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Sports: Transgender Issues  
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Any mention of athletes evokes for most people the story of tennis star Dr. Renee Richards.

Born Richard Raskind, Richards legally became a female and began competing in women's tennis at age 43, after hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery. She attracted world-wide attention in 1976 when she sought exemption from the Barr-body gender-verification test, adopted by the International Olympic Committee and other sports organizations in the late 1960s to prevent athletes with male musculature from competing as females.

Richards eventually won the case and competed as a woman in the 1977 United States Open Tennis Championship, establishing a legal precedent for transgendered athletes but by no means ending a tangled and emotionally charged historical controversy.

The term "transgendered" applies to people who have changed their apparent identities, either by undergoing sex-altering procedures, including hormone treatment and genital surgery, or by simply choosing to live as the opposite gender.

In athletics the issues of transgendered people are intertwined with those of people born "intersexed"--that is, their sexual identities are not clear-cut because of ambiguous genitalia or other congenital conditions.

Even for postoperative male-to-female transgendered athletes such as Renee Richards, the Barr-body chromosome test poses a problem: chromosomal analysis still identifies them as male, whereas physical appearance and psychological identification designates them as female.

When Judge Ascione of the Supreme Court of New York ruled in Richards' favor in 1977, he argued that, whereas the Barr-body test "appears to be a recognized and acceptable tool for determining sex," Richards' circumstances warranted consideration of other factors.

"When an individual such as plaintiff, a successful physician, a husband and father, finds it necessary for his own mental sanity to undergo a sex reassignment," Ascione wrote, "the unfounded fears and misconceptions of defendants must give way to the overwhelming medical evidence that this person is now a female."

Fears and Misconceptions

The modern history of competitive women's sports offers up a number of fears and misconceptions that bear on the Richards case and on transgendered and intersexed athletes in general.

Addressing the fear that transgendered athletes might gain advantage over their genetically female competitors, Judge Ascione argued that the Richards case represented an anomaly and not a serious threat to women's athletics, for "there are very few biological males, who are accomplished tennis players, who are also either preoperative or postoperative ."

But beyond the unfounded fear that transgendered athletes might monopolize women's sports lie a host of attendant anxieties.

Perhaps the most deep-seated is the fear that women's athletics might erode traditional femininity. The global sports world registered this concern at least three decades before the institution of sex testing and long before the Renee Richards case.

In the early 1930s, when Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, the greatest woman athlete of modern times, set world records in the woman's 80-meter hurdles and javelin throw, reporters continually remarked on her masculine appearance, and the press focused on the Olympic medalist in a campaign to restore femininity to athletics.

The controversy finally ended when Didrikson married, started wearing dresses, and turned from competing in track, basketball, baseball, football, and boxing, to setting records in the more acceptably feminine world of golf.


Further complicating the landscape for transgendered athletes is the fear that men masquerading as women might invade and dominate women's sports. Gender fraud has frequently been confused with the issues of transgendered and intersexed athletes whose struggles to be allowed to compete are only one piece of a profound and genuine struggle for identity.

No clear-cut case of masquerading has ever been documented, but fraud has frequently been suspected, particularly during the Cold War era when athletic success was used to promote not only national prestige but also political systems.

When sex testing was first introduced in 1966, several Eastern Bloc shot-putters and discus-throwers suddenly disappeared from women's sport. These included the Soviet Union's Press sisters: Tamara, who held the shot-put record from 1959 to 1965, and her sister Irena, a hurdler and pentathlete. Their masculine appearances, combined with their disappearance, fueled speculation about both steroid use and gender fraud.

Another instance, widely cited as an example of masquerading, actually raises the poignant dilemma of the intersexed athlete. German high jumper Dora Ratjen competed in the 1936 Berlin Oympics but was barred from further competition in 1938, when she was examined and discovered to have ambiguous genitalia. After the war, Ratjen, by then living as Hermann, acknowledged that the Nazi Youth Movement had forced him to compete as a woman.

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Olympic Gold Medalist Stella Walsh (left) in 1933.
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