It’s difficult to talk about women in sports without talking about the work of Nancy Hogshead-Makar. She won three gold medals as a swimmer in the 1984 Olympics, and that’s possibly the lesser part of her résumé given what she’s done since. She’s spent decades advocating for equality for women in sports, through her work with the Women’s Sports Foundation and later her own organization, Champion Women. She’s testified before Congress. She’s been profiled by Outside magazine for her work representing young athletes who’ve suffered sex abuse. She’s been quoted in countless national outlets—the New York Times, NPR, the Washington Post, and here at Deadspin—as an advocate for women in sports.
But for several days on Twitter, Hogshead-Makar has been arguing that South African runner Caster Semenya is not a woman. It began on Sunday, when Hogshead-Makar responded to a tweet about Semenya by saying “We must protect women’s sport for women’s bodies.”
She has since continued tweeting that discrimination against Semenya is about protecting women (it’s not), and similar sentiments later appeared on Champion Women’s Facebook page, which at various points said the International Association of Athletics Federation’s rules are similar to the existence of weight classes (it’s not), suggested this was about chromosomes (it’s not), and that all this is about protecting women’s sports (it’s not).
This has continued on now for three days, and when people have engaged with Hogshead-Makar on the subject, she refuses to change her mind on what she has decided are the facts. Hogshead-Makar has an authority she earned over the years through her work on advocating for women in sports. But in this case, she’s flat-out wrong, and perpetuating dangerous thinking that needs to to be addressed because of her massive platform.
Hogshead-Makar says that women like Semenya need to be kept out of competition to “give women’s bodies an equal opportunity to participate,” which isn’t true. I don’t recall seeing reports of women suddenly giving up track because of Semenya, although I do read stories about how Semenya has inspired young African girls. It’s the underfunding, sexual violence, and harassment that keep women out of sports, which Hogshead-Makar should know as she’s lobbied on those very issues. Hogshead-Makar talks a lot about how testosterone is key, but leaves out the many other factors that affect athletes’ performance, factors which are not regulated, as well as the many complicated ways testosterone acts in every person’s body.
Hogshead-Makar also ignores or refuses to acknowledge that these new IAAF laws are clearly targeted at Semenya alone. Few things make this more obvious than the study which was commissioned to uphold the anti-Semenya rules: The study found that naturally occurring testosterone gave competitors some advantages in certain events, but noted that the biggest advantages were in the hammer and the pole vault—and for some reason the new testosterone limits don’t apply to the women those sports. Probably because Semenya doesn’t compete in them.
The validity of the study itself has been called out by multiple researchers. Three different researchers failed to reproduce the results on their own, so they asked that the data set be released. When that happened, the scientists found what they called a “pervasiveness of problematic data” because there were so many errors in it, and called for the study to be retracted immediately. The World Medical Association also has told doctors not to use the IAAF rules, due to their basis on “weak evidence” as well as running contrary to “WMA ethical statements and declarations.” IAAF responded in a statement that basically said a sport court sided with us, so who are doctors to tell us what’s medically ethical?
Another piece of information Hogshead-Makar leaves out is what happens to athletes who are suspected of not being woman enough.
In 2013, a group of scientists reported on four women—all from rural or mountainous regions of developing countries—who were brought to them for hyperandrogenism. Their pubic hair, breasts, external genitals, and internal reproductive organs were examined. They then had surgeries, described as “partial clitoridectomy with a bilateral gonadectomy, followed by a deferred feminizing vaginoplasty and estrogen replacement therapy.” It was only after having their bodies physically reformed for them by doctors that, the paper said, the sports authorities would allow them to continue.
If that chills you, it should. It’s details like these that explain why the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for an end to “developing and enforcing policies and practices that force, coerce or otherwise pressure women and girl athletes into undergoing unnecessary, humiliating and harmful medical procedures in order to participate in women’s events in competitive sports, and to repeal rules, policies and practices that negate their rights to bodily integrity and autonomy.”
That the four women were from the Global South was not a coincidence. Researchers Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young noted in a paper on the topic that public information, when gathered, all shows that the women being investigated “are exclusively from the Global South, and all indications are that they are black and brown women.”
At one point, Hogshead-Makar says: “Sport participation is a human right, but participation in the women’s category is not.” She adds that “a woman can be a woman and still not be permitted to participate in women’s sports.” How can an advocate for women in sports, who has testified about the importance of laws that guaranteed the existence of women’s sports, say that women’s participation in women’s sports is not a human right?
If you believe women are a protected class due to historical discrimination—as Hogshead-Makar should understand as a civil rights lawyer—that means laws are put in place to protect members of the group from further discrimination by those in power. This does not mean laws are put in place so those powerful people, the ones who did the discriminating, then get to pick who is a member of the protected class and who is not. Semenya, a black woman in a world where whiteness and frailness remain the feminine ideal, should not have to lobby and rely on men to decide if she is womanly enough for them.
Instead, the Olympic movement remains dead set on brainwashing people into thinking that in this one instance, discrimination is not only good but necessary to protect the people who already need protection from discrimination. As if arguing for discrimination was ever a good idea.
The problem with gender testing is it gives extremely corrupt bodies—like the International Olympic Committee, and in this case the IAAF—permission to police women’s bodies. Given that these organizations are historically white and male and corrupt, the various testing regimes they’ve cooked up over the years always devolve into some sort of racist and sexist nonsense meant to uphold an ideal of womanhood that was white, athletic but not too athletic, and smiles. Ruth Padawer summed up the motivations back in 2016 for the New York Times:
In the 1950s, many Olympics officials were so uneasy about women’s participation that Prince Franz Josef of Liechtenstein, a member of the International Olympic Committee, spoke for many when he said he wanted to “be spared the unesthetic spectacle of women trying to look and act like men,” writes Susan K. Cahn, a history professor at the University at Buffalo, in her book “Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in 20th-Century Women’s Sports.” Others were particularly bothered by women in track and field because of the strained expressions on their faces during competition. Such female exertion violated the white middle-class ideal of femininity, as did the athletes’ “masculinized” physiques, prompting Olympic leaders to consider eliminating those events for women.
That testing with roots in sexism and racism has continued to be racist and sexist isn’t shocking. What is shocking is that with all this history widely known, powerful people still believe gender gatekeeping has any value in sports.
People have responded directly to Hogshead-Makar, trying to explain why they believe this line of thinking is wrong and dangerous for women. They’re trying to change Hogshead-Makar’s mind for the very reason I don’t enjoy writing this post—she’s done so much for women, fighting for our equality while some of us were in diapers or not even born yet. But history doesn’t automatically make a person right on everything. And on this topic, Hogshead-Makar is wrong. Women do not need protection from other women. Sex and gender are incredibly complex, and science still just scratches the surface of it all. Gender testing, historically and in this very case, devolves into practices that ultimately involve violations of basic human rights and dignity.
But few can explain all this better than Madeleine Pape. She competed against Semenya, lost, and was bitter about it. Years later, as she studied for a doctorate in sociology, she realized that the problem was not testosterone or whatever latest boogeyman the Olympics cooked up. Writing for the Guardian, she laid the blame with the dearth of information the IOC and IAAF allowed to exist, and then take advantage of.
As a sociologist, I have now spent several years immersed in this issue, interviewing elite track-and-field stakeholders from around the world including athletes, coaches, officials, managers, team staff and media personnel. In their accounts I have seen so many echoes of my own experience in Berlin: an astounding lack of information, an absence of alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from national and international governing bodies, and a stubborn refusal to dig a little deeper and reflect critically on where their views come from and what biases might be underlying them. The path of least resistance is to turn away from information and perspectives that might undermine one’s investment in the simplistic notion that sex is binary and testosterone is unfair (at least in women).
This should be the type of movement that includes Hogshead-Makar. A lack of information, wielded by those in power to remain in power while excluding others, is exactly what she has fought against for so long. The fight for equal rights for all gains nothing by excluding Semenya. Every woman should want Semenya by our side because, by now, very few people know what it’s like to be discriminated against more than she does.