Current Events and Teachable Moments: Creating Dialog about Transgender and Intersex Athletes: Being a "Team Player" Includes Valuing and Supporting Diverse Teammates

By Krane, Vikki; Barak, Katie Sullivan | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, April 2012 | Go to article overview
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Current Events and Teachable Moments: Creating Dialog about Transgender and Intersex Athletes: Being a "Team Player" Includes Valuing and Supporting Diverse Teammates


Krane, Vikki, Barak, Katie Sullivan, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


"Caster Semenya, Forced to Take Gender Test, Is a Woman ... and a Man" Yaniv (2009)

"LPGA Eliminates 'Female at Birth' Rule"--Sports Network (2010)

"GW Hoops Player Kye Allums Changes Sex, Not Team"--CBS News (2010)

Most students and athletes have likely read these headlines on sports news sites on the Internet. But what exactly do they mean? How can they be explained if students ask questions? These news stories offer opportunities for impromptu lessons and teachable moments.

Caster Semenya is a South African runner who burst onto the international scene when she decidedly outran her opponents in the 800-meter race at the 2009 world championships in Berlin. Her unexpected dominance, along with her "masculine" appearance, led the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, the international governing body for track and field) to order her to undergo a sex test to verify that she is a woman (Yaniv, 2009). After a multitude of genetic, hormonal, and medical tests, results leaked to the press indicated that Semenya is intersex, or was born with both male and female sexual characteristics (Chang, 2009).

The Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) changed its eligibility rules to allow transgender athletes to compete on the tour (Sports Network, 2010). The original bylaws mandated that only people who were "female at birth" were allowed to qualify for LPGA tournaments.

Kye Allums is a member of the women's basketball team at George Washington University. Before his junior year, Allums publicly acknowledged he was a transgender male; he prefers to be identified by his gender identity as male, but his biological sex is still female (Zeigler, 2010). Because he has decided not to begin transitioning (changing his hormonal or anatomical make-up) at this time, he still is eligible to compete as a female consistent with National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules.

Each of these situations is unique, yet there are some common concepts linking them. Many students may not have heard terms such as transgender, transitioning, intersex, and gender testing. Consequently, they may ask questions such as "What does it mean to be transgender?" or "Why is it so hard to know her gender?" The goal of this article is to help physical educators and coaches better understand the issues raised in these recent news stories and to encourage teachers to engage students and athletes in conversation about these topics. Additionally, it is important for teachers and coaches to be able to separate facts from fiction regarding transgender and intersex athletes and to have the necessary language to discuss gender, gender nonconformity, and gender variations with students in a nonthreatening and understandable manner. This article provides an overview of the basic concepts associated with transgender athletes, addresses common misconceptions about them, and offers strategies for engaging in age-appropriate discussion with students (table 1).

Sex, Gender, and Transgender

When discussing transgendered identities, it is important to start with the basic concepts of sex and gender. Sex refers to the physical, biological, chromosomal, and hormonal characteristics associated with being male or female (Brown & Rounsley, 1996). For example, females have breasts, ovaries, and more estrogen than testosterone, whereas males have testes and more testosterone than estrogen. Typically, most people have the physical, biological, chromosomal, and hormonal characteristics consistent with their sex. However, this is not always the case. Some individuals, about 17 out of 1,000 births, are born with chromosomes, internal reproductive organs, or internal or external genitalia that make it unclear whether they are male or female (Moore, 2000). They may have ambiguous-looking external genitals or a combination of male and female physical characteristics (Looy & Bouma, 2005).

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