Gender, Queerness, & Sports


Caster Semenya at the London 2012 Summer Olympics. Photo by Flickr user Citizen59CC BY-SA 2.0.

Runner Caster Semenya’s performance in the Olympics this year is significant not only for South Africa, the country she represents, but also for its implications for gender and sex in sports. Jennifer Doyle discusses the controversy surrounding Semenya in her introduction to “The Athletic Issue,” a special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies:

“Semenya’s sex was in question before she crossed the finish line in 2009. Her ‘case’ became the biggest story in women’s sports that year. …  When she powered past her opponents, it looked as if she were built of different stuff—as it does in a race that is not close. Such an increase in a man’s speed provokes questions about doping; in a woman it raises a different kind of suspicion. She was accused by many of being a man, of being not ‘100 percent’ woman; she was diagnosed in headlines as a hermaphrodite, as intersex, as a gender freak. She was subjected to diverse tests, the invasive nature of which we can only imagine. Her ‘case’—that of a gender-nonconforming woman who is also one of the fastest women on earth—inspired international bodies governing a range of sports to adopt problematic policies for deciding just what, exactly, makes a woman athlete female.”

ddglq_19_4Read the rest of Doyle’s introduction, “Dirt off Her Shoulders,” made freely available.

Contributors to “The Athletic Issue” address sport and the regulation of gender; gender and authenticity as refracted through race and class; queer feminist engagements with physical culture; and affect and the disorienting animality of the gendered, athletic body.

In her article “Court and Sparkle: Kye Allums, Johnny Weir, and Raced Problems in Gender Authenticity,” Erica Rand compares two 2010 controversies: one involving Kye Allums, the NCAA basketball player who came out as transgender with plans to remain on the women’s team, and another involving figure skater Johnny Weir, whose feminine presentation drew sexist and anti-gay responses.

“I think of putting these case studies together as staging a bit of a queer sports-studies date (and queer-sports-studies date) between two people whose sports profiles suggest little reason to bring them together. Allums plays a team sport firmly ensconced in educational, recreational, and professional realms and dominated at the top by competition among men. Weir competes in an individual sport pursued largely outside educational and professional contexts and with a shaky status as sport, partly because of the perceived dominance of females and feminine-coded characteristics like artistry and dance. Even the athletes’ 2010 gender ordeals differ in significant ways, including that Allums’s has been framed largely as serious business and Weir’s as cruel humor. … Yet as with many such unlikely meet-ups, connections emerge in the unfolding of their stories—You, too? Me, too!—that open up promising topics of shared import.”

Mary Louise Adams continues the exploration of sport and gender nonconformity in “No Taste for Rough and Tumble Play: Sport Discourses, the DSM, and the Regulation of Effeminacy.” Adams examines how gendered ideas about sport came to influence the diagnostic criteria for Gender Identity Disorder in Childhood that appeared in the third and fourth editions of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual:

“In the DSM-IV, there were two parts to the diagnosis. Part A demanded that a child show a ‘strong and persistent cross-gender identification’ manifested by four of five listed diagnostic criteria. Only one of these criteria involved the child’s explicit statement that he or she was or desired to be the other sex. The other four involved behaviors related to dress or to play, including the ‘intense desire to participate in the stereotypical games and pastimes of the other sex.’ Part B of the diagnosis demanded that a child experience ‘persistent discomfort with his or her sex or sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex.’ For a boy, the gender discomfort could be made evident by … ‘aversion toward rough-and-tumble play and rejection of male stereotypical toys, games, and activities.'”

To read more on gender, sex, queerness, and race in sports, check out the table of contents for “The Athletic Issue.” Subscribe to GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies at

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