Being an athlete is complicated.
The word ‘athlete’ is an identifier, and an identity. It’s one of the millions of ways humans classify themselves and each other, and like every label, it comes with its stereotypes.
Athleticism is tightly knotted to ideas of gender, which in turn is tied up in sexuality, but none of these need necessarily define the others.
Last weekend, I ran along the Vegas strip at 7:30am in the already-blazing sun with a group of about 40 people whose gender and sexual identities are diverse. But I’m pretty sure none of them were both cis and straight, even if they were one of those things.
ClexaCon is an annual convention for LGBTQIA+ people who somehow participate in media, culture, creation and storytelling that takes place in the world’s gaudiest capitalist amusement park aka the Vegas strip. It’s a place where many of us who do not fit oppressive norms of gender and/or sexuality can connect with each other IRL, talk about things that matter to us, and heal our internalized homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and erasure. It’s a space dedicated to stories in which we see ourselves and each other represented in a positive way.
There are precious few places in this world where I’ve been able to create a found family. The spaces where this has happened have been related to sport and to queer culture.
I love my running fam with the deepest parts of my heart, and despite the overrepresentation of cisgender heterosexuality in running, in my own run bubble I feel unconditionally accepted and embraced for my whole self. But there’s something so healing, so comforting, and so validating about being in a space dedicated to LGBTQIA+ people. There’s an instant understanding and relief in that space. Because despite the comfort and ease with which I run and socialize with my best friends at home, I can’t help but feel I need to carry a tiny bit of extra bravery around with me in my daily life, because I still feel just that little bit different. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a place like ClexaCon- filled with queer and trans nerds, many of whom, like me, manage mental illness of varying severity on the daily, are introverted, and are so brilliant and beautiful and have so much to offer the world- makes it a little easier to breathe. It’s overwhelming, sure, but that base level of, ‘Hey, I get you, let’s laugh over this and cry over that together,” is totally unique and emotionally medicinal.
But anyway, running.
The ClexaCon fun run brought together the two things I love the most: running and queers. I’ve made fast friends in both circles, but overlap them and I’ve got my perfect rainbow Venn diagram.
These two aspects of my identity- athlete and queer- are really, really important to me. Both have been sources of blooming confidence and shadowy fear. They’re in me, they make me. They challenge me and force me to grow, to strengthen my fibers and tighten my vines, to send out new shoots and build stronger branches.
But they’re also just words.
I am a cis woman, which means that I fit right into the gendered world of sport. I can register for races with ease, checking ‘Female’ without a second thought. I can claim qualifying times, t-shirts, and race placements according to my gender. But gender is also just a word. And its use in segregating athletes is a direct result of sexism, racism, and gender discrimination that has plagued society since the dawn of colonialism.
This has been on my mind a lot this month specifically, because of Caster Semenya’s double gold medal in the Commonwealth Games for the 800 and 1500 meter races. She’s been crushing the track game for nearly a decade, and has been publicly scrutinized and picked apart for just as long.
Semenya is an outstanding athlete, which is one of the reasons why she’s been hounded by her competitors, the IAAF, the IOC, and the public for her hyperandrogenism. This term refers to women who produce “higher” levels of testosterone than “most” female athletes. Testosterone, because of its association with maleness, is seen as an advantage to female competitors. This one hormone has been singled out among the infinite other biological and cultural factors that affect an athlete’s performance, and to me it’s no mystery why.
Gender testing as a routine part of elite sporting competition has taken various forms since women were first allowed to compete in the 1920s. The history of this is detailed by Vanessa Heggie here, and the ongoing effects of it as they relate to Semenya are summed up really well by Jaime Shultz here.
Women of color have long been degraded and oppressed by being labeled masculine; that is certainly at play in Semenya’s case. And the obsession with testosterone and gender is a screaming example of how exclusionary sport is.
Athletes don’t just use Magic Testosterone and suddenly win medals. While doping is a thing that can certainly be discussed further, hyperandrogenism is not doping. It is one of the millions of things that influences athletic performance, like oxygen capacity when athletes train at altitude; capillary and heart size; the access to resources an athlete had while growing up; what an athlete ate for breakfast.
Society polices gender, and by extension, so does sport. It’s not fair to athletes or to fans. It perpetuates a damaging narrative for everyone. International sport may have come a long way in accepting homosexuality, but the obsession with gender remains an ugly minefield.
I’m lucky that I’ve been able to weave my gender, sexual, and athletic identities together, and that I’ve never had to undergo scrutiny for it. I’m lucky that I have a runfam who doesn’t pick my identity as an athlete or a queer woman apart.
Caster Semenya is also a queer woman, by the way, and an example of how to be a truly great human. This is evidenced not only by her dedication to athleticism but by her charity work and her wonderful take on life and humanity, which can be seen, among other places, in this article.
I’m thankful that I can be queer while running, and running while queer.
Semenya deserves better than the treatment she’s gotten for being excellent. We all deserve better than the story that sport is only for people who fit strict categories of gender.
If there’s one thing that the concurrence of ClexaCon and the Commonwealth Games has shown me, it’s that we have quite a distance to run before that gap is closed.