Lia Thomas and the long history of gender policing female athletes

Historians claim that as long as women have been successful in sports, their gender identity and sexuality have been under intense scrutiny.

Lia Thomas and the long history of gender policing female athletes

Below the caption "What do you think?" was a photograph of Helen Stephens, an American Olympic runner. It appeared in a February 1937 issue. Is this a man or a woman? The accompanying question was part of a larger feature called "When is a woman actually a woman?" The Chief Worry of Athletic Officials Today

Stephens, , a two-time Olympic champ who never lost a race, lost valuable opportunities in his career and education, according to Sharon Kinney-Hanson (author of "The Life Helen Stephens: The Fulton Flash").

Kinney-Hanson stated that Helen wasn't interested in the glamor and beauty standards of her time. "She was very interested in sports and making a career out of it."

Although Stephens' time was a significant milestone for female athletes, there is still much to be feared about their sexuality and gender. This includes offensive comments as well as sex verification tests. Many historians believe that Lia Thomas, transgender college swimmer, continues that century-old tradition.

"Historically there's been a concern about sports masculinizing women or that women might feminize them or that you lose the gender distinctions that many people value," stated Susan Cahn, a University of Buffalo history professor and author of "Coming On Strong: Gender, Sexuality and Women's Sport."

She also mentioned that trans and intersex athletes, those born with sexual or reproductive anatomy that is not typical for male or female genders, further blur the lines and raise questions about what sex and how distinct they really are.

Cahn stated that women who seem masculine or compete in masculine ways with women extends to transgender people and intersex women competing as women.

Sex verification test

In the 1940s, sports authorities started to conduct ad-hoc sex tests on female athletes whose gender was deemed suspect, according Human Rights Watch. This usually consisted of visual and physical exams by doctors.

During the Cold War era of 1960s Soviet track and field stars Irina (and Tamara Press) set at least 22 world records. This feat prompted a lot of negative commentary from the media in which the sisters were "constantly compared with male athletes," Lindsay Parks Pieper, an associate professor of sports management at the University of Lynchburg, Virginia, and the author of "Sex Testing. Gender Policing In Women's Sports."


In order to prevent male imposters from Eastern European sports teams, international governing bodies such as the International Association of Athletics Federations (now World Athletics), and the International Olympic Committee began to require that all female athletes be chromosomal tested. This controversial practice was banned in the late 1990s.

Pieper stated that "they found it was practically impossible to use one cross qualifier to determine a male athlete's sex," referring to the range of genetic tests used in sport authorities.

Sport authorities have the authority to still test any female athlete suspected of having physical advantage, over concerns they might be intersex.

Pieper stated that by the 2010s, sports authorities began to focus on athletes' testosterone levels. Most of their suspicion fell on highly-performing athletes from the Global South. Caster Semenya, a South African middle-distance runner, and Dutee Chand (a sprinter from India), were subject to tests because they were perceived as too fast.

Semenya was the subject of a lot of media attention because she is particularly muscular. Semenya won in Berlin the 800 meter at the 2009 world track and field championships. A Time magazine story that was reminiscent of Helen Stephens' 1937 spread on Look featured Semenya's photograph and asked: "Could this Women's World Champ be a man?"

Semenya, a legal female, filed a discrimination claim in 2019 to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport after she was banned from participating in races of 400-meters-to-1-mile unless her testosterone levels were medically decreased. According to court documents obtained by The Associated Press World Athletics argued Semenya was "biologically masculine," a claim she stated "hurts more that I can put into words."

Semenya lost her case and was therefore unable to participate in 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She is currently challenging the ruling at the European Court of Human Rights.

Semenya posted on Twitter, February 2021, "This fight doesn't just concern me. It's about taking up a stand for dignity, equality, and the human rights women in sport," All we ask is that we can run free like the strong, fearless women that we are. !"

Normal testosterone levels in men can vary from 300 to 1,000 nanograms per deciliter . However, only female athletes are tested. Pieper stated that sports in the U.S. are a place for men to prove their masculinity, and that male athletes who perform well have never been considered suspicious.

She said that if a woman excels in sports, then people have a need to "question why."

"Homophobia as an offensive weapon"

Often, questions about the sexuality of female athletes have been accompanied by scrutiny surrounding their gender.

Pieper stated that Mildred "Babe," Didrikson Zaharias was a multisport athlete who won 2 gold medals at the 1932 Summer Olympics. She said that Didrikson was often referred to by sports journalists as a "muscle moll", a term used describe lesbians and sexually deviant women.

Pieper stated that these were accusations made against her to, "I would argue, downplay her athleticism or take from her athleticism. And then you see that it continued throughout history."

In the 1980s, sports journalists began to focus on Martina Navratilova's muscular physique. They often called her "bionic" and claimed that she should be playing in men's tournaments.

After the media exposed Navratilova as gay along with fellow tennis legend Billie Jean King, a fear about lesbianism gripped the world of women’s sports. King and Navratilova were unable to secure sponsorship and could be forced out of their respective careers.

Sports officials tried to discredit the notion that female athletes were lesbians long before they were exposed. They required that female athletes wear ladylike uniforms. Cahn stated that female athletes were under "real pressure" to show femininity, in addition to fighting the stereotype that they couldn't be good athletes.

She said that she believed the fear was that women would seek out space in women’s sports, and would compete to be equals or close to equals to men. "And so homophobia was used to marginalize women athletes and dismiss them."

Pieper stated that lesbianism worries went well beyond athletes.

She said that coaches, especially in the 1980s, used to accuse other coaches being lesbians to scare athletes away from their schools and onto their teams.

Breaking the 'boundaries for gender'

Renee Richards was the first transgender woman athlete to make national headlines. She is also believed to have been the first transgender woman to play professional sports.

Richards sued the U.S. Tennis Association over the 1977 requirement that women undergo genetic testing in order to participate in the U.S. Open. Although she won the case, she lost a lot of matches that year. These included matches against Virginia Wade from Britain and Navratilova.

Richards sparked fears that transgender women would "herald end of women's sport as we know," Joanna Harper, a medical doctor and author of "Sporting Gender": "The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes" said.

"Renee is the pioneer transgender woman. Harper stated that she was the first trans woman. Harper said, "That will always remain the most important thing she has ever done."

Only a few trans athletes have broken the sports barrier in the decades since Richards was first. CeCe Telfer, a track star, became the first openly trans athlete to win an NCAA title in 2019. Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand weightlifter, became first transgender woman to participate in the Olympics. She did not win any medals. According to the LGBTQ sports publication out Sports, only 30 trans athletes have participated openly in NCAA. And few of them have made the headlines.

Lia Thomas, a trans swimmer from the University of Pennsylvania broke records at last month's Ivy League Championships. She is now scheduled to compete in Wednesday's NCAA Women’s Division I Swimming and Diving Championships in Atlanta. Thomas has been the subject of intense media scrutiny due to her appearance. Conservative news sites have used her former name, also known as "deadnaming", and featured photos of her before her transition.


Although Thomas is often portrayed as an unbeatable athlete, she has suffered a few losses. She finished sixth in the 100-yard freestyle at Yale University.

Thomas, 22 years old, stated that she was a woman and just like everyone else on the team. "I have always considered myself a swimmer. It's what my life has been all about; it's what makes me happy.

The International Olympic Committee released a new framework last November. It removed requirements for medically unnecessary procedures and treatment that put limits on testosterone levels. However, it left the requirements up to individual sport governing bodies. USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, changed its policy last month to require elite trans women athletes to suppress testosterone for three years. This was in response to growing media criticism about Thomas. Many of Thomas' supporters believed that this was an attempt to stop her competing at the NCAA Championships. Thomas, who started transitioning in May 2019, won't be allowed to compete because the NCAA hasn't adopted this change.

Harper stated that testosterone-based policies for transathletes in general are not equivalent to gender policing. She called USA Swimming's 36-month policy "problematic" because trans women's hemoglobin, which is responsible for carrying oxygen to their muscles, drops to similar levels to cisgender females in less than a year of hormone therapy. This causes them to lose significant endurance.

Although the science is still limited, it has been shown that transgender women are able to keep an average athletic edge even after one year of hormone therapy. This is despite having lost a lot of muscle mass. These studies did not include professional or elite athletes. However, the results do raise questions about how long trans athletes should wait to compete after hormone therapy.

Harper stated that "The question is not 'Do transwomen have advantages?'" Harper added that athletes have certain advantages, and that trans women do have some advantages. But can trans women and cis females compete in meaningful competition against each other? That is the crucial question. This is the fascinating question. That's a difficult question to answer.

"How can you compete if your opponent is allowed to win?" '

Despite decades of scrutiny, professional sports have changed dramatically for female athletes since Helen Stephens' famous Look magazine photo.

The U.S. Olympic team this year had the highest number of female athletes ever in the history of Winter Games. Additionally, an increasing number of LGBTQ Olympians have been participating in the Olympics. Queer women are often far more common than their male counterparts. The landmark agreement between the U.S. Soccer Federation and the U.S. Women's National Team will guarantee equal pay for male soccer players.

Despite gains, female athletes still face obstacles, especially when it comes to financing, equal pay and media coverage. Some trans advocates claim that the attention on this tiny subset of athletes, which culminated in 11 states' passing laws to ban trans women from female sports teams within the last two years, overshadows other issues.

Cahn stated that although there are legitimate questions about trans female athletes and fairness in competition, conservatives are focusing their attention on transgender athletes to "draw a line and defend traditional ideas of gender."

She said, "They're doing this in the name fairness for girls. And it's people that've never fought to fight for gender equality or equality or to increase funding for women's sport."

Thomas continues to be the subject of speculation and outrage. Many are expecting Thomas to break records in this week's NCAA finals. Harper stated that she expects a "huge outcry" if Thomas wins any of her events.

Harper, a trans woman, stated that it is a fact of trans athletes that they can compete in women’s sports provided they don't win. Harper, who is trans, said that if we win it would be problematic. You can't compete if you don't win.



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