According to historians, there is really no one story of when sports emerged as an activity of fun and competition. Most say since children often run around and play, while hunting was also a prominent activity for early humans, there is no exact point in time for when we look back to say, “This is when sports emerged!” However, there is one thing woven into the idea of sports that is not as old a concept, and that is of gender. Influenced by the larger politics of heteropatriarchal ideology, the field of sports has often been associated with glorifying cis men. However, there is hope in that change in history is influenced by what we do in the present. This piece is about people who challenged these notions of gender in their chosen sporting professions in recent times.
Meet Sapir Berman who made the announcement earlier this month. Berman is an Israeli football referee and the first transfeminine one to officiate a game for the Israeli Premier League. The Israeli Football Association congratulated her and it seems that the vast majority of responses she has gotten from the public are positive as well, with people supporting her public transition and wishing her the best.
However, Berman is actually not the first trans referee. That title goes to Lucy Clark, football’s first-ever trans referee who came out in 2018, and is from the UK. Happily married with a wife and three kids, Lucy struggled with her gender identity for years, but added that her wife had been a pillar of strength through the years and the Football Association has been supportive of her as well.
Laurel Hubbard from New Zealand is anticipated to make history by potentially being selected for the Olympics as the first trans competitor for weightlifting. The Tokyo Olympics are set to begin on 23rd July, 2021, and selections will be made in June. Hubbard has qualified for the Olympics since 2015 when the rules were amended to include trans persons as well; Hubbard transitioned in 2013. However, the rules remain limiting and medicalize trans-ness by stating that for a trans person to compete in the women’s category, their testosterone levels have to remain below 10 nanomoles per liter for a minimum of 12 months of the first year of transition.
Closer to home, in 2017, the Kerala State Sports Council organized an exclusive sports meet for people belonging to the trans community. The competition included 100m, 200m, 400m, the 4×100 relay race, shotput, and long jump. This competition encouraged the members of the trans community to compete as their true selves and experience the kind of freedom, joy, and adrenaline that comes with sports without the negativity of heteronormative essentialists. Hopefully, we will see more such events in the future.
In Manipur, Sadam Hanjabam created a football team consisting entirely of trans men. This is the first of its kind in India. Hanjabam is the founder of Ya-All, working towards the empowerment of youth and the queer community in the Northeastern state. He founded the team after noticing the grouping based on the gender binary at the Yaoshang sports festival. After a couple of friendly matches, he was able to turn the six-member team which was created in 2018, into a full-fledged 15 member team of trans men as of 2020.
Of course, there are always skeptics who invite biological essentialism as a critique to undermine the hard work and effort of all these amazing people, but it’s important to recognise that we live in a world that we actively make up as we go. Gender and sex are human concepts constructed to divide and caegorize. In fact, stringent gender norms were perpetuated as per the tradition of various colonizers, and it’s time that we decolonized and left it in the past.
Although sports is considered to be dominantly an activity associated with the physical prowess of the ‘male’, and cis-women are being recognized for making their mark in this field as well, there are people of varied, historically marginalized genders who are making the choice to make history every day by showing up. Even as we seem to note an uptick in conservative ideology around us, we must acknowledge these acts of history as they are happening and hold onto the hopefulness the produce for our collective queer futures.