hit from someone who weighs twice as much as they do could quite literally send them flying. But what I’ve come to realize is that ultimately, we use weight classes as short-hand for a number of different variables, including muscle mass, height, and the like. The relevant variables to a fighter’s ability to seriously fuck someone up also include things like the size (and weight) of their hands, and the amount of flesh they have protecting their bones from impact – not all of the variables necessarily correlate with plain old weight. But we use it as a short-hand anyway, because it’s simpler to administrate, and the fighters seem happy enough with it, so it’s fine.

And yet, in thinking about all of this, I began to wonder about the rationale behind splitting sports along gender (or is it sex?) lines. Generally, in professional sports, the “men’s” leagues don’t actually have exclusionary policies against women. Rather, it happens that women tend not to be competitive in those leagues, and thus women’s leagues were born for those women who wanted an arena to compete with people that were more evenly matched with them.

And this is where this discussion gets dicey for me. Because suggesting that women’s leagues are necessary because women aren’t ‘good’ enough to compete in the existing leagues that don’t explicitly exclude them is, well, controversial. And there are certainly arguments to made for the fact that women’s leagues often offer a different culture to “men’s” leagues, where the game-play is shaped by different rules definitions of what’s sportsman-like. I’ve heard it said that women’s sports are often less about pure aggression, and more about agility and skill. And I certainly love the idea of establishing leagues with different rules that highlight and make room for different kinds of skill sets within the same sport.

But these arguments still leave me cold for one very simple reason: I don’t see any compelling way to get from the idea that there is a need to create leagues that are less violent and more focused on the game itself to the necessity to make these less violent leagues women-only. Seriously, there are men who have these same skill sets but who may not be able to compete in the national (“men’s”) leagues because they are not aggressive enough. Why do they not make the cut to get into the more pure and elegant league?

Ultimately, I really think that gender (or sex) segregation in sports is just another case of using gender (or sex) as a short-hand for a variety of actually relevant variables, much like weight classes are used in combat sports. And I’ve decided that unlike weight classes, this short-hand is actually problematic. Because it ultimately excludes people. Everyone has a weight, and everyone fits into a weight class. But not everyone fits neatly into the gender (or sex) binary. Where would someone like me compete? Where would someone who was genetically neither XX or XY compete? How we decide these questions actually reveals the lie of the binary, and the fact that we are simply using male and female as a shorthand in sports.

The treatment of Caster Semenya when she dominated in the Olympics made public the question of how we define the word “woman” in sports. I’ve talked before about how, as a genderqueer person who occasionally encounters “women-only” spaces, I always consider what the “women” in each “women-only” situation actually means. Sometimes it’s about one’s biological sex (or just the state of not having a penis, really), and I feel comfortable being in those spaces. But it be rude of me to show up for a women-only event that was targeted at people who identify as women, since I am not a member of the group encompassed by that definition of “women”. And, unlike many trans activists, I do think that it’s not as simple as saying, “this person identifies as a woman, and therefore she should be allow din all women-only spaces.” Because language is sloppy, and sometimes we use it in a way that doesn’t line up with the way people identify. So, when someone says “all women should get regular PAP smears,” I understand that regardless of my identity, I am included in that category of “woman”, which is this case is intended to mean “people with vaginas, cervixes, etc.” but Fallon Fox would not be included.

And honestly, (and problematically), I think that by “woman” in sports, we very often mean “person who identifies as female (and/or is biologically female, whatever that means,) and who is not so good at the sport that she could theoretically compete with men“. Because Semenya and Fox both had their gender questioned only after they proved to be formidable competitors. And I’m really uncomfortable with the implications of this – it makes crystal clear the idea that women’s leagues are necessary simply because women aren’t as good at the sports as men (which, honestly, if this is true, it’s actually a major argument against Title IX; discrimination against someone base don ability, even if their ability is hampered by their biological sex, is not sexism. Actual ability to do a job, compete in a sport, is one of the valid variables upon which discrimination can be made, when choosing who to hire or to draft for your team.

Honestly, what I’d love to see is a system wherein people in sports are divided according to actual ability-related metrics. Let’s factor in as many variables as possible, and create a formula that classes opponents based on a total score that accounts for all of their advantages and disadvantages. This is the only system in which everyone would be allowed to compete, and no one would feel coerced into an unsafe or unfair competition (and people who are good at a sport, but in a gender-transgressive way, would probably have opponents of a mixture of gender identities). It’s a pipe-dream, I know. But the treatment of people like Semenya and Fox has made it clear (to me, at least) that the current system is broken. It’s based on false assumptions and seriously flawed short-hand. And it will need to change some time.

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