Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gender Identity, Intersexuality and Sports

There was a story in The Advocate yesterday about the controversy surrounding Sarah Gronert, a tennis player who was born with both male and female genitalia (also known as being born intersexed). This semester I’ve been in a college course about the Philosophy of Race and Gender, and one subject we’ve looked at is the way intersexed people are treated in our society. Gronert is facing controversy because some people are claiming that she’s not a “real” woman because of her physical strength, and that shouldn’t be allowed to play against other women as a result. To me this is a perfect example of the way our society treats intersexed people and the issues they face in our society.

Among the people who fall under the ever-growing umbrella term of LGBTQI, intersexed people get the least attention and have the least known about them by the general public. Historically intersexed people have often had to pick a gender role and are not allowed to express their identity for fear of retaliation. There have been cases of intersexed people being put to death if they refuse to conform, and it's an accepted practice for an intersexed baby to undergo surgery to "correct" their genitalia before they are old enough to give consent, and it's claimed that this is done to insure their quality of life. But despite the fact that Gronert has undergone surgery to become more female she's being treated with hostility, and as this story shows, some people are going to so far as to claim that she’s “really” a man despite legally identifying as a woman and living as a woman.

Do other people have the right to define who you are? This has been a fundamental question posed in my class and in this story, and I cannot in good conscience say that other people do have that right. From a sociological standpoint the forcing of intersexed people to choose a gender identity is a way to reinforce gender norms, since by their very nature intersexed people call our strict male/female gender dichotomy into question. In this case the idea that she’s a “threat” to the convention is made clear by the reactions of other people to her, but whether or not she does have a physical advantage because of her body structure I think is irrelevant compared to the way she’s being treated and how people are trying to define her identity for her.

I’ve posed the question of whether it really would be so bad to allow intersexed people to live openly and express their identity, but the recent elections have shown that we still have a long way to go when it comes to just tackling male/female gender differences, issues surrounding homosexuality, and the treatment of transgendered people, so unfortunately it appears that any sort of intersexed movement that might tackle issues such as this will have to wait for a time when they can make their voices heard.

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