Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes by Joanna Harper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One of the most contentious issues in sport is that of transgender and intersex athletes. It is an extraordinarily complex and fraught mix that often seems like it pits two important values against each other: opportunity and fairness. Sport should be open to all those who wish to complete and to compete at the highest levels they can. Sport, at its best, also seeks to create fair and meaningful competitions. So, on one hand, sport should be open to all athletes able to complete: it would be wrong to limit the opportunities of transgender and intersex athletes. But, on the other hand, there is a concern that if those opportunities aren’t limited in some way, specifically that if trans and intersex women compete without limitations against cisgender women, it could undermine the fairness of such competitions.
I don’t think there is a straightforward or obvious answer on these issues: and there are good, reasonable arguments (and many bad arguments too) for many different positions on all the various aspects of these issues. That said, my default position is towards the liberty of athletes to compete in the sport of their choice. I don’t mean to say that is the answer: but only that it is my starting point. It is the presumptive position that I think any argument to limit this liberty and opportunity needs to overcome.
Joanna Harper’s Sporting Gender is a good starting point for looking at many of the issues and arguments that might defeat or sustain this presumption. Harper’s book, as the subtitle indicates, takes you through the history, science, and stories of transgender and intersex athletes.
Starting in the early part of the twentieth century, she presents many stories of the individual trans and intersex women and their struggles to compete in sport. Many of these stories are tragic; too often rooted in ignorance and prejudice. For those that think these issues start and end with Castor Semenya, this history is essential.
Harper also discusses the science of sex and its impact on exercise and athletics. She details the many different ways that one might not fit neatly into either of the more familiar categories of male and female. Biological sex is nowhere near as simple as one might assume. (Not to even get into issues of gender.) There is some technical stuff to wade through, but the general gist should be digestible by those without much science background. This is summary, though; there are better places to look for more detailed discussions of the science (much of which can be found in the book’s endnotes).
Another important element of the book is Harper’s discussion of some of the legal cases that punctuate the history of trans and intersex athletes. The details and decisions of these cases are historically important and they had direct influence on the current regulations and guidelines of the major sport organizations like the IOC and IAAF.
Much of the latter half of the book focuses on two recent important Court of Arbitration cases involving intersex athletes (Chand and Semenya). Harper was involved in both cases as an expert witness. While I appreciated the inside look into these cases, this is where the book was at its weakest. I wasn’t all that interested in Harper’s evaluation of the various lawyers involved and whether their closing remarks were powerful or not. There was a lot of that sort of thing in these sections and that took away from the more important issue of rehearsing the arguments presented.
Harper is a trans woman and a runner, and she uses her own experiences to help frame parts of the book. This is both a blessing and a curse. It helps to contextualize and humanize much of the more abstract history and science. But it also means that the book is part memoir and so there are various tangents about her own life that were not part of my reasons for reading this book.
Harper’s ultimately position is that elite competitive sports needs to find the right balance of rules and methods to maximize “the possibility that all women can enjoy equitable and meaningful sport” (247). Furthermore, that there are good reasons to keep separating athletes in to male and female divisions and that the use of testosterone levels is the best current method to make this distinction (247). Though she does provide reasons for why this is her position, the book is not really set up to be a clear and cogent argument to support these claims. Its focus is more on presenting the history (both personal and legal) and the science. And on that front, I’d recommend it for those interested in this issue.
I don’t think the book deals enough with the philosophical and ethical aspects of trans and intersex athletes. What makes for fair and meaningful competition? Why are male/female divisions important? If there is a performance advantages by being trans or intersex, why should that matter and how is it different from other kinds of (non-doping) performance advantages? Harper broaches these questions to a degree, but she is not a philosopher and so the discussion is, in my view, too superficial and limited. There is also almost no engagement with the sport philosophy literature that discusses these issues. I still would recommend the book for the history and science angle, but it is not going to answer the meatier questions of philosophy or ethics.
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