Professional golfer Mianne Baggerâ€™s biggest challenge this year was winning the right to step out onto the green. In her quest to find acceptance in professional competition, Bagger has overcome the initial resistance of both golfâ€™s governing agencies and other female pros who worried that Bagger would have an inherent physiological advantage. Thatâ€™s because, although Bagger has played golf since she was eight years old, she only turned pro in 2003â€“10 years after what she calls â€śa transsexual past.â€ť
The first well-known transsexual athlete was Rene Richards, whose autobiography Second Serve became a movie staring Vanessa Redgrave. Following her sex reassignment surgery in 1975, Richards she was spotted playing tennis in the womenâ€™s division of a local tournament, and outed by a reporter. Engulfed by press coverage and notoriety, Richards sought to join the womenâ€™s tennis tour, but was rebuffed.
Richards took her case to the courts, where in a groundbreaking1977 judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that she was legally a woman and could compete as such. Then in her forties, Richards went on to play professionally for five years, win one singles title and coach Martina Navratilova to that tennis greatâ€™s first Wimbledon win. Despite Richardsâ€™ trail blazing efforts, much of the competitive sports world remained closed to transgendered athletes for another three decades.
Bans on transgendered athletes began to fall in 2004 with the International Olympic Committeeâ€™s (IOC) ruling that transsexual athletes be allowed to compete under strict guidelines. Those that have undergone sex reassignment and associated hormone therapy prior to puberty can now compete without restriction. Those who transition after puberty are eligible only if surgical anatomical changes have been completed (including external genitalia and removal of hormone producing gonads or ovaries); they can prove legal recognition of their new sex; and theyâ€™ve undergone hormonal therapy for at least two years.
Not meant to be discriminatory, these requirements will make complying easier for male-to-female transsexuals (MTFs) than female-to-male transsexuals (FTMs). Many FTMs do not have the imperfect, complicated and expensive genital surgeries such and thus would be ineligible. Those that live in states or nations that donâ€™t allow a person to change their sex on official documentation, would also be excluded. Intersexed, transgender, or genderqueer individuals who may not have had, nor want, the IOC-required surgical anatomical changes or hormone therapy are still subject to disqualification.
Media coverage of the IOCâ€™s decision focused primarily on menâ€™s â€śclearâ€ť advantage over women, which many pundits doubted would be sufficiently decreased by sex reassignment.
â€śIf we were in fact merely males with cosmetic surgery, with the strength of males, of course that would be unacceptable,â€ť Bagger concedes. â€śBut thatâ€™s not the case.â€ť
Although Mianne Bagger didnâ€™t play much golf during her transition, she says, â€śWhen I did start playing back again there were differences in my game. I certainly donâ€™t hit the ball as far as I used to.â€ť
Of course, to really answer the question of whether transgendered athletes foster potential advantages or liabilities, further research clearly needs to be doneâ€”for example to compare post-transition MTFs and FTMs with bio-born members of their sex. That would require significant funding, and such funding has been notoriously absent when it comes to studying transsexual and transgendered individuals. Whether they are athletes or not, trans women (and men) are sadly still considered a fringe community with little to tell researchers about the rest of the world.
For now weâ€™ll have to settle for watching athletes like Bagger compete alongside other women in their sportâ€”and fight for the right to continue doing so.