Will the “Real” Women Please Stand Up?

The Beijing Olympic Games are over, and the United States sent a formidable team. Time Magazine listed 100 Olympic athletes to watch out for. Dara Torres, nine times an Olympic medalist, was one of them. At 41, Torres has been swimming faster than she did in her 20s, revealing a more muscular and toned physique. While the question of steroid use could be asked, questions concerning her gender and sexual orientation should not.

Yet, the Beijing Olympic organizers devised a “gender-determination laboratory” for “suspected” athletes like Torres, to catch “gender frauds”—men masquerading as women. Their experts at Peking Union Medical College Hospital evaluated blood samples to test their genes, hormones, and chromosomes, but, first and foremost, they looked at the athletes’ physical appearance. According to these experts, Torres, with her washboard abs, should fail.

And while we know reducing female athletes to their sex chromosomes is absurd, America has a different test to verify the authenticity of its “gender fraud”—cultural markers of beauty and femininity. On appearance alone, Torres would fail.

The question of women’s physiques has always suggested a norm of beauty and femininity that supposedly many female athletes don’t meet. And their image as strong women has always created fear about a deluge of lesbians, intersexuals, and transwomen tilting the level playing field away from “real” women.

With the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibiting discrimination based on gender in education programs and activities receiving federal funding, women’s participation in high school and collegiate sports grew. But with women’s increased participation in sports, the damaging stereotype of the lesbian athlete became prominent as a way to police unfeminine behavior. And many women who chose to participate in sports often went to great lengths to display traditional heterosexual cultural markers through their clothing, hairstyles, and mannerisms.

GLBTQ athletes must constantly monitor how they are being perceived by teammates, coaches, endorsers, and the media in order to avoid suspicion. They are expected to maintain a public silence and decorum so that their identity does not tarnish the rest of the team.

For example, tennis great Martina Navratilova, who is a lesbian, was once publicly taunted for not bringing femininity and beauty to her game. Her muscular physique and supposedly masculine appearance killed not only sponsor endorsements but also attempted to kill her spirit in playing the game.

“As a professional tennis player, when I came out, my focus wasn’t on things like losing endorsements or handling the press or even sacrificing personal privacy,” Navratilova wrote in the upcoming book Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing The Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America (September 2008). “The biggest thing on my mind was being true to myself: I realized that I couldn’t go on being a champion on the court if I was leaving half of myself off the court.”

But to restore traditional femininity and heterosexuality to American female athletes, Amanda Ray Beard, an Olympic swimmer, posed for the July 2007 issue of Playboy. And in June 2008, my home girl from Massachusetts, Alicia Marie Sacramone, along with teammates Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, who were in the Beijing Olympics, became the first female athletes to be signed as CoverGirl spokesmodels.

The question of who’s a “real” female and who isn’t will persist as long as lesbian-baiting continues to be part and parcel of the world of sports. Even presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, told Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts that she’s “a jock at heart, but likes to look nice”—she’s lately become a fashion icon, appearing on Vanity Fair’s 2008 “Best Dressed List.”

Sports programs are a particular challenge when attempting to make schools, playgrounds, and locker rooms safe for our GLBTQ children. And as long as young women will be stigmatized as lesbian, that stigma will control women’s participation.

But sports can also provide innumerable opportunities to teach valuable life lessons and can be a powerful influence in addressing myriad social issues. And eliminating lesbian-baiting can be one of them.

Dara Torres, a heterosexual and a mother of 2-year-old, inspires generations of female swimmers, and by extension, all females interested in sports. Her age signals to us middle-aged women, like myself, that we still got game. And her body inspires a whole lot of us couch potatoes to get moving.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a nationally renowned African-American lesbian activist, scholar, and public theologian, whose writings have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Bay State Banner, Cambridge Chronicle, and Metro News. She can be reached care of this publication.

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