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The 2020 Olympics Is A Missed Opportunity For Much-Needed Trans Representation

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By Rutvi Saxena

There’s a lot of things 2020 took away from us, one amongst which is the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Apart from the usual grandeur and athleticism fans around the world expect from the Olympic games, this year’s event was expected to be a remarkable moment of representation for the LGBTQ+ community with over 100 elite athletes of the community in competition.

From Great Britain’s Tom Daley to the purple-haired favourite Megan Rapinoe to our very own Dutee Chand; the 2020 games were poised to be a bright rainbow in the summer. There’s a lot to celebrate here of course, and gay athletes participated in the Olympics long before they could come out of the closet and onto the stadium without facing a backlash.

We’ve still a long way to go before the field becomes level for all players, especially those who identify as transgender people or as members of the intersex community.

Caster Semenya in action. Source: Wikimedia Commons

From Chris Mosier to Caster Semenya-whose case we’ll come to- we’ve seen how homophobia and lack of awareness can trickle down and morph into discriminatory, invasive and unjust treatment meted out to those with a love for a sport that deviates from the norm. In 2016, the International Olympic Committee allowed transgender athletes to compete even if they have not undergone sex reassignment surgery, but conditions apply differently based on gender here as well.

Athletes, who transition from male to female, must ensure their testosterone levels are below a certain point for at least a year before competing, while no restrictions apply for those who transition from female to male. Chris Mosier, who represented the US internationally and qualified for racewalking at the Olympics understands this differential treatment only too well as a trans man, especially since it is seen to have been to his benefit.

Speaking to BBC for an interview, he summed up the situation by saying, “A lot of people just shrug when they hear that I’m a trans man on the men’s national team and a two-time men’s national champion…people don’t think someone assigned female at birth could ever be competitive with someone assigned male at birth, and I think that’s why we see discrimination against trans women. People believe they have some sort of advantage over any other women, which is simply not true.”

The ‘replacement’ of cisgender female athletes captures public imagination like nothing else. The controversy in 2018 regarding Caster Semenya’s participation especially made this painfully clear. Semenya is legally a female, identifies as such and was raised from birth as one too- her gender is indisputable but her intersex body cannot negotiate with the confused authorities at Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS).

A bit of introductory biology before we get into this further.

The most common intersex condition in intersex female athletes is ‘46 XY DSD’, where a Y chromosome leads to the development of testes- a ‘disorder of sex development’. These are not external organs however, they’re underdeveloped inside their bodies and although they produce testosterone, their receptors don’t function normally. These women thus have a vagina but often no uterus or ovaries and the circulating testosterone may or may not affect the body. Semenya’s case foregrounds the inadequacy of our understanding of the human body, sex, gender, and performance.

Is an XX woman a more ‘real’ woman than an XY one? The difference testosterone can make between a man and woman is up to 12%- all other factors being equal. Semenya’s best time, however, is only 2% faster than her competitors’. Who is to determine how much of this is due to her psychology, training, and natural bodily ability and how much due to the ‘excess’ testosterone?

Moreover, where do we draw the line at ‘natural’ bodily ability anyway? Eero Mäntyranta, a much-beloved Finnish skier made headlines for his genetic mutation that enhanced his red blood cell count by 25-50% (he produced a larger amount of hormone erythropoietin, or EPO). He won several competitions because of this advantage and was not asked to modify his body in any way; is it then ethical to ask Semenya to lower her testosterone forcefully in what will undoubtedly be a risky process that subjects her body to a condition it is not used to?

The Tokyo Olympics presented a unique opportunity to listen to hundreds of athletes, doctors and human rights experts on trans athlete rights.

She had been training and competitively playing for over a decade and was recognised as a female by the International Association of Athletics Federations itself when CAS ruled that she can only continue with a career in sports if she undergoes surgery or takes hormone lowering agents, a judgement that she rightfully called out for being discriminatory.

India, despite being home to persons who identify as trans, for thousands of years and as a crucial part of its cultural heritage, does not understand, or even treat, its trans citizens any better than they are treated globally. It is no wonder then that in the area of international sports-where there is a gamut of accessibility, efficiency and infrastructural loopholes to be closed, being trans is often like being punished.

In India, ordinary people continue to undergo ‘punishment’ despite the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2019, (Now passed) ostensibly meant to protect transgender people. The bill requires a physical examination by a District Magistrate after a mandatory sex-reassignment surgery before an official instance of ‘sex change’ can be recorded. As expected there has been opposition, clearly, the bill displays a complete lack of sensitivity and even openness to the trans community’s voice.

Image source: Devesh Khatu/Facebook

The LGBT+ community then, already struggling to find a healthy definition of themselves in a heteronormative and often homophobic society is further marginalised in sports, when one’s body occupies the limelight. While sexual orientation is slowly finding acceptance and representation at the global level, the nuances of sex, gender and sport are still misunderstood by and large. Amidst the clamour for who can play where, it is the players who despite winning medals, end up losing the most.

This article was first published here.

About the author: Rutvi Saxena is an English Literature graduate from Miranda House, University of Delhi and a published writer on gender, culture, travel and international affairs. Her academic pursuit of the humanities has led to a long-lasting interest in societal structures and how they impact individuals in a variety of contexts.

Ungender Insights is the product of our learning from advisory work at Ungender. Our team specializes in advising workplaces on workplace diversity and inclusion. Write to us at to understand how we can partner with your organization to build a more inclusive workplace.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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