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How Is Transphobia and Testosterone Regulations Casting a Shadow on Women Athletes?

In a recent controversy surrounding Indian heptathlete Swapna Barman, who lost a bronze medal to Nandini Agasara at the 19th Asian Games, a discussion on transphobia and testosterone regulations in sports has emerged, shedding light on the persistent scrutiny faced by women athletes.

Barman initially claimed on social media that she lost the medal to a “transgender” woman, sparking a swift dismissal from the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). Later, Barman issued unconditional apologies, but the incident highlighted systemic issues in the sporting world, including the intersection of transphobia and the constant scrutiny of women athletes’ bodies.

The underlying notion that a trans woman’s body inherently holds an athletic advantage over cisgender women has led to ongoing scrutiny of women athletes who deviate from conventional female physical standards. Cis women athletes have often undergone humiliating sex verification tests, impacting both their personal and professional lives.

Barman’s specific allegations against Nandini Agasara, a 20-year-old from Telangana, were based on the assumption that Agasara’s performance improvement in just four months was indicative of a transgender woman’s “biological advantage.” This claim aligns with broader assumptions that led World Athletics (WA) to ban trans women athletes from competing in the women’s category based on testosterone levels.

The controversy raises questions about the fairness and validity of restrictions on athlete eligibility, especially pertaining to testosterone levels. Critics argue that existing research challenges the notion that testosterone is a consistent variable determining athletic performance.

The history of “sex tests” mandated for women athletes since 1966 reflects deeply entrenched issues related to the male gaze and societal expectations. Women athletes, whether cisgender or transgender, find themselves navigating contradictory regulations and standards regarding their bodies, impacting their body image, mental health, and adherence to societal ideals of femininity.

While the focus on fairness differs between men’s and women’s sports, women athletes continually face challenges, with their bodies subject to scrutiny for not adhering to traditional standards. The fixation on “fairness” not only excludes trans and intersex women but also places undue pressure on cis women to conform to shifting societal expectations.

The controversy involving Swapna Barman serves as a catalyst for broader discussions on the intersection of transphobia, testosterone regulations, and the persistent challenges faced by women athletes. It calls for a reevaluation of existing norms and a more inclusive approach to recognizing and celebrating the diversity of women in sports.

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