The Curious Case of Shanthi: The Issue of Transgender in Indian Sports

Sudeshna Mukherjee, Bangalore University          

Background of the study

Shanthi Soundarajan an Indian runner was born in 1981 in the village of Kathakkurichi in Pudukkottai District of Tamil Nadu, India. Soundarajan, a dalit by birth belongs to poorest of poor category. She grew up in a small hut devoid of toilet, water or electricity. Her mother and father had to go to another town to work in a brickyard, where they earned the equivalent of $4 a week. While they were gone, Shanthi, the oldest, was in charge of taking care of her four siblings. Sometimes, Soundarajan’s grandfather, an accomplished runner, helped while her parents were away. When she was 13, he taught her to run on an open stretch of dirt outside the hut and bought her a pair of shoes. At her first competition, in eighth grade, Soundarajan won a tin cup; she collected 13 more at interschool competitions. The sports coach at a nearby high school took note of her performances and spotted her. The school paid her tuition and provided her with uniform and lunch. Athletics gave a new dimension to her life engulfed with struggles.

She had very impressive track record to her credit. At a national meet in Bangalore in July 2005 she won the 800m, 1,500m and 3000m.In 2005 she attended the Asian Athletics Championships in South Korea, where she won a silver medal. In 2006, she was chosen to represent India at the Asian Games held in Doha, Qatar. In the 800 meters, Soundarajan took the silver in 2 minutes, 3.16 seconds, beating Viktoriya Yalovtseva of Kazakhstan by 0.03. This win and a subsequent failed gender test lead to Soundarajan becoming embroiled in an ongoing, unresolved debate over the issue of transgender and sports (BBC News ,2006).She was told results indicated that she “does not possess the sexual characteristics of a woman” (BBC News, 2006). Soon after the results of the sex test came out, she was stripped of her silver medal.

In this backdrop, my descriptive, diagnostic study, based secondary data, would like to trace the plights of transgender sports personnel in India and abroad.

Conceptualizing Transgender:

A person’s sex is rooted in biology. Sex is “either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species…distinguished respectively as female or male especially on the basis of their reproductive organs and structures” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). On the other hand, gender is a socio-cultural construction. It is the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex. Transgender is an umbrella term that describes “individuals whose gender identity doesn’t match the gender identity commonly experienced by those of the individuals’ natal sex” (Buzuvis, 2011).

Transgender is a general term applied to a variety of individual, behaviors and group involving tendencies that diverge from the normative gender role (woman or man) commonly, but not always, assigned at birth, as well as the role traditionally held by society.Transgender is the state of one’s “gender identity” (Self-identification as male, female, both or neither) not matching one’s assigned gender”(identification by others as male or female based on physical/genetic sex) Transgender does not imply any specific form of sexual orientation, they may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual or asexual. The precise definition for transgender remains in flux, but include, of relating to or designating a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender, but combines or moves between these.

A transgender individual may have characteristics that are normally associated with a particular gender, identify elsewhere on the traditional gender continuum, or exist outside of it as “other”, “a-gender”, “inter-gender” or third gender.

According to S.Kessler & W.Mekenna (1978) in theory, transgender is a challenge to the Social Construction of gender. In practice, it is usually transgender people in one way or another not place them outside the conventional male/female dichotomy, yet live in social world that recognizes only females and males. In the light of three possible meanings of trans, they considered to deconstruct gender.

The prefix “trans” has 3 different meanings. Trans means change, as in the word “transform”. In this first sense transgender people change their bodies to fit the gender they feel they always were. Transgender in this sense is synonymous with what is typically meant by the term (Kessler & Mekenna, 1978).

In the second sense “Trans” means across as in the word “transcontinental”. In this sense a transgendered person is one who moves across genders. This meaning does not imply being essentially or permanently committed to one or the other gender and therefore has a more social-constructionist connotation. The transgender person in this meaning does not leave the realm of two genders. The emphasis is on the “crossing” and not on any surgical transformation accompanying it such a person might say “I want people to attribute the gender “female” to me, but I’m not going to get my genitals changed. I don’t mind having my penis”. It is more like a previously unthinkable combination of male and female (Martin and Nguyen, 2004).

Third meaning of “trans” is beyond or through”. In this a trans gendered person is one who has gotten through gender, beyond gender. No clear gender attribution can be made, or is allowed to make. Gender ceases to exist, both for this person and those with whom they interact (Martin and Nguyen, 2004). This third meaning is the most radical, which talks for elimination of gender.

The term transgender was popularized in the 1970’s describing people who wanted to live cross-gender without sex reassignment surgery. In the 1980’s the term was expanded to an umbrella term and became popular as a means of uniting all those whose gender identity did not mesh with their gender assigned at birth. In the 1990’s the term took on a political dimension as an alliance covering all those who have at some print not conformed to gender norms, and the term became used to question the validity of those norms or pursue equal rights and antidiscrimination legislation, leading to its widespread usage in the media, academic world and law. The term continues to evolve; Transgender identity includes many overlapping categories including transsexual, cross-dressers, and transvestite and so on. Among these the term “transsexual” requires little elaboration, as it is closer to the term transgender.

Transsexual is a subcategory under the transgender umbrella. Three criteria are used to classify a transgender individual as transsexual: “(1) persistent discomfort about one’s Birth-Sex, (2) at least two years of persistent preoccupation with acquiring the sex characteristics of the other sex, and (3) having reached puberty (the age at which the reproductive organs mature)”( Pilgrim,2003 495- 501 ) .Transsexual people have deep conviction that the gender to which they were assigned at birth on the basis of their physical anatomy or birth gender is incorrect. That conviction often compels them to undergo hormonal or surgical treatment to bring their physical identity into line with their preferred acquired gender identity.

Transsexualism is not the same as cross-dressing for sexual thrill, psychological comfort or compulsion. It is not the same as being sexually attracted towards people of the same sex. Many transsexual people wish to keep their condition private, and this must be respected and they should be treated as members of their acquired gender…Access Full Text of the Article

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