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What is Gender Verification?

A gynecologist is usually part of a gender verification panel.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 April 2014
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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 gender 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 gender 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.

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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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