Despite being only a teenager, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was on her way up in the sports world — until the summer of 2014, when her career ground to a halt after she failed "gender verification," a common practice in elite sports. Chand appealed the decision preventing her from competing in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the last word in judicial decisions for athletes, and late last month, she won her fight to run: Despite having elevated testosterone levels, she'll be able to compete as the woman she always has been. The CAS also suspended gender testing of all track and field athletes for the next two years, pending proof on the part of the International Association of Athletics Federations that the practice is effective and appropriate, which makes it a major victory for the growing conversation about gender in sports.
Chand has what's known as hyperandrogenism — her body naturally produces high levels of testosterone. Unfortunately, that puts her square in the cross-hairs of gender testing, as sports authorities have instituted an arbitrary testosterone cutoff for athletes, and Chand fell into the range of "male" testosterone levels even though she's a woman. Authorities informed her that she would need to pursue medication or surgery to lower her testosterone levels if she wanted to compete as a woman, and she told them to get stuffed — she loves her body and doesn't see any reason to change it.
Lots of women with various endocrine conditions that increase levels of androgens in their bodies live their entire lives without being aware of it, as is also the case with some women who have chromosomal disorders that cause them to have a full or partial Y chromosome. In fact, some people with XY chromosomes naturally produce high amounts of estrogens or are insensitive to androgens, and live as women without being aware of their genetics. This typically only becomes an issue when women have health conditions that lead care providers to test for these things, or when talented, strong, fast female athletes are suspected of being male. Sports authorities have been using gender testing for decades, no matter how humiliating and awful it is for female athletes to have their gender questioned — male athletes, perhaps unsurprisingly, are not subjected to the same treatment.
Chand's suspension from sports had a devastating effect, as has been the case for other women barred from competition on the grounds of uncontrollable aspects of their biology. It's not just that her sports career was brought to a halt and she may never professionally recover, thanks to losing the opportunity to compete at her peak — her very public testing led to deep humiliation as others questioned her gender and made hateful comments about her. She joined women like Caster Semenya in being ostracized by the sports community — and like Semenya, she fought back and won. But Chand's case ended with a much more far-reaching ruling.
Semenya was successful in obtaining an order to reinstate her and allow her to continue competing as a woman — which she is. Chand, however, won not just her own reinstatement but a temporary suspension of all gender testing for women in track and field, something that could ultimately lead to similar suspensions of testing in other sports, which is huge. It doesn't just change things for women in sports, but also for women in the wider world, and for the way we talk about gender in general.
Trans issues are at the forefront of public conversations right now, and there's a growing understanding that hormones, chromosomes, and anatomy do not make the woman (or man, or any other gender). Instead, gender is based on identity, and the IAAF is being ordered to prove that high testosterone levels in women confer an unfair advantage over other female athletes — a case they're likely to lose. That means that society at large is going to have to prove the same case to itself: Is gender about your karyotype, your hormone levels, your genetics, or about who you are?
The reason to doubt the advantage conferred by high testosterone is simple: Testosterone alone isn't a mediator of athletic performance and ability. If it was, every single person with high levels of testosterone would be able to compete at the Olympic level, something that's patently untrue. In fact, testosterone levels across men and women in sports are highly variable, clearly demonstrating that there's not a hard and fast man/woman cutoff line even though men do have a demonstrable competitive advantage on average.
Athletic skill is a function of a variety of biological phenomena including genetics, but it's also the result of, well, a little thing we call practice. Chand is a fast, powerful, and talented athlete because she runs her butt off on a regular basis under the supervision of skilled trainers, just like every other athlete competing on a high level — just like Semenya, Santhi Soundarajan, Eric Schinegger and many other athletes who "failed" gender verification testing.
Notably, Schinegger was intersex and later pursued binary transition, identifying as a male, perhaps under the same pressure Chand experienced to "normalize" her body by altering to the standards set by sports authorities. He wasn't alone. In 2012, four intersex athletes at the London Olympic games were compelled to receive surgery to remove their testes so their bodies would produce less testosterone after similar "failure" results. Such forced surgery is a subject of contention in the intersex community, which views it as mutilation and advocates for body acceptance and increased awareness of the spectrum of sex and gender.
The same issue confronts transgender athletes like tennis player Renée Richards and UFC fighter Fallon Fox, both of whom were accused of having unfair advantages because of their gender history. Caitlyn Jenner would face the same accusations if she was still actively competing in high-level sport, all because of her chromosomes and the belief that questioning the gender of female athletes is necessary in the name of leveling the playing field.
Dutee Chand just made a major statement for women in sports and hopefully she's young enough that her career hasn't been totally derailed. But all of us, not just female athletes, owe her a debt of thanks for challenging essentialist views of sex and gender.