For many athletes, the sport seems to choose them. For Bria Brown-King, it was the bathrooms. The CrossFit gyms had gender-neutral locker rooms. Boxing gyms didn’t.
“When you’re going to training a couple of days a week, and you realize that there’s not a safe restroom to use, it makes it really hard to focus on training,” Brown-King said.
Brown-King, 29, is intersex, an umbrella term for people with variations in sex characteristics. They were assigned female at birth and grew up playing girl’s soccer and running track. They had been socialized as a girl. They took their younger brothers to football tryouts, a sport they wanted to play. Their mom assumed Brown-King wanted to be a cheerleader.
“I could not play with the boys,” they said. “I really clung to the whole idea of femininity, and because I was still masculine presenting, because of the secondary male characteristics, I was really trying anything I could to be feminine. I experienced so much trauma around being perceived as too masculine and being called a man.”
Brown-King never fit in with other girls. They grew facial and body hair as a really young kid and had a massive growth spurt in elementary school. Adults commented that they would likely be a star basketball player. And then, in sixth grade, they hit 5’2” and stopped growing. They would later come to understand they have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, or high levels of testosterone that caused early puberty and some secondary sex characteristics.
In middle school, they stuck to track and field. That seemed like the only acceptable sport. Yet Brown-King was bullied as a young athlete by kids who didn’t think that a girl should have a six pack or biceps. They eventually stopped playing sports, and wouldn’t venture back into athletics until adulthood.
Athletes and advocates say experiences like Brown-King’s are all too common in sports, where teams are nearly always separated into mens’ and womens’, boys’ and girls’, leaving little room for anyone who falls outside of that binary.
The conversation about gender and sports is back in the news. This year’s Olympic games will arguably be more inclusive than ever in terms of gender diversity: New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard and nonbinary Canadian soccer player Quinn will make history as the first transgender people to compete in the Olympics. Chelsea Wolfe, a transgender BMX racer, is also headed to the games as an alternate for Team USA.
But still, the games continue to enforce strict rules about gender and sex. Two women runners — Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi of Namibia — were barred from the 400 meters this year for having naturally high testosterone levels. Their story echoes that of Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose sex-determination test after winning the women’s 800 meter at the 2009 Olympics continues to haunt elite sports.
As the Olympics continue to operate within the gender binary, an increasing number of young people are coming out as gender diverse. LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention organization The Trevor Project found in a recent survey that more than 1 in 4 LGBTQ+ youth identify as nonbinary. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of trans adults identifying as nonbinary grew from 13 to 31 percent, the U.S. Trans Survey found.
“At minimum, this pattern indicates that within the transgender community, the proportion of the community that self-identifies as nonbinary or third gender is growing,” said Kerith Conron, a researcher at LGBTQ+ think tank the Williams Institute.
Advocates have begun to quietly wonder: Can binary competition accommodate all athletes? And what do those questions mean for the future of the Olympics?
In the past year, Brown-King, who now serves as the director of engagement for InterACT, the nation’s largest intersex rights organization, has watched more than 30 states push bills that would limit the rights of transgender kids in sports. That’s made them reflect on their own experiences.
“When I think about anti-trans bills, I realized that I wouldn’t have been able to play on the girls soccer soccer team in high school and earn those gym credits if a bill like the ones in Arkansas and Alabama and unfortunately so many states existed in my state,” they said.
Even the three transgender athletes entering the world’s stage in Tokyo do so amid a debate over the place of transgender women in sports. Nine U.S. states have banned transgender girls from playing on school athletic teams with other girls in just two years. The Olympics have welcomed trans athletes since 2004, and have allowed them to compete without undergoing transition related-surgery since 2015.
Chris Mosier, a transgender triathlete who successfully challenged the International Olympic Committee’s rule requiring trans competitors to have surgery before competing in 2015, says that gender scrutiny in sports disproportionately puts a spotlight on athletes from marginalized communities.
“The first thing that people would target when they were bullying me or harassing me, as people do in sports, was my gender identity,” Mosier said of his youth competing on girls’ teams. “They would say, ‘Is that a guy or a girl?’”
Mosier had a great jump shot and played sports aggressively. He feels that opened him to intense scrutiny. But for Mosier, the bullying ended up being oddly validating; kids were calling him a boy before he could name that and transition. Athletes like Brown-King, meanwhile, felt alienated.
Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs at LGBTQ+ sports advocacy organization Athlete Ally, predicts that within the next five years, the International Olympic Committee will be forced to seriously revisit the question of gender divisions.
“In one sense, there are several Olympic sports that there’s no reason why they need to be gendered,” Lieberman said. “We talk about this in some of the X Games sports, why is skateboarding gendered? Why is BMX freestyle gendered? I think there are ways to clearly take away some gender categories for sport that would be an easier sell to the general public.”
Lieberman acknowledges that the conversation around participation in different sports can get tricky, especially at the elite level. While many trans advocates argue that sports for kids are intended to teach important lessons about teamwork and perseverance, athletes aiming to compete professionally aren’t just aiming to win — they’re doing a job, sometimes one that determines the quality of the rest of their lives.
“When we look at access to upward mobility opportunities for Black and Brown men specifically in this country, often sports is the way to do that,” Lieberman said. “There’s a deep structural racist element of sports and this mythology around Black people, and specifically Black men being the best of the best athletes.”
For women and nonbinary people, pursuing those dreams while facing the same pressures to perform can be devastating, Lieberman added. Many athletes believe that binary teams are the only options because for the most part, they are.
Transgender participation in the Olympics is largely possible due to the research of one scientist: Joanna Harper, a trans woman whose small but highly respected study on transgender runners showed that trans women ran substantially slower after medically transitioning with hormones.
“If we’re looking strictly at what I found from research, hormone therapy doesn’t turn trans women into cis women or trans men into cis men, nor does it have to,” said Harper. “If hormone therapy can make trans athletes, similar enough to the cis athletes that they wish to compete against, then it should be reasonable to have trans athletes competing in the categories of their choice.”
That research eased restrictions on trans inclusions in the games, allowing trans women to compete after one year on hormones and removing surgical requirements for athletes.
What Harper did not find is research supporting an end to mens’ and womens’ categories in sports. She thinks those divisions will remain in sports for decades to come.
“There are all sorts of creative things to take a sort of beyond the gender binary in sports,” she said. “However, I do think that women’s sports at Olympic levels, at professional levels, at NCAA levels, I think those are those sports for women are very important for women’s continued march towards equality with men, and women aren’t there yet.”
The IOC acknowledges that when it comes to gender and the games, the future is fraught. In a statement to The 19th, an IOC spokesperson said the regulations have been under review since 2019.
“Overall, the discussions so far have confirmed the considerable tension between the notions of fairness and inclusion, and the desire and need to protect the women’s category,” the statement read. “Opinions are very diverse and difficult to reconcile, and perceptions differ strongly. The new IOC framework will have to balance all of these.”
What exactly a resolution will look like remains unclear. Even LGBTQ+ advocates hesitate to pitch solutions. Some have suggested third gender categories, where nonbinary, intersex and other gender diverse athletes could opt-in to competing. Others have suggested removing sex or gender altogether and creating different divisions based on new factors (weight, height, testosterone levels, etc).
“I have a hard time imagining what this will look like and how it will play out in my lifetime, which makes me very sad,” Mosier said. “In some ways, I think that we’re moving backwards in sport, and I think this is largely driven by the stereotypes and myths and misconceptions being reported or being messaged and amplified by lawmakers in the United States.”
Advocates say that the problem is not just one of gender equity, but race. Black women athletes face elevated scrutiny at all levels of sports.
In March, the Associated Press asked lawmakers in states pushing anti-trans sports bans for examples of local problems, and almost none could. The genesis of bills in more than half of states in the United States appears to come from controversy over two Black track stars in Connecticut — Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller — who have faced relentless media attention and lawsuits because they are trans women competing with other women.
Mosier, who has advocated for trans inclusion in school athletics, says it’s no accident that it’s often Black women whether transgender, intersex or cisgender, who face scrutiny in sports.
“We see that Black women’s presentation is policed in terms of how they’re showing up, and there’s always accusations that if somebody is presenting more masculinely, there is a different level of acceptance of White athletes and specifically thinking about White athletes who excel,” Mosier said.
Mosier cites the example of Team USA’s Katie Ledecky, a three-time Olympic swimmer and five-time gold medalist, who is White.
“We never heard conversations or questions about Katie Ledecky when she won by over pool length in the Rio Olympics,” Mosier said. “We never heard questions of her not really being a woman that we often see with Black and Brown athletes that any level of athletic exceptionalism is automatically a flag for questioning who they really are.”
Brown-King can imagine competition free of gender. Their first 5K in 2018 in Montague, Massachusetts had a gender neutral category, which allowed them to compete. They didn’t place, but they got an award for having a good spirit.
“My idea of a perfect future is one that’s completely genderless, but I think that we have a long way to go before we get there,” Brown-King said. “I think that it looks like accepting the fact that trans and intersex women are not born with gold medals in their hands, and that we are not going anywhere.”