Women Olympians Deserve Better Than This

The Beijing Games have begun and the U.S. sent a formidable team. Time Magazine has listed 100 Olympic athletes to watch out for. Dara Torres, nine times Olympic medalist, is one of them. At 41 Torres is swimming faster now than in her 20’s, revealing a more muscular and tone physique. While the question of steroid use could be asked, questions concerning her gender and sexual orientation should not.

The Beijing Olympic organizers have 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 each ”suspected” female for “gender verification” based on   blood samples to test their genes, hormones, chromosomes and, first and foremost, their external appearance. According to these experts, Torres, with her washboard abs, on appearance alone, 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 frauds” – culture markers of beauty and femininity. And Torres, on appearance alone, has failed.

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 titling the level playing field in our favor from “real” women.

With the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 prohibiting discrimination based on gender in education programs and activities receiving federal funding, women’s participation in high school and collegiate sports increased. 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.

LGBTQ 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 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.  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,” Navratilova wrote in the upcoming book “Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing The Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America” to be out in September 2008.

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, who were in the Beijing Olympics, became the first female athlete 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.

For example, Olympic basketball player Lisa Leslie was perceived to be a “girly- girly;” therefore, not a lesbian, but certainly a weak and non-aggressive player. Tennis phenoms the William Sisters are aggressive players but too muscular, especially Serena, to be seen as feminine. And presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle has become a fashion icon appearing in Vanity Fair’s 2008 Best Dressed List. In an interview this week on ABC’s Good Morning America Michelle Obama told co-anchor Robin Roberts that she’s “a jock at heart, but likes to look nice.”

Sports programs are a particular challenge when attempting to make schools, playgrounds, and locker rooms safe of our LGBTQ children.  And as long as young women will be stigmatized as lesbian it 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.

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 age women, like myself, we still got game. And her body inspires a whole lot of us couch potatoes to get moving.

Published August 19, 2008 in New England Blade.

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