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Can the Best Policy for Gender-Bending Athletes Be Found In a Connecticut High School?

Athletics Semenya Gender Test

Does a local Connecticut high school have a more nuanced policy about transgender athletes than the International Association of Athletic Federations? For all the talk about treating gender-nonconforming sports stars like Caster Semenya fairly, we’ve yet to hear a real solution about how to avoid discriminating against trans athletes while still letting them compete. Did this gay marriage-friendly New England state found a solution?

To understand the debate, we must first know the premise: that boys and girls (and men and women) are physically different based on biology, giving men the upper hand in most athletics because they are larger and have more muscle mass. Of course, that’s a generalization for all generalizations and enters the spiral of “What does it mean to be a man o a woman?”, but when it comes to sport, long ago separating the sexes appeared the most fair way to do things. (That, and when many sports created professional women’s leagues, like the WNBA and LPGA, the existing leagues were male-only. Not exactly “fair.”)

All that changes when a biological man becomes a woman, and vice versa. If a man takes hormones to grow breasts, raise his voice, and has his penis turned into a vagina, is he suddenly on par with other female athletes?

The Board of Education in Middletown, Conn., thinks they know the answer: It all depends. Mostly, on puberty and surgery.

New rules for the district’s student-athletes, adopted from the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, say players will compete on teams based on the sex given on his or her birth certificate. The only way to change teams? Gender reassignment surgery. Moreover, if the student-athlete underwent reassignment, it must have taken place before puberty in order to swap teams; if it took place after puberty, the person will have to wait to compete again until two years after the surgery is complete.

It’s a decisive policy, but it doesn’t answer all the questions. What if a biological female athlete begins a hormone regimen after puberty, giving her more muscle mass, but doesn’t undergo surgery. That means she will still compete with other women, although she will, by all accounts have an advantage. Is it an unfair advantage?

If these rules were applied to Semenya — who is intersex, not transgender — there would be no debate. As we understand it, Semenya was born a girl, and it says so on her birth certificate. There’s been no surgery; her absent ovaries is how she was born. Thus, she competes with other women. As she has been.

Of course, there’s a difference between being transgender and intersex, but there are some similarities between the gender-blurring situations when it comes to how athletic organizations could operate. As in: If you’re a girl at birth, do you “stay a girl” while sprinting or shooting hoops or whipping around a puck?

While Semenya has been allowed to keep her gold medal, it’s unclear whether she’ll be allowed to compete with women moving forward. Based on the Connecticut school’s rules, of course she would.

As Ariel Levy notes in a lengthy New Yorker profile of Semenya, “the I.A.A.F. has behaved erratically on the issue” as it tried deciding Semenya’s gender for her, and whether she qualified to compete with women.

It’s a thankless task, but ultimately, one that must be taken up. One Connecticut school finally decided to do it, albeit with imperfect results. But in all honestly, will there ever be a perfect policy?