The more we learn about the differences between sex, sexuality, and gender, the more opportunity there is for sports to really muck it up. Therefor, it's illuminating to examine how the Gay Games, a quadrennial event currently underway in Akron and Cleveland, Ohio, handle the issue.
The Games, which run from August 9-16, have been hosted around the world since 1982, and this year over 8,000 athletes, both gay and straight, have gathered to compete. Just like any other event of its size, the Games have their own bylaws and competition rules, along with standards to determine who competes against whom. But it's in the structure of those standards, their application with both sensitivity and fairness, where the Games distinguish themselves.
The rules' purpose, its gender page says, are designed "to best promote inclusion." For an event that began as an enclave of safety and solidarity, the Games may have had more incentive to foster this from the start. But that doesn't mean it can't be achieved elsewhere.
"When we talk about inclusion, it means diversity," says Kelly Murphy-Stevens, communications officer for the Federation of Gay Games. Murphy-Stevens volunteered with Games in 2006, and joined the board of directors a year later. Since then, he says, the only thing that has changed significantly in the Games' gender policy is further clarification for trans athletes. Part of diversity, he says, "means allowing trans athletes to choose what gender they'll be participating with in ways that other sports don't allow."
During the registration process, competitors list their gender twice, first the one listed on a government-issued photo ID. This is in line any other sporting event, with that on/off, yes/no idea of gender that is so cost-effective when building public restrooms. But its second step, where participants then list the gender they plan on competing under at the Games, more closely aligns with the modern understanding of sex and gender. In the case of transgender athletes, they then provide "a letter or certificate from the participant's medical practitioner that he or she has been undergoing uninterrupted hormone treatment for at least one year prior to the beginning of the Gay Games," or "documentation that he or she has been living as the chosen gender for at least two years." And that's as stringent as it is.
Unsurprisingly, Gay Games athletes are fine with this more malleable categorization. Its community of acceptance is why they're in Ohio in the first place. If there are complaints, Murphy-Stevens says, they might be under the breath in the heat of competition, which only illustrates how difficult the issue can be. "But in the openness of fair play, it's just not allowed to complain about the open policy," he says. "The whole point of this is to broaden sports."
Thinking of the handling of these issues, one can't help but compare the Games' policy with a Caster Semenya-type situation. Semenya, an openly gay athlete, went through a worldwide shaming at the hands of the International Association of Athletics Federations after they bungled questions regarding her gender in 2009. For a more recent example, look no further than the transgender CrossFit athlete who had to take her case to court to compete with other women. "We wouldn't have that kind of negative response," Murphy-Stevens says. "That does not happen here."
Why aren't other organizations achieving the Gay Games' same level of enlightenment? There are two main areas: leadership and community.
First, the board the leads the Games has extensive experience with the struggles that gay and trans athletes face, and have tailored their policies in light of that. There are track and swimming races that are segregated by gender, but there are also mixed relays. There is same-sex ballroom dancing and male synchronized swimming. These expansions in the sports offerings display forethought. They diffuse. Contrast this with the NFL's (and mainstream media's) slapdash handling of Michael Sam despite the fact that the reality of a gay football player was an inevitability. The Games have been a step ahead while the mainstream sports have remained staunchly reactionary.
But the second reason, and arguably the most important, is that the community itself is being prepared for gay and trans issues rather than being surprised into the present. As part of helping prepare the Ohio community for it, there's a link right on the Gay Games homepage for local businesses to receive diversity training, creating a Field of Dreams, "Build it and they will come" environment. Preparing its audience is something that major sports still struggle with.
Despite the difference between the Gay Games and mainstream sports, their purposes are remarkably similar. The goal of the Olympics is "to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." There's not a single sport whose stated purpose doesn't echo this. Because of this commonality alone there is hope for mainstream sports to catch up in its understanding of sex and gender. The Games, if not perfect, at least provides a model for what the future can be.
[Photo: Matt Cordish]