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Transgender Athlete Competes For Olympic Spot

Keelin Godsey competes as a woman but lives as a man, says reporter Pablo Torre. (Sports Illustrated)

A central question of gender and sports is facing officials as they prepare for London's Summer Olympics: In a system that segregates athletic competition by sex for reasons of fairness, where do transgender athletes fit?

Take, for example, Keelin Godsey, the first openly transgender contender for the U.S. Olympic team. Last month, Godsey qualified for the women's track and field Olympic trials in the hammer throw.

Godsey was born female, identifies as male, and competes in the female division — a situation that attracted the attention of writer Pablo Torre and Sports Illustrated. As Torre tells NPR's Michel Martin, cases such as Godsey's might present "the most thorny question" for sports organizers.

"For Keelin, it's a question of identity," Torre says. "Keelin's identity was formed as a women's sports athlete, before Keelin came out as transgender male. And the reality is, for a lot of college athletes who are transgender, they have scholarships, they have spots on their teams in elite sports, and they're physically that gender — physically female, for example, in Keelin's case. And really, that's enough for a governing body. Or, it should be enough."

Torre co-wrote a story about transgender athletes for Sports Illustrated's current issue. He's also a regular contributor to Tell Me More's Barbershop segment. And he says there are no physical or medical differences between Keelin and a biological woman — there have been no hormone treatments, for instance.

"So, for Keelin it's a matter of choosing and fulfilling that other part of their identity, as an elite athlete," he says.

But that choice can also mean forgoing the medical treatments some transgender people receive when they transition to another gender.

"If you want to stay within your birth sex athletically," Torre says, "you need to forgo testosterone — which is really the big thing."

"And Keelin — let's make no mistake about this, this has been incredibly tough, and at times tormenting and tortuous, for Keelin Godsey, a person who identifies fully as a male, and wishes to live as a male in all walks of life. But, it's his passion for sports and the opportunity to make the Olympic team" that are behind Godsey's choice, Torre says.

As soon as the Olympics experience ends — either in the U.S. trials or at the Games in London — "Keelin will be taking testosterone, and physically transitioning," Torre says. "And that's this other, second dream, beyond Olympic contention, that Keelin hopes to finally fulfill."

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a lot of adults are intimidated by the intense anti-gay rhetoric of demonstrators from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. So what do you think happened when a nine-year-old decided to speak out against them? We'll tell you in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about gender and sports and a question that is facing officials who are preparing for the summer Olympics. In a world where athletic competition is segregated by sex for reasons of fairness, where do transgender athletes fit in?

Take, for example, Keelin Godsey, the first openly transgender contender for the American Olympic team. Last month, Keelin qualified for the women's track and field Olympic trials in the hammer throw. Keelin was born female, but identifies as a male and, in fact, lives as a male when he is not competing. However, Keelin completes in the female division.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we called Pablo Torre. He is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. Of course, he's one of our regular contributors to our Barbershop roundtable. He co-wrote a piece about transgender athletes for the current issue. Pablo, thanks for joining us.

PABLO TORRE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So talk a little bit more about Keelin. Why does Keelin compete as a woman when he lives as a man in every other part of his life?

TORRE: Yeah. I think this is, you know, the most thorny question, maybe. How could you call yourself a man and yet be able to compete as a woman? And, for Keelin, it's a matter of identity. You know, Keelin's identity was formed as a women's sports athlete before Keelin came out as transgender male. And the reality is, for a lot of college athletes who are transgender, they have scholarships. They have spots on their teams in elite sports and they're physically that gender, physically female, for example, in Keelin's case.

And, really, that's enough for a governing body or at least it should be enough. The fact that there is no physical transition, there is no difference between Keelin, physically or medically, between him and a biological woman. And so, for Keelin, it's a matter of choosing and fulfilling that other part of their identity as an elite athlete.

MARTIN: Does the Olympic Committee actually have rules in place about this? I think many people might remember, you know, the South African runner who is a woman, identifies as a woman, but who had such a masculine appearance that some of her competitors were complaining. And this was actually a very difficult and emotional episode. So are there rules governing how this is to be handled?

TORRE: Yeah. Competitive equity, when it comes to transgender athletes, is really, you know, the third rail of the topic, specifically males competing as females because of that physical advantage that comes from being a man.

Caster Semenya, the South African runner you just mentioned, is intersex. So a lot of the similar issues in that nexus of gender in sports. But for transgender athletes in particular, dealing with that disjointed agreement between body and mind, gender and sex, there are rules.

And IOC was actually the first in 2004 to really come out with a comprehensive codified policy that acknowledged and welcomed transgender athletes. The problem is that the requirements that the IOC laid out involved not only hormone therapy, meaning if you're a male, you take estrogen and you suppress testosterone, and if you're a female, you take testosterone to boost that male competitive athletic advantage that we just talked about.

But, for them, they also require surgery, just physical cosmetic differences, changes to genitalia. And so that's the big hurdle and that's something the NCAA actually just, in the last year, has been able to legislate away. They only require hormones, isolating that as the big differentiator between the male and female genders when it comes to competitive elite athletic sports.

MARTIN: Well, what does that mean in Keelin's case? I mean, as I understand it, Keelin has not undergone hormone therapy and certainly has not undergone gender reassignment surgery. Is that why he is eligible - even though he lives as a man - is eligible to compete as a woman?

TORRE: Exactly.

MARTIN: What is the...

TORRE: Exactly. So...

MARTIN: So you have to forego the kinds of therapies that would support your transition to another gender if you want to compete at that level. Is that the issue?

TORRE: Exactly. If you want to stay within your birth sex athletically, you need to forego testosterone, which is really the big thing. Testosterone is the thing that gives rise to so many of a man's physical athletic advantages.

And Keelin - you know, let's make no mistake about this. This has been incredibly tough and, at times, tormenting and torturous for Keelin Godsey. A person who identifies fully as a male and wishes to live as a male in all walks of life, but it's this passion for sports and the opportunity to make the Olympic team in the sport that he has competed as since, you know, for years now. That's the thing that's on the other side of the Olympic rainbow, as it were.

As soon as Olympic contention is done, as soon as the Olympic trials are over or - fingers crossed - the London games are over, Keelin will be taking testosterone and physically transitioning, he told us in Sports Illustrated. And that's, you know, this other second dream beyond Olympic contention that Keelin hopes to finally fulfill.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about the dilemma of the transgender athlete with Sports Illustrated writer Pablo Torre. He recently wrote a piece about this. So, are there more transgender athletes than we know about? I mean, having a rule in place since 2004 suggests that there are more gender-related inquiries than perhaps the general public is aware of.

TORRE: The NCAA told us that, since 2006, there have been about 40 inquiries from athletes and their attorneys asking about what rules are in place for trans-athletes. And you have elite athletes saying that they speak to over 100 world class level athletes around the world.

And, certainly, you've had a steady stream of athletes, Keelin Godsey being one. Kye Allums, the transgender - first openly transgender division one athlete to come out at George Washington on the women's basketball team in 2009, was another big data point.

But, certainly, you have an increasing number of people who are coming out and that's, one hopes, is because of a little shift in culture. You know, we're very far away from where we need to be in terms of tolerance and acknowledgement that transgender people and transgender athletes exist. But there are more of them coming out, it seems, year over year. And one hopes that's because they feel more comfortable and they're seeing these governing bodies actually acknowledge them in the actual bylaws of the sport.

MARTIN: Let's take it from a different direction, then, since we are talking about a relatively rare situation. I mean, first of all, competing at an elite level is a relatively rare circumstance, anyway. So - and then you're taking people who are transgender within that very small subset. What is the big deal if you assume that no one is taking a substance or a drug that would enhance his or her performance? What's the big deal?

TORRE: I think there are two things to keep in mind. Number one is the impact of a single transgender athlete on a college campus or in a sport or on a team is so explosive. And we've seen that with Kye Allums, for example, who...

MARTIN: Yeah. Tell me about that.

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: How so?

TORRE: Kye came out as a man and was on the women's basketball team at George Washington, a starter, a pretty good player. Came out in season and, really, the entire team was flooded with transgender talk, media inquiries. The coach was overwhelmed, he told us.

And really, you know, the teammates - there became this very awkward dynamic where teammates said they wished that Kye had not come out until after graduation. The coach, Mike Bozeman, told us that he wished that a sports psychologist had come in earlier rather than later. It's just one of those issues that is such a lightning rod for discussion that just the presence of one can really upend a team and athletic program...

MARTIN: Well, so what? I'm...

TORRE: ...if not handled directly.

MARTIN: But let me ask you this. But so what?

TORRE: Sure.

MARTIN: I mean, Jackie Robinson upended the Brooklyn Dodgers and the fans and was an object, you know, had to deal with a lot of stuff.

TORRE: Exactly.

MARTIN: But if there is no argument being made that these athletes have a competitive advantage over other athletes and it can be demonstrated that they don't - an unfair advantage. Right? Again, I have to ask, what's the big deal?

TORRE: Let's just talk about what happens when you have a transgender athlete coming out. I mean, what we're talking about is a civil rights issue on principle. It's the idea of finding a space for somebody who has the right to identify as whatever gender they wish and making sure that they're accommodated in the way that any other "normal," quote, unquote, athlete should be. And that's just something that structurally and on principle isn't in place yet. And it's something that awareness has yet to catch up with. It's something that you need to be able to be prepared for when it happens.

MARTIN: On the other hand, let's look at it from a different direction. On the other hand, that the window in which an elite athlete is going to compete is relatively short. OK? So, is there an argument to be made about why can't you just wait until your playing days are over?

TORRE: Yeah. I mean...

MARTIN: What about that argument?

TORRE: And that's something that every transgender athlete has heard. The problem is that we need to recognize how tough it is to suppress who you are. You talk to a transgender athlete. There's a reason, for example, why you look at surveys of levels of victimization, levels of bullying, levels of discrimination and just thoughts of suicide on the fact that they can't express who they are. And that's something that's incredibly, incredibly tough.

And that was something that I was, you know, I was really moved by when talking to transgender athletes, personally, which was they want to be able to express themselves in some way. Sports is not built to accommodate somebody who fits outside of the traditional gender binary. That's just the fact of how sports was segregated and that's why it is that way.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, how is Keelin preparing for the Olympics and how are - I assume he - I'm calling him he, even though he's competing as a woman...

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...in the women's division because he prefers to live as a man. So, how is he doing and what are his chances? Is he a top contender? Is he going to make the team is, I guess, my question.

TORRE: Keelin has a real shot. He finally hit the minimum qualifying mark last month in May. And really, you know, the top three finish and you go to London. There is a tough field, but Keelin really has a shot and God knows that if Keelin were to make the Olympic team, that would be the biggest moment, a watershed moment, more than anything else, in the history of sports and transgender athletes.

MARTIN: Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He wrote about transgender athletes in the latest issue, which is on newsstands now. Of course, he's a regular in our Barbershop roundtable and he was with us from our bureau in New York. Pablo, thanks so much for joining us.

TORRE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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