Thursday, August 18, 2016

Toeing the Testosterone Line: Sex, Sports, and Semenya at the Rio Olympics

The first round of the women's Olympic 800 meter race was Wednesday. The semifinals are tonight, followed by the finals on Saturday. Caster Semenya of South Africa won her preliminary heat and placed sixth overall in round 1. She'll run in heat 3 of the semis. She is expected to advance through the semis and is favored to win gold.

In 2009 and 2010, Semenya endured a year long ban from international competition due to her elevated testosterone levels. Though she has never spoken about it publicly, the organization governing international track competition reinstated Semenya supposedly after she agreed to undergo treatment for her testosterone levels. Much was made in the media of the ban on Semenya and whether or not she was intersex, and her return to track after her reinstatement. The ban took an apparent toll on Semenya. Leading up to the 2012 Olympics, she seemed unable to repeat the success she'd had before being barred from competition. But in London, Semenya looked great in the 800 meter final. She took silver, losing to Russian runner Mariya Savinova. Savinova was one of the runners who questioned Semenya's participation in women's competition at the 2009 world track championships, just prior to Semenya's ban. Savinova later somewhat ironically admitted to doping and has now herself been banned for life from Olympic competition (she has not yet been stripped of her 2012 gold medal, but if she does, Semenya would be declared the 2012 winner). Semenya ran a fast race in London and looked so relaxed in the home stretch that some speculated she'd held back on purpose to deflect any additional scrutiny that might have come from winning gold.

Semenya is now running as fast as she ever has and assuming she makes it through the preliminary rounds and the semifinals, she's likely to win on Saturday night. NPR's Melissa Block aired a short segment on Semenya's story yesterday, with the title "The Sensitive Question of Intersex Athletes" (listen here). I'm glad NPR did the story and that the piece included multiple perspectives, but Block fell prey to common pitfalls regarding discussions of athletes and the sex binary. One is the notion that any athlete (or person) who does not fit the male/female binary is, as Block puts it, "anatomically and genetically ambiguous." But Caster Semenya's body is not "ambiguous." Her body is what it is. NPR failed to really unpack the typical assumption that it isn't "normal" for so-called male and female physical characteristics to overlap, when in fact many individuals - not just those who claim (or are assigned) the label "intersex" - have a variety of bodily characteristics we might describe as both masculine and feminine.

Semenya's ordeal is largely about testosterone, but whether or not testosterone is the thing that makes male-bodied people faster sprinters than female-bodied people is not universally agreed upon in science. Recent case in point: Dutee Chand, like Semenya, has "elevated" testosterone, but unlike Semenya, she's not a superstar in her event. After the first round of the 100 meter dash in Rio, Chand was in 50th place. She did not even make it to the semifinals. Though her time of 11.69 was not her best, even Chand's personal record of 11.24 is nowhere near the top of the field. The women's 100 meter leaders in Rio all ran under 11 seconds in the final. Elaine Thompson of Jamaica ran a 10.71 to win gold, almost an entire second (an eternity in the 100 meters) faster than Chand's 11.69. Yet Chand had to fight like hell to for her right to compete internationally. Like Semenya, she was banned from international competition in 2014 due to naturally-occurring high testosterone levels that officials worried gave her an "unfair" advantage. She too was ultimately reinstated, thankfully with enough time to still make an attempt at Olympic qualification (for more see this recent article from Out Sports).

Still, the NPR piece includes soundbites from Ross Tucker, a scholar whose work has looked closely at sex, sports, and intersex athletes, but who insists that testosterone is the "proven reason" men and women compete in different categories. Tucker affirmed recent rules for international track competition that women with "high" testosterone levels must undergo treatment that brings their testosterone below the lower limit considered "normal" for males before competing against other women.

Tucker acknowledges, like others have, of course, that testosterone is not the only thing that might give one athlete an advantage over another. Michael Phelps has an extraordinary advantage in swimming because his hands and feet are large and his wingspan freakishly long. Is that advantage "unfair"? Probably. Should men of average wingspan not be forced to compete against him because it might be impossible for them to win? What if Phelps had another biological characteristic that people associate with improved athletic performance, like naturally elevated testosterone? Would Phelps be required to bring his levels within the "normal" range in order to compete? No. Most folks would say that's as preposterous as requiring him to surgically shorten his limbs so that he can "fairly" compete with humans of average proportion. What about wealthy nations' disproportionate presence at the top of the Olympic medal tally list? Right now five of the top ten countries on the Rio medal count list are European countries with relatively small populations that shouldn't, by sheer math, be able to produce as many elite athletes as they do. Great Britain is currently second in the medal tally (behind the United States, also over-represented). Brazil is 15th on the list. Despite having a population roughly three times GB's size, Brazil has won only one fifth the number of medals that Great Britain has collected thus far. Why? The same reason that wealthier countries always win more medals than poorer countries - it takes tremendous resources and time to be a professional athlete and in countries where fewer financial supports are available to athletes, there is less guarantee of being able to make any kind of living. U.S. soccer star Alex Morgan has talked about how her father hired her a personal trainer as a teenager so she could "bulk up" a little - he worried she wouldn't be competitive at the international level without such a boost. Is that an unfair advantage? Yeah, it is. But no one's talking about it like that - no one's saying Alex Morgan is only as amazing a player as she is because she grew up rich. It might be partly true, but it will never cost Morgan her spot on the U.S. roster, even if it does cost someone else, with equal natural talent, but fewer resources, a spot. Rather, we place the focus of our preoccupation with "fairness" squarely on those "advantages" we associate with sex, a focus that has unfortunate consequences.

Our focus on "advantages" associated with sex obscures the fact that physical sex characteristics, like gender, probably exist on a spectrum much more so than in binary form. Greater understanding of nature's complicated relationship with sex categories might ease fears and harassment of athletes like Chand and Semenya, in addition to any other athlete or person who doesn't fit social or physical norms. Indeed, the brightest spot in the NPR piece was American runner (and peer of Semenya) Hazel Clark's comment towards the end calling for fairness for all athletes, including Semenya.

Finally, it places limits on female athletes. How good and how fast can male athletes like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt be before they're "too good" or "too fast" or before the competition becomes so unfair that Phelps and Bolt must be moved into separate categories from their peers? There is no such limit. But by scrutinizing the performance of Caster Semenya and athletes like her, we put limits on all female athletes by extension. The 800 meters is a brutal race. We can never know if it's testosterone, excellent training, high pain tolerance, good muscle fibers, or just sheer guts that make Caster Semenya so good, but by saying that hormones make it "unfair" for her to compete against other women assumes that women aren't supposed to be that good. And to be clear, women are that good. Semenya has yet to break the world record in the 800 meter (though she might do just that this week). In 2009, when she was first flagged for gender tests and then banned, her fastest time was 1:55.45, a blistering pace for sure, but still slower than the times posted by Kenyan runner Pamela Jelimo on several occasions just the year before.

If the women's 800 meter record is broken this week, some people may try to cling to the old record. Semenya may be maligned in the press as "not really a woman." But women have run faster than Semenya in the past and whatever time she posts this week, future women will beat it. She is doing the thing that all elite athletes do - breaking barriers and propelling herself, and her sport, forward - really effing fast. My high school cross country and track coach used to tell us to "toe the line" before a race, as in, go up there and get your butt on the starting line. So toe the line, Caster. And then break it wide open.


first wrote about Semenya before the 2012 Summer Olympics. More recently, I included both Semenya's story and that of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who underwent a similar ordeal and who also competed in the Rio Olympics, in a chapter published in Teaching Sex and Gender (Springer, 2016). The book is geared towards college faculty. Link to the book and an excerpt from my article - lucky me, I'm the first chapter - is here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Genderblind Parenting: Telling kids gender doesn’t matter when everything else tells them it does

If I had a dollar for every person who has told me they didn’t truly believe there were real, fundamental differences between males and females until they had kids and couldn’t get their sons to play with dolls or dissuade their daughters from amassing collections of sparkly princess dresses, I’d be rich. 

Left-leaning, progressive, feminist parents will say they had such grand ideas before having kids that they would create for their children a gender-neutral paradise in which neither boys nor girls would be confined to the stereotypes that so rigidly separate masculinity from femininity. But none of it seemed to work, they'll say. This part of the narrative is oddly uniform and almost always includes some anecdote about a feminist family’s young son chewing his toast (or sandwich, or saltine cracker, or cookie…) into the shape of a gun and pretending to shoot it, to the utter bafflement of the parents, who thought they had done everything possible to keep both toy and real guns and associated brands of masculinity out of the house. We don’t watch TV, the parents will say. They didn’t allow toy guns, they didn’t allow violent play. They encouraged him to be nurturing. They gave him dolls. It must be ingrained, they say. Maybe boys and girls really are different. They shrug their shoulders and sigh.

My generation came of age during the rise of “girl power.” Post-Title IX babies, we were told that girls could do anything boys could do. We were taught - much more so than any American generation before us  - that gender didn’t matter. For the first time, there was growing public emphasis on the notion that you could be a girl and also be an athlete, a doctor, a business-owner, a politician or a rocket scientist. We were also the colorblind generation. Post-Civil Rights era babies, we were taught that race didn’t matter either - that anyone could do anything. Years later, our girl-power, colorblind cohort has come of age and women of all races (though particularly women of color) and men of color are still dramatically under- or mis-represented in everything from sports to politics to science. 

Anti-racist activists have spoken loudly and clearly on the dangers of “colorblindness” (see this, this, this, and this) - that teaching folks that race doesn’t matter, when everything around us tells us that it does, is not anti-racist at all, nor does it do anything to dismantle the institutional racism that still permeates our social, economic, and political lives. There are parallels between colorblindness and the idea of gender-neutral parenting. If our idea of gender-neutral parenting is to simply present male children with dolls and female children with trucks, provide some “diverse” clothing options, and assume that children will not absorb - or that they will be equipped to confront - any of the other cultural messages they receive about gender from movies and television, teachers, classmates, relatives, and books and toys, we have become “genderblind.” Genderblind parenting is teaching our children that gender doesn’t matter, all the while failing to name and confront the fact that gender is embedded in nearly every aspect of our daily lives.

Social norms are powerful and small children are deeply attuned to the world of the adults around them. Their brains are rapidly forming and strengthening synapses - the connections that allow them to function, but also to learn about the culture and people to whom they’ve been born. We can - and frequently do - tell preschoolers that boys and girls ought to be treated equally, and that gender doesn’t matter, but nearly everything else we do to or with children says otherwise. 

Gender is a social construct, yes. It is also a fundamental element of social organization. The first thing we want to know about newborns is whether they’re male or female. Adults and children alike often refer to non-family members as “Miss/Ms.” or “Mr.” based on perceived gender. Parents typically belong to one of two groups - moms or dads. Though most adults in the United States frequently wear pants, it is not uncommon to see adult women also wearing skirts and dresses while we have strong social taboos against men or male-identified individuals wearing skirts. Similarly, while many parents dress both male and female children in pants, even parents with a commitment to gender equality might hesitate to dress a male child in a skirt. Department store children’s clothing sections are divided into areas marked “Girls” or “Boys.” In public, boys and girls and men and women do not share spaces like bathrooms and locker rooms, even though most of us do share such spaces in our own homes. While young children sometimes play on co-ed or all-gender sports teams, most youth, college, and professional sports are segregated by gender.  Cis-male athletes are vastly more visible and occupy more privileged social space than female and trans or queer athletes. Children either join the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts. Action movies typically feature male superheroes and are marketed to boys while fairy-tale movies typically feature hyper-feminine princesses and heterosexual romance and are marketed to girls. While women have gained much ground in terms of workplace equality outside the home since the 1970s, when it comes to division of labor at home, women still do a disproportionate amount of child care relative to men.   

All of these practices convey the message to children that gender is a profoundly salient element of our social structure, and that belonging clearly to one group or the other is important. Children can recognize the kinds of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity associated with being male or female, and despite also frequently being aware of a wide spectrum of ways to be human, peer pressure and perceived adult pressure can be a powerful tool keeping the boundary between “boy” and “girl” rigidly clear - a line that even when inadvertently imposed by adults, is often heavily policed by kids themselves. We take this as evidence that perhaps there are elements of gender or sex that are essential - that boys and girls really are different. 

We must stop doing this. Gender socialization starts at the moment of birth and it shapes the brains of young children as they move through their most formative years. The differences we think we see at age three, or age five, or age ten, are not biological or fundamentally related to being in possession of a penis or a vagina, but reflect the extent to which children have absorbed gender norms. If a boy refuses to play with a doll, it doesn’t necessarily mean that human males are “naturally” less nurturing than females. It may mean that he has been ridiculed - or seen other boys ridiculed - for expressing interest in dolls. It may mean that he identifies strongly with the adult males in his life and has not seen them interacting with infants as often as women. 

We so readily accept that early childhood experiences account for the many differences we see between individual children, and later, adults. We acknowledge - and much early childhood research confirms - that things like screen time, being read to, being exposed to music, being frequently spoken to, having good or poor nutrition, discipline style, exercise, and play shape the developing brains of young children and can influence their interests and personalities. Why shouldn’t we assume that the gendered language and culture we’ve built around infants and children similarly shapes young brains and accounts for the gender differences we see as babies become toddlers and then preschoolers and so on? 

The point is that gender socialization is extraordinarily pervasive and disrupting it might take more than simply offering our sons dolls and our daughters trucks, though that’s a good start. When preschool-age girls refuse to wear any color but pink, or when preschool boys gravitate towards all things super-hero, I don’t think feminist, binary-disrupting parents should worry they’ve failed, nor should they default to the conclusion that these differences are biologically fated. A number of resources exist (this and this are both good places to start) to help parents talk to children about the gender binary, introduce them to the notion of gender fluidity, and encourage them to explore a fuller spectrum of human expression. Binary sex and gender are all around us. Gender matters, but that doesn’t mean that we have to reinforce its boundaries. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Invisible Queer: The shift from getting "Sirred" to getting "Mom'd"

Ever since I cut my hair short - almost ten years ago, I have become accustomed to regularly being addressed as “sir” by the vast majority of strangers I encounter. It’s partly because of how I dress (and the fact that I do not, and have not ever, had boobs of any noticeable size), but mostly, I think it’s the hair. I don’t mind being “sirred” most of the time - as someone who claims a genderqueer identity, I don’t tend to enjoy being referred to as “lady” or “ma’am” - so given the choices, “sir” is not the worst thing. It’s awkward on occasion - usually more so for the folks with me, or for whoever’s doing the “sirring,” than it is for me. I don’t love awkwardness, but again, it’s not the worst thing. 

What I didn’t realize, is that not only is being sirred not the worst thing, I think part of me really likes it. I came to this realization during the near eleven months I recently spent as a stay-at-home parent, during which time I was not sirred a single time. As long as I was with the baby, everywhere I went, I was “mom’d.”

We are not planning for our baby to call me “mom” - we’ve been referring to me as “papa” (read more about that here). But it’s not the fact that folks are calling me “mom” when I don’t claim that title that throws me off - there’s no way people would know I prefer “papa” if I don’t say so and there’s no need to have that conversation with every grocery store clerk on the planet. Rather, I’m feeling thrown off by the dramatic shift in how I’m being read. I’ve gone from being predominantly read as masculine in public to being predominantly read as feminine. It’s jarring, in part because it has changed how people treat me, and in part because I completely didn’t expect it. Perhaps I’m naive to have been surprised, but since nothing about my appearance or expression changed - hair, clothes, mannerisms - save for having an infant strapped to my chest most of the time, I assumed people would still read me as masculine, as they always had.

Because I was frequently read as a very young man in the past (young enough that perhaps nobody would expect me to have a kid), the fact that I now frequently have a baby in tow leads to the immediate conclusion: Mom/woman. In the past people either confidently addressed me as sir, or hesitated and waffled back and forth between “ma’m” and “sir” as they tried to figure me out. What’s fascinating to me now is that there is absolutely no hesitation when I’m with the baby. I am “mom’d” without question every time. The truth is, people still don’t expect to see men or boys with children. I think it’s also possible that people don’t expect to see queer and genderqueer folks with children either. Perhaps people now see the baby in my arms, or the stroller, or the diaper bag over my shoulder, and don’t see anything else. 

It’s been an uncomfortable shift, as I feel less comfortable with the title “mom” than with “sir,” though neither is really right. This shift in perception has also illuminated the limitations of the gender binary in ways I hadn’t considered before becoming a parent. Before, I was “sir.” Now, I am “mom.” As a queer-identified person, I am invisible either way.

This blog entry also appears at

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Let Me Call An NWSL Game. Please.

Dear National Women’s Soccer League,

The start of the 2015 season will be upon us tomorrow - a time of year I look forward to like a giddy kid on Christmas Eve. As a Washington Spirit season ticket holder, I try to get to as many live games as possible, but was also happy to be able to follow Spirit away games and other games around the league via live stream last year. Still, there's an issue. While a number of the game announcers on the live streams were fantastic, many left much to be desired. I know sports announcing is tough and the  league is just getting started, so may have difficulty finding folks with lots of experience and knowledge of the players, but still I found myself pressing mute on a significant number of occasions, mostly because announcers were talking - A LOT - but not about the game. As follows are a list of things NWSL announcers talked about during the 2014 season (other than the game at hand that they’re, um, supposed to be calling):

1. The weather in Nebraska (where there is, incidentally, no NWSL team). At length. I’m not even kidding.

2. The age of EVERY. PLAYER. ON. THE. FIELD. It’s not that age is irrelevant, but it’s really only interesting to mention if there’s something extraordinary about the player’s age in relation to the game. I don't think this announcer said ANYTHING else about the players aside from their date of birth.

3. The men’s U.S. national team. At length. (At such length, actually, that both announcers in one particular instance got so wrapped up in talking about the U.S. men that they forgot to continue announcing the NWSL game still going on for a decent chunk of the half. One of them finally seemed to snap out of it enough to say he supposed they ought to “get back to the women’s game.” Thanks. And sorry to interrupt you). 
Washington Spirit v. Seattle Reign, August 2013

4. The height (or lack thereof) of certain players, which wouldn’t be a problem in itself, except for that time one announcer referred to a particularly short player as a “midget.” Only a little problematic.

5. Hashtags. Again, I’m completely serious. You know there’s a problem when one announcer flatly tells the other announcer (who will not stop babbling on and on about said hashtags - in relation to what I honestly cannot remember), “I’m watching the game.” #announcethegame 

So, NWSL, here’s my resume: I played youth soccer. I can identify pretty much every single player in this league without a cheat sheet and can come up with something interesting to say about most of them aside from their birthdays. I have zero announcing experience but I like to talk. A lot. I REALLY like to talk about NWSL soccer (there are witnesses). I love the U.S. women's team to an absurd degree and I can pretty much guarantee I won’t talk about Nebraskan weather. 

If hired, I will accept an Ali Krieger jersey as payment. You may reach me via my twitter handle: @Queeringtheline. I look forward to hearing from you.


Sumner McRae

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Year, New URL (Again):

So here's the thing... When I first registered the blog's old domain name,, I discovered that there is an IT company by the name Transcender. They had already bought up nearly all of the related domain names, meaning that or the like could probably never be mine. I picked transcenderblog which was the only thing left, but recently I've been wanting to do some minor (and major) updates to the site, including choosing a domain name that more clearly describes the blog (and doesn't get search results confused with an IT company).

Here's the major change: the blog can now be found at, which matches my blogspot URL, is no longer registered to me and the link is dead, to my knowledge.

My Twitter handle is also now @Queeringtheline. If you were already following @Transcenderblog, you're fine - it's the same account, just a new handle. You can also now email the blog at if you have questions, suggestions, or would like to submit a guest post.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Readings on Ferguson, Gender and Queer Black Activism

A few readings from around the web on police violence and the intersection of race, gender, and gender identity in the wake of the Ferguson decision:

Black Girl Dangerous: Who's Lives Matter?: Trans Women of Color and Police Violence (By Princess Harmony Rodriguez)
"We are often reminded, however, that what are normal occurrences for the general public, are crimes for trans people of color. “Crimes” that make us targets of police and police violence. Trans women of color are stopped, harassed, assaulted and murdered by police with impunity. The conversation about police violence must include us, because our bodies, too, lay dead at their hands."

"It is appropriate and necessary for us to acknowledge the critical role that Black lives and struggles for Black liberation have played in inspiring and anchoring, through practice and theory, social movements for the liberation of all people.  The women’s movement, the Chicano liberation movement, queer movements, and many more have adopted the strategies, tactics and theory of the Black liberation movement.  And if we are committed to a world where all lives matter, we are called to support the very movement that inspired and activated so many more.  That means supporting and acknowledging Black lives."

The Audre Lorde Project: Statement: Wake Up, Rise Up
"The murders of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley and Eric Garner prove that Black lives are seen as dangerous and expendable. For those of us that are Queer, Trans, Black and People of Color, our bodies, our gender expression and who we love puts us further away from the "norms" and has falsely perceived us as the most threatening, less than human, and even more dangerous of all bodies."

Further reading on Ferguson and gender:
A collection of pieces by Black feminist writers, scholars, educators, and activists.