Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Trans Women in Sports

Edit: this was written mere hours before I heard about the controversy surrounding Caster Semenya. Here is an excellent post about some of the science implications in that case. I congratulate Semenya on her win in the 800m and wish her all the best.

At Shakesville today this was posted about the problems faced by trans women who wish to compete in women's sports. The issue that some media commentators seem to have (when do they not have issues?!) with trans sportswomen is their so-called advantage over cis women. Those poor little cis women have no chance against someone who used to be a man!

For a long time in women's sports, right through the 20th century, "mannish" women were treated with suspicion, mainly for potentially being lesbian (where masculine appearance = desire for women, wonderful logic), which we certainly can't have in ladies' sports, heavens no. Additionally, accusing a sportswoman of being lesbian could be fatal for her career. Cue spreading on the femininity thick to avoid accusations, whether lesbian or not.

This all was/is part of strategies to keep sport as a male domain. If women are seen to be able to compete in sports at a comparable standard to men - or even, forget about the men, women competing at all - they threaten the status of sports as places where boys learn to become men, where they can display their masculinity, or something.

But they didn't say that of course. On the outside, the reasons for attacking lesbians in sport were apparently because since lesbian clearly = more masculine (hmm), they would have an advantage over "normal" heterosexual women. So nows this spreads to trans women who are seen to have an advantage, despite no longer being under the influence of male hormones and losing any associated muscle mass. Because as we know, ALL men have superior muscle mass.

I also find it tedious that cis/straight women are considered to be weak, small, slow. This has been disproven, we know there is a significant overlap between the sizes of women and the sizes of men.

Two comment on the Shakesville thread I linked above have made me think.

1) What do these conservative commentators actually care about whether there are trans women, mannish lesbians, etc., in women's sports? Women's sports are a joke to many sports consumers, so why care? If a trans woman is "really" a man, as conservatives hatefully remind us, then she does not threaten the sports = male domain thing, does she, because she's not a "real woman", she's a man and so can't help with the "OMG women are growing as strong as men!" argument.

2) Where's the fear and hatred of trans men? Isn't that a more scary thing for the conservatives? Because trans men are really women, right, so that looks like women actually gaining a foothold in men's sports. But I guess one reason is that trans men are also a joke, they could never compete on the level of "real" men, will never get to the top levels, won't ever truly threaten those beefy macho men.

Its just one more thing that makes me see that heteronormativity, the link between sex, gender and desire, and maculinity/femininity being given tangible, natural and unchanging bodily and emotional qualities (when they seem more and more like a construction of a relationship) are three of the main barriers to equity in sports and elsewhere. Just end all this gender difference crap!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

My Ph.D

I am a year into my Ph.D. The words I'd use to explain what I'm studying change day to day! Today, the key words are embodied subjectivities and empowering physicalities. I'm based in the Sport Pedagogy and Physical Education group in the Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences department at Loughborough University, UK. Although my research intends to further the steps taken towards equity and inclusion in physical education in UK secondary schools, in order to offer opportunities and participation for all young people, my interests focus on those things I mentioned in the last post, and seeking empowerment, being yourself. This is especially valid for young people, who are constantly developing their identities to fit who they are, want to be, or should be. I would hope that physical education - just that, education about the physical – is able to provide young people with empowering ways to use their bodies and feel good about them.

Should this involve physical activity? This is where I struggle. In my life physical activity has never played much of a part, certainly not something that contributes to my identity. All the thoughts I have about needing to exercise, shift a bit of flab now I’m two years from 30, I ignore them because they stem from media and consumerism that have a vested interest in making us feel bad about our bodies. I do play a competitive sport – Tenpin Bowling – that’s not particularly physical and doesn’t require a great body shape and fitness in order to succeed. But I haven’t failed in life because I stopped going to the gym or haven’t played a sweaty team game since my last disappointing netball games age 15 (why they were disappointing is another post).

I think it is not my place to say that young people should exercise – they get enough messages like that from their schools and government, who are monitoring the apparently declining health of the nation without having some university researcher come and make them feel bad too. Yet in my department, I am surrounded by researchers who have a history as a PE teacher – they all take for granted that exercise and sport are great and we must find ways to increase participation. Of course, this isn’t straightforward and the department tries to ensure equity and inclusion are central to pedagogical and curriculum developments. The basic premise is that current PE structures based on competitive sport are a left over from traditional school systems designed with middle/upper class boys – gentlemen in the making – in mind. Disciplining the body in order to prepare the mind for learning is also central to school ethos. The widely held belief now is that there is a crisis in PE, as young people dislike it, drop out, and are not lifelong active. Girls, reportedly, are the worst for participating, so Something Must Be Done.

But my memories of PE and sport colour my opinions on this. Health? Great – but don’t pressure young people into activity if it means nothing to them. But I do think that when young people do physical activity whether in or out of school, it should be in activities they want to do, in clothing they want to wear, with people, at times and in locations that are comfortable to them. This makes my Ph.D have an existential crisis. The things I want to learn from schools when I start data collection, and the things I want to think about improving, are unclear. Where I think I stand is that physical activity can have a place among other aspects of facilitating a happy and empowering attitude to the body. Healthy thoughts about the body, not straightforwardly healthy bodies through exercise. There is excellent feminist activist work by Dr. Kim Oliver who works with young women to critique and deconstruct the ideas they learn from media and cultural images about ideal bodies and controlling one’s own body. I’m currently looking towards incorporating some of the ideas she has on the place of activist work in PE.

Welcome to Bodies Out Of Place

Welcome to my new blog, Bodies Out Of Place.

The reason for this blog is mainly for exploring my thoughts around bodies and identities, leaning towards examining issues in physical activity and sport. But I'm also interested in the problems and joys of bodies and their experiences in a contradictory gendered and racialised society. I've called this blog Bodies Out Of Place because often spaces/geographies/environments are off-limits to certain bodies. Bodies that don't fit the norm are supposed to be hidden, or disciplined, pummelled into a different shape. Bodies that are fat, unsexy, queer, ugly, disabled, not white, not heterosexual, not middle class are "bad", hidden, and must be improved. Where are the places that all bodies can be safe, strong, celebrated?

This will also be a place for me to thrash out ideas for my research, talk about life as a Ph.D student, and tell stories about my memories of school sport and PE and my current experiences as an (inactive) adult. I believe that telling our own stories/narratives is crucial to a research process that seeks to find personal, lived, experiences and understand the multiple ways in which we all make sense of the discourses and practices structuring our worlds. It might become a research diary for the remaining two years of my Ph.D.

h/t to my friend at the Corporealities blog who posted the Huffington Post article on why academics should blog - it led to this!