These Women Say They Were Kicked Out of Sports Because of Their Gender

Champion cyclist and trans woman Kristen Worley is taking the International Olympic Committee to court over alleged discrimination. She's not the only woman to be effectively exiled from competitive sport over issues of gender identity.

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Dec 18 2015, 4:00pm

Maria Jose Patino Lopez. Photo courtesy of subject

Olympic cyclist Kristen Worley is riding the high of her life, emotionally speaking. Unlike some highs, hers is 100 percent natural. "We're taking down these bastards. My goal is to show the people for the monsters that they truly are," Worley beams at me over Skype from her Toronto studio.

The trans championship skier-slash-cyclist certainly has reason to celebrate. After a 13-year battle with the International Olympic Committee and various Canadian sporting authorities, a judge ruled on September 14 that her case would finally be heard in her chosen court: the Ontario Tribunal of Human Rights.

Kristen Worley is one of the first transitioned women to enter into participation in the Olympics. She began pursuing her Olympic dream following the2004 Stockholm Consensus, in which the International Olympic Committee granted permission for men and women who had undergone gender reassignment surgery to participate in competitive sport. But she says that what followed was a series of examinations, blood tests, and interrogations conducted by male members of both national and international sporting federations with zero physiological training.

"They were given access to gynecological information and my most private medical documentation. None of the people who carry out the tests are medics—and they're all men," Worley explains.

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Worley was eventually granted approval to enter in for a chance to cycle in the Bejing 2008 Olympics. But first, she had to undergo mandatory hormone treatment outlined by the IOC's Medical Commission—which, according to Worley, "lacks specific scientific research when it comes to women with my hormone levels."

After undergoing hormone therapy that complied with the regulated mandate for trans female athletes by the International Olympic Committee, Worley's body was in a state of complete hormone deprivation. She claims that the amount of androgens prescribed was much too low for an athletic female, causing her to suffer immediate menopausal symptoms and muscle disrepair, among other serious health problems. Worley's Olympic dream had shattered.

"When you train," she explains, "your body increases testosterone to help you recover. If you lose your androgens [the group of hormones that includes testosterone], your body loses the ability to communicate with itself."

Testosterone—the main androgenic hormone—is currently used as the primary marker of eligibility to compete as a female. If sporting authorities judge the natural level of testosterone that a woman produces too high, she is not permitted to compete as female. Although testosterone is the dominant sex hormone in men, women also produce significant amounts in the ovaries and adrenal glands, which are essential for self-regulation.

Do transitioned athletes have elevated testosterone levels to begin with? Not necessarily. Clinical studies with transitioned male-to-female athletes, from both 1999 and more recently in 2004, revealed that that those who transition from male to female may in fact not be as athletically advantaged as previously believed.

Thanks to hormone therapy and the surgical removal of the testicles, some of these women may have a lower level of naturally occurring androgens than some female-born athletes. Gender reassignment therapy can also often lead to muscle loss, crashing fatigue and increased fatty deposits—not ideal if you're gunning for an Olympic gold medal.

Worley is most concerned that these life-altering medical decisions are made by men in positions of power on behalf of women like herself. She says that with no conclusive research based on athletic and fully transitioned women, these medical policies exist without any scientific reasoning. "This isn't really about sport," Worley says. "In fact, it has nothing to do with performance. It's a socially constructed model to suggest that women cannot compete with men."

When approached for a response to Worley's comments, the International Olympic Committee said, "As a general rule, we do not comment on individual cases. Specifically on Kristen Worley, it would be inappropriate to comment while a legal procedure is underway."

I can compare myself with any woman because I am a woman. It is not only how I feel, but who I am and how my body is.

The IOC hyperandrogenism [androgen excess] regulations are systematically reviewed after each edition of the Games and amended if necessary to ensure that they take into account any new developments."

Anais Bohuon, professor of sports and sociology at the University of South Paris and author of The Gender Test in Sporting Competitions: A Classified History X? told Broadly that while testosterone is hailed as "the most exclusive marker" to determine whether an individual is defined as a man or a woman, it is "not considered a key molecule in athleticism" and is not wholly responsible for determining sporting ability. Even evidence collected by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) itself supports Bohuon's claim, when hormone levels of 849 elite high-performing female athletes showed them to have "normative androgen serum values."

Trans athletes like Worley aren't the only ones who face questions over their gender identity. It also happens to those who were, for all intents and purposes, born and raised female.

Perhaps the most well-known case of this is Caster Semeneya, South Africa's teenage sporting superstar. The track and field champion was sidelined from sport for 10 months while the IAAF decided whether her testosterone levels were low enough for her to compete as female. After a media eruption where the 18 year old faced worldwide speculation over her gender, Semeneya was eventually cleared for competition and returned to the field in Lappeenranta, Finland, the following year.

It's hard to believe, but Semeneya is one of the lucky ones.

Santhi Soundarajan won her first medal at 13. It was a school race that her grandfather had trained her for—as an accomplished runner, he was the only member of her family who knew anything about sport. Soundarajan's parents travelled out of their rural village in southern India to work in a brickyard, earning $4 a day. Soundarajan stayed at home with no electricity or running water, and looked after her four younger siblings.

Ten years and 11 international medals later, Soundarajan had won the 800m Silver medal at the Asian Games and the $15,170 cash prize. Finally, here lay a ticket out of poverty. But then came the tests, which, ESPN reports were based on an official noticing "something unusual" during a routine doping test.

"I don't know how it happened and I didn't know what was happening," Soundarajan tells me over the phone in broken English. "The Indian government and the IOC [International Olympics Committee] were doing medical tests on me and I didn't know the reason. They took my blood and checked my full body without any clothes."

On return from her 2006 triumph in Doha, the explanation behind the previous week's tests was broadcast on India's evening news. The Indian Athletics Federation announced that Soundarajan wasn't a real woman, and was therefore ineligible to compete in a female sporting competition. Five days later, a representative from the Indian Olympic Association hit her with a diagnosis of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, along with the devastating news that she was not permitted to compete in elite sport ever again.

Androgen Sensitivity Syndrome (AIS) affects around 1 in 20,000 and is a genetic malfunction that causes female genitalia to develop despite the presence of male chromosomes. "I didn't understand what they were telling me because I don't have much English knowledge and he spoke in English," Soundarajan says. "I didn't know anything was wrong."

If I was a man that intended to trick someone, I would have retired discreetly.

The Indian Olympic Association did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2009, ostracized from her village and branded a cheat by the world's media, Soundarajan attempted suicide by ingesting poison. Miraculously, she recovered but was faced with a bleak future and a succession of manual labor jobs, earning just $2 per hour.

Gopi Shankar, a human rights campaigner and scholar from Madurai, southern India is an avid Santhi supporter. On hearing of her disqualification, Shankar, who founded the Srishti support service for India's LGBTQIA community, has helped Soundarajan challenge the Indian authorities.

"What Santhi faces is more than just a legal issue," Shankar says. "It is an issue of her dignity. She is an athlete who is running against all social odds and that spirit must be celebrated and supported." Following the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014, Shankar accompanied Soundarajan to meet with the Sports Authority of India in the hope that a new panel of ministers would reconsider her case. Instead, the champion was faced with an unsympathetic panel of officials.

"You can't run any business," the General Secretary allegedly told Soundarajan, "but you can come and work in my shop, we need someone to clean the tables."

"The highers of the supreme sports organisations are all from the Malayan tribe. Shanti is Tamil—a lower Indian tribe. This happened to a Tamilian so nobody was interested," Shankar says. The General Secretary of the Sports Authority of India declined to comment.

There is one woman who has succeeded against the International Olympic Committee—at a hefty cost. On arrival at the 1985 World University Games in Kobe, Japan, a team doctor advised champion hurdler Maria José Martinez Patino to fake an injury, abandon the race, and return immediately to her native Spain.

The reason for her dismissal? A pesky 'Y' chromosome lurking within her DNA. Like Soundarajan, Patino had AIS. Her receptors are totally unresponsive to testosterone, causing her to develop as a woman. Patino is, and always has been, female—she has breasts, a vagina and has never once questioned her gender identity. When she was expelled in 1986 from her athlete's residence, her running times erased from her country's records, the young athlete was left confused and heartbroken.

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Maria José Martinez Patino. Photo courtesy of subject.

"It was terrible because you don't expect it to happen or such strong reactions by so many people," she says. "The misunderstandings and lack of support make you feel very alone." After losing her friends, sporting scholarship, and fiancé, Patino was advised to cry injury and step down from sport discreetly. As far as she was concerned, her resignation would insinuate one thing only to a prying public.

"If I was a man that intended to trick someone, I would have retired discreetly. I was a woman and I didn't accept to give neither agreement nor any apology that was not real. I had my rights to compete and I was going to fight for them."

The ex-hurdler took her case all the way to the Olympic Medical Commission, along with the help of a team of expert geneticists, sports coaches, and journalists.

She never doubted her own sense of womanhood for a minute. "I can compare myself with any woman because I am a woman. It is not only how I feel, but who I am and how my body is."

Patino managed to win back her sporting licence and forced the IAAF to take note of the thorny nature of gender testing—so much so that systematic gender tests for female athletes eventually stopped in 1992.

Twenty years later, Patino works as a professor of sports science and education at the University of Vigo, Spain. Considered an expert on the subject, her research into gender variance disorders helps to raise awareness for such conditions and aims to benefit women with genetic differences to participate in sport.

"It is an honor that I'm able to help from my experience," she says. "At the time I fought for myself, but now I realise I fought also for many women of following generations that now have the same problems."

Me—and so many other women—have had to go through horrible things in order for this day to come.

While sporting authorities reconsidered their stance on gender for Maria Patino, the fight continues for athletes with genitals deemed to be 'irregular.' Just three years ago, after the London Olympics, the New York Times reported that four Olympic athletes aged between 18 and 21—all from developing countries—were investigated by sports officials in Montpelier, France after showing high levels of testosterone. According to the Times, tests showed that the female athletes possessed internal male testes and the four women agreed for doctors to remove the organs as well as partially remove their clitorises.

The IAAF later denied these claims, telling sports website Inside the Games that "not one athlete was investigated at London 2012 and found to have had hyperandrogenism." The organization told Broadly that they are presently "not in the position to comment on any matters concerning the eligibility of athletes to compete in women's competition."

Santhi Soundarajan, Maria Martinez-Patino and women with similar genetic conditions are proof that gender is not as binary as sporting authorities would have you believe. For Kristen Worley, the fact that a Human Rights Court will finally learn of her case is about so much more than sport.

"This case is going to help so many people, " she says, "we're going to have better healthcare and better ways of helping and understanding children and young people who are having issues with gender identity... Me—and so many other women—have had to go through horrible things in order for this day to come." Worley may have given up her cycling licence, but the prospect of justice is the ultimate prize.

"For me, right now," she says, "this is my gold medal moment."