For much of history, gender classifications have been very rigid. They were viewed as “integral to the creation of economies that depended on a division of labor, inheritance laws, even religious rites.” Gender boundaries were maintained even at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. It was said that one pope was subjected to a genital examination in order to ascertain that he was, in fact, a man. This incident came out of a disputed claim that in the ninth century, a monk who was actually a woman was made pope.
While in her earlier chapters, Nutt explored some of the science behind sex and gender, Nutt takes a few chapters to demonstrate how having a binary sense of gender has become ingrained in society in a way that often leads to discrimination against those who fall outside of that binary. Once again, she aims to dispel the myths that have long been held.
Gender “frauds” have more frequently been perpetrated in the world of sports. At the 1936 Olympics, high jumper Hermann Ratjen competed as Dora Ratjen, an impersonation that went undetected for two years—though still did not place above fourth. At the same Olympics, a female sprinter named Helen Stephens was accused of being male, which was not true. However, one of Stephens’ biggest competitors, Stella Walsh, was killed years later, and when Stella’s body was autopsied it was discovered she had a nonfunctioning micropenis and mostly male chromosomes.
Transgender women competing in sporting events is one of those contentious arenas that has often led to discrimination. But as Nutt will prove, and as these two stories imply, people who have some biologically male attributes do not necessarily have an advantage over competitors who do not have those attributes, as in the case of Hermann Ratjen and Stella Walsh.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) instituted genetic testing in 1968, but were faced with difficult decisions in 1996, when seven of the eight women who tested positive for the presence of male chromosomes were determined to have androgen insensitivity syndrome, which caused them to be born with normal-looking female genitals but undescended testes and a short vagina (or none at all). The confusion caused the IOC to stop gender testing three years later, concluding that no one test could confirm that someone was 100 percent male or female. In 2004 the IOC allowed transgender athletes to compete as long as they’d undergone sex reassignment surgery and completed two years of hormone replacement therapy.
The IOC ultimately recognized its own ignorance when seeing what Nutt proved in her earlier chapters: gender and sex are a system that work together, but which can have many variations. In recognizing this fact, the IOC stopped discriminating against those women who do not necessarily have the same genetic makeup as others.
Still, transgender women are often a source of contention in athletics. In 2014, a transgender woman named Chloie Jönsson sued CrossFit after it barred her from competing in the women’s division of its annual strength competition. She had undergone sex reassignment surgery eight years earlier and had been taking female hormones since then. CrossFit’s letter read, “The fundamental, ineluctable fact is that a male competitor who has a sex reassignment procedure still has a genetic makeup that confers a physical and physiological advantage over women.”
CrossFit’s letter demonstrates its own ignorance and, additionally, its discrimination. Calling Jönsson a “male competitor” fundamentally misunderstands—and also insults—Jönsson’s identity, and what gender consists of. Still, many readers likely hold the same belief that underlies CrossFit’s letter—a belief that Nutt will go on to dispel.
The NCAA’s handbook on transgender athletes makes it clear that CrossFit’s argument is off-base: according to medical experts, “the assumption that a transgender woman competing on a women’s team would have a competitive advantage outside the range of performance […] that already exists among female athletes is not supported by evidence.” Doctors and scientists agree that after a year on female hormones or male hormone suppressants, any advantage a transgender athlete might have had is gone.
Again, Nutt corrects mistaken assumptions and common knowledge that many people have. Transgender women do not have a competitive advantage over cisgender women, and therefore much of the controversy surrounding these athletes is simply due to prejudice.