Russia, sport and transgender & intersex issues

Pascal Le Segretain

Disqualified from Grenoble amid a huge scandal, 20-year-old Erik Schinegger was devastated but undaunted.

The 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble, France were the first Games at which the IOC required pre-event gender testing of women competitors. Ironically, this policy change had been spurred by persistent Cold War rumors that the Soviet bloc's female teams included male "ringers," put there by Moscow in hopes they'd pass as "masculine-looking women" and win more medals for the communists. Further irony: the first of dozens of athletes to have their careers destroyed by this testing policy was a free-world figure -- Erika Schinegger, 1966 world champion in women's downhill, who was Austria's hope for alpine gold at Grenoble.

Schinegger's test revealed XY sex chromosomes, not XX. Further investigation revealed some congenital anomalies, including undescended but functional testicles.

Born in 1948 in a rural ski-crazy mountain district, Schinegger had been inspected by the village midwife and pronounced a girl. However, she grew into a tall, muscular, deep-voiced teenager. Despite extraordinary efforts to look and act feminine, especially after making the Austrian ski team in 1964, Schinegger was the subject of buzz by teammates. Her hell-for-leather skiing style, ripping down the slopes like an avalanche - and the blazing times she clocked -- were more in the profile of a male skier.

Disqualified from Grenoble amid a huge scandal, 20-year-old Schinegger was devastated but undaunted. Fortunately, at that time, Western European medicine was adopting a more enlightened approach to transgender and intersex issues. She checked into a University of Innsbruck clinic where she found counseling and corrective surgery. The surgery would enable a future life as a sexually normal man.

Emerging from the clinic in men's clothes, with first name legally changed to Erik, the unstoppable skier was determined to continue competing. The FIS didn't stand in his way. So he made it into several men's races on the European tour, becoming one of the few athletes in history to compete in both women's and men's divisions. Finally he was kicked off the Austrian ski team, who found him an "embarrassment."

Still undaunted, Schinegger refused to give up the sport he loved. He went back to his mountain homeland, where he took a job as a ski instructor. His family and conservative locals eventually accepted his change. He married and had a daughter. Later Schinegger launched a popular ski school and resort hotel that is still operating. Still fit-looking and vital at 66, he recently appeared on Austria's version of "Dancing With the Stars."

Forty-six years after Erik Schinegger, we can get some ironic perspective. Gender policing outed dozens of athletes who had no idea their genetic makeup didn't conform to the rules, but it didn't unmask any dire Soviet plots involving "ringers." Today the IOC no longer does generalized testing, but it still investigates individual cases where gender is questioned. Despite growing international activism by transgender and intersex people, significant barriers to their rights and equality still stand, as revealed by the recent controversy that raged around South Africa's Olympic runner Caster Semenya.

Major barriers definitely loom in Russia. The new federal "propaganda law" targets gay men and lesbians specifically. But a powerful groundswell of phobia against transgender and intersex people is also growing. It could unleash government persecution and vigilante brutality on Russians who attempt to speak out for transgender/intersex rights, or Russians who try to deal with personal gender issues in a way that the government views as "propaganda" affecting minors.

Even before the Russian parliament passed the "propaganda law," several oblasts (provinces) had already criminalized "public action aimed at propagandising sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, and transgenderism among minors." Activists assert that these new provincial laws were supported by the very conservative Russian Orthodox Church. The Moscow Patriarchate has baldly condemned "transgenderism" along with homosexuality. As do conservative church leaders in the U.S., conservative Russian churchmen believe it's a huge moral offense to reject the gender with which a person is born.

St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk, Kostroma and Ryazan are four oblasts where "transgenderism" has reportedly been criminalized. Russia is contemplating another law that will allow the state to seize children of gay men and lesbians. This draft law also creates the possibility that transgendered or intersex Russians who seek a legal or medical change in gender could have their children seized by the state.

Patricia Nell Warren is author of the award-winning and groundbreaking The Front Runner, along with some other fantastic novels and non-fiction books. She will be contributing to Outsports throughout the Olympics. You can read more about Patricia Nell Warren at Wildcat InternationalCopyright 2014 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.

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