clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Runner Nick Symmonds’s support for LGBTQ equality only goes so far

New, 3 comments

Olympian Nick Symmonds weighed in on the Caster Semenya case and basically threw intersex athletes under the bus.

Nick Symmonds, left, and Caster Semenya
Twitter/Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

Olympic sprinter and renowned LGBTQ , who protested Russia’s anti-gay laws, by dedicating his silver medal to gay fans, has surprised many declaring Semenya should not be able to run against women.

Semenya, who was assigned female at birth, raised female, and competed her entire life in women’s competitions, is black, she’s queer, and she’s fast as hell. South Africa’s track federation announced it will appeal the decision barring Olympic Gold Medalist Caster Semenya from running unless she undergoes medical interventions to lower her natural levels of testosterone.

In a 2014 interview with Outsports, Nick Symmonds explained why he supports gay rights and the importance of out gay role models in sports.

“For me, it’s not that I’m so pro-gay marriage. I’m more pro-equality in the eyes of the government. I would be fine if the government said that gay people cannot marry, but in that case they have to say that heterosexuals can’t marry either. I don’t care how they write the law, it just needs to be equal.”

However, in a case saturated by intersectional issues, Symmonds’ narrow view of equality undercuts the rights of intersex athletes and subjects them to injustices that are far beyond black and white. Though he offers a plethora of , he delivers a painfully obsolete rationale.

“Either we’re unfair to the 49 percent of people born 46 XX female or were unfair to the 1.7 percent of people born intersex. It hurts me to say this, but it seems only reasonable that if we have to be unfair to one group, we be unfair to the smaller group of individuals.”

We find several gaping holes in Symmonds’ argument.

Where’s the research?

First, there is not enough research on 46 XX born females competing in Olympic sports to provide a reliable percentage. The rules by which Caster Semenya is being classified as “intersex” are based on a chromosomal test that, according to current regulations, are not required of female athletes without suspicion and, for male athletes, are not required at all.

Thus far, four other black women have been penalized following the IAAF ruling—two of whom followed behind Semenya in the 2016 Olympic 800-meter race. Silver medalist Francine Ninyinsoba from Burundi and bronze medalist Margaret Wambui from Kenya cannot compete unless they lower their testosterone levels. Kenyan runners Maximilla Imali, who holds the Kenyan 400-meter record, and Evangeline Makena also withdrew from the team after Semenya’s appeal was rejected by the CAS. In “The Powers of Testosterone: Obscuring Race and Regional Bias in the Regulation of Women Athletes,” Yale bioethicist Katrina Karkazis and Columbia sociomedical scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young discuss the racialized judgments about sex atypicality and how non-white female athletes who are judged upon the white femininity standard are disproportionately targeted for sex .

It is likely that many winners of Olympic medals and holders of world records in the women’s division have had intersex conditions, but many females who are economically advantaged may “pass” by conforming to Eurocentric standards of beauty.

Nick Symmonds shows off his silver medal in the 800m
Nick Symmonds shows off his silver medal in the 800m
Julian Finney

It’s not so simple

Second, Symmonds overgeneralizes the IAAF’s rule as if it applies to all intersex individuals, but it does not. The regulation requires women athletes with a specific form of “differences of sex development,” or DSD, in which they have XY chromosomes but still develop as female and are partially sensitive to testosterone, to chemically lower their natural level of testosterone, and only if they are competing in a small range of events from the 400-meters to the mile.

This rule excludes both women with XX chromosomes who have other conditions that already raise their testosterone, as well as women who have XY chromosomes but are insensitive to testosterone. Symmonds unequivocally states that no one with XY chromosomes, including transgender athletes, should be allowed to compete in the women’s competition.

The Unfairness Fallacy

Third, Symmonds’ application of “unfairness” is simply not fair. Either the “49 percent born 46 XX female” run with intersex athletes and face the risk of losing, or they still get to run and intersex athletes lose their eligibility. The latter imposes disastrous consequences for intersex athletes: a ban from women’s competitions, forfeiture of their livelihood, public humiliation, and loss of their athletic identity.

From pretextual faulty research on the advantages of testosterone to the unequal application of sex verification testing to substantiate those claims, the flaws in Symmonds’ rationale are compounded by a narrow perspective from the privileges he experiences as a white cis male. Male athletes are not subject to these invasive sex verification tests because no threshold exists to regulate their natural levels of testosterone. While female bodies are judged in comparison to the male, elevated levels of testosterone in women may present what we classify as “masculine” features, whereas hypermasculinity in men is celebrated as the epitome of athletic prowess.

The “nude parade”

The IAAF and the International Olympic Committee are unprecedented in their efforts to police gender boundaries in determining who counts as a woman for the purpose of sports. In 1966, sports officials implemented what became known as the “nude parade:” A mandatory genital of every woman competing at international games. Before a panel of doctors, she pulled her underpants down while, in more closer cases of inspection, women laid on their backs and pulled their knees to their chest.

Undoubtedly, this invasive testing prompted complaints, so the IAAF and the IOC responded in the late ‘60s with a new “gender verification” strategy — a chromosome test.

Maria Patiño
Screengrab via Twitter

However, there are incredible layers of classification problems and nuances that cannot be defined by chromosomes alone.

Take Spanish hurdler Maria Patiño, for example. Though she was never a target of “suspicion,” she was banned from participating in the 1988 Olympics when medical examiners discovered a Y chromosome during the mandatory testing. On the outside, she had a visibly feminine physique with breasts and round hips, but because of her androgen insensitivity syndrome, her body reacted solely to the estrogen she produced. The IAAF agreed her body had no advantage and reinstated her three years later, but by then her dreams for the Olympics were dashed.

Continuing the desire to preserve ‘fair’ competition, regulations shifted from mandatory to an arbitrary three-stage when “suspicions” about a female’s sex arose. The first stage is an initial clinical examination which requires taking a medical history and a physical examination. To evaluate the effects of high testosterone, the IAAF protocol involves measuring and palpating the clitoris, vagina and labia, as well as evaluating breast size and pubic hair scored on an illustrated five-grade scale.

IAAF Regulation, Appendix 2: Medical Guidelines for the Conduct of Level 1 and Level 2 examinations

Caster Semenya’s body has been scrutinized by fellow athletes and press, pointing to her muscular physique, her deep voice, her flexed-biceps pose, her unshaved armpits, the long shorts she ran in instead of bikini shorts, in addition to her extraordinary speed. A story on Time magazine’s website was headlined, “Could This Women’s World Champ Be a Man?

In these races, race matters

While Symmonds contends he is empathetic towards Caster Semenya, he is ignoring both the invasive process his female counterparts endure during sex verification, and the disparate impact it has on black and brown athletes.

Indian sprinter Dutee Chand underwent a chromosome analysis, an MRI and a gynecological exam in 2014 that she found “mortifying”. Chand, who also has hyperandrogenism, was suspended by the IAAF and underwent media scrutiny over her body. “I felt naked. I am a human being, but I felt I was an animal.” She challenged the IAAF in 2015 and, unlike Semenya, won her case before the Court of Arbitration for Sport. This week, Chand came out as gay.

These women have been stripped of their dignity, but male athletes like Symmonds, whose naked bodies are celebrated, can feel comfortable in their own skin. When Semenya, Chand, and other athletes are stripped down to their naked skin, it isn’t to celebrate their bodies or gain clothing sponsorships. These instances occurred under scrutiny among medical examiners to prove whether they are “woman” enough to compete.

Prior to signing on with Brooks, Symmonds posted a nude photo of himself in 2014, writing: “For the first time in 7 years I am without an apparel sponsor. Thus I am forced to workout in the nude until a company comes to the rescue.”

In 2014, Nick Symmonds posted this nude photo of himself, writing: “For the first time in 7 years I am without an apparel sponsor. Thus I am forced to workout in the nude until a company comes to the rescue.”
Stephen Wayda

It is unlikely that male athletes like Symmonds are “forced to be nude” because these regulations are not equally applied to the sexes that the IAAF prides itself in separating. Along with inspecting women’s breasts, genitals, body hair patterns, and internal reproductive organs, IAAF examiners interviewed the women regarding their gender identity, behavior, and sexuality.

If Symmonds finds no fault in the IAAF’s inquisition into the sex lives of these women, his membership with the NOH8 Campaign and status as an ally to the LGBTQ community should be revoked.

Nick Symmonds in the NoH8 campaign
Nick Symmonds in the NoH8 campaign
Adam Bouska

Symmonds is using his platform and allyship to publicly endorse regulations that have received international criticism for violating the human rights of women such as Semenya. It takes great responsibility to be an LGBTQ ally, including the due diligence required to accurately present the facts that led to this injustice and those that continue to perpetuate it.

What the future holds

The IAAF regulations are not only discriminatory at face on the basis of sex but also in application.

With the new regulation, the 2016 Olympic women’s 800-meter gold, silver, and bronze medalists will be barred from future competition unless they lower their natural occurring levels of testosterone. That means nearly half of the women from Rio’s 800-meter race may be excluded from Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic competition.

Poland’s Joanna Jozwik, who finished fifth in the race behind Canadian Melissa Bishop, cast doubt on the three black medalists above her, chiding “I’m glad I’m the first European, the second white.” The racial politics shaping the testosterone regulation deepen the physical and psychological invasions women continue to suffer.

Even if we interpreted the evidence to mean that testosterone gives athletes the advantage, the question still remains as to whether that biological difference is unfair.

Let’s not forget that elite sports is all about the genetic outliers, the freakish athletic abilities and natural talent that fans awe over as if they are supernatural — such as Olympic cross country skier Eero Mantyranta, whose body had a rare genetic mutation creating more blood cells and an oxygen carrying capacity up to 50 percent more than average. This genetic advantage is huge, but is it unfair?

Though Semenya’s testosterone levels may be an anomaly, her case is not. Women competing in distance running were once thought to be a violation of natural law, too. Nineteenth century physicians claimed that a woman was not physiologically capable of running mile after mile; that she wouldn’t be able to bear children; or that her uterus would collapse.

Since women have broken the barricades holding them out of sports, organizations continue to redefine the rules. The box that the IAAF has drawn around women is illusory. Now, when women step inside, they will look out to see many other women who naturally cannot fit the misconstruction. Most importantly, women may recognize they are the only athletes in a box.