Saturday 27 August 2016

Sex and Gender in Sports - Part Two

In my previous article I considered the distinction between male and female athletes competing in top competitions such as the Olympic games. Right at the nub of the issue is whether women with naturally high levels of testosterone have an unfair advantage against women with lower, or "normal" levels of testosterone.

But what about transgender or transsexual athletes? Those born in an apparently ordinary male body, who legitimately transition to the female sex? What happens to them?

Renee Richards
Renee Richards is the first example I have to offer. Born Richard Raskind, the child of two doctors, Richards was a successful male athlete, and also obtained a medical degree. In 1975 (which puts her age at 41), she pursued a career as a professional woman tennis player. However, in 1976 the US Tennis Association had introduced Barr body testing (a type of genetic testing) that year. Richards refused to take the test, and was therefore banned from top tennis tournaments, the US Open, Wimbledon and the Italian Open that year.

Richards took the US Tennis Association to court, alleging discrimination by gender in violation of her human rights. She won her case, and was allowed to play in the 1977 US Open tournament.

Richards' tennis career was quite short-lived, and she retired from professional tennis in 1981, just 4 years later, and returned to medical practice in ophthalmology.

Richards' case provoked considerable discussion. Official sports governing bodies were very uncomfortable. According to Wikipedia, the US Olympic Committee stated:
IOC: There is competitive advantage for a male who has undergone a sex change surgery as a result of physical training and development as a male.
And indeed, it's hard to argue with that viewpoint. But in addition to official perplexity, Richards faced consternation from the general public too. My correspondent Rhonda wrote "I recall it being said that Renee had an advantage because she competed in a new category, unique to her: 'Mixed Singles'." And even her own fellow athletes were unhappy: when Richards was allowed to play as a woman, 25 of 32 competitors promptly withdrew in protest from the Tennis Week Open.

In this article describing her life and career, written by Emily Bazelon, Richards herself comments on her status as a transsexual athlete. I quote the final paragraph in its entirety:
Bazelon: The science of distinguishing men from women in sports remains unsettled. And Richards has come to believe that her past as a man did provide her advantages over competitors. “Having lived for the past 30 years, I know if I’d had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me. And so I’ve reconsidered my opinion.” She adds, “There is one thing that a transsexual woman unfortunately cannot expect to be allowed to do, and that is to play professional sports in her chosen field. She can get married, live as woman, do all of those other things, and no one should ever be allowed to take them away from her. But this limitation—that’s just life. I know because I lived it.”
Michelle Dumaresq
Wikipedia has a list of transgender athletes, both female-to-male and male-to-female. There are, unsurprisingly, few Olympic type events, though there are cyclists, such as Canadian mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq, and fighters, such as American mixed martial artist Fallon Fox. Caitlyn Jenner is of course mentioned.

In 2003, the International Olympic Committee drew up regulations to cover transsexual athletes. To me, at first glance, they seem pretty reasonable:
  1. The athlete must have undergone sexual reassignment surgery, including changes to the external genitalia and gonads.
  2. The athlete must be legally recognised in their desired sex.
  3. The athlete must undergo hormone therapy for at least two years.
These guidelines were modified in 2015, due to recognition that it might not be acceptable to require surgery in otherwise healthy people, and that some countries refuse to grant legal recognition to people who change sex. Therefore, the regulations were changed. The requirement for surgery was dropped, and the only stipulation now requires that the athlete's testosterone level be under 10 nmol/l. (See my previous article for why this might be problematic).

Chris Mosier
As for these games, the UK Daily Mail reported that two unnamed male-to-female athletes were considered for inclusion in Team GB to compete in Rio, but the Internet has been silent about whether they managed it. Meanwhile, Chris Mosier competed as a triathlete for team USA. As a female-to-male, Mosier needs to take testosterone, though a Therapeutic Use Exemption means it's acceptable. The Wikipedia article states that "two closeted transgender athletes competed" at Rio.

The first transgendered sportsperson I recall ever hearing about was Mianne Bagger, a professional golfer from Denmark. According to Wikipedia, Bagger was only the second high-profile transgendered athlete who won recognition from sports' governing bodies to compete in their desired sex, after Renee Richards. A 2004 article from the Guardian newspaper reports that Bagger experienced a slightly warmer welcome from her fellow professionals than Richards did. Subsequently, Lana Lawless sued the Ladies' Professional Golf Association in 2010, which at that time was clinging to a rule that women golfers were required to have been born female. In 2014 another doctor, Bobbi Lancaster, was permitted to play in an LPGA tournament, and this article describes her as the first transgender woman golfer to compete in such a tournament.

So much for the professional athletes. What about those lower down? Una over at TransasCity has produced a couple of relevant articles, and you can read them here and here.

Judit Polgar
I want to close this double article with a shout out to one of my heroes, Judit Polgar. Polgar, 40, is the strongest female chess player in history. The youngest of three sisters, the Polgar girls were intensively coached in chess by their polymath father, Laszlo Polgar, who believed that "geniuses are made, not born".

Everybody "knows" girls aren't as good at chess as boys. Even FIDE, the world chess governing body, awards separate women's titles. The Woman Grandmaster (WGM) title is easier to attain than the Grandmaster (GM) title. But try telling that to the Polgar sisters. They refused to compete in woman-only tournaments, from the beginning, bringing them into some conflict with the Hungarian Chess Federation. However, the Polgars persisted. Laszlo wrote:
Laszlo Polgar: Women are able to achieve results similar, in fields of intellectual activities, to that of men. Chess is a form of intellectual activity, so this applies to chess. Accordingly, we reject any kind of discrimination in this respect.
And his daughters went on to prove him right. Judit achieved an astonishing series of accomplishments: she achieved the rank of full Grandmaster (not WGM) at the age of 15, then the youngest person ever to have done so. She was ranked 55th best player in the world at age 12. She is the first ever (and so far, only) woman to achieve an Elo rating of greater than 2700, and she peaked at number 8 in the world in 2005. Now, of course, FIDE allows players of both sexes to compete in tournaments, but of 1441 GMs in the world, only 31 are currently women, so the women do have some catching up to do. And I bet nobody even bothers about their testosterone levels.

I wonder how much chess is like golf. In most Olympic sports, muscle mass, lung capacity and other physical measures of fitness really matter. In that circumstance, one could say that the extra physical size of someone born male could offer an advantage if they transitioned. However, in golf, this is less obvious, and Mianne Bagger has insisted that she has no physical advantage from being born male.

In chess, of course, physical fitness is irrelevant, provided you can deal with the stress of the games and tournaments. I believe that the low number of female grandmasters is not a reflection of women's ability to play chess, but a reflection of how few women take up chess seriously. I did a quick Google search for transgender chess players, but didn't turn anything up. As always, comments are welcome. Meanwhile, whether it's golf, chess, cycling or whatever, keep doing your thing.


  1. "In chess, of course, physical fitness is irrelevant, provided you can deal with the stress of the games and tournaments."

    Actually, it's not entirely irrelevant. The need to concentrate to a very high level over, say, two weeks of a tournament can be extremely tiring. Consequently, the top players are mostly very fit nowadays.

    1. Thanks Jonathan. You are right, of course. That's why I added in the bit about being able to deal with the stress of the tournaments.

      But there is nothing in principle preventing (say) a wheelchair-bound person competing at the highest levels in chess, which is where I was going with this sentence.

  2. What a great read, thanks for writing that.

    1. You're welcome, Daniel. Glad you liked it.

  3. As a transgender chess player I can say, “Yes, we do exist” though I’m sure most of us would prefer to
    keep a low profle. I’m a US Chess Federation life master having held a rating over 2200 for more than 300 consecutive tournament games. My name pops up on the net in a number of places under my “other” name. Unlike the Polgar sisters, I had no chess teachers, coaches or chess friends. Nor did I grow up in a major epicenter of chess. (i.e. New York City) Back in the mid 70’s there were no computers or data bases. Books were much less advanced. I started at the relatively late age of 16 and played in tournaments from 1977-97. I know of a trans player who is somewhat stronger than me, a FM (Fide Master) from Canada who has a rating in the 2300’s. So yes, we are out there but we tend not to be too vocal. My experience with chess players is that they are not exactly a warm and fuzzy group of people and some of them are quite chauvinistic.
    Nowadays there are many more strong women players than there were in the 80’s. In the UK, for instance, Harriet Hunt and Jovanka Houska (rated in the 2400’s) both have the (male) IM title. (International Master) And Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant is a GM (Grandmaster-with a 2500 rating) With a little digging I am sure I can name more.
    And yes, fitness is important. In American weekend tournaments you often have two rounds in a day. In the open section, a game frequently lasts 4-6 hours. You’re pretty much playing chess all day Saturday and Sunday. More important than fitness, however, is youth. Young minds tend to be able to handle fatigue much better than older players. It’s no secret that children seem to learn foreign languages better than adults. The same thing happens in chess. That’s why young children improve very rapidly and the older generation, not so much.
    The most famous trans player from the past, Chevalier d’Eon was a lawyer, swordsman, lady in waiting and part time nun. (Oxford Encyclopedia of chess) (S)he was also good enough to beat Philidor in his blindfold simuls.

    1. Hi Annette,

      I am delighted that you stopped by to post your comments.

      I am certain that there are trans people in every possible walk of life; therefore they must exist among chess players as well. However, it's nice to finally talk to one. Do you play as Annette, or is she hidden when you play?

      I am also not surprised that chess players are not a "warm and fuzzy" group of people. My (limited) experience of chess tournaments in the past was not especially great. While I adore the structure, symmetry and cognitive purity of chess as an activity, its proponents do seem to be quite a rigid (and sometimes unfriendly) bunch.

      It's also no surprise that there is an increasing number of women playing the game at the highest echelons.

      I am interested in the cognitive aspects of chess; I think predominantly it's about pattern recognition and the ability to envisage complex images internally. While experience and maturity (including the ability to handle pressure and conflicting emotions) increases with age, there is a measurable decline in neuronal processing speed. Most IQ tests contain some tests measured against the clock, and show a decline in performance with age. However, when the clock is removed, the decline disappears, indicating that intelligence doesn't get lower as you get older; it only gets slower. So younger players, with their plastic nervous systems and higher processing speed, have definitely got powerful advantages.

      I know about the Chevalier d'Eon; he is an extraordinary figure. Historical accounts of trans people always fascinate me. You may be interested in my blog post about Lord Cornbury, which can be found here:

      Best wishes,


    2. Hi Vivienne,

      I have played many a game online as 'Annette.' As with most male dominated activities, some people were quite pleasant. Others, much less so. It's been more than 10 years since I last played but if I had the urge, I'd probably choose a gender neutral handle like 'Dappy500'.
      There's no way I would play in real time. Because I look exactly the same whether in male mode or female mode (or anything in between) I wouldn't be fooling anyone. (although when I last player over the board I had short hair and looked a little different) Besides, my style of play (oddball attacking) would stick out like a sore thumb. And being a master, everyone around the local area would know me anyway.

      You are right about the cognitive aspects of chess. They've done tests with chess masters and they don't necessarily score higher than other people in intelligence but they DO score better in pattern recognition.

      I enjoyed reading about Lord Cornbury. (S)he sounds like quite a character. Probably interesting to observe from afar but not necessarily a fun person to deal with on a day to day basis. I imagine the journalists would have a field day if Lord Cornbury were alive today.

      One other story. Back in '95 when I joined the local TG support group, I ran into someone I knew from the local chess club. We had been attending for years without knowing anything about each other. It was quite a shock to say the least. Years later my friend fully transitioned and moved half way across the country. I last saw her at a large TG conference in 2003. She was married ... to another chess player!

    3. Hi Annette,

      I suspect that what lurks behind many online avatars would sometimes come as a surprise!

      But why should you be "fooling" anyone playing as yourself over the board? It's who you are, after all. Unless you are closeted, which isn't quite clear from your comments. Surely your style alone wouldn't be enough to mark you out?

      Your story about your chess-playing friend who transitioned is very interesting! I wonder if she still plays chess?