Beyond Fairness Ethics of Inclusion for Transgender & Intersex Athletes Summary

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Journal of the Philosophy of Sport
ISSN: 0094-8705 (Print) 1543-2939 (Online) Journal homepage:
Beyond fairness: the ethics of inclusion for
transgender and intersex athletes
John Gleaves & Tim Lehrbach
To cite this article: John Gleaves & Tim Lehrbach (2016): Beyond fairness: the ethics of
inclusion for transgender and intersex athletes, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, DOI:
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Published online: 11 Mar 2016.
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Date: 11 April 2016, At: 20:02
Beyond fairness: the ethics of inclusion for
transgender and intersex athletes
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John Gleavesa and Tim Lehrbachb
Kinesiology, California State University Fullerton, Fullerton, CA, USA; bIndependent Scholar
Sporting communities remain entangled in debate over whether and how to
include transgender and intersex athletes in competition with cisgender athletes.
Of particular concern is that transgender and intersex athletes may have unfair
physiological advantages over their cisgender opponents. Arguments for inclusion
of transgender and intersex athletes in sport attempt to demonstrate that such
inclusion does not threaten the presumed physiological equivalence among
competitors and is therefore fair to all. This article argues that the physiological
equivalency rationale has significant limitations, including an inordinate emphasis
on sport as a comparative test. Instead, this article contends that arguments for
narrativity rather than physiological equivalency show that exclusion is not only
misguided but also undesirable: it is detrimental not only to the excluded athletes
but to sport itself. The article yields several important consequences including calls
for revisions to policies on transgender and intersex athletes.
KEYWORDS Transgender; intersex; gender; narratives
In recent years, media stories documenting the experiences of transgender and
intersex athletes including middle-distance runner Caster Semenya (Schultz
2011), mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox (Felt 2014), hammer thrower Keelin
Godsey (NPR 2012), and Crossfit competitor Chloie Jonsson (Sieczkowski 2014)
have illuminated both the challenges gender non-conforming athletes face
and sport’s inadequate policies concerning their inclusion. The International
Olympic Committee (IOC), arguably sport’s most influential governing body,
provides pathways to competition for transgender and intersex athletes. An
IOC Consensus Statement in 2015 now permits those who transition to men
as immediately eligible for competition while sketching out guidelines over
testosterone levels in those who transition to women (Kahrl 2015). For intersex
CONTACT John Gleaves
© 2016 IAPS
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athletes, the IOC has released a policy statement on female hyperandrogenism
prior to the 2012 Games and has made inroads on controversial gender verification testing (Karkazis et al. 2012).
Existing policies reinforce a divide between cisgender athletes and those
whose gender does not conform to the traditional male and female binary.1
The ethical rationale for these policies – that athletes can participate if they
achieve and can demonstrate physiological equivalency with cisgender athletes
– reflects the disempowerment and marginalization of transgender and intersex
athletes and the misinterpretation of their sporting accomplishments. Yet, as
we find below, even critiques of past and present policies and calls for greater
inclusion rely on the same rationale and therefore can only deliver inclusion that
is qualified and contingent. We argue that the physiological equivalency rationale is inseparable from a faulty conception of the nature of sport, one which
cannot escape a narrow focus on sport as a comparative test between equal
competitors and under which sport remains a vehicle for unfairly privileging
certain individuals and disadvantaging or excluding others when determining
whether and how athletes may participate. We further argue that conceiving
of sport as consisting in meaningful narratives yields a novel, ethical rationale
for inclusion that is coherent, durable, and endorsable, as well as one that preserves or upholds the positive values that current policies try but fail to protect.
The incompleteness of the physiological equivalency argument
Sporting communities, such as the previously mentioned IOC, Ultimate Fighting
Championship, and CrossFit Games, have shown reluctance, and at times outright refusal, to accept transgender and intersex athletes, particularly in ‘women’s’
events. Some sporting organizations, including the International Association of
Athletics Federations and the IOC, assert that intersex women athletes do not
belong in the women’s category because, it is feared, their intersex condition
confers an unfair physiological advantage over cisgender women (Bermon et
al. 2013). Similarly, cisgender women have shown male-to-female transgender
athletes open hostility regarding their participation in women’s events (Sykes
2006, 7), as in the high-profile examples of professional mountain biker Michelle
Dumaresq (Billman 2004) and previously mentioned Fallon Fox.2
Transgender athletes also face legal barriers that deny their participation
because of alleged advantages conferred by their pre-transitioned lives. In 2005,
the United Kingdom amended its Gender Recognition Act, a law designed to
safeguard the rights of transgender individuals, to permit sporting organizations
to exclude transgender athletes ‘if the physical strength, stamina or physique of
average persons of one gender would put them at a disadvantage to average
persons of the other gender as competitors in events involving the sport’ (Sykes
2006, 8). Renée Richards famously won her lawsuit against the United States
Tennis Association to compete professionally as a woman after the United States
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Open Committee refused her entry because ‘there is competitive advantage for
a male who has undergone a sex change surgery as a result of physical training
and development as a male’ (Abrams 2010, 58).
Scholars defend inclusion of transgender and intersex athletes because the
athletes’ physiologies confer no unfair advantage and therefore do not upset any
presumed equality of conditions among athletes. We call this the ‘physiological
equivalency’ argument. The conclusion sketched out by Karkazis et al. (2012)
typifies this approach:
The current scientific evidence, however, does not support the notion that endogenous testosterone confer athletic advantage in any straightforward or predictable
way. Even if naturally occurring variation in testosterone conferred advantage, is
that advantage unfair? It bears noting that athletes never begin on a fair playing
field; if they were not exceptional in one regard or another, they would not have
made it to a prestigious international stage. (Karkazis et al. 2012, 13).
Variations on Karkazis and colleagues’ theme recur throughout the literature.
Sykes (2006), Teetzel (2006), Coggon, Hammond, and Holm (2008), Devries
(2008), and Wahlert and Fiester (2012), have all sketched arguments along these
lines for inclusion of transgender athletes, while Caplan (2010), Camporesi and
Maugeri (2010), Schultz (2011), Dworkin and Cooky (2012), Bostwick and Joyner
(2012), and Ha et al. (2014) make similar cases on behalf of intersex athletes.
Such approaches often illustrate with scientific evidence that transgender and/
or intersex athletes are not advantaged (or that even if there was any advantage,
it would fall within the normally accepted range of advantage) and cast doubt
on the presumption that sport is absolutely fair to begin with, such that sport
is no more or no less fair if transgender or intersex athletes are included. Thus,
since the athletes sufficiently conform (or will conform) to biological norms of
their gender category and therefore do not disrupt the fairness of the sport,
there is no reason to exclude them.
This focus on physiological equivalency has provided some recourse to
assuage fears that transgender or intersex athletes compete with an unfair
advantage. Certainly, the argument offers a pragmatic approach to persuading
sporting organizations to be inclusive. Yet, arguments of this form are saddled
with serious shortcomings, four of which we will discuss here.
First, these arguments for inclusion are inherently contingent. They depend
on empirical evidence to show that athletes physiologically fit biological norms
and thus do not upset the accepted range of equality created by cisgender
competitors. Even the most conclusive findings are a happy accident of nature;
they do not provide a necessary ethical reason justifying the athletes’ claim
for inclusion and are fraught with the problems endemic to applying medico-scientific discourse to cultural problems (Gould 2008). Should evidence later
turn out not to support that these athletes are physiologically equivalent or if
athletes emerge who do upset the accepted range, the sole claim supporting
transgender or intersex athletes’ right to access sport would be invalidated.
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A moral argument for inclusion unaffected by contingent appeals to science
does not share this vulnerability.
Second, a rationale for inclusion based on physiological equivalency tacitly
accepts and reinforces the cisnormative gender binary. Athletes who simply
by happenstance conform to one of two socially established genders, face no
questions about their participation nor any burden to prove they belong in
gender-segregated sport. Their status as ‘normal’ entitles them to participate
while those who are ‘not normal’ must prove that they fit in. Transgender athletes
undergo a transition – including expensive surgical procedures and hormone
therapy – following which they must demonstrate post-operative or post-therapy conformity with their cisgender peers for a period of time. Similarly, intersex
athletes deemed by the IOC to have an advantage face ‘corrective’ procedures
before the sporting organization will declare the athlete eligible for competition. As Wahlert and Fiester assert, defending the inclusion of transgender and
intersex athletes based on their demonstrated conformity – i.e. physiological
equivalency – ‘attempts to unseat the prevailing view of biological homogeneity or consistency, but it nevertheless relies on the same strategy as those
who question an athlete’s gendered legitimacy,’ and thus the defense benefits
cisgender athletes and privileges traditionally defined concepts of male and
female (Wahlert and Fiester 2012, 20).
Third, policies for inclusion based on physiological equivalency do not result
in ideal outcomes. They place financially burdensome and medically unnecessary obstacles in athletes’ paths at the point in most athletes’ careers when
training and performance are most demanding. For both transgender and
intersex athletes, the historically required procedures for participation, such
as those held by the IOC, do not relate to health risks, are expensive, and can
significantly hinder training and competition during recovery. Indeed, the past
restrictive policies for transgender athletes are likely a significant reason why no
transgender athlete has ever competed in an Olympic Games, even after more
than a decade following the Stockholm Consensus. Transgender athletes such
as Molly Cameron (Mirk 2010) and Keelin Goodsey (NPR 2012) have pointed
out that rather than facilitating inclusion, the previous Stockholm Consensus
from the IOC as well as the other policies that require surgery and hormone
therapy are actually a de facto barrier that exclude transgender athletes from
competing in their identified gender (especially for female-to-male transgender
athletes, who rarely complete genital surgery) (Selvaggi and Bellringer 2011). For
intersex athletes, the corrective steps required by the IOC place a similar barrier,
including unnecessary surgery, to competing in their desired gender. Therefore,
policies that hinge participation in sport to an individual’s conformity to a social
construction of gender are an unfair burden for non-cisgender athletes.
Fourth, and most crucially for our purposes of building a better rationale
for inclusion, the physiological equivalency argument hinges on a mistaken
conception of sport – that is, that equality among competitors is a defining
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characteristic of sport and that without this quality none of sport’s internal
goods can come to fruition. This conception yields a justification for excluding
athletes in the name of preserving fairness if the athletes would create inequality among competitors by their inclusion and thus bring harm to the sport. For
those who believe that transgender and intersex athletes pass the test of preserving equality among competitors, there is no need to challenge a conception
of sport that insists upon such equality. We argue, however, that the undue
emphasis on physiological equivalence among competitors obscures some of
sport’s other values and, moreover, is the very reason that sport needlessly and
unjustly excludes individuals who have done nothing that merits their exclusion.
Focusing on sport’s other meaningful values uncovers a more robust rationale
for including transgender and intersex athletes, one that already knits inclusivity
into the very fabric of sport and one that would ensure that future conceptions
of sport’s goods continue to value the participation of all athletes.
Gender segregation in sport
Dilemmas concerning the inclusion of transgender and intersex athletes arise
only because sport often segregates by gender: men and women are separated
into different categories for competition. If a sport is open to all competitors
regardless of gender, it has no reason to exclude transgender and intersex
athletes. For that reason, the justification for maintaining gender segregation
will inherently bear on the justification to include or exclude transgender and
intersex athletes.
Typically, arguments defending gender segregation in sport, especially in
elite sport, assume three premises: (a) that female athletes, as a group, are
physiologically inferior to male athletes, (b) that this inferiority will prevent a
large majority of women from participating in competitive sport unless space
is secured for them regardless of their athletic merit relative to men, and (c)
a scenario where women are largely absent from competitive sport is a bad
one. As English (1978) argues, because a mix of biological and cultural factors
qualifies women as a disadvantaged group, not carving out protected space for
women in elite sport would do severe harm to the status of women in society
at large. There is reason to doubt whether the disadvantaged class argument
really does the work toward equality that English desires and reason to worry
that its influence does more harm than good for the status of women. Regarding
women as disadvantaged and protecting women’s right to compete on the basis
of that disadvantage risks reaffirming attitudes about women as second-class
athletes, rather than promoting equality as intended (Sailors 2014).
At the center of this debate is a common interpretation of sport that holds
sport is about competition and that, as Loland describes, ‘the structural goal of
competition is to measure, compare, and rank competitors according to athletic
performance’ (Loland 2002, 135). We call this the ‘comparative test’ premise. A
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meaningful comparative test must be fair such that players compete under
equal conditions. As athletes advance in levels of competition, it should be that
some combination of talent, effort, and merit provide athletes with access, and
those who lack sufficient talent are justifiably not given opportunities to participate (Loland 2002; Tännsjö 2000). On this view, elite sport helps determine
athletic superiority, ranking, or measurement by comparing the best against the
best so that participants have an even clearer comparison between athletes.3
The view that sport, especially elite sport, is about determining athletic
superiority, creating contests among the best athletes and rewarding superior athletic talent achieved through individual merit does appear at odds with
segregating women into a separate category. This tension has led scholars to
argue for ending gender segregation in favor of mixed gender competition.
Tamburrini and Tännsjö (2005) assert that mixed gender competition avoids
the delegitimizing perceptions of gender-segregated competition. Tännsjö,
especially, contends that ‘sexual discrimination’ has no place in sport:
If a female athlete can perform better than a male athlete, this female athlete
should be allowed to compete with, and beat, the male athlete. If she cannot beat
a certain male athlete, so be it. If the competition was fair, she should be able to
face the fact that he was more talented.(Tännsjö 2000, 101)
On the mixed gender view of sport as comparative test, women who earn the
chance to compete as elite athletes against other elite athletes on merit will
be respected for their talents in a way that women competing within a protected class will not. Women who lack sufficient talent will have equal standing
with their male counterparts who also fall short and with whom they can enjoy
watching the elite athletes from the sideline.
We agree that hinging women’s access to elite sport specifically on the concern that it would be unfair to exclude them because they could not qualify on their
own permanently relegates their sporting performances to second-class status.
Gender segregation justified by the disadvantaged class argument reinforces
the very perceptions of inequality and inferiority it is meant to avoid. To argue
for a ‘protected’ space for women unfortunately implies that there is elite sport,
and then there is elite women’s sport, and indeed people often treat these as
distinct while inferring that one category is inferior to the other (McDonagh and
Pappano 2008). Additionally, the disadvantaged class argument falls flat in elite
sport since elite sport disadvantages a lot of people, not just women, because
of a mix of biological and cultural factors.
The disadvantaged class argument also misses the irony that a category
created on the premise of inclusion (of women) results in practices of exclusion, namely of male-to-female transgender and intersex athletes. One cannot
defend cisgender women from unfair exclusion on the grounds that they were
born with the ‘wrong’ biology to compete against men while denying access
to transgender and intersex athletes on equivalent grounds – that is, their disadvantage at having been born with the ‘wrong’ biology to compete in their
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gender. As mentioned earlier, ending gender segregation would also end any
gender-based exclusion of transgender and intersex athletes; their participation would derive from their status as a human rather than their gender. Foddy
and Savulescu are especially compelled by intersex athletes’ disturbance of the
exclusionary gender binary and conclude that ‘once we recognise that gender is
not a binary quantity, sex segregation in competitive sport must be seen as an
inconsistent and unjust policy’ (Foddy and Savulescu 2011, 1184). Thus, arguing
for gender segregation on the grounds of biological disadvantage does not
appear to redeem gender segregation as a philosophically defensible practice.
The nature of sport
The comparative test premise is so often asserted (and so rarely challenged
or defended) to be sport’s ‘normative ideal,’ its ‘nature,’ or ‘what sport is about’
that, for many scholars, it is self-evident. However, the comparative test premise
might be both descriptively false and normatively suspect. The vision of sport
underlying it is a rather recent one located in a specific time (post-Industrial
Revolution) and culture (Western) and rooted in patriarchal, masculine values
of non-relation, aggression, and oppositional achievement.
Another view of sport emerges from anthropologist Clifford Geertz (2005),
who examines how ludic activity acts as a cultural Gestalt that reflects specific
values, perceptions, and narratives through shared physical activity. Geertz
finds in Balinese cockfighting an interpretive function: ‘it is a Balinese reading
of Balinese experience; a story they tell themselves about themselves’ (Geertz
2005, 82). The participant and the attendee alike receive ‘a kind of sentimental
education. What he learns there is what his culture’s ethos and his private sensibility…look like when spelled out external in a collective text’ (Geertz 2005, 83).
Applying Geertz’s observations to sport in general, the view of sport as collective
text indicates a durable aspect of sport: it is inherently laden with meaningful
experiences intentionally introduced and shaped by culture. What’s more, these
meaningful experiences can be assembled into narratives that explain why we
play sport.
What Geertz taps into (and we accept) is a claim frequently asserted
across philosophy, psychology, theology, anthropology, sociology, and even
medicine that our lives do take a narrative or story form and that these
narrative accounts constitute our personal identity (Schechtman 2011). As
Hutto explains, the normal route for ‘making sense of ourselves and others
in terms of reasons is through engaging in socio-cultural practices – storytelling practices that make use of specific kinds of narratives’ (Hutto 2014,
19). However, narratives are not the work of individuals alone. Schechtman
points out that ‘[w]e are not composing stories of our lives in a vacuum, but
in a world where there are others with their own stories about themselves
and about us’ (Schechtman 2011).
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In sport, the social nature of narratives is clear. Sports are created and shaped
by communities to provide individuals with explanatory accounts about certain
meaningful characteristics in publicly demonstrable activities. These meaningful
characteristics combine different qualities of physical prowess such as strength,
endurance, and physical skill with tactical cunning, moral virtue, courage, or
other personal traits. Athletes display these characteristics through their sporting performances, at once revealing and shaping their personal identity against
a cultural backdrop that shapes their sports to suit their meaningful displays. ‘In
the cockfight,’ Geertz explains ‘the Balinese forms and discovers his temperament and his society’s temper at the same time. Or, more exactly, he forms and
discovers a particular face of them’ (Geertz 2005, 85).
Meaningful narratives in sport tell not only an individual’s but also a community’s story. Participating in sport (or not participating) is one way individuals make themselves socially intelligible within a community’s collective text.
People shape their personal identities through not only the sports they play
but also how they play them. Competitors, too, have a say in writing each other’s narratives, for they provide their opponent with contesting challenges and
can reveal individuals’ own limitations, weaknesses, and unique attributes. As
MacIntyre reminds us, ‘we are never more (and sometimes less) than the coauthors of our own narratives. Only in fantasy do we live what story we please’
(Macintyre 1984, 99).
Shining light on meaningful narratives in sport illuminates what too many
scholars miss: that sport is not about (or at least not only or primarily about)
comparative tests that measure and rank opponents; that such an interpretation
of sport is a relatively recent and contingent one; and that such an interpretation
obscures what has been true of sport from its inception – that sport is about
telling ourselves a meaningful story about ourselves.
This is not to say that sport cannot be used to compare or measure individuals
in competitive athletic contests. Rather, it is simply to caution against the error,
committed by Loland (2002, 135) among others, of conflating one historically
and culturally bounded interpretation of sport with a timeless notion of the
nature of sport or a normative ideal adjudicating how sport should be. Indeed,
the history of sport compels us to doubt the assumed hegemony of the comparative test premise beyond our highly specific time, place, and culture. In
ancient Greece, the Olympic Games were a tool for writing religious narratives.
So too were the Mesoamerican ballgames that trace back to 1400 BCE. Under
the medieval feudal system, peasants excluded from military service or hunting
took to sport as a means for demonstrating masculinity and physical prowess
rather than comparative rankings. Contests between opponents of different
sizes and strengths were accepted and commonplace since both opponents
could demonstrate physical prowess, even if the comparative outcome was
largely foretold. The comparative test interpretation of sport emerges after the
Industrial Revolution and reflects Western patriarchal values, which emphasize
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demonstrating achievement through adversarial relationships, and dominance
through power (Guttmann 2004).
If sport’s comparative tests compel and captivate athletes, observers, and
scholars in today’s world, this is explained by the emergence of narratives supporting the meaningfulness of measuring and ranking competitors. Separating
winners from losers and drawing ever-finer distinctions among competitors is
one way – the presently fashionable one – to appreciate athletic performance.
Yet, even today, other meaningful narratives exist alongside (and occasionally
in opposition to) the comparative test interpretation of sport. The meaning
derived from an interpretation of sport (such as the comparative test premise)
is directly proportionate to and dependent upon the force of the narrative driving it. Circumstance has created an environment in which the comparative test
supports meaningful ways to interpret sport, but sport was hardly wanting for
meaning before this became entrenched, and sport will remain meaningful if
(or when) the narrow focus on measuring and ranking competitors fades. The
narratives may change, but the narrativity of sport endures.
Meaningful narratives for transgender and intersex athletes
As we found above, arguments both for and against gender-segregated competition assume the comparative test premise as the ideal of sport. For most
scholars, the debate turns on whether segregating by gender protects women’s
access to sport’s comparative tests or discriminates against women by relegating them to competitions widely perceived as inferior to men’s competitions.
If the comparative test premise is not assumed, however, the concerns over
gender discrimination that the premise generates simply do not arise. Instead,
the relevant questions about gender segregation in sport are whether there
are reasons outside of those provided by the disadvantaged class argument to
segregate at all, and whether any such reason is justified.
We are not committed to the comparative test premise nor to the disadvantaged class argument. We argue that gender-segregated sport is best understood
and defended as a tool for writing gendered meaningful narratives. Gendersegregated sport is a way for men and women to ‘tell stories about themselves
to themselves’ that invoke and further inform their gendered identities. Indeed,
one of the most important narratives we tell through sport, including elite sport,
is a gendered one. Gender forms powerful organizing principles in individuals’
lives and can constitute significant and positive aspects of individuals’ identity.
Gendered narratives can include a positive sense of traditionally defined masculinity or femininity as well as ways individuals might wish to express their
unique sense of gender identity (Englar-Carlson and Kiselica 2013).
This is not to assert that there is a monolithic ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ narrative, but rather to acknowledge that, despite the diversity of gender narratives
(or perhaps because of this great diversity), individuals do derive meaning from
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and make meaning through their gender (Nanda 2000). Certainly, gender identity can be abused, especially when it excludes and harms some while privileging
others. In sport, gendered narratives historically have reinforced imbalances
between genders and served to devalue women’s performances (Cahn 1994).
Such abuses are undesirable, but they should not obscure the ways that sport
helps people weave positive meaningful narratives around gender. If people
want sport to tell meaningful narratives about themselves, then it seems natural that both individuals and communities would wish to organize sporting
activities to tell gendered narratives.
After cutting through the cultural residue that still unfortunately devalues
women’s sporting prowess, there is no reason to doubt that women competing
as women and against women at elite levels of competition display performances worthy of admiration and accolades. Athletes of any gender identity can
provide individuals and communities with positive narratives through public
displays of physical prowess, courage, intelligence, and endurance. Such narratives can draw from aspects of traditional femininity and masculinity or can
subvert assumptions about gender in ways that further enrich notions of what
it means to be a man or a woman. What’s more, such narratives are accessible
beyond individual genders: all people can enjoy men telling gendered stories
of masculinity and women telling gendered stories of femininity.4
Without the assumption that a gender is biologically inferior, we see no
good justification to prevent gender from acting as an organizing principle
in sport. The idea of meaningful gendered narratives provides a reasonable
justification for gender-segregated sport without diminishing female athletes. It affirms gender as a meaningful organizing principle in individuals’
identities, even (or especially) when an individual wishes to use the performative nature of sport to display a complex or transgressive gender identity,
as one might use drag as a public action to reveal ‘the imitative structure of
gender itself.’ (Butler 1999, 175).
Considering gender’s role in sport in this light, the rationale for inclusion of
transgender and intersex athletes should be based on the fact that these athletes are as immersed in writing their meaningful narratives as any other person
playing sport. In fact they further enrich sport’s diverse gendered narratives
when they do not conform to traditional notions of man and woman, male or
female, feminine or masculine. For transgender athletes, sport is a potentially
valuable venue for constructing gendered narrative. Participating in sport in
the gender which matches their identity can deepen their understanding of
themselves and reduce stigma in society at large (Buzuvis 2012). Or, transgender
athletes may wish to compete in the gender that matches their birth sex or prefer ‘open’ or ‘gender-neutral’ competitions. In all cases, as Lucas-Carr and Krane
(2011) argue, including such diverse gender performances articulates complex
meaningful narratives, and in doing so, reveals a deeper sense of gender than
the culturally assumed gender binary.
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For intersex athletes, whose biological sex might provide challenges for fitting
into a gender binary, sport provides a venue for writing a gendered narrative
as well as expanding and improving cultural narratives about gender, thereby
helping their communities to tell new stories to themselves about themselves.
The flood of research on intersex athletes following Caster Semenya attests to
how gendered conversation is enriched in this way. For the intersex athlete identifying as male or female, competing in the men’s or women’s gender category
can affirm their gender identity by allowing for public displays of gendered
performance – e.g. an intersex woman competing as woman – without requiring
a denial of their intersex existence. The athlete both reaffirms gender identity
through self-selection (I am a woman or I am a man) and carves out space within
the identified gender for intersex individuals (women can be intersex or men can
be intersex). Conversely, some intersex individuals may not identify with a gender
nor wish to conform to a gender binary and may desire to participate in ‘open’ or
‘gender-neutral’ competitions, a point we address below.5 If sport remains open
to allowing individuals to write their own complex, meaningful narratives, then
gender-segregated sport can serve as a tool for affirming an intersex athlete’s
gender identity in all its simplicity or complexity.
Thus, rather than including transgender and intersex athletes on the contingent fact that they do not upset the comparative test by having unfair advantages, a stronger rationale starts from the premise that sport is about meaningful
narratives, that one of those narratives is a gendered narrative, that transgender
and intersex athletes are not only participating in that gendered narrative but
significantly enriching and improving it, and that transgender and intersex athletes have as great a right to express gendered narratives as any athletes.
Applying the meaningful narrative rationale not only reduces concerns over
fairness (since comparative tests supply only one narrative among many), but
also affirms all athletes on equal footing. There is no need to prove that anybody
conforms to a gender binary, and there is no privilege to participate reserved
exclusively for cisgender athletes. Sporting organizations at all levels, including
the IOC, should therefore revise gender policies, especially to eliminate policies
that condition inclusion on conformity through surgery, hormone therapy, or
corrective measures. If a sporting community asks athletes to gender segregate, then our rationale for inclusiveness (based on sport as a meaningful narrative) supports calls for self-declaration policies (Sailors, Teetzel, and Weaving
2012), which permit athletes to select their gender category based on authentic
self-perception and lived expression, regardless of birth gender and without
concern for any advantage that their choice might confer.
Counterarguments and rejoinders
Critics might contend that our solution would permit unfair, imbalanced
contests, which would ultimately harm the quality of sport. Admitedly,
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considering fairness deserves merit. Having more equal competitors can add
to the enjoyment of the test and promote mutual questing for excellence.
Still, considering the historicized nature of fairness, we answer that fears
over unfair advantages and invalid contests are disproportionate to their
actual importance. The focus on fairness overvalues historicized norms at
the expense of more enduring ideals that are both permanent and preeminent fixtures of human sport. We believe sporting communities should not
be so beholden to one component of modern sport – determining athletic
superiority through comparative tests – at the expense of other ways that
sport is a cultural and individual form of making meaning, and especially
not when it results in exclusion of some individuals.
Others may point out that self-selection leaves open risks that some athletes (always male) might take advantage of the tolerant rules and select a
different gender (always female) to access sport. This fear perpetuates two
unfounded myths. First, it assumes that male athletes are so superior to their
female counterparts that by simply ‘switching genders’ a male is certain or
nearly certain to qualify for a women’s event. Second, the fear implies that
cisgender men are so untrustworthy that they are likely to lie about their
gender just to participate at higher levels of sport. In truth, any inauthentic
male interloper (a cisgender male who masquerades as a female-identified
athlete with the intention of accessing higher levels of sport or increasing his
chances at winning) who did enter and prevail in a female athletic contest
would find himself unable to access any goods that might come from his
‘strategic’ decisions because the sporting community would quickly recognize the fraud. His accomplishments in women’s sport should be, and almost
certainly would be, considered illegitimate because of the inauthenticity of
his narrative. It would be obvious that he was not only a male, but a male
behaving badly, and thus a winning performance would be interpreted as
that of a spoilsport rather than a victor.
A third counterargument also needs addressing. One could argue that
defending gender segregation because of the meaningful narratives it engenders moves the conversation away from more ethically defensible mixed-gender
competition. However, asserting that gendered meaningful narratives justify
gender segregation in sport does not rule out mixed-gender competition. On
the contrary, these two approaches to gender in sport complement one another.
Mixed-gender competitions that do not take into account an athlete’s gender
are well suited for all gender non-conforming athletes.6 As Sailors argues, there
is a mistake in assuming that discussions about gender segregation must be an
all-or-nothing proposition (2014, 73). A nuanced approach recognizes instances
where mixed gender is preferable and where gender segregation might be
more suitable. Diverse scenarios would see sports employ gender-neutral,
mixed-gender, and gender-segregated contests in case-by-case and level-bylevel determinations.
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The rationale for inclusion of transgender and intersex athletes must move
beyond the idea of fairness. The physiological equivalency rationale, though
pragmatic and well-intended, has significant limits. We have argued that a better
rationale emphasizes that sport is about meaningful narratives and that gendered narratives constitute at least one type, and perhaps the most significant
type, of sport’s meaningful narratives. Since transgender and intersex athletes
participate in and enrich these narratives, there are no grounds for entertaining
their exclusion. Neither are there ethically defensible grounds for requiring that
athletes conform to cisgender norms; thus, our rationale for inclusion entails a
call for revisions to the IOC’s policy and the policies of other sporting organizations on transgender and intersex athletes. At the same time, our rationale leaves
open room for mixed-gender and gender-neutral competition as acceptable
forms of sport organization.
Sporting communities must improve conversations about gender and gendered narratives written through sport. Transgender and intersex athletes have
called attention to the ways that cisgender privilege has made sport a less inclusive space. Gender non-conforming individuals may find sport to be unwelcoming because the traditional feminine, masculine, or even hyper-masculine
narratives that prevail in sport unfortunately alienate those who do not conform. Despite progress toward gender equality, attitudes, and actions indicative
of tacit, residual, or overt biases against female athletes continue to diminish
appreciation and respect for women’s athletic accomplishments. Making sport a
more inclusive space for diverse gendered narratives will empower marginalized
individuals, will release sport from the inordinate influence of the comparative
test premise, and may even mark progress toward a society where individuals
exercise the freedom to write their meaningful story about themselves – and
about all of us.
Cisgender describes individuals whose gender identity or expression matches
their assigned sex.
2. It may be observed that most of the attention to these issues is focused on sports
where athletes compete individually. We should not assume, however, that
team sports are any less susceptible to concerns over the inclusion or exclusion
of transgender and intersex athletes. IOC policies, for example, apply across
individual and team competitions.
3. Other rationales for elite sport exist that do not hinge on the comparative test
premise. For example, Fraleigh (1984) contends that, by slowly funneling the
best athletes together, the athletes and the spectators are provided with exciting
games between closely matched opponents who demonstrate exceptional skill.
4. Women can also, of course, display characteristics traditionally associated with
masculinity, such as courage or leadership, and men can display characteristics
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associated with femininity, such as grace or empathy. Gendered stories can
include a wide range of gendered attributes, including those most often
associated with opposite genders. This is another reason why gendered narratives
are so enriching.
5. Addressing all concerns over the practical issues of self-selection is beyond the
scope of this paper. These are considerations best left to sporting communities
and are not, at any rate, reasons to reject self-selection altogether. Intersex
individuals may wish to carve out sporting spaces limited only to intersex athletes.
There is no more reason to preclude an intersex category, however small its selfselecting group may be, than there is reason to preclude Olympic boxing from
having a 49 kg and below weight category simply because a smaller number of
men qualify. Openness to various ways to organize sport should not hinge on
fears about practical dividing lines.
6. Certain sports are mixed-gender but do factor in gender for participation. For
example, mixed doubles in tennis has men and women play together, but the
sport requires that the pair have one member from each gender. In such sports,
athletes’ gender identity determines their participation in a manner similar to
gender-segregated sport.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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Relational Masculinities: Men’s Relations with Themselves, Others, and Nature
The Salience of
“Hegemonic Masculinity”
Men and Masculinities
2019, Vol. 22(1) 85-91
ª The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1097184X18805555
James W. Messerschmidt1
This article argues that the concept of “hegemonic masculinity” remains highly
salient to critical masculinities studies. The author outlines Raewyn Connell’s initial
formulation of the concept, how that initial model of hegemonic masculinity has
been historically misinterpreted, the reformulation of the concept by Connell and
Messerschmidt, and the recent scholarly amplification of the concept. The author
concludes that Connell’s original emphasis on the legitimation of unequal gender
relations remains essential to both the concept and to the field of critical masculinities studies.
Hegemonic masculinity, formulation, reformulation, amplification, legitimation,
The concept of “hegemonic masculinity” has been the driving force behind the
expanding field of critical masculinities studies, and it established a long, distinguished, and continuing influence on the interdisciplinary understanding of masculinity. Since formulated by Connell (1987, 1995) more than three decades ago, the
term has become ubiquitous, serving as the principal touchstone for most research on
masculinities, and it broadly has been used in a wide range of disciplines—the
notion of hegemonic masculinity has proven to be crucial to the conceptualization
of masculinities worldwide. And most importantly, the reason for its global
University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME, USA
Corresponding Author:
James W. Messerschmidt, University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME 04104, USA.
Men and Masculinities 22(1)
popularity is that it contributes a significant conceptualization of how unequal
gender relations are legitimated. Nevertheless, over the years the concept has been
terribly misunderstood.
In this short piece, I briefly outline Connell’s initial formulation, how that initial
model of hegemonic masculinity has been misinterpreted, the reformulation of the
concept, and its recent scholarly amplification. I argue that Connell’s original
emphasis on the legitimation of unequal gender relations remains essential to the
field of critical masculinities studies.
Connell’s Initial Formulation
Hegemonic masculinity was understood by Connell (1987, 1995) as a specific form
of masculinity in a given historical and society-wide social setting that legitimates
unequal gender relations between men and women, between masculinity and femininity, and among masculinities. As Connell (1987, 183) points out in Gender and
Power: “Hegemonic masculinity is always constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities as well as in relation to women.” Both the relational and
legitimation features were central to Connell’s argument, involving a certain form of
masculinity in unequal relation to emphasized femininity and nonhegemonic masculinities. Arguably, hegemonic masculinity has no meaning outside its relationship
to emphasized femininity—and nonhegemonic masculinities—or those forms of
femininity that are practiced in a complementary, compliant, and accommodating
subordinate relationship with hegemonic masculinity. And it is the legitimation of
this relationship of superordination and subordination, whereby the meaning and
essence of hegemonic masculinity is revealed. The emphasis on hegemony in gender
relations underscored the achievement of hegemonic masculinity largely through
cultural ascendancy—discursive persuasion—encouraging all to consent to, coalesce around, and embody such unequal gender relations between men and women,
between masculinity and femininity, and among masculinities.
For Connell, then, gender relations were seen as structured through power
inequalities and accordingly, the concept of emphasized femininity is essential to
Connell’s framework, underlining how this feminized form adapts to masculine
power. But Connell (pp. 183, 184) recognized additional femininities, such as those
defined “by strategies of resistance or forms of non-compliance” as well as femininities identified “by complex strategic combinations of compliance, resistance and
Connell also argued that hegemonic masculinity is constructed in relation to four
specific nonhegemonic masculinities: first, complicit masculinities do not actually
embody hegemonic masculinity yet through practice realize some of the benefits of
unequal gender relations and consequently when practiced help sustain hegemonic
masculinity; second, subordinate masculinities are constructed as lesser than or
aberrant and deviant to hegemonic masculinity, such as effeminate men; third,
marginalized masculinities are trivialized and/or discriminated against because of
unequal relations external to gender relations, such as class, race, ethnicity, and age;
and finally, protest masculinities are constructed as compensatory hypermasculinities that are formed in reaction to social positions lacking economic and political
For Connell, these concepts were abstract rather than descriptive, defined in
terms of the logic of unequal gender relations. They assumed that gender relations
were historical, so gender hierarchies were subject to change. Connell argued that
hegemonic masculinities came into existence in specific circumstances and were
open to historical change. More precisely, there could be a struggle for hegemony
whereby older types of hegemonic masculinity actually might be displaced by newer
forms. This was the element of optimism in an otherwise rather bleak theory. It was
perhaps possible that a more humane, less oppressive means of being masculine
might become prevalent, as part of a process leading toward an abolition of gender
Early Misunderstandings
Early attempts to criticize the concept primarily concentrated on the question of who
and what type of man actually represent hegemonic masculinity. This was the case
because most critics missed the relational nature of hegemonic masculinity (as
outlined above). For example, Donaldson (1993) titled his article “What Is Hegemonic Masculinity?” and then answered that question by posing further questions
that focused on the gendered practices of individual men, such as “do certain ways of
being male predominate, and particular sorts of men rule?” (p. 644). He centered his
consideration of the concept on alleged discrete and distinct “bearers” of hegemonic
masculinity rather than recognizing that all participants constituting an unequal
gender relationship are collective orchestrators of hegemonic masculinity. Martin
(1998) rightly criticized masculinities scholars for their inconsistent applications,
sometimes referring to a fixed type of masculinity while on other occasions to
whatever type is dominant at a particular time and place. Yet Martin’s critique
overlooked the fact that many—if not most—masculinities scholars seemed to be
oblivious to hegemonic masculinity as an unequal gender relationship. Hearn (2004)
similarly disregarded hegemonic masculinity as a relationship of gender inequality
by asking whether hegemonic masculinity referred to cultural representations,
everyday practices of toughness, aggressiveness, and violence, or unequal institutional structures? And Whitehead (1998, 58; 2002, 93) eschewed any suggestion that
hegemonic masculinity might establish a relationship of gender inequality, instead
focusing on who actually is the hegemonically masculine man—“Is it John Wayne
or Leonardo DiCaprio; Mike Tyson or Pele? Or maybe, at different times, all of
them?”—as well as typifying confusion about when and how hegemonic masculinity
is enacted. These “criticisms” unwittingly set the stage for years of misapplication of
the concept, as scholars embarked on uncovering the “real” hegemonic man.
Men and Masculinities 22(1)
Reformulation of Hegemonic Masculinity
In an attempt to address the misconceptions and misapplications of the concept,
Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) reformulated the notion of hegemonic masculinity in significant ways. The reformulated model first included certain aspects of the
original formulation that empirical evidence over almost two decades of time indicated should be retained, in particular the relational nature of the concept (among
hegemonic masculinity, emphasized femininity, and nonhegemonic masculinities)
and the idea that this relationship is a pattern of hegemony—not a pattern of simple
domination—that legitimates unequal gender relations. Also well supported historically were the foundational ideas that hegemonic masculinity need not be the most
powerful and/or the most common pattern of masculinity in a particular setting and
that any formulation of the concept as simply constituting an assemblage of fixed
“masculine” character traits should be thoroughly transcended. Second, the reformulated understanding of hegemonic masculinity incorporated a more holistic grasp
of gender inequality that recognized the agency of subordinated groups as much as
the power of hegemonic groups and that included the mutual conditioning or intersectionality of gender with such other social inequalities as class, race, age, sexuality, and nation. Third, the reformulation included a more sophisticated treatment of
embodiment in hegemonic and nonhegemonic masculinities, as well as conceptualizations of how hegemonic masculinity may be challenged, contested, and thus
changed. Finally, instead of recognizing simply hegemonic masculinity at only the
society-wide level, the reformulated model of hegemonic masculinity suggests that
scholars analyze empirically existing hegemonic masculinities at three levels: the
local, regional, and global.
Amplification of the Concept
Notwithstanding the above, certain scholars continue to ignore the foundation of
hegemonic masculinity as the legitimation of unequal gender relations simply by
equating the concept with, for example, fixed masculinity characteristics and/or the
concept is associated solely with certain groups of men (see Logan [2010] and Gage
[2008] as examples of this genre). Flood (2002) was the first to identify this unfortunate persistent practice and Beasley (2008) followed Flood’s critical insight. Both
Flood and Beasley labeled such inconsistent applications “slippage,” arguing that
“dominant” forms of masculinity—such as those that are the most common, powerful, and/or most widespread in particular settings—may actually do little to legitimate men’s power over women and, therefore, should not be labeled hegemonic
masculinities. And Beasley (p. 89) notes that many scholars continue to equate
hegemonic masculinity with particular masculinities that are practiced by certain
men—such as politicians, corporate heads, and celebrities—simply because they are
in positions of power, ignoring once again questions of gender relations and the
legitimation of gender inequality. And Schippers (2007) argued that it is essential to
distinguish masculinities that legitimate unequal gender relations from those that
do not.
The good news is that recent scholarly work has amplified the reformulated
model by enlarging upon and contributing to the further conceptualization of our
understanding of hegemonic masculinities. In my book, Hegemonic Masculinity:
Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification (Messerschmidt 2018), I discuss a
variety of studies that demonstrate this amplification. In particular, the newest
research confirms the omnipresent nature of hegemonic masculinities—locally,
regionally, and globally—yet simultaneously demonstrate how these complex, specific masculinities are essentially hidden in plain sight. What’s more, these studies
illustrate that particular hierarchical gender relationships between men and women,
between masculinity and femininity, and among masculinities are legitimated—
remarkably discerning certain of the essential features of the all-pervasive reproduction of unequal gender relations.
Contemporary scholarly work further suggests the significance of distinguishing
between “hegemonic” and “dominant” masculinities, which will of course allow
more solid research on when and how both types of masculinities actually are
constructed and when they are not. That research question is essential because of
the widespread confusion among scholars, especially regarding slippage, and thus
wrongly labeling dominant masculinities as actually existing hegemonic masculinities. In addition to this important distinction, recognizing the differences among
hegemonic masculinities is a major part of the amplification of the concept, especially in terms of local, regional, and global settings, but also in terms of hybrid,
dominating versus protective, and material versus discursive hegemonic masculinities. And given the fact that hegemonic masculinities necessarily constitute a
relationship, femininities are essential to the amplification of the reformulated
model of hegemonic masculinities and thus must be a principal part of future
The book Hegemonic Masculinity further highlights additional areas that have
amplified the reformulated model: the recurring nature of fleeting hegemonic masculinities and how hegemonic masculinities routinely are fluid, contingent, haphazard, provisional, and temporary; the importance of intersectionality and how
hegemonic masculinities therefore differ by reason of their constitution with other
inequalities; the prominence of the Internet and the electronic complexion of hegemonic masculinities; and finally, hegemonic masculinities in both the global North
and the global South.
The amplification of the reformulated model then demonstrates that the quotidian
prevalence of hegemonic masculinities widely disseminates the cultural knowledge
people utilize to in part guide their gendered social action; the variety of hegemonic
masculinities provide models of relations between men and women, between masculinity and femininity, and among masculinities. And because of the ubiquity of
hegemonic masculinities, gender inequality often is broadly accepted and unquestioned. Gender hegemony functions to obscure unequal gender relations while
Men and Masculinities 22(1)
effectively permeating public and private life, encouraging all to endorse, unite
around, and embody such unequal gender relations. Hegemonic masculinities are
expansively distributed as culturally ascendant prototypes of gender relations
throughout local, regional, and global levels, they are part of normal, everyday
life—they are customary all around us.
The empirical evidence presented in Hegemonic Masculinity then suggests that
hegemonic masculinity must be conceptualized wholly in plural terms. I explore the
omnipresence of hegemonic masculinities at the local, regional, and global levels,
the reasons for the continued compliance to and acceptance of unequal gender
relations, the variable ways they are constituted by and therefore intersect with other
inequalities, and how this plurality establishes gender hegemony as culturally
Although hegemonic masculinities today are diverse, the relational practices and
discursive meanings are not—each in their unique way legitimate unequal gender
relations between men and women, between masculinity and femininity, and among
masculinities—they collectively constitute a social structure. These seemingly individual practices of hegemonic masculinity do not occur in a vacuum. Instead, they
are situationally influenced by and in turn reproduce the gendered relational and
discursive social structures in particular settings. Hegemonic masculinities are configurations of social practice that produce simultaneously particular social relations
and social meanings, and they are culturally significant because they shape a sense
of what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable” gendered behavior for copresent interactants in specific situations. In other words, contemporary research on hegemonic
masculinities confirms the continued significance of Connell’s (1987, 1995) original
emphasis on hegemonic masculinity as the legitimation of unequal gender relations.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
Beasley, C. 2008. “Re-thinking Hegemonic Masculinity in a Globalizing World.” Men and
Masculinities 11:86–103.
Connell, R. 1987. Gender and Power. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
Connell, R. 1995. Masculinities. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Connell, R., and J. W. Messerschmidt. 2005. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the
Concept.” Gender & Society 19: 829–859.
Donaldson, M. 1993. “What Is Hegemonic Masculinity?” Theory and Society 22:643–57.
Flood, M. 2002. “Between Men and Masculinity: An Assessment of the Term ‘Masculinity’ in
Recent Scholarship on Men.” In Manning the Next Millennium: Studies in Masculinities,
edited by S. Pearce and V. Muller, 203–13. Chicago, IL: Black Swan Press.
Gage, E. A. 2008. “Gender Attitudes and Sexual Behaviors: Comparing Center and Marginal
Athletes and Nonathletes in a Collegiate Setting.” Violence Against Women 14:1014–32.
Hearn, J. 2004. “From Hegemonic Masculinity to the Hegemony of Men.” Feminist Theory 5:
Logan, T. D. 2010. “Personal Characteristics, Sexual Behaviors, and Male Sex Work: A
Quantitative Approach.” American Sociological Review 75:679–704.
Martin, P. Y. 1998. “Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Reflections on Connell’s
Masculinities.” Gender and Society 12:472–74.
Messerschmidt, J. W. 2018. Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and
Amplification. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Schippers, M. 2007. “Recovering the Feminine Other: Masculinity, Femininity, and Gender
Hegemony.” Theory & Society 36:85–102.
Whitehead, S. M. 1998. “Hegemonic Masculinity Revisited.” Gender, Work, and Organization 6:58–62.
Whitehead, S. M. 2002. Men and Masculinities: Key Themes and New Directions. Cambridge,
UK: Polity Press.
Author Biography
James W. Messerschmidt is distinguished university professor of sociology and chair of the
criminology department at the University of Southern Maine. In addition to over 65 articles
and book chapters, he has authored fourteen books, most recently, Hegemonic Masculinity:
Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification and Gender Reckonings: New Social Theory
and Research co-edited with Patricia Yancey Martin, Michael Messner, and Raewyn Connell.

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