The Gay Games, a major international multi-sport event, is underway in Hong Kong and Guadalajara, Mexico. As seen with the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the Summer Paralympics, mega sporting events play an important role in celebrating human diversity.
But the Gay Games has a particularly compelling history in this respect: Founded in 1982, at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the ensuing moral panic, the Gay Games has allowed LGBTQIA+ athletes to participate without stigma and fully be themselves.
This year, the Gay Games continue to provide timely, valuable lessons in inclusion. In particular, its gender policy — which allows athletes to participate in the gender division with which they self-identify — provides a model that could be adopted by many ‘mainstream’ sporting events.
The 2023 Games follow many months of global headlines focusing on debates around which gender divisions transgender athletes should be allowed (or not allowed) to compete in.
In Australia, transgender children’s participation in sport was heavily debated during the 2022 Federal Election. The issue has spilled over into school sports, particularly in the US, where 20 states have imposed bans on trans athletes within schools or universities.
A cascade of international sporting associations have also tightened rules concerning transgender athletes in recent years.
In 2020, World Rugby banned transgender athletes from competition, followed by international cycling (UCI), swimming (FINA) and World Athletics banning trans women from women’s events. In the US, the issue has become such a political hot topic that CNN has described restricting trans rights as a new potential “litmus test for Republican candidates”.
At the elite level, most major sporting events have historically operated on a two-sex system, which adopts a binary view of sex and determines sex as either male or female by external anatomical criteria deemed at birth.
The Olympic Gamess — the largest sporting event in the world — has a complex history of sex-verification tests. Over the decades, the International Olympic Committee has used and rejected various verification techniques, including visual inspection (1948), manual inspection (1966), chromatin testing (1967) and testosterone testing (2006).
These techniques were not just humiliating at times, but were also deemed scientifically unreliable for determining whether a body was ‘female’ or not. The testosterone testing regime has also been revised three times since 2011, after experts disagreed on the scientific reliability of various tests.
This two-sex system facilitates sexism generally and transphobia specifically, researchers Richard Pringle and Erik Denison have argued. Despite being pervasive in sport, this binary division does not match what science knows about sexual anatomy, the researchers have explained. That is, science has been unable to determine with any consistency the factors or substances that constitute a female or male body.
As early as the mid-19th century, French anatomist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilare asserted that human sexual anatomy consisted of five category types. And in 2015, science journalist Claire Ainsworth, in an article in Nature on the difficulties of sex verification and the comprehension of sex as a spectrum, wrote, “[I]f you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.”
So too is the same advice for gender. A recent research paper in Integrative and Comparative Biology explained that “sex and gender are both complex and multifaceted”, adding: “There is a remarkable level of diversity within and between sexes and sex traits of individuals.”
Internationally, sports such as surfing have recently created new policies for gender categorisation, reflecting the tensions around competition, inclusion, fairness and encouraging greater participation.
The International Surfing Association Transgender Policy adopted this year by World Surfing League, for example, requires testosterone testing, but is less aggressive in those requirements compared with other international-level sports such as athletics. In general, grassroots or community surfing seems more willing to deal with these issues in a trans-inclusive way than elite, international-level events, as forthcoming research by lisahunter explores.
The Gay Games — which focus on participation and inclusion, rather than the overt desire to determine athletic supremacy — has taken a different approach to the Olympics and other major ‘mainstream’ events. Overall, the event organisers have demonstrated a willingness to consult, develop, revise and negotiate requirements — and engage with tensions associated with safety and fairness — for trans-inclusive competition.
In 1994, the Gay Games initiated athlete choice of a binary gender category. As researcher Caroline Symons has explained in her work tracing the history of trans inclusion in the Gay Games, it was the first international sports event to include “transgender participants within its policy and procedures, including those who were in transition or who could not complete their sex change for financial and/or medical reasons”.
The Sydney Gay Games in 2002 defined gender by social identity: In the game of netball at those Games, the solution was for women’s, men’s, mixed and transgender competitions, with negotiations of rules and membership according to the gender that participants lived. These measures included removing the burden of proof from athletes to provide documentation, and instead assuming that all are genuine in their gender category selection. This was the most inclusive gender policy developed at that time, and it remains in place today.
There are mental health benefits to this approach.
While no studies have been done specifically on Gay Games athletes’ mental health, it is fair to infer that denying acceptance and inclusion in the gender category with which an athlete identifies could exacerbate the health and well-being problems faced by trans people.
Trans young people in Australia experience high levels of mental distress. Almost eight in 10 (79.7 percent) have self-harmed; more than 82 percent have experienced suicidal thoughts, and almost half (48.1 percent) have attempted suicide, while three in four participants have been diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety. Higher rates of self-harm, suicide and drug/alcohol addictions faced by trans people are explained in direct relation to the discrimination they have faced.
This is not to say that the planning of the 2023 Gay Games was perfect or without controversy.
Hong Kong originally won the bid to host the Games, in part, as an important political step to promote LGBTQIA+ inclusion within the broader Asian region. Yet in 2020, Hong Kong imposed one of the strictest Covid prevention regimes and, at the same time, China began cracking down on ‘effeminate men‘. This resulted in the decision to scale back the scope of the Games in Hong Kong and to invite Guadalajara to co-host.
Currently, with China tightening its totalitarian grip on Hong Kong, transgender people face strong forms of discrimination throughout China, and LGBTQIA+ people more broadly in China face greater legal and social challenges in comparison to non-LGBTQIA+ people. The decision for Hong Kong to co-host has therefore been somewhat controversial, including Taiwan announcing it would not send a team due to safety concerns.
As noted, discrimination against trans people is not isolated to China. With the recent rise in fundamentalism and right-wing populism, there has been a spate of hate-filled protests and hybrid media attacks towards many represented in LGBTQIA+ communities across the globe. At the same time, there is increasing affirmation of LGBTQIA+ athletes as role models and Pride celebrations in different sporting codes.
In these contentious times, sport has become a site where sexuality and gender challenges have been played out, more recently, by trans athletes. This is an important reflective moment for sport’s ability to exclude — and include.
Supporting individuals and groups to participate in sport allows us all to gain from the benefits of rich diversity, research has found. It enables us to explore more clearly how sport can engage with concepts like fairness, human rights and competition, in order to function as a social good.
The Gay Games provides insight into how sport, and society, can become more inclusive, affirm difference and mitigate discrimination including that based on sex, gender and sexuality.
Dr lisahunter (they/it, non-identifying) has researched, taught and published in areas of pedagogy, diversity, movement, health, gender and sexuality, teacher education, physical culture and sport, surfing, Health & Physical Education, and qualitative methodologies.
Dr Richard Pringle (he/him) is Professor of Sport, Health and Physical Education in the Monash University School of Curriculum, Teaching and Inclusive Education. His research predominantly focuses on social in/justices as related to genders, ethnicities and sexualities within the contexts of sport, health and schooling.