Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Engendering controversy: transgender athletes and "where they belong"

A while ago I said I was going to blog about the golfer who won the women's long drive competition this past year and the controversy over her win because she is a post-operative transsexual. But I never did. Seems like a good time to do so given this recent piece in the Bleacher Report.
It is so poorly written and so blatantly and unapologetically ignorant that it's offensive. The author admits to knowing nothing about transsexuality and to not having done any research on it and only knowing about one case of transsexuality in sports: Renee Richards. Very basic questions are posed that rely on essentialism and binary thinking. For example, the writer asks what advantages a MTF would have and what disadvantages an FTM would have in sports. Because apparently all men are always better at everything to do with sports. There are no easy answers when it comes to gender and sport. But they are far better questions than the ones this writer asks. And there is great work being done on a policy level and in academia about sport and transsexuality. One might avail oneself of it before writing an article on it.
Which brings me to Lana Lawless who is now the reigning Women's Long Drive World Champion, a title she won in October when she bested the former champ by 4 yards. Golf* has been addressing the presence of transsexuals in the sport for a while now. The USGA instituted a policy several years ago that allows post-operative transsexual to participate in events in their reassigned sex. And Lawless has participated in competitions prior to her win in 2008. There might--and there is--be some grumbling. But she's allowed to be there and there doesn't seem to be too much outright hostility. Guess that's one plus of a genteel sport. The article does a lot of reinforcing of gender norms--like how Lawless cried, like the normal girl she always wanted to be--when she lost in the semifinals in the 2007 competition. I don't think being a woman gave her the ability to cry--it just provided a more acceptable body in which to do it.
Thought I would end with a recommendation. There's a lot of information out there about transsexuality and sport but one of the best pieces I have ever seen that covers the issues and tells one athlete's story in the process is 100 Percent Woman about a Canadian mountain biker who encounters a lot of resistance to her presence on the tour despite the governing body's sanctioning of transsexuals in the sport.

*The author believes golf is a sport without controversy. Curious statement. Just because it's been a very mild-mannered sport catering to the upper classes does not mean it is without controversy. Look at the recent attempt of the LPGA to institute an English-only policy on the tour. Or the "worries" that erupt when women want to play with men. Or all the racist and sexist policies--some of which still exist--perpetuated by private golf clubs.


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