After her live-in partner accused her of rape and "being a man," Asian Games medalist Pinki Pramanik has been put through hell by an insensitive legal system and a prurient public.
The Indian athlete was first forced to undergo a battery of gender tests (too little, too late, considering her athletic career is long over). And her medical confidentiality was violated at every step of the way, with news outfits dutifully reporting the results of tests, and then a specimen of the lowest sort of scum leaking a video of her physical examination to the internet, where it inevitably went viral.
Fortunately, the incident has sparked some debate on both gender and privacy issues here, but so far it's taking place at a pretty low wattage. For example, human rights activists are (finally) protesting against the treatment meted out to the athlete and calling for Pinki to be transferred to a women's cell until the results of her gender tests can be verified, according to CNN/IBN.
But there's a lot of nuance here that nobody is exploring. There's clearly an element of homophobia informing the reaction to Pinki's predicament, since she faces accusations of rape from her female lover. And it's a bit idiotic to think that the problem will be solved and packaged with a neat bow after some biologist comes back with findings that Pinki has this or that level of testosterone, a chromosome here or there, or what have you. She's been a woman all her life, whatever the doctors say. And if nobody knew before, why should she be blamed for her genetic status now that somebody has run a few medical tests?
Most of the public has reacted to this story as though Pinki is a fraud who cheated her way through life by posing as a woman, thus gaining an unfair advantage in athletics -- an idea that is patently absurd if you think about it for even 30 seconds. But it turns out that the problem isn't that Indian labs are hopeless at figuring out who's a girl.
Gender is actually a much more complicated issue, according to an excellent piece written by Alice Dreger in the Atlantic. And the struggles of the International Olympics Committee to come up with a workable definition for athletics demonstrates that Pinki is far from the first athlete to face the problem.
As Dreger, a medical doctor, puts it:
"One camp, led by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), believes the line imposed between putative male and putative female athletes must be biological.... And so, the IOC has just decided that, for the London Olympic Games, the rule of sex will be based on something called "functional androgens" (or "functional testosterone"). This means that an athlete who was raised a girl and identifies as a woman will be allowed to play as a woman so long as the IOC does not discover that her body makes and responds to high levels of androgens. Androgens, of which testosterone is one type, naturally occur in both male and female bodies, but higher production usually means more male-typical development."
But that's a dubious definition for a couple reasons.
"For one, the policy doesn't actually specify what is the permissible level of functional testosterone for women athletes. As a result, there is no way for a woman to get herself tested in private, in advance of the games, to see if she should avoid the possibility of being plucked out of play for a sex crime, so to speak."
So it's not a question of masculine women risking extreme humiliation so they can cheat to win. Also, the same genetic condition that makes women ineligible to compete because they're too masculine is allowed for supercharged males:
"Because the IOC is allowing male athletes to play with conditions that cause them to be hyperandrogenized -- sometimes the very same conditions for which women will be disqualified! The result is that a woman's supposed disease is accepted by the IOC as a man's natural advantage. This hardly seems like a fair way to treat a lady, unless your goal is to keep her down."
In the end, Dreger concludes that it makes some sense to try to separate the sexes for athletic competition--for pretty sound reasons. But one thing that can't be justified is putting someone through an ordeal like the one Pinki and, it turns out, quite a few other athletes, have endured.
What parts our athletes have under their shorts, and what chemicals they have running in their blood, may be relevant to our measurement of world records and the dispensing of medals. But in every other respect, it's not that interesting. And it's none of our business.