Breaking the Binary

It is time to break away from the exclusionary rules that have defined the gender binary in sports for generations.


digital drawing by Morgan Nash

In regard to our evolving understanding of gender, the Tokyo Olympics represented progress, but inequities remain.

By Aris Pastor, North Allegheny Senior High School

This past summer, the Tokyo Olympics hosted at least 160 LGBTQ+ athletes, and perhaps even more revolutionary, the first openly transgender athletes to compete in the Games. However, at the same time, a wave of anti-trans legislation banning or restricting high school transgender athletes from competing was introduced in 37 states in the U.S.

Non-binary and transgender people have, of course, existed throughout human history, but the modern LGBTQ+ movement has allowed the public to grow more comfortable with the idea of gender as a construct. As a result, the division of sports by assigned gender at birth is gradually becoming obsolete.

But why were sports separated by assigned gender at birth in the first place?

The most common argument derives from physical strength—the average man is both heavier and stronger than the average woman, so if teams were mixed-gender, then the men would have an advantage.

However, the average man’s higher average strength doesn’t mean that every man is stronger than every woman. And while there are advantages to separating sports by sex on account of physical differences, most of these controlling factors fade away when the topic of trans people medically transitioning is introduced.

For non-binary people, it’s even more complicated, as some athletes choose to medically transition while others don’t, leaving a large, vague space between what others thought was a clean binary. Non-binary people can identify anywhere from neither binary gender to both to anywhere outside and in-between, which renders categorization by gender futile at best.

There is also the issue of truly defining what makes a person a man or a woman. In the weeks leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, along with struggle of defining the gender of transgender athletes, the International Olympic Community (IOC) faced controversy due to banning two Namibian women—Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi—from running middle distance events because of their naturally high testosterone levels.

While sex is not a fair way to divide sports, perhaps there is something to the idea of division via testosterone levels.”

Caster Semenya, a 30-year-old South African intersex woman with naturally high testosterone, challenged the IOC, claiming that the birth control pills she would have been forced to take made her more injury-prone. While transgender people taking hormones to better match their gender presentation is done out of their own choice, lowering these Black women’s natural testosterone levels makes fundamentally changing the way their bodies develop a necessity for competition in the Olympics. Because of her refusal to lower her natural testosterone levels, Semenya was barred from running races from 400 meters to a mile in distance.

Following her banning from middle distance events, questions arose if Semenya was even a woman, even though she was raised as, identifies as, and legally is a female. While some transgender people had to compete in their assigned gender at birth, Semenya could not even do that.

However, if the IOC begins to categorize not by gender but by testosterone levels, they would preserve the fairness of the Olympics without jeopardizing Black women and/or transgender people’s careers.

The idea that testosterone is correlated with physical strength does in fact have a scientific basis. Testosterone, a driver of red blood cell count, allows more oxygen to move towards a person’s muscles and, as a result, the more testosterone a person has, the faster they can run for longer amounts of time. While it isn’t the only factor that lets runners and other athletes do well in their sports, testosterone does give most males a genetic advantage.

So while sex is not a fair way to divide sports, both because of the presence of transgender people in the Olympics and the unfair barring of Semenya, Mboma, Masilingi, and other women with naturally high testosterone levels, perhaps there is something to the idea of division via testosterone levels.

While in practice, such a change may look similar to our current process, it accounts for both exceptions to the rule, allowing women with high testosterone to compete without needing to change their bodies and transgender people to compete as their proper gender. It also allows for a well organized system divided by simple numbers without the need to attempt to define gender in strict terms.

Though it may be difficult to usher in an entirely new system of sports divisions, it need not occur wholesale overnight. Perhaps sex division in youth sports can stay for now, especially since most children and teenagers have fluctuating hormone levels, but in professional sports where medical records are available, division via testosterone levels would constitute a plausible step towards progress.

A new future for gender and gender identity is upon us, and it is ever important that every facet of life stays in step. Sports are no different. In a society that comes together for the Olympics every four years, we must be able to change how sports are organized to be fairer and more inclusive.

This story was originally published on The Uproar on September 27, 2021.