Monday, August 04, 2008

Beijing Sex Testing Criticized

Begging your indulgence for a slightly off-topic post, but I am inspired by Colby College professor Jennifer Finney Boylan's insightful op-ed in today's New York Times to address recent reports that Olympic organizers in Beijing will run sex-verification tests on athletes competing in women's events whose female-ness is "suspect."

While the IOC has banned blanket sex-testing and has allowed transsexual athletes who meet certain surgical, hormonal, and legal qualifications to participate in the category of their post-operative sex, Beijing officials recently announced a plans to operate a “gender determination lab” to evaluate athletes' sex based on their physical appearance, hormones, genes and chromosomes.

Boylan, like some of the bloggers who have also criticized the policy (e.g., here and here), points out that gender testing is far more likely to inflict dignitary and emotional harm on those tested -- especially those who test positive for athletically irrelevant anomalies -- than it is to nab any genuine gender impostors, of which there has been only one in Olympic history. Because, like gender itself, gender testing is fraught with ambiguity. After all, Boylan asks, "what makes someone female?":

If it’s not chromosomes, or a uterus, or the ability to get pregnant, or femininity, or being attracted to men, then what is it, and how can you possibly test for it? The only dependable test for gender is the truth of a person’s life, the lives we live each day. Surely the best judge of a person’s gender is not a degrading, questionable examination. The best judge of a person’s gender is what lies within her, or his, heart.....A quick look at the reality of an athlete’s life ought to settle the question.

Boylan concludes by imploring the Beijing organizers to "make peace with a world in which things are not always quantifiable and clear." As I imagine the unspeakable pain and degradation that a gender witch hunt would cause to sport, to women, and to the Olympic games, I hope they take her advice.

Cross posted at Feminist Law Professors.