Justice  /  Q&A

Human Velocity

“The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports” upends long-held assumptions about trans people’s participation in sports.

FDLC: When we talk about trans athletes, we’re usually talking about transfeminine athletes trying to compete in women’s sports—that is really who these policies are overwhelmingly impacting. And yet, as you write, their roots are targeting athletes who are assigned female at birth and weren’t even trying to compete in the women’s division. I’m curious to hear from you what we can learn about that, because these policies that weren’t designed for trans women have really ended up impacting trans women.

MW: To understand why Koubek and Weston, these two transmasc athletes, were used as the justification for sex-testing policies in the 1930s, it goes back to how gender was understood in the 1930s. At the time, there was no concept of gender as this psychological or social concept distinct from biological sex. And so, when Koubek and Weston transitioned, the way the newspapers covered them was that there was something that their physical bodies had “metamorphosized.” That was literally the language you would see in this coverage like, spontaneously, they realized that their bodies were changing and then all of a sudden, it aligned more with a man’s and so now they’re going to begin to live as men.

When sports officials read that, what they saw was that perhaps there was always something about these athletes that meant they didn’t align perfectly with this definition of “femaleness” that sports officials in the 1930s had. That’s why there’s this confusing fact that these two transmasculine athletes who didn’t even want to do women’s sports anymore would be the justification for these policies.

But you do see parallels to the ways in which sex testing is used today, predominantly, as you said, against transfeminine athletes. The justification for sex testing at the time was, as it is now, about “protecting” women’s sports and these athletes who are overly masculine in some way, like Koubek and Weston, were seen as a threat to the sport. It was using this idea of people who didn’t fit a very specific definition of femininity as being a threat to women’s sports, that was the rhetoric that was used to pass these policies. So while it doesn’t seem to make sense on paper, when you read their logic you see the parallel to today and you see how this could grow to become a thing that has kept so many transfeminine and intersex women out of sports for decades, in different ways.