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Femininity and the Olympics

Posted by pinaytg on August 14, 2008

 

Olympic logo

Olympic logo

 
 
I first saw the following article from the New York Times online Op/Ed section posted on the Ang Ladlad e group by a nationally respected feminist leader, Aida Santos. It’s about the Chinese Olympic committee’s decision to bring back gender testing to the Beijing games. Read it and tell me what you think. I don’t think I could have said it any better.

 

 THE XY GAMES*

 

 

 

 

By Jennifer Finney Boylan

 

IN the 1936 Olympic Games, the sprinter Stella Walsh — running for Poland and known as the fastest woman in the world — was beaten by Helen Stephens of St. Louis, who set a world record by running 100 meters in 11.4 seconds. After the race, a Polish journalist protested that Stephens must be a man. After all, no woman in the world could run that fast.

 

Olympic officials performed a “sex test” on Stephens, who was found, in fact, to be female, proving once and for all that a person could be incredibly fast and female at the same time.

 

Forty-four years later, Walsh, who had become an American citizen, was shot to death in the parking lot of a discount store in Cleveland. Her autopsy revealed a surprise: It was Stella Walsh, and not Helen Stephens, who turned out to have been male all along, at least according to the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s office.

 

 

Last week, the organizers of the Beijing Olympics announced that they had set up a “gender determination lab” to test female athletes suspected of being male. “Experts” at the lab will evaluate athletes based on their physical appearance and take blood samples to test hormones, genes and chromosomes.

 

On the surface, it seems reasonable for there to be some sort of system by which Olympians can be certain that female medalists really are female. The problem is that China’s tests are likely to produce the wrong answers, because they measure maleness and femaleness by the wrong yardsticks, and in the process ruin the lives of the innocent.

 

 

It would be nice to live in a world in which maleness and femaleness were firm and unwavering poles. People can be forgiven for wanting to live in a world as simple as this, a place in which something as basic as gender didn’t shift unsettlingly beneath our feet.

 

 

But gender is malleable and elusive, and we need to become comfortable with this fact, rather than afraid of it.

 

At the original Olympic Games, no gender testing was considered necessary. Back in 776 B.C., the Games were for men only, and they were conducted in the nude (with female spectators prohibited).

 

 

The modern era of gender testing began in 1968, at the Games in Mexico City, when it was believed that Communist countries in Eastern Europe were using male athletes in women’s competitions. (The truth was that some of the Eastern European athletes had been on a regimen of testosterone and steroids, giving them the physiques of young Arnold Schwarzeneggers.)

 

The test, which began as a crude physical inspection, has become more sophisticated over the years. In the 1970s and ’80s, the test was performed by a buccal smear — the scraping of cells from the inside of the mouth — and the sample studied for chromosomal material.

 

 

Over the past 40 years, dozens of female athletes tested in this manner have tested “positively” for maleness. That’s because these tests don’t measure “maleness” or “femaleness.” They measure — and not always reliably — the presence of a Y chromosome, or Y chromosomal material, which no small number of females have.

 

 

The condition, known as androgen insensitivity, occurs in about 1 in 20,000 individuals. Basically, a woman may have a Y chromosome, but her body does not respond to the genetic information that it contains. Some women with androgen insensitivity live their lives unaware that they have it. By any measure, though (except the measure of the Olympic test), they are women.

 

 

In 1996, eight female athletes at the Atlanta Games tested positively. Seven of these women were found to have some degree of androgen insensitivity, and one an enzyme defect. All were subsequently allowed to return to competition.

 

 

Ten years later, however, Santhi Soundarajan, a runner from India, was stripped of her silver medal in the 800 meters at the Asian Games for “failing” a sex test. An Indian athletics official told The Associated Press that Soundarajan had “abnormal chromosomes.” She was ridiculed in the press, and her career was destroyed. In the wake of her global humiliation, she attempted suicide.

 

 

You might think that gender testing at the Olympics is conducted to weed out transsexual women, who might be perceived to have some sort of physical advantage over natal females. Yet this is not the case. Since 2004, the International Olympic Committee has allowed transsexuals to compete as long as they have had sex-reassignment surgery and have gone through a minimum of two years of post-operative hormone replacement therapy. (As for the advantages that people born male supposedly have in competing against people born female, the combination of surgery and hormones appears to eliminate it entirely. Studies show that postoperative transsexual women perform at or near the baseline for female athletes in general.)

 

In the four years since the ruling, there have been no transsexuals — or at least no athletes who are open about it — in Olympic competition. But this year, Kristen Worley, a Canadian cyclist, came close to qualifying. If transgender athletes are now allowed to compete officially, and if gender testing has been shown frequently to render false results, then what exactly are the Chinese authorities testing for?

 

 

The Olympic hosts seem to want to impose a binary order upon the messy continuum of gender. They are searching for concreteness and certainty in a world that contains neither.

 

Most efforts to rigidly quantify the sexes are bound to fail. For every supposedly unmovable gender marker, there is an exception. There are women with androgen insensitivity, who have Y chromosomes. There are women who have had hysterectomies, women who cannot become pregnant, women who hate makeup, women whose object of affection is other women.

 

 

So what makes someone female then? If it’s not chromosomes, or a uterus, or the ability to get pregnant, or femininity, or being attracted to men, then what is it, and how can you possibly test for it?

 

The only dependable test for gender is the truth of a person’s life, the lives we live each day. Surely the best judge of a person’s gender is not a degrading, questionable examination. The best judge of a person’s gender is what lies within her, or his, heart.

 

 

How do we test for the gender of the heart, then? How do we avoid out-and-out frauds, like Hermann Ratjen, who said he was forced by the Nazis to compete as “Dora” in the 1936 high jump? (He lost, finishing fourth.)

 

 

A quick look at the reality of an athlete’s life ought to settle the question. Ratjen was male not because of what was in his genes, but because of who he was. He returned to his life as Hermann after the Berlin Games. “For three years I lived the life of a girl,” he said in 1957. “It was most dull.”

 

It’s hard to imagine a case like Ratjen’s recurring today, but if it did and he slipped through the cracks, then so be it. Surely policy for the Olympics — and civilization — shouldn’t be based on one improbable stunt perpetrated by Nazi Germany.

 

Which brings us back to Stella Walsh. While the autopsy revealed that she had male sex organs, a chromosome test ordered by the coroner was more ambiguous. She may well have had androgen insensitivity or some other intersex condition. More important, she spent the whole of her life as a woman. She should be celebrated for her accomplishments as an athlete, not turned into an asterisk because of a condition beyond her control.

 

 

The triumphant fact of a life lived as a woman made Walsh female, and the inexact measurements performed by strangers cannot render her life untrue.

 

 

Maybe this means that Olympic officials have to learn to live with ambiguity, and make peace with a world in which things are not always quantifiable and clear.

 

 

That, if you ask me, would be a good thing, not just for Olympians, but for us all.

 

 

Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College, is the author of “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders” and “I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted.”

 

* Retrieved August 14, 2008 from www.nytimes.com.

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Notorious bar apologizes to trans women, promises to issue statement

Posted by pinaytg on August 9, 2008

              On August 7, 2008, Thursday, at around 8:30 pm while I was at the gym, I got a call from Magda and Samantha, two trans women from Cebu who were in Manila on personal business. Samantha who first spoke with me sounded very upset because they had just been refused entrance to Café Havana, a popular night spot in Greenbelt 3 at the Ayala Malls in Makati City. Samantha was furious because just the night before they had dinner at the same place with no incident. She could not understand why all of a sudden they were being turned away. Magda took over the phone and recounted what happened.

 

Samantha and Magda arrived at Café Havana and upon seeing an empty table outside asked a nearby waiter if they could take it. The waiter did not quickly respond. Instead, he looked at the two women and with a smirk on his face said, “Madumi eh. (It’s dirty.)” then walked away. Puzzled at the waiter’s reaction, the women decided to proceed inside to look for a table. At the door, their path was blocked by a bouncer who told them, “Bawal kayo dito. Bawal ang cross dressers. (You’re not allowed here. Cross dressers are not allowed.).”Appalled, Magda and Samantha tried to argue with the bouncer telling him that they were not cross dressers but women. The bouncer just looked away as if he did not hear anything. Feeling helpless, the two decided to walk into the mall first to blow off steam. That’s when they decided to call me.

 

                I immediately contacted Sass Sasot, Ang Ladlad* member and co-founder of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), told her about the incident and asked her to kindly check on the girls as she lived closer to Makati. Sass gladly obliged and went to Greenbelt 3, met the two and accompanied Magda to the office of Mr. Dennis Galimba, Operations Engineer of Ayala Property Management Corporation.  There, Magda wrote and filed a complaint against Café Havana. Mr. Galimba assured Sass and Magda that all Ayala Malls including Trinoma, Alabang Town Center (ATC) and Ayala Center Cebu are strictly enforcing a non-discrimination policy. A security officer from the Operations Engineer’s office then dropped by Café Havana to speak to its Manager, Mr. Vic Panganiban about the incident.

 

                On my way to Makati I alerted several other members of Ang Ladlad, including Rey Banag, Anne Lim, Atty. Lynley Salome, Atty. Angie Umbac, Atty. Germaine Leonin and our national Chair, Danton Remoto. Danton right away contacted members of the Larry J. Cruz (LJC) Chain of Restaurants which owns Café Havana to inform them of the incident. Danton told them that if Café Havana’s discriminatory policy is not removed, Ang Ladlad will raise the issue to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and start a media campaign against the restaurant. Members of the LJC Chain of Restaurants immediately conducted an investigation into the matter and assured Danton that they would do everything in their power to rectify the situation.

 

                When I got to Makati, the complaint had already been filed by Sass and Magda. I along with the three other girls then proceeded to Café Havana to speak with its manager, Mr. Panganiban. I introduced myself, showed him my Ang Ladlad ID card and asked him to explain what happened. The manager said what happened was a mistake and apologized to all of us. He also asked the erring waiter to apologize to Magda and Samantha. I told Mr. Panganiban that Café Havana has become notorious for refusing entrance to trans women which not only goes against the Ayala Mall’s policy of nondiscrimination but also codes of human decency. I then asked him to issue a written apology that will also say that their establishment does not discriminate. Mr. Panganiban agreed and even offered us girls the VIP treatment. We politely declined but told him that we would take him up on it another time.

 

                I hope that this will be the last we will hear of Café Havana and its anti trans policy. I am so happy that through our concerted effort, something has finally been done about this. It had to take two women from Cebu who refused to be mistreated to make this possible. I hope Magda and Samantha will serve as an example of people who will stand up for themselves, who will not cooperate in their own oppression, who will assert their right to be treated with dignity and respect and more importantly, their right to be themselves.

 

*Ang Ladlad is the national organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, bakla/bayot/bantut, tomboy and transgender (LGBT) Filipinos. Visit www.angladlad.org.

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Mae & Rio: Two stories of discrimination Part I

Posted by pinaytg on July 29, 2008

           To most of us, this weekend would have been spent having fun, taking a rest and relaxing. Not to Mae and Rio, two women of transgender experience, who had to spend this weekend worrying about the coming week. Mae, who is just a week in training for a call center job, is afraid she might lose her recently acquired employment while Rio, who is on her third year in Nursing school, is agonizing about not being able to graduate despite doing well in school and  just having a year to go. Both women are nervous about what the new week will bring. Both women are being punished for their transgender status.

 

MAE

 

            When Mae attended her pre-employment orientation, she was informed that she could dress female as long as she followed the company’s dress code. So that’s exactly what she did. From Monday to Thursday last week, she dressed in business casual. On Friday, she wore a blouse over black pants and snickers. Needing to use the bathroom upon arrival at work Friday afternoon, she rushed to the women’s bathroom as was her wont.

 

            Five minutes later while powdering her face in front of the bathroom mirror, Mae heard the voice of a security guard ordering her to get out. The guard stood by the bathroom door barking reasons at Mae why she did not belong to the women’s bathroom. Shocked, Mae tried to explain to the guard that she was female. The guard was belligerent, however, and threatened her if she did not step out.

 

            Humiliated and scandalized by the growing number of onlookers, Mae thought she had no choice. She left the bathroom in tears. Later, Mae’s trainer told her that the company had an unspoken rule that bakla employees were not allowed to use the women’s bathroom. Mae said that she understood that if by bakla the trainer meant men who identified as male and presented as such and were attracted to other males. Mae tried to explain that she did not identify as one and that her gender identity was female as evinced by how she presented in public. Moreover, Mae pointed out the company’s core values which included belief in diversity. Mae thought this explained the company’s allowance for employees to wear the clothing of the gender they identify as. If the company lets her dress as female because that’s how she sees herself and is seen by others, then why can’t she use the corresponding bathroom?

 

            The trainer could not give Mae clear answers but promised Mae that she would do something about it. Mae decided to raise her concerns with the Human Resources (HR) department. Today, July 29, 2008, Tuesday, Mae is set to meet with HR. Mae is apprehensive about this impending meeting. This weekend it’s all that she could think about.           

 

 

 

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Reproductive rights and the LGBT community

Posted by pinaytg on July 25, 2008

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae (Latin Of Human Life), an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI in 1968 which explicitly directs the Catholic faithful to rely only on the rhythm method to space and control births in family planning and eschew any artificial means of contraception. A prayer rally organized by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) will be held today to commemorate the encyclical, which also condemns abortion, at the Parade Ground of the University of Santo Tomas (UST).

 

This document is significant because it has figured prominently in the very public feud recently between the CBCP and some members of Philippine Congress over provisions of proposed House Bill (HB) 812 or the Reproductive Health Care Act. The CBCP are against everything about the bill. During media engagements, for example, CBCP members point to the bill’s proposal to make available starting Grade 5 sexuality and reproductive health education in public schools. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that but you can guess that the Church is claiming that it will promote promiscuity. They are also uncomfortable about barangay health centers giving out free contraceptives which the bill ensures if ever it gets passed. A CBCP spokesperson argues that our local government units’ clinics cannot even provide the most basic of medicines, what more contraceptives. These are just a few of the charges being leveled against HB 812. What is more alarming is the framework the Church is using to campaign against it. It’s called Stop D.E.A.T.H. D.E.A.T.H. here stands for Divorce, Euthanasia, Abortion, Total Reproductive Health/Contraception and Homosexuality.

 

          Defenders of the bill are countering that the CBCP is spreading an outright lie. The bill does not allow abortion. I just read it and in fact it contains a provision that re-affirms the illegality and criminality of abortion in this country. The bill, although biased towards heterosexual women, is surprisingly well rounded as it uses a comprehensive framework for reproductive health programs. It contains elements that uphold the principles of informed choice, responsible parenthood, respect for life and birth spacing.  Church pundits of course know very well that the only way to kill this bill is to discredit it via baseless propaganda.

 

          How does the reproductive health debate affect LGBT people? Simple. We are as much sexual and gendered beings as we are reproductive ones. Our right to express our sexual orientations and gender identities is tied up with our right to bear offspring. In rights parlance they are called sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR). Theoretically they  should be covered by the Constitutional provisions on liberty, equality and privacy. In reality though, we know the flak that LGBT people get when they start exercising their rights over their own bodies. So we hear of lesbians being raped to be cured of their lesbianism, of transgender people being disallowed to be parents to their own children because they are simply not good role models, of gay men being barred from donating sperm, etc. The list goes on and on.

 

            HB 812, as expected, is silent on the reproductive needs, issues and concerns of LGBT people but I am hopeful that somehow it will cover us. It is clear though that we, as a community, should support it. The truth is that choice has already been made for us by the Church by its mere mention of abortion and homosexuality in the same breath.  Even if we do not see ourselves as reproductive beings, we have to see this bill through for those among us who will and want to be parents and raise families in the future. At the very least, I am confident that this bill will protect every single Filipino’s right to competent reproductive health care and reproductive self-determination. Who doesn’t want that?

A beautiful family.

A beautiful family.

 

 

 

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