More inconvenient truth

People who rely on the simplistic formulation of “male and female” as the mutually exclusive “complementary halves of humanity” to justify their anti-gay and anti-transgender bias have yet another inconvenient news item to ignore.

It seems that the organizers of the Beijing Olympics are preparing a “sex-determination laboratory” for those athletes deemed “suspect.” This is nothing new; as discussed in the New York Times, such “testing” has been a part of the Games since the Cold War 1960s, when the rhetoric of the day accused Eastern Bloc countries of entering male athletes in women’s competitions to gain unfair advantage. (Historical footnote: The only such incident actually on record was in 1936, when the Nazi party allegedly forced a male athlete to compete as a woman.)

The initial gender “test” was to have all female athletes “parade nude before a panel of doctors.” (This would be an example of the even more comically simple-minded “Johnson/No-Johnson” test.) For reasons left intriguingly unexplored by the New York Times, “at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, officials switched to a chromosomal test.” This also proved to be problematic.

The practice came under increasing criticism in the 1990s by doctors, scientists and athletes who argued that the tests were not just invasive, but were also bad science. During the 1996 Atlanta Games, eight athletes failed the test, but all were later cleared of suspicion because it was determined that they had a birth defect that did not give them an unfair advantage.

“It was an unethical, unscientific and discriminatory practice,” said Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission and one of the most outspoken critics of the testing.

As I recall, one of the several women in the early 90’s who were discovered – much to their surprise – to have a Y chromosome, was immediately served with divorce papers by her husband. Isn’t that nice? So much for the sanctity of marriage. At any rate, we see that women with an XY, or other chromosomal pattern, are considered to be female for the purposes of Olympic competition. So, what is it that makes them women? We all learned the chromosome rule in high school biology; lawmakers in some states have even introduced legislation using it to define legal sex (typically as a means to oppose marriage equality). Our “sex determination laboratory” personnel would seem to be wading into some interesting territory.

Although the verification test has changed to adapt to new scientific understandings about gender – athletes are now evaluated by an endocrinologist, gynecologist, a geneticist and a psychologist – critics say the test is based on the false idea that someone’s sex is a cut-and-dried issue.

“It’s very difficult to define what is a man and what is a woman at this point,” said Christine McGinn, a plastic surgeon who specializes in transgender medicine.

Because of a range of genetic conditions, people who look like women may have a Y chromosome, while people who look like men may not, she said. Many times, the people do not learn of the defects until they reach adulthood. “It gets really complicated very quickly,” McGinn said.

I have a feeling that “the false idea that someone’s sex is a cut-and-dried issue” is going to be a difficult pill for some people to swallow – but attempts to make it a cut-and-dried issue never end up doing anything except showing that to be a false idea. Contrary to popular assumptions, there is no single biological marker in human beings that can be used without exception to determine sex. The requirement here for the purpose of Olympic eligibility – of deciding what does or does not make a person female – is one that most people have never had occasion to think about. The exercise may provide some very helpful, if uncomfortable, public education.

As noted, only “some” women will be subject to this examination. The article doesn’t shed any light on what the criteria will be for identifying an individual athlete as “suspect.”

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