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Sex-segregated sport is increasingly untenable. As sports authorities and politicians enact flawed attempts to regulate who can and cannot participate in women’s and girls’ sports, the shaky foundations of the current system reveal themselves. Yet gender-integrated sports are perceived as unthinkable to many because they confront taken-for-granted beliefs about women’s inferiority to men.

Sport is the only remaining institutional realm where sex segregation is permissible and, as such, it maintains and reproduces gender inequality. More than any other institution, sport showcases the cultural system of binary sex difference and makes it appear natural. Even people who believe in women’s equality to men on all other fronts find themselves compelled by the argument that men are athletically superior to women. Gender-expansive athletes, including trans, non-binary, and intersex athletes, threaten our social, economic, and political systems with disarray.

There are many dangers in uncritically accepting the claim that women need to be protected from male competitors to experience success. First, it reinforces men’s dominance beyond sport, as evidenced by the disproportionate number of men who occupy leadership positions throughout society. Second, it insidiously reifies women’s weakness, denying girls and women the opportunity to develop in competition with boys and men, thereby putting false limits on their capacity to achieve physical greatness. Finally, modern sport turns ideology into reality: our societal belief in female inferiority is mobilized via sex-segregated sport to deny girls and women equal opportunities to develop as athletes.  

Start of mixed gender medley relay in St. Petersburg Russia for Vladimir Salnikov Cup (2016). Editorial credit: StockphotoVideo / Shutterstock.com

Sport’s role in perpetuating gender inequality is not accidental. The history of modern sport in the West begins with the deliberate exclusion of women. Although women have succeeded in gaining inclusion, the limits of their inclusion have been severely circumscribed by male-dominated leadership of various sporting bodies. The legacy of Western patriarchal ideologies that view women—at least white women—as “the fairer sex” who are not supposed to be too fast, too strong, or too muscular, continues to shape cultural attitudes. Women who transgress ideologies about gender difference are often severely punished, particularly in sport.

Although the practice of questioning the gender of successful sportswomen occurred throughout the early 1900s, it was not until 1950 and 1968 respectively that World Athletics, (formerly IAAF) and the International Olympics Committee instituted so-called gender verification processes. These formal “sex controls” were intended to ensure adherence to cultural norms regarding binary sex difference and female inferiority. This surveillance began with subjecting women athletes to genital inspection via “nude parades,” was followed by testing sportswomen’s DNA to exclude those with ‘male’ chromosomes, and, most recently, for only those women who appear ‘suspiciously masculine’ to measure their hormone levels. Each of these tests is scientifically flawed: decades of gender verification testing by sports authorities have only proven that sex is not binary but instead expansive. While the practice began with track and field, gender verification extended to several Olympics sports including canoeing, gymnastics, fencing, field hockey, rowing, swimming, volleyball, handball, and luge. In effect, there is hardly a sport in which women are not subjected to this dehumanizing and unscientific practice.

The gender ideology which frames the claim that women’s sports require protection from so-called male pretenders is also a racialized ideology. After all, today’s sporting environments are an outgrowth of Europeanism colonialism that positioned sport as part of a “civilizing” project that was white supremacist and heteropatriarchal at its core. We see this colonial gender ideology in the heightened attention directed at sportswomen from the Global South who are accused of being too athletically powerful, too “masculine” in appearance, to qualify for female eligibility. Prominent examples are South Africa’s Caster Semenya, India’s Dutee Chand, and Uganda’s Annet Negessa, athletes who were subjected to sex testing because they do not embody Western feminine ideals. To our knowledge, this level of surveillance has not been directed at women from the Global North, except if they are transwomen.

Transgender women are swept up in sport’s gender panic not because they regularly outperform cisgender women—they do not—but because sport is the one realm where cultural beliefs regarding fundamental sex and gender differences continue to be institutionalized. In the past several years, bills designed to delegitimize and exclude trans people in various ways have been introduced in many US state legislatures. Within this larger anti-trans campaign, bills designed specifically to block trans girls and women from participating in “female” sport have been signed into law in many US states and proposed in many others. Backed by a constellation of white supremacist, conservative and hetero-patriarchal organizations and movements in collusion with so-called “gender-critical feminists,” these campaigns are stoking a gender panic by targeting trans girls and women for surveillance and exclusion. Increasingly, trans boys, men, and non-binary athletes are also swept up in this panic, highlighting how sport is being mobilized as a tool to exclude transgender people from full inclusion in society.

It is no accident that sport is a site for contesting the inclusion of transgender people in society because meaningful inclusion for gender-expansive people, including intersex, transgender and non-binary people, threatens to undermine the commonsense bases for the gender inequality that is pervasive throughout society. People who consider themselves to be gender progressive and egalitarian are being recruited to anti-trans campaigns in sport that have significant effects beyond the playing field. This recruitment is possible because of widely held, taken-for-granted beliefs about male superiority in sport. Presenting trans sportswomen to the public as ‘male’ interlopers who are a threat to cisgender women and girls simultaneously denies transwomen’s claims to womanhood and entrenches binary ideas about sex and gender in ways that also harm intersex athletes and other sportswomen who do not conform to Eurocentric gender norms.

Given the historical and contemporary reasons for sex segregation in sport, there is a heightened need to challenge this practice. To undo such de facto segregation is to redress a longstanding gender inequality in society. Of course, intentional mechanisms are needed to ensure that the legacies of white supremacist heterosexual patriarchy that have reified women’s inferiority are carefully attended to. This effort is well worth it if we want to create a more just and inclusive organizational structure for sport and society more broadly.

First appeared at Engaging Sports under license CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US. Republished with permission of the authors.

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Anima Adjepong

Anima Adjepong is an Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities Studies at the University of Cincinnati. They research, write, and teach about identity, culture, and social change and are...

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Travers is a Professor of Sociology at Simon Fraser University. Their recent book, The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution, situates trans kids in Canada...