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What Is Gender Verification?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Gender verification is a procedure used in sports to ensure that people are qualified to participate in gender-restricted events. The main goal of gender testing is to prevent men from masquerading as women in events which are only open to women, under the assumption that male athletes would have an unfair advantage over women. This practice is controversial in some communities because of the risk of false positives, and some organizations have lobbied to ban or radically reform this verification on the grounds that it is discriminatory.

In the international sporting community, gender verification has been used since the 1960s. Gender testing originally started in response to concerns that the Soviet Union was entering male athletes as women, and early verification was crude: the athletes were simply ordered to strip for examination. Modern gender testing involves chromosomal testing, with the earliest chromosomal tests simply looking for the two X chromosomes associated with biological women. Modern tests check for presence of the Y chromosome associated with males.

The primary issue with chromosomal gender verification is that it does not address the issue of people with sexual differentiation disorders. As it turns out, there are a number of combinations of the X and Y chromosome, such as XXY, XXYY, or XXX. Individuals with abnormalities on the sex chromosome are referred to as “intersexual.” One famous Polish athlete, Ewa Klobukowska, had just such an abnormality, and she was banned from competition, despite the fact that doctors agreed that she had no unfair advantage. Critics of gender verification point out that she was essentially unfairly discriminated against because of a medical condition she knew nothing about prior to her failed gender test.

Because of the issue of intersexuality, gender verification usually includes a panel of people, including an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, a psychologist, and an internal medicine specialist. Athletes who fail gender tests can be examined by this panel to determine whether or not they should be allowed to compete as women. As a general rule, most sexual differentiation disorders do not confer any additional advantages, and in some cases, they actually cause health problems which an athlete must overcome in order to compete on the international level, so athletes are often cleared for competition after review. Incidentally, post-operative transsexual athletes are allowed to compete in events like the Olympics, as long as they have completed at least two years of hormone treatment.

Opponents of gender verification believe that the issue could be resolved more simply during routine doping tests, when athletes must provide a urine sample under supervision. Athletes with the wrong genitalia would presumably be easily identified when they gave samples, while intersexual individuals would not be targeted.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1002959 — On Mar 31, 2020

Response to "MrsPramm" comment: "I wish there were more sports where men and women competed with and against each other rather than everything being divided up each time."

There is. It's called marriage.

By pastanaga — On Jun 06, 2014

@irontoenail - But the way they determine gender isn't really fair either. I get that certain aspects of biological gender might confer an advantage, but those aspects are all that should be tested for.

There are women out there who might be intersex but still have all the hormonal systems of a biological female.

There might be women out there with hormonal issues who are chromosomal female but have male hormones and all the advantages those confer. Why should one get to compete and the other not?

By irontoenail — On Jun 05, 2014

@MrsPramm - The problem with allowing teams to have men and women or competing men against women directly in individual sports is that it would eliminate the possibility of women being able to compete at all.

If the only option was for all women and men interested in football was for them to try out for the same team, there would be very, very few women picked because no matter how hard they train there will always be men who trained just as hard and also had the physical advantage of testosterone.

Which is why it's a necessary evil for people to go through gender verification. Otherwise it's like letting a heavyweight boxer play against a middleweight. The contest isn't fair.

By MrsPramm — On Jun 04, 2014

I wish there were more sports where men and women competed with and against each other rather than everything being divided up each time. I would find team sports much more interesting if it wasn't always such a monotonous group of people playing.

I mean, I understand that there are physical differences between people who are biologically male or female, but the physical aspect of a sport is never as interesting as the psychological aspect anyway.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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