Published: July 22, 2019

LISA: Welcome to Brainwaves, a podcast about big ideas produced at the University of Colorado Boulder; I’m Lisa Marshall. This week, redefining gender: what does it really mean to be a man or a woman? Can one be both? Or neither? How much do these definitions really matter and as they become more fluid, how is it shaping sports, politics, even language? 


LISA: We'll start with a conversation with Roger Pielke Jr., head of the Sports Governance Center at CU Boulder and author of “The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports.” Pielke recently came back from Switzerland, where he testified in a landmark legal case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The main question: whether South African track star Caster Semenya has too much testosterone to compete as a female. Welcome, Roger.

ROGER: Thank you. Good to be here.

LISA: So in your book, you dedicate an entire chapter to the history of gender testing in sports. Can you talk a little bit about when governing bodies first started to do this and why? Were men actually posing as women in sporting events?

ROGER: The issue goes back more than a half-century and really was initiated as part of the Cold War. The United States and the West were in battle with the Soviet Union and its bloc and at the time, it was the emergence of the heavy doping era where a lot of women would take steroids and other drugs, became very masculine in appearance. And it raised questions at least among sports authorities that maybe there were some men seeking to sneak in as women in sports competition. The reality is that no man has ever been found out to be smuggled into elite track and field. So it turned out to be really a nonissue, but sex testing has stayed with us for that entire time.

LISA: So this has been going on for decades; what are some of the ways at governing bodies and even teams have gone about this over the years?

ROGER: Yeah it started out, and it's pretty incredible from today's perspective, they didn't do this in the Olympics, that they did it in the World Championships, they had what were called “naked parades.” They would have the women athletes disrobe and parade them in front of judges, older men, to make sure they were woman enough to compete. Even in the 1960s, that didn't go over so well. So very quickly, they moved to what they hoped would be very simple scientific tests: take a swab from inside somebody's mouth or take a vial of their blood, and do some tests, and determine who's a woman and who's a man. It turns out that that has never really worked because human biology is wickedly complex and there's no simple biological test that you can apply to determine who is a man, who's a woman.

LISA: So it sounds like the latest iteration of this that the IAAF, the governing body for track and field, recently proposed new rules that would require women with high testosterone to medically lower those levels in order to compete. I think some listeners would be shocked at that as well. Can you just give me a little bit of the backstory on what led up to this rule change?\

ROGER: So the most recent incarnation of rules which were put in place in 2011 arose after South African sprinter Caster Semenya really burst onto the public scene in 2009, in Berlin. Semenya was remarkably fast, very kind of stereotypically masculine looking and raised concerns among athletics officials that perhaps there was a gender issue here. They very quickly moved away from sex testing to determine who's a man and who's a woman, and they moved on to this idea that within the class of female athletes, perhaps there are some women who it's unfair to have them compete with other women because they have too much testosterone, and so they put in place a testosterone limit for women, not for men, and that was struck down by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and 2015; and the rule that is currently being educated by the Court of Arbitration for Sport is the second go-around on the testosterone rule, which is very similar but focused really only on the events that Caster Semenya runs.

LISA: You recently published a study that was critical of the science that this rule is based on. Can you talk a little bit about what you found about the research that it's based on?

ROGER: So in 2015, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport struck down the original testosterone rule, what the court said was that if we had evidence that women with high testosterone had a performance difference from other women, that was of the same magnitude as men over women, so about 10 to 12 percent, then maybe we could talk about regulation. At the time they said, “Well, but we don't have any of that evidence.” So they sent the international association that governs track and field called the IAAF, they sent them away, and said, “Do your homework. Come back in two years let us know what you found.” They came back with a study two years later that was the basis for the brand-new regulations. We were able to obtain, with a lot of difficulty, about 25% of their data. We recreated their study and found that the data was shot through with errors mistakes, and we calculated about 17 to 32% of the data was flawed, which is a big number. It's certainly not the basis for any sort of regulatory policy. We published our results and called for the original paper to be withdrawn, which is what you do in science when you have poor results, and it could have been just sloppiness and there's no malfeasance necessary, just sloppy science. They didn't withdraw it. They continued to push ahead with the regulations, and that is what got me involved with this case in Switzerland.

LISA: I'll ask you two questions: Is testosterone a good measure for athletic ability? And is it a fair measure by which to determine whether an athlete is a man or a woman? 

ROGER: Yeah, I think, I mean, I think you've hit the nail on the head here. There's the two questions here: Should be we be regulating a natural biological characteristics that people have? Even if it does confer some performance advantage? There are some athletes like Michael Phelps who has short legs and long arms, there's basketball players that are super tall, there's all sorts of physical biological conditions that elite athletes have that most of the rest of us don't. It turns out that there are some women with higher testosterone levels. The only way to judge whether higher testosterone in men or women confers a performance advantage, is actually to do the measurements to do the science. And the science that the IAAF has done on this topic doesn't really support their case. And just as an example, the one event for women that has the biggest difference, according to whether the woman has higher low testosterone levels, is the 100 meters, and it turns out that women with lower testosterone outperform women with higher testosterone. It's about a 6% difference, and it's much larger than the differences among the events between 400 meters and 1 mile that the IAAF is seeking to regulate. So it raises some really interesting and important questions that if indeed testosterone confers an advantage, should we only be concerned about high testosterone? What about low testosterone advantages? Similarly if you look at the same IAAF data, you see very similar sorts of results for men. There are some events where men with high testosterone outperform others and other events were men with low testosterone outperform. If we're going to regulate by testosterone, why limit it only to women? So my view is that the IAAF research raises a lot more questions than it answers.

LISA: So bigger picture, going forward, all over society right now, gender is really being sort of redefined, it's becoming a little bit more fluid than it used to be. What does this mean for sport; is this something that other sports, other governing bodies are going to have to contend with?

ROGER: It would be very straightforward I would think for sports to regulate gender, similar to how it regulates nationality. For example, if you want to change countries, many sports have a five-year waiting period, you need to have a residency period. What if we had a similar approach? Doesn't have to be five years, but what if we had a similar approach to people who want to switch gender? I'm sure there could be medical tests but also some sort of procedures in place. For example, you have to spend three years, five years in your new gender without changing back and so on. I think sport is only at the beginning of figure out what sort of procedures make sense for sport for people who want to change lanes. I want to emphasize, that the case of Caster Semenya is not one of those cases. Semenya was born a woman, raised a woman, went to school as a woman, entered elite sport as a woman, has never had any question as to what her gender is and hasn't ever changed, so that's a little bit, I think procedurally, is a little bit easier sort of question than ones involving athletes who want to change lanes.

LISA: Well and no matter what the decisions are that are made, it has a real impact on these athletes. Not only in their sporting life, but in their home life so, big decisions with big 
consequences. Thank you so much for joining us, Roger, and we appreciate you taking the time. 

ROGER: Thank you.


LISA: Gender has sparked a lot of big questions in politics for years. Questions like: how do you define gender? And can someone who was born a man but identifies as a woman be housed in a women's jail? Or should people be able to use gender specific restrooms and other public facilities based on the way they personally choose to identify? Now, the marbled halls of legislative chambers around the country are hearing from new voices on those issues with four openly transgender lawmakers now in the United States. One of them is Brianna Titone, a state representative out of Arvada, Colorado, the first transgender lawmaker in Colorado history. Brainwaves executive producer Andrew Sorensen sat down with her recently.

ANDREW: Sitting just across from the steps of the Colorado Capitol here in downtown Denver, beautiful spring day here with Representative Brianna Titone and as someone who comes into this legislature as kind of a first, what's the reception been like, positive, negative ... both? 

BRIANNA: You know, I've tried to go across the aisle make some friends over on that side. The Democrats have all been very friendly, we've had a chance to meet up before the session got started, as far as the other side of the aisle, they've been a lot more respectful than I anticipated. I was kind of scratching my head a little bit and waiting to see what happens. But they probably read the articles that I had commented about in the in the past, that I was going to wait and see what happens, and you know, they got the message that, you know, that kind of disrespect that we've seen in other places is not going to be tolerated here.

ANDREW: Now I know as a person who is trans, your identity is much more than that, obviously, but you have taken a stance on several issues that do affect people who are trans. Tell us a little bit about some of those issues and kind of how they've played out here in this session. 

BRIANNA: Yeah, sure, there's two bills that come to mind immediately: One is the ban on conversion therapy, and that bill, I actually came to testify on several times in the House and Senate over the years it's been through, and that was kind of how I got my start in paying attention to politics and getting involved. When I went to the ONE Colorado Lobby Day, and we were talking about that issue and other issues, and it was really good to see it actually on the floor today, go through the concurrence reading from the Senate amendments and we passed it again, and it's going to be on its way to the governor's desk. So that one, in particular, I fought hard for not only here in the Capitol but going around different municipalities to try to get them aware that this was a problem, get some of the city councils to adopt proclamations or resolutions against it, more symbolic than any kind of regulatory things, because they don't have the authority. But it was just to say, you know, when I came back down here to testify that there were other people in other places that are represented by all these people, that they don't want this in our state. And of course, you know, really what it took was getting that extra Senate majority to be able to pass it in the Senate and then get that passed. The other bill is the birth certificate modernization bill: we call that Jude's law now, named after one of the kids that testified time, after time, after time, just trying to get the ability to change her identity and make it a little bit easier streamlined process. And this doesn't affect me. I was born in New York, and I can have my birth certificate changed. I have the paperwork ready to go when I have some time when I send it in. But this is for, you know, the residents of Colorado that want to get their documents changed. It's important for us, as people, to really feel that we have everything completed, and everything is done, and that we don't have any bit of things that remind us of ourselves the way we used to be. And we're trying, you know, that's kind of how a lot of trans people feel, we're trying to get away from the people we had to pretend to be our whole entire lives we want to be people that we are now, and we don't want to be reminded that.

ANDREW: Where are we, would you say, kind of as a society with these issues however you want to frame them? Some people might classify it as, you know, it feels like it's going against their values, and other people are saying these are human rights issues but where are we kind of on the spectrum of getting laws like the birth certificate law that you mentioned passed, like banning conversion therapy, where are we, and how does it make you feel as a person kind of seeing this play out in the political discourse?

BRIANNA: Well, since I was getting involved in the conversion therapy ban in particular, there were I think maybe eight states that had banned at the time when I started getting involved. And now we're up to sixteen or seventeen, and every time I look at the news, another place is doing this, another place is saying, “Yes, we agree with the science, we agree with the organizations that govern a lot of these groups of professionals, that this is a bogus type of treatment.” It's not a treatment, it's a sham. And people are recognizing that and they're doing it. Puerto Rico just did it recently. We're up to sixteen or seventeen states, a lot of other countries have banned this practice. It is encouraging to see that, because it's a slow process and we're just starting to really ramp up, and we will hit that plateau, where there will be a lot of states that will not want to change. They will resist and they will try to even go backwards against this and, you know, I think it's just going to be a shift and we're where people live and they're going to move out of those places because they want to just be themselves.

ANDREW: Thanks so much, appreciate it.

BRIANNA: Thank you very much for your time, thank you.


LISA: As gender definitions shift, so does language. That can be a challenge if your language is thousands of years old. We found a couple of people trying to help Hebrew make that shift. EYAL: Shalom, my name is Eyal Rivlin. 

ANDRES: Eyal Rivlin teaches Hebrew at CU Boulder’s program in Jewish Studies. He's coached hundreds of students through the trickier parts of the ancient language. But one student he had last year left him stumped. 

EYAL: When I received an email from Lior Gross that they would like to join my class, I noticed that the signature, it said “They/them/theirs.”

ANDRES: Lior, who graduated in December, is gender non-binary.

EYAL: Hebrew is a very binary language, meaning that any sentence, even if I'm saying, “The student is good,” every part of that would need to be either masculine or feminine.

ANDRES: Hebrew didn't have an option that would respect Lior’s gender identity.

LIOR: So it created this real distance for me in terms of like how I wanted to show up in Jewish community, versus how I could.

ANDRES: Lior and Eyal started meeting in person to find an alternative. Eyal called family in Israel and Lior researched other languages. They couldn't find a clear solution, so they decided to create their own.

EYAL: It needed a little bit of hutzpah... 

ANDRES: … To use a hebrew word... 

EYAL: ...a little bit of pushing the envelope, and saying “Well, it hasn't been done, but we need to make this happen.”

ANDRES: Lior and Eyal invented a new gender construction and launched the Non-Binary Hebrew Project last October.

EYAL: We found a sound that in Hebrew is native to the masculine conjugations and a letter that in Hebrew is more intuitive to feminine conjugations. We put them together, and when you look at it, the letters look feminine but the sound is a masculine sound. So in a sense it holds both the masculine and the feminine.

ANDRES:  The word student for example could be said as masculine…

EYAL: Talmid.

ANDRES: ...Feminine...

EYAL: Talmida.

ANDRES: ...and now non-binary.

EYAL:  Talmide.

ANDRES: Native speakers can learn to apply their non-binary solution in less than 30 seconds, and they all have had success teaching the rules in his classes, but the project really started to spread after Lior launched their website.

LIOR: Some of the messages we've gotten have been, you know, non-binary Jews reaching out and saying, “I'm so glad that I'm not alone, I didn't know that there were other people like me,” teachers in Hebrew school saying, you know, “How do I use this in my classroom?” people from different faith traditions reaching out and saying inclusivity is important. 

ANDRES: The attention that they're getting could inspire some more changes.

LIOR: It has, in some ways, made me more excited to engage with the Hebrew language and to use it more in different contexts in ways than otherwise I might not have been so interested in, just because I didn't have such a stake.

ANDRES:  You can find out more about the project including upcoming webinars at For Brainwaves, I'm Andres Belton.

LISA: Thanks for joining us on Brainwaves. If you like what you hear, please like and subscribe. Keep an eye out for next week's episode, when we talk to some of the world's best experts on aliens and space travel. I’m Lisa Marshall. Dirk Martin produced today's show. Andrew Sorensen is the executive producer. Our intro music is composed by Andres Belton.