The Big Tickets


In any very large event where the people attending do not know most other attendees, there are two things, which characterize the event. First will be some kind of activity: athletic competition, a march, a concert. Second, and usually most important, there is a complicated and evolving dynamic of shared identity, which binds the attendees together and erases individuals (with their enthusiastic consent). Virtually everyone will seek to participate in at least one event like this, more often several, because these events provide a unique combination of powerful experiences that enable a person to feel both special and part of a larger group, with the added security of knowing the event will end, and a bittersweet pleasure of having had “an experience”.

The Olympic Games are an obvious global case. After winning a bidding process dominated by wealthy nations, and then making their city as tourist friendly as possible by cracking down hard on the poor, a host gets to have the lion’s share of the pre-games nationalist circle jerk. There’s some noise made about how the tourist money will help infrastructure and jobs, which is just as much mere ritual as the torch procession, and then “glorious sport” for several days. Some amazing feats of physical prowess from the very well sponsored, and somewhat less hooliganism than Premier league football.

And tons of flags. The Beijing games must have been especially convenient for everyone’s nationalist needs what with so much of the global textile industry near by, happy to produce symbols of any nation, while the sweatshops themselves testify to the ultimate power, capitalism. Fans can get pumped over strips of red, white and blue, or blue white and red, whatever they like and all from the same vendors with the same values. Taking for granted everyone’s subordination to wealth and power allows a neat trick; any and all tribal markers are welcome, even encouraged, since they are quaint and non-threatening, but at the same time people can believe they’re in a “global village” full of diversity.

That’s what we’re sold, that this is meant to be humanity at its finest, with no racism or bigotry, engaged in sport for sport’s sake, only amateurs allowed. This is how the games can be in Greece one year, China another, or the United States, or England, because they are “above all that”.

Of course looking at what else the participating nations agree on before hand is also instructive. Everyone seemed to be in total agreement, after her gold medal at the World Championships, that Caster Semenya was a serious threat. Not in the “we have to train harder to compete with this amazing athlete” way. No, her win prompted a ban from competition for nearly a year while her sex was investigated, launching a series of panels and tests since applied to many female athletes:

 “There are female athletes who will be competing at the Olympic Games this summer after undergoing treatment to make them less masculine.”

These treatments include mandatory surgery and hormonal adjustment, on top of constant scrutiny, often secret. They have moved forward with these rules despite not yet determining what, in fact, is the “natural” female threshold for testosterone or other supposedly immutable biological proofs.

It goes without saying that, if this is what the authorities think is a rational response, the comments from sports fans often went straight for the worst racism and gender based hatred. They don’t merit repeating here. It is enough to point out that there are now hundreds of medical practitioners, and several harsh governing bodies determined to enforce a narrow definition of acceptable womanhood. Even if they can’t agree on just what exactly “objective, medical” womanhood is based on hormones, they can agree that a black woman besting her “betters” while not fitting their beauty ideals is all the provocation they need to force the most invasive of tests on all women competitors who “look manly”.

We probably all expected that and aren’t surprised. The next Olympic Games are already tarred with failures of human rights, and this time it’s London, not Beijing. Of course if she were well within everyone’s comfort zone of femininity, a new study shows how it is still, apparently, foolish to expect respect for her accomplishments.

At least we can take comfort in how our own explicitly queer events and spaces are properly inclusive, right? Take a look at the Federation of Gay Games policy regarding gender identity and you decide. It’s interesting how much of it mirrors the medical gatekeeping and extra legal burdens reflected in the good old Standards of Care. I’m not dismissing their guidelines as thoroughly oppressive, merely noting that. Right down to the scientifically unsupported hormone requirements, and … is that actually a “real life test” requirement of two years living in their self-identified gender? Oh damn, that takes me back.

Well, by only a year or less, but still, I can smell the nostalgia. That or the cat litter needs changing. At least in this case, the hormone requirement presumably works both ways, and does not erase trans men, and there doesn’t appear to be anywhere near the same invasive testing requirements. My history of personal and professional erasure and disrespect probably just makes my knee jerk when similar things occur elsewhere, even if there is some evidence based reasoning behind the guidelines.

That’s rather my point though. Where’s the damn evidence? I won’t object to definitive proof of a causal, not just correlative, relationship between hormones and performance. I just want to see it, and not the general set of assumptions out there, which seem to always blow away under the least bit of scrutiny. I won’t even demand a single, universal characteristic, objectively measurable, which determines valid womanhood. I’ll simply accept some kind of generous range for the qualities people keep claiming are immutable and definitive, and by generous, I mean generous to those doctors and politicians stamping their feet about “real women”, while so often parsimonious and grudging with their “care” and acknowledgment of us.

Here’s extra proof of how generous I am to these gatekeepers with the power to determine whether we exist or not. Pamphlets solve everything. Actually created by some badasses you can contact by clicking the pic.

But I’ve strayed from the larger point. Enough writers have already done countless takedowns of science’s attempts to define sex, and if people want their athletic competitions policed like MichFest, then I’m happy to stick to private home bouts of polyamorous freestyle wrestling, at least for the duration of this article.

What I’m talking about is how identical mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion function to establish the character of any big event. This is how events so otherwise different from one another, the Olympics and MichFest, share incredible similarities. And because they are so different, their similarities may give us the key to understanding larger social forces behind oppression, enabling us to combat those forces or redirect them towards justice.

In both cases, there’s a serious component of mythmaking that is just as important as clearing physical space for the event. The “Olympic Village” shares characteristics with “The Land”. They are constructed along both inclusive and oppositional lines. People willingly surrender individuality during large portions of the events. “Purity” and “pride” are major themes of both, and as such, both have powerful incentives for the built community to construct an “other” to exclude. With the Olympics, this means preventing cheaters from tainting sport (the rationale behind invasive gender testing), and hiding any evidence of suffering or discontent among natives of the host city, among other things. At MichFest, along with qualitatively positive incentives to do things like take responsibility for the space, trans women are one of the most high profile “others” who threaten purity.

The consequences of both forms of exclusion are also similar. Participants get a constrained, managed view of what the environment is like. Beijing, London, and Michigan all exemplify this. Without the other around to speak or be seen, they and their issues are effectively erased, and it takes exceptional effort from the outsider to overcome how they have been framed and be recognized. Leadership develops tendencies towards harder and harder lines, less and less negotiation, and enjoys an echo chamber for its policies, fostered by cronyism. Stereotypes of the poor as criminal and violent, or of trans women as predators, are easier to reinforce, especially as their resistance to such marginalization can be framed within the event, by its organizers, as evidence of the stereotype.

I stress here that I’m talking about situational, event based marginalization. This is the kind of thing where you might find yourself struck hard by believing yourself among allies and find that the event changes normal behaviors. This woman’s story exemplifies that mechanic in action. You could also think about the guy you think is fantastic until you see him acting out at a large gaming convention. Actors who otherwise seem to take you seriously and care until some kind of gathering where the values and ethics trump your experience and validity.

After all, China isn’t exactly blind to the plight of the poor, per se. They’ve been convenient symbols for the People’s Republic at the very least, but when is that ever not true just about anywhere? Again, the poor remain objects for either dissembling or disappearance at whim.

On a cynically entertaining side note, the “State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China” just released a report on human rights abuses in the United States. Even the council’s name drips of propaganda, and yes, this is largely similar to 30’s Germany pointing out America’s hypocrisy on race issues, but that doesn’t mean the things they list don’t belong there. Sure, they ultimately wind up making a “don’t point out our wrong shit” argument, embarrassingly mixing petulance with propaganda, but there are real abuses listed there. Oh, but before you bother, I pored over it, and no, there’s not one mention in their report of human rights abuses against gender or sexual minorities. Again, guess we don’t count.

A really interesting thing they do choose to cover though, as an example of American hypocrisy regarding human rights, is how authorities responded to the Occupy Movement. Maybe it’s a little rich coming from the place that gave us Tiananmen Square, but they’re right.

And it’s a segment of the Occupy movement, called OccuPride, which shows us another form of resistance to the marginalization inherent in large events, this time one of our oldest traditions, San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade. If OccuPride is right though, we shouldn’t even be calling it “our” tradition anymore, because of how it’s changed over the years to reflect a more and more economically, racially, and gender privileged group of people who at times actively support the erasure of radicals, the poor, the non-conforming.

Obviously they’re not alone in their criticism, but where others opt out, OccuPride plans to actively disrupt. Nor has Occupy itself avoided criticism from many of its own firm believers, from how everything from sexual assaults to littering were handled at its various satellites, to its own insistence on solidarity to the point of erasure.

I can’t help but agree, Pride events are more and more for the well heeled, more for bending over to thank allies, more for the sponsors. It’s a serious question why an ally would be made grand marshal. And maybe an Occupy style response will turn out to be creative, fostering real dialogue. Before more space is given to allies at such events, it’s pretty clear they need to get up to speed on how not to be disrespectful or appropriative. A reader sent us notice that Ontario’s Center For Inquiry had plans to attend Toronto Pride this year … in drag. It is painfully hard to try imagining how that could have worked out for the best. Expect a much more thorough post from Queereka on that specific matter this weekend, and there’s already great coverage here.

So. With respect for ally enthusiasm, with patience, with certainty that we can foster a global community of rational, justice oriented, secular folk, I still have to ask, how many reminders do we need that it is critical for us to not get swept up in the madness of crowds?

Blaming women for their own harassment at skeptic events, or blaming their speaking up for low attendance by women has to stop. Blaming radical queers for their own oppression by not conforming has to stop. And while we’re at it, ruthless, unforgiving, “call out” culture where writers within skepticism and social justice defend egos before ideas and hordes of readers poison the well with hateful comments also has to stop.

We can build, and find pleasure and meaning in communities, in events that celebrate our various families or fandoms, without unconsciously or maliciously constructing an “other” to hate. If we are committed to principles of free thought, challenging our cognitive biases, to understanding, to science and not scientism, and ever to justice, then it should be repugnant to us, not red meat for the mob, to dehumanize anyone, anywhere, no matter how easy a crowd or internet anonymity makes it.

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  1. I agree with a lot of what you write here, but you seem to intentionally ignore the elephant in the room, which is exactly how gender should be confronted in situations like the Olympics. If there are to be separate categories for men and women (based as they are on a presumption of physical difference that has an effect on competitive performance…which admittedly makes more sense in some sports than others…why a separate category for women’s sharphooting?) then someone, somewhere, does actually have to determine what these categories mean in that specific context.

    Is self-identification really adequate? Can we believe that no one is cynical enough to manipulate that kind of system to their (and their country’s) advantage? I rather wish you’d addressed that here, because not doing so in the midst of criticism feels like the easy way out.

    • Of course that’s fair! It’s not exactly my point either, since exclusion in large events can absolutely be appropriate and ethical, it’s simply tricky and not something that our taken for granted, but poor understood notion of sex can truly justify on its own.

      The gay games, I think, has a better method, because their method prioritizes safety first, and that is at least a better rhetorical strategy, which is aided by working for inclusion.

      As for the second part, well… Can we actually believe a cis man or woman would spend their lives training for these events and then pull a Bosom Buddies to try to net a medal they can’t personally take credit for? Occam’s razor, seriously. How would they even get away with the uniforms for most of these events? Are they going to compete in Tuck and Field?!

      Sorry to sound flippant, I can’t resist some giggles <3 ... Of course it's not impossible, and we've had age cheats before, supposedly. Mainly I don't address it since it's off point, but I couldn't say it's irrelevant or not worth discussing, and that's why we have these spaces.

      I think I make it clear where I stand at least, that I believe it's largely preposterous to think we'd see wide spread cheating of this specific kind without the extremes of gender testing. That isn't to say identity enough is alone, since as long as we're so married to di-gendered sport then no matter how ridiculous they'll be, that means there just have to be standards to base segregation on. I just don't see the already rigorous testing for men's sport as insufficient, requiring women go through some extra hoops, and egregiously shameful ones at that. Men merely must not be on performance enhancers; women must, on specious evidence and motivate i think mostly by misogynist disbelief, intersex phobia, and poor biology, be forced to TAKE drugs, drugs which can have powerful side effects.

      The only other alternative might be something like this. I've actually heard biotruth silliness argued suggesting that women have more evolved spatial recognition for accurate object location and memory. So what about sharpshooting? What if the women have an advantage there?! Shit, we better test the men and put them on T regimens in case any with "unusually high" estrogen end up gaming the system!

      If they're going to be silly as all hell, then let's be universally foolish. Of course I'd only advocate that idea because it would make the sports world and media recoil in horror in a way they don't seem to give a damn when it happens to women, especially women of color, forcing an open dialogue on all of this.

      Anywho, welcome, and sorry for your double post. Comments sections can get wonky, and I admit I was thrown seeing 3 pop up so quick on two of my articles. Should be squared away and deleted soon if not already, hon.

      • Oh, and sorry, I left out a couple things. First, just to underscore this, I’m simply pointing out the importance of exclusion to events like this. Obviously I think alot of it is oppressive crap, but it isn’t in itself a good or bad, moral or immoral, thing. It’s situational.

        And second, that bit about women’s spatial recognition, I kid you not, I heard it on more than one occasion, and used to support an argument about women as the “gatherer” in pre-historic cultures. Dat pseudoscience, good for chuckles, if it weren’t so pernicious.

  2. Thanks for the thorough response (and handling my comment duplicate)!

    I agree that widespread cheating along these lines would be unlikely, and this is (ironically) largely because of the intense cultural stigma that would be attached to transitioning at all, let alone for the purposes of getting a competitive edge in a sport. I don’t think anyone really imagines a Bender/Coilette scenario as a real possibility in the Olympics.

    But as we’ve seen, this is not the type of case in which gender testing has been or likely will be required in these kinds of events. Rather, it will be in the more difficult and nuanced cases where the line is harder to draw, because it is always in the less distinct areas of regulation that high-level competitors seek to gain advantage without directly flaunting the rules. This is why, for example, doping has become an ever-escalating arms race that borders on the creepy (like cyclists getting blood transfusions before races, the spandex vampires of sport).

    Also, given the power dynamics at play in these kinds of situations, I don’t think it particularly outlandish to imagine a scenario in which a young intersex athlete might be pressured to identify one way or another by a coach or parents set on Olympic participation or victory.

    You also claim there is no real evidence of hormones’ effect on athletic performance. While I’m not a biologist, a look around google scholar makes it seem that testosterone and other androgens /do/ have such an effect, and athletes are presumably banned from augmenting them for a reason.

    Now, the argument can be made that everyone who competes in the Olympics is born with ridiculous physiological advantages anyway, so there is no point in policing which ones we think are permissible along arbitrary cultural ideas of gender. But if we do insist on separate competitive categories (which seems fair, considering the gap between winning scores/times in these categories would otherwise tend to exclude women from high level competition), then it seems like androgen levels would have to be a place to start.

    I would have to say, RE the Gay Games document that the “real life test” doesn’t seem all that unreasonable either. It’s a pretty clearly different scenario here than when used to keep someone /away/ from the means of medical transition. But should a competitor be allowed to compete as a gender other than the one they identify as in the rest of their life?

    I don’t really have a horse in this race, since I generally consider the Olympics to be little more than the jingoistic celebration of single-mindedly obsessed mutants, but I think it’s hard to have it both ways in terms of fairness and inclusivity in women’s sports. In that way it’s different from something like MichFest, which excludes for an entirely different rationale (and doesn’t include parallel structures for the people excluded in one category).

    • Well, anabolic steroids, sure, though the rest seems a bit fuzzy. In any case, it just assumes too much that those with intersex conditions are going to be cultivated and recruited in this manner. NOT, by any stretch, impossible, not at all, you’ve a point, but look, if that’s how far they’ll go, there’s your other point I’m in agreement with which starts to make the whole thing seem pretty silly and oppressive wherever it goes, that it’s a jingoistic parade.

      I won’t go so far as to call the athletes themselves degrading names, I firmly believe they’re people, mostly decent and dedicated, and fortunate enough to have talent, sponsorship, and to have found a place where their particular biology is well suited and desirable.

      As for the gay games bit, hey, think about that question… “should a competitor be allowed to compete as a gender other than the one they identify as in the rest of their life?”

      What about those who do transition later in life? What, they compete once and it locks them forever into either the binary or out of competitive sport at that level? I didn’t understand what transition was or that I needed to do it until I was mid 20’s, and gatekeeping kept me at bay til near 30. That’s a large chunk of my youth spoken for right there. Then the further challenge of being in a non-competing kind of limbo for those two years, solo practice only going so far. For a trans competitor, well… It’s pretty privileged as far as we go to have steady access to hormones for 2 years, live somewhere safe to present ourselves as we commence transition, have medical documentation…

      And maybe you’re right, maybe it is fair, but if so, damned if it doesn’t sound like the gay games are basically just another privilege spectacle then. It’s fair only once we’ve skimmed the most fortunate from the top of our big, queer pile.

      Of course that’s not exactly a smart or insightful comment on my part. Hell, for a lot of GSM, having regular access to food or shelter isn’t guaranteed, and whatever else I lack, I’m grateful for that and know too many without that security. And that’s true for people just about everywhere as well, GSM or not. So, sure, things like this will likely always have that edge.

      More importantly, some of these guidelines and rules may be perfectly fair and needful, but they are implemented in obviously punishing, targeted ways, unequal ways, as far as the main Olympics are concerned. Still, even they had 10 openly gay or lesbian competitors in Beijing. Again, this didn’t become a thing until women excelled.

      And yeah, no doubt it’s different from MichFest, wildly so, which was a big part of the point, that no matter what the event, once it’s reached a certain size and the main activities are things to be observed, not participate in (allowing for side events), they will engage in similar practices: group identification, location management, constructing an other.

      Now given my distinctly not athletic body, one could say I don’t have a horse in the race either, and fair enough. But I do go on asking, why is it we have these discussions and ask these questions, about “fairness and inclusivity in women’s sports”, and not just all sport?

  3. Any high level athletic competition is going to be a massive privilege spectacle because of the resources and time required to participate in training and low-level competition. Even those competitors who come from less privileged backgrounds are, once absorbed into the machinery of high-level athletics, given an enormous amount of privilege by virtue of existing while fast/strong/whatever.

    I am horribly pressed for time this week but I want to respond to a few things:

    “What, they compete once and it locks them forever into either the binary or out of competitive sport at that level” seems to be an attempt at reductio ad absurdum or something. It’s certainly a caricature of what I said, which was merely that it is suspicious to identify one way only for the purpose of competition and never anywhere else. If we’re talking about people who are fearful of presenting as their true gender in life, it is sort of bizarre for them to do so at a very public event, isn’t it?

    “But I do go on asking, why is it we have these discussions and ask these questions, about “fairness and inclusivity in women’s sports”, and not just all sport?” is sophistry and you know it. This whole discussion is predicated on a mutually understood assumption that di-gendering sports is not only the status quo, but this status quo exists because there is a real and measurable difference between the extreme right of the bell curve in certain kinds of athletic performance for people with differently gendered bodies. We are talking about fairness and inclusivity in women’s sport because there is a concern that those who identify as women should be able to compete as women (inclusivity), while not conferring performance advantage from androgens that nearly all women lack (fairness).

    Or do you seriously mean to suggest that removing gender distinctions in competition won’t just exclude women? Even Caster Semenya doesn’t come close to the gold medal times in men’s 800m–none of the top women do.

  4. Whoa, now, let me take it point by point. Some accusations are getting tossed around here now, and we have a chance to walk this back.

    I did not receive, from the previous reply, that you were talking about athletes who identify one way everywhere, and another way only for sport. I disagree that that seems in any way likely, but if that’s the point your making, then it’s not the one I was addressing, which explains us talking past each other. In my personal opinion, this other idea seems the least likely possibility, and for your own reason, which I agree with.

    And yes also to the second point EXCEPT where biology may grant greater advantage to women in a particular event (flexibility on the far right of the bell curve, for example), which suggests valid reasons for testing the men as well, which isn’t happening as far as we know.

    The final bit there… Look, I don’t know if you thought turnabout was fair play or something, believing that I had drawn a caricature of your earlier point (one I merely misunderstood), but that’s more words than I can fit in even my big mouth. So don’t go putting them there.

    Let’s keep it civil.

  5. Sorry for the confusion. I suppose you took “in the rest of their lives” in a temporal (i.e. “for the rest”) sense? Admittedly that would make my argument seem nonsensical, or at least opposed to the very idea of transition for athletes…

    I took a dig at what I perceived to be some rhetorical excess, where you imply that merely asking this question–regardless of its of its relevance to the entire discussion or to real events in the real world–makes the person asking it complicit in an axis of oppression, and further allows you to stake a claim on a kind of moral high ground despite participating in the same discussion. It’s a subtle implication but it’s there, and heightened by the quotes.

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