The Year We Woke Up

How Sprinter Dutee Chand is Smashing Patriarchy in Sports and Society in India

In 2014, the 23-year-old challenged a rule that forbids women with “too much” testosterone from competing. In 2019, the sports star has also become a queer icon.

by Pallavi Pundir
11 December 2019, 6:46am

VICE Asia is calling 2019 "The Year We Woke Up". This year, we saw young people stand up, push back, and take matters into their own hands. We celebrate the fighters, the change makers, the movements that have shaken us wide awake and reminded us of our own roles in realising change. This story is part of a series.

Dutee Chand knows that her coming-out story is unusual in India. Ever since the 23-year-old sprinter—known for smashing international records (including several of her own) and patriarchy with equal zeal—came out in May this year, every glossy magazine/newspaper has covered the story. Fashion magazines propped her up on their covers, adorned in the most edgy athleisure that only the country’s wealthiest can afford. Bollywood stars and politicians congratulated her on social media. She’s currently on TIME magazine’s 100 Next, an extension of their list of most influential humans in the world. And, finally, fresh off a gold at the World University Games in Italy this July, she’s now prepping for her second Olympics appearance next year in Tokyo.

But Chand, the Gen-Z sportsperson who’s been winning accolades on national and international platforms since 2012, knows that when she told the world that she’s in love with a woman, it wasn’t just an anecdotal confession. It was a statement that was to break the glass ceiling on many fronts: from the right to queer love in a country that’s yet to legalise LGBTQ marriage and adoption, to the rights of women who have to ascribe to traditional ideas of identity, ability and competitive fairness in sports.

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"My entire life, everything I have achieved, I've done so with a lot of difficulties," said Dutee Chand. All photos provided by Dutee Chand.

She became, and still is, the only female sports star India has who is out and very proud. This month, as VICE puts together the list of powerful people who helped Asia “wake up”, Chand doesn’t just make the mark. She is the mark. But the native of Chaka Gopalpur village, located in the Jajpur district of Odisha, reminds us that all of this hasn’t come without struggle. “In this country, as a woman, I have to take everything as a challenge,” she told VICE over the phone from Odisha. “When others do something different, people are fine. But when you do something different, people start questioning. My entire life, everything I have achieved, I’ve done so with a lot of difficulties.”

But before she became the poster girl for queer pride, Chand was the first female athlete to challenge deep-seated patriarchy in sports.

All of 17, Chand, back then, was already being called “a sure shot Olympic medallist.” And that’s when the troubles began. In 2014, just days before she was to set off for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Chand was told by the Athletics Federation of India that she can’t compete. There was no case of doping, or lack of fitness or even underperformance. It was a last-minute “gender test” that involved doctors taking her blood tests, visually examining her naked body, and sending her for a magnetic resonance imaging exam to see what’s inside. What’s worse: She had no clue what was happening.

“I was a child back then, and I was very scared,” she told us, as she recounted the day she “failed” a test that has nothing to do with fitness but everything to do with gender inequality in sports. “I was told that I can’t compete because I have too much testosterone,” she said. “The association believed that if you have more hormones, you reap the benefits while running. The body catches speed easily, they told me.”

The rule actually used to be a legit one put together by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), in which women (and only women) who naturally produce testosterone at levels usually seen in men, were not eligible to compete against other women. The condition is called hyperandrogenism (HA), when a woman’s body produces a larger amount of androgen hormone testosterone than an average woman. In fact, a similar policy adopted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) urged women with HA to compete against men, and not women. The strange part is that these governing bodies never actually set a testosterone range; there was no way for women to get tested in private beforehand. So to counter this “unfair advantage”, the IAAF gave two options: Go home, or get surgery and hormone-replacement treatment done to “correct” the body.

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“As a kid, nobody had asked me any such question about the way I played, looked or how my body was."

That summer, when Chand was banned from competing, it was accompanied with insults, media hysteria and interrogation. She told The New York Times that she cried for three days straight when she saw what people were saying about her on the internet: “They were saying, ‘Dutee: Boy or girl?’ and I thought, how can you say those things? I have always been a girl.” It broke her.

She wasn’t the first one. Before her was South African sprinter Semenya, when, in 2008, the IAAF felt they had to investigate in order to rule out doping to account for her incredible 800m record. “She was just 18 when the world began reporting on her genitals,” wrote Anna Kessel in The Guardian about Semenya. In 2006, India’s Santhi Soundarajan was stripped off her silver medal during Asian Games when she failed the same gender test—she attempted suicide a few months later by drinking a bottle of veterinary poison.

A common pattern in all these cases is public humiliation.

“As a kid, nobody had asked me any such question about the way I played, looked or how my body was,” she told VICE. But the youngster, who hails from a weaving community and has lived modestly since childhood, realised she can’t give in. “I decided to challenge them,” she said. In that simple decision to speak out and challenge the authority, she broke a pattern of silence in India, and even the world.

For four years, Chand wasn’t allowed to play, but it brought together scientists, activists, athletes, and bioethicists to rally in her support. Jiji Thomson, who was the Sports Authority of India director general when Chand was tested and banned, said in the 2015 VICE interview that such cases are common when it comes to athletes from the third world countries. “I've never heard of an athlete facing a similar ban from the developed countries," said Thomson, "This is definitely discriminatory against the athletes of third world countries."

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“Where will we put them? There's no third category—women, men, and supermen," Eric Vilain, a UCLA geneticist, told The New York Times about the controversy around hyperandrogenism in female athletes.

Payoshni Mitra, a journalist and activist who helped Chand appeal, told The New York Times how the sports officials who make these rules have no idea who they are stopping from competing. “Many of these women are providing for their families. Sports gave them so much, so many opportunities,” said Mitra. “They’re crushing these women.” Eric Vilain, a UCLA geneticist who worked on the IOC ruling and admits it’s flawed, told VICE in the 2015 interview, “Where will we put them? There's no third category—women, men, and supermen."

“I challenged all these factors and applied for a case in Switzerland,” Chand tells us. “I stood my ground that this is not my fault, that hormones are natural, be it in girls or boys. And to get rid of what they call "imbalance" and make it balanced is not in our hands. I also asked the association for proof that I'm benefitting from my hormones. And when they couldn't prove it, they lost the case. I won.” Chand’s case threw open the gates for several other athletes, she says. “What they did was so wrong. My reputation took a hit. A lot of people criticised my character and my body. They not just bad-mouthed me, they also questioned me. It hurt a lot, but I still won the case. And when I got to play, it also enabled others like me to play.”

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"When I started running, people in my village ridiculed me; they said it’s not a woman’s job to run, [and I should] get married and have kids instead. But when I got fame, they stopped questioning.”

Squashing terrible science and patriarchy in the same breath was taxing, but Chand knows that her struggle is far from over. In a country like India, centuries-old patriarchy is hard to smash in just one day. “My family was always supportive of me, but initially, the people in my village questioned us on why I run,” she said. “Girls are normally married off young, sometimes by the age of 11-12. They don’t let them study or work. When I started running, they ridiculed me; they said it’s not a woman’s job to run, [and I should] get married and have kids instead. But when my name started coming in papers and television, they stopped questioning and started supporting.”

Fear of tradition and sanskaar still looms large on young Indians, and Chand was no stranger to this malaise. In May this year, she had been with her partner for a while. In fact, she tells me, she had a couple of friends who were also in secret same-sex relationships.

When gay sex was decriminalised last year in September, she realised she could finally come out.

“Like any kid, I wanted to tell my parents that I’m a lesbian, and about my relationship to seek approval. But they’re from a village, you know. Naturally, they were unsettled by this. But when I explained, they agreed,” she said. “It was my sister who was not happy about this and started harassing me and my partner every day. She wanted us to break up. That’s when I decided that she scares me now, but she can’t scare me forever.”

There’s still a major taboo around the LGBTQ community in India, despite the Supreme Court bringing down the gavel on centuries of discrimination and violence. But when Chand came out, she was also inundated in a giant wave of love and empathy. “Everyone is scared of parampara and sanskriti (culture and tradition) even now,” she tells me. “If a girl wants to marry a boy of different community, the society will say no. If a girl wants to marry a girl, they’ll say no. If you don't have kids after you get married, they’ll say no. This is the world we live in. But I saw the strength my story gave to many others. A lot of people have congratulated me, and encouraged me.”

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Even as Chand is headed to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, she never wants to stop speaking up for women's rights.

She’s currently studying law too, alongside her training and mentorship to kids in her state, to empower herself with knowledge of rules and regulations that could have cushioned her five years ago. But she has never aspired to become a role model for the others. “I only did all of that to stand up for myself, to fight for my own rights,” she said. “Why should I take those medicines? Why should I struggle? I have no problem living with this body, so who are they to tell me what’s right or wrong? And if this helps people, I never want to stop.”

Chand knows what changes and power her celebrityhood can bring to a culture and society that’s known to be misogynistic. “I want to see so many changes that have not happened yet,” she said. “A girl, people say, is like a doll who should stay at home. Look at what happened in Hyderabad [rape-murder case]. Girls are being tormented everywhere. That mindset needs to change. I want to change it.”

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