Thursday, August 07, 2008

1936: The Transgender Olympics

Apparently, Dora Ratjen wasn't the only Olympian with some candy to hide.  Per Jennifer Finney Boylan in the Times:

In the 1936 Olympic Games, the sprinter Stella Walsh — running for Poland and known as the fastest woman in the world — was beaten by Helen Stephens of St. Louis, who set a world record by running 100 meters in 11.4 seconds. After the race, a Polish journalist protested that Stephens must be a man. After all, no woman in the world could run that fast.

Olympic officials performed a “sex test” on Stephens, who was found, in fact, to be female, proving once and for all that a person could be incredibly fast and female at the same time.

Forty-four years later, Walsh, who had become an American citizen, was shot to death in the parking lot of a discount store in Cleveland. Her autopsy revealed a surprise: It was Stella Walsh, and not Helen Stephens, who turned out to have been male all along, at least according to the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s office.

 As she goes on to explain, Walsh seems to have had male genitalia, but both xx and xy chromosomes.  The same year, Hermann/Dora Ratjen was also competing for Germany.    Apparently, Ratjen's genitalia were "ambiguous."  Now, it strikes us a weird coincidence that both of them were competing in the same year, but maybe not so much.  The more we study it, the more evidently the biological line between male and female is neither bright nor clear. Boylan argues that Walsh was a woman and Ratjen was a man, not because of their physical characteristics but because of how they lived their lives.  Walsh lived as  a woman; Ratjen, after the competitive years were over, went back to life as a man. 

Boylan's essay, which compares Ratjen and Walsh, is a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of gender and its relation to sport.  Well and good.  But we at the Egg are still stuck on the Berlin Olympics.  Nazis, crossdressers, androgynes, and Jesse Owen shoving it in Hitler's face.  Seriously -- weirdest Olympiad ever? 

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