Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex athletes in the Olympic and Paralympic Games: Human rights, unfair advantage and exclusion

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Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI+) people suffer human rights abuses in many parts of the world, often at the behest of the authorities that are supposed to protect them. Whilst developments in sport have occurred around LGBTI+ rights in sport, some have questioned the extent to which this has happened (Parry, Kavanagh and Storr, 2018). Rigid and dichotomous (either/or) gender binaries grounded in traditional patriarchal expectations about the roles of men and women in society also shape ‘naturalised’ heterosexist binaries of sex and sexuality. Such rigid gender norms resonate well in mainstream sport, with the most celebrated and rewarded sporting events and heroes exemplifying traditional masculinity and with gender-segregated sports competition tending to reflect traditional binary divisions of male and female.

Males with supposed innate masculine qualities such as strength, aggression/assertiveness, independence and stoicism contrast females with supposed innate feminine qualities such as emotionalism, weakness, nurturance, gentleness and gracefulness (Krane and Symons, 2014). Most modern sports have separate male and female competitions which are based on deeply held views that men are naturally better than women at sport. Furthermore, whilst men’s athletic prowess, toughness and physical strength are usually celebrated, such characteristics can be seen as problematic for women unless they can also demonstrate femininity and heterosexuality. Homonegativity/homophobia can come into play when athletes do not fit the gender binary. LGBTI+ athletes can face serious human rights challenges within this sport context.

High-profile cases have accelerated global discussions of LGBTI+ rights including the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and Paralympics, in which the host Federation of Russia’s legislature had enacted a law in 2014 banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to children and young people”.

The inconvenient presence of what critics called human rights violations surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics revitalized the idea that modern sport might serve as a vehicle for foreign policy. Specifically, the Sochi Games represented the first mega sporting event that has generated the level of international attention on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights as human rights in a host country.

(Kw Rheenen, 2014, p. 128)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has taken steps to enable diversity and challenge discrimination, making specific reference to sexual orientation in Principle 6 of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism contained in the IOC’s Olympic Charter (added at the 127th IOC Session in Monaco, December 2014). Host bidding contracts for the Olympics and Paralympics from 2022 onwards are also expected to adhere to a binding non-discrimination clause based on Principle 6 (IOC, 2017).

These LGBTI+ human rights initiatives taken by the IOC are only the beginning, as much needs to be done to embed such commitments in the organisation and delivery of a Mega Sports Event (MSE) such as the Olympics and Paralympics, and implementation also relies on many of the affiliated sports organisations, large and small, to firstly recognise LGBTI+ human rights and acknowledge the stigma and discrimination many LGBTI+ people face in sport and society more broadly. This chapter provides an overview of various human rights risks and challenges faced by LGBTI+ people, particularly athletes, involved with the Olympic and Paralympic Games; the current international legal, policy and political context in relation to human rights and LGBTI+ people; and the existing policy and practices of leading international sports bodies such as the IOC. Historical accounts and selected case studies are outlined to illustrate human rights challenges as well as opportunities to further LGBTI+ human rights within the international sports arena.

Defining LGBTI

Terms such as ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ are commonly used to discuss human rights issues for LGBTI+ people within the international context, as they allow for diverse lived expressions and contingent identities based on sexualities (heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, asexual, etc.) and individuals who are gender or sex-diverse.

In this chapter LGBTI+ is used as an inclusive umbrella term to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, as well as those who may define themselves according to other terms in relation to their sexual orientation, sex characteristics and/or gender identity (hence the plus). As such this chapter adopts the term LGBTI+. What follows is a brief definition of each letter of the LGBTI+ acronym:

  • • Lesbian and gay refers to individuals attracted to people of the same sex as themselves.
  • • Bisexual refers to people attracted to both sexes to varying degrees.
  • • Transgender refers to people who live a gender identity that differs from their sex assigned at birth. Transgender people may have any sexual orientation. They may or may not seek surgery or hormonal treatment to bring their sex in line with their core gender identity.
  • • Intersex refers to a wide range of people with intersex variations — physical and biological sex characteristics (sex anatomy, reproductive organs, hormone patterns, chromosomal patterns), which do not fit typical binary notions or traditional conceptualisations of male and female bodies. These characteristics can be present at birth or emerge later in life.
  • • + Encompasses people who identify with other terms and lived experiences of sex/gender/ sexual orientation than those mentioned earlier, such as non-binary, gender non-conforming, gender fluid, queer and/or questioning.

Whilst LGBTI+ is one of the most common terms used to describe diverse genders and sexualities, especially in Western societies, there is a wide range of different sexual and gendered identities including indigenous societies’ third genders and complex variations across sex, sexuality and gender lines. These identities of the Global South differ from the gender binary that predominates in Western societies. For example, there are the herdachc of the North American Indian, the kathoey of Thailand, the Indonesian waria, the Moroccan hasas, the inanhu of Tahiti and Hawaii, the Luban kitesha in parts of the Congo, the mati of Suriname and the Fa’afafine of Samoa (Krane and Symons, 2014; Herdt, 1994; Wekker, 1999). Individuals who identify as third gender/indigenous sex/gendering, non-binary, or gender non-conforming are basically absent within discussions of sport and broader human rights, and this is an under-researched area. TI + as well as third gender/indigenous sex/gendered athletes do not fit well with this binary medically determined sports model.1

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