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Gender testing in sport back in the news

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PetriDIshSouth Korean women’s football in turmoil after coaches demand gender test for star striker.

This week, six of the seven coaches in South Korea’s K-League asked not only that Seoul City’s striker Park Eun-Seon be tested, but insisted that she should be banned from playing until her gender is verified.

It is not the first time Park has suffered this indignity; she was first tested at the age of 15. She is now 26.

Seoul City has come out strongly in defence of its player.

“Asking to verify a fellow human being’s gender is a grave violation of human rights that fundamentally disregards the said person’s character and pride,” said Kim Joon-soo, general manager of Seoul City.

“The question regarding [Park’s] gender identity shall never be raised again. The city of Seoul will take all necessary measures to protect our player’s human rights.”

Since the request became public, the six coaches have backtracked somewhat, saying their comments had been misunderstood. Lee Sung-Gyun, coach of the Suwon FMC club, has resigned over the issue.

Park feels no need to justify herself. On her Facebook page she posted that she feels “humiliated”.

She has undergone several tests in the past, most recently after the 2010 AFC Women’s Asian cup, held in China, after the Chinese media started to ask questions about her gender. The South Korean’s coach’s response was to remove her from the squad, saying that she was not fit enough to be included, which only fuelled the speculation.

Before that, however, she had represented her country at the 2003 Women’s World Cup and the East Asian Cup in 2005, undertaking a gender test each time.

This time for Park it feels different:

“They are the ones who would smile at me and say hello, and now they’re trying to kill me.

“It really hurts because it reminds of the times when some of these coaches tried to recruit me out of high school. They were nice to me for a while and then they turned their backs on me.”

Less determined women than Park may well have crumbled. This is a trumped-up charge, a deliberate and cynical attempt to prevent the league’s best player from playing. Park put away 19 goals in just 22 games last season, making her the league’s leading goalscorer.

She is five feet 10 inches and powerfully built, she is great at the game of football and, therefore, with some kind of twisted logic, she cannot be a woman.

Do these coaches think they have a case? Are they just hoping to sow enough doubt? Park has undergone tests before and each time she has been found to be a woman. How can they think it is acceptable to still be asking these questions?

There is certainly a long, troubled history of gender testing in sport and there is no doubt that frauds, for varying reasons, have been perpetrated, although actual deliberate deceptions have been few.

Other cases have been shaky in the extreme. Maliciousness, jealousy or even plain disbelief of a woman’s talent may be just some of the reasons. But the point is that women are easy targets for this treatment. It goes back to the underlying message that sport for women is “unfeminine”. Any muscular, strong, tall, or even particularly competitive woman must be suspect.

It is hard to credit that these views still prevail today, but Park’s case shows that there are enough people out there who believe that women in sport are “unnatural” that she has to go through repeated humiliation to be able to continue doing the thing that she excels at; the thing that she loves.

I had planned to write a more in-depth study of gender testing, but found so much information and history that I felt I could not do it justice here. If you want to read a more detailed analysis, I strongly suggest that you click here.

Gender testing goes far beyond one group’s attempt to nobble a league’s top scorer through lies and intimidation, shocking though that is. It goes to the very heart of the perception of women who play sport.

While these perceptions hold sway, gender testing will be just another way of denying women an equal place at the sporting table and, indeed, in the wider world.

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