It seems like most folks these days have come around to the idea that sexuality can (and often is) a continuum, rather than a binary quality. Why, then, can the same thing not be true of gender?

Nevertheless, recurring controversies crop up all across the United States on a regular basis, with transgendered people being persecuted even for using the restroom of their choice. But now, another familiar controversy has found its way into the Olympics, and it, too, concerns gender identity.

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“Maybe Not 100 Percent”

Transgendered athletes have always had a rough time of it.

Take, for example, Caster Semenya — a 25-year-old South African and rising star in the track and field world. She’s been dominating her competition since the age of 18, when she won the 800 at the world track and field championships by a full two seconds.

She was also called out by some not-so-open-minded folks in the media for being “a man.”

It’s true that Semenya does not fall neatly into a “traditional” gender role. Because she has a condition called hyperandrogenism, her body produces three times as much testosterone as you’d find in the “average woman,” and she has no uterus or ovaries. These qualities have put her at the center of attention — and controversy — for years, and now that controversy has followed her to the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Back in 2009, the International Association of Athletics Federations — worldwide governing body for the track and field association — came to Semenya’s defense: “She is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent.” A tepid response, perhaps, and ultimately not enough: Semenya was subjected to gender tests and ultimately barred from competing.

Primitive Thinking

Caitlyn Jenner was just the beginning: the face that this movement needed. The truth is, there are transgendered people all over the country and the world who just need a compassionate voice to speak for them. They want the same jobs as the rest of us, the same opportunities and the same level of basic respect. Where else in the world would a symbolic victory for gender equality mean more to us as a species than the Olympic Games? The more “enlightened” countries crow all the time about “gender equality,” but when given an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to that idea, we frequently fail to do so.

Why do we separate sports by genders in the first place? Why have we fought so long and so bitterly about women taking their place alongside men in the armed forces? Why are the Abrahamic religions so adamant that women cannot decide what happens to their bodies, and cannot become clerics and pastors themselves?

These are all examples of primitive thinking — and until we overcome them, they’re going to continue warping any conversation we try to have about actual freedom and real equality. As long as we’re judging people according to which pieces of equipment their bodies have and which they do not, what does something like an Olympics even mean?

We’ve decided that gender has no measurable impact on a person’s ability to vote as an informed citizen, hold down a job or even succeed in a combat role in the United States military. But why does gender confuse us so much in the realm of sports?

Segregation Is Segregation

More to the point: why do we segregate men and women at all in professional sporting events? Neither gender is necessarily stronger, faster or more capable than the other. So why do we allow it to split the professional athletic community down the middle? Aren’t we all just folks?

Science (and the Journal of the American Medical Association) tells us that there’s no “fundamental difference” between an inherited disorder that influences testosterone levels and a disorder that produces extra hemoglobin in the blood.

Higher-than-average hemoglobin levels cannot disqualify you from participation in the Olympics. And there also appears to be no definitive evidence that women with higher testosterone levels have an inherent advantage. (Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter with a similar condition, did not advance past the first 100-meter race.)

We participate in the Olympics to celebrate our humanness, don’t we? Distinctions beyond that are a distraction. And we’ve really let ourselves get distracted with this particular distinction. We’re literally arguing about how much testosterone you need to have in your body before we know which of two categories of people to associate you with. Why is that a more accurate measurement than which gender you feel you identify with? And why categorize at all, when there seems to be no inherent advantage to owning blood with heightened hemoglobin or testosterone … or even being a man or a woman?

Let’s just cut it out. Do away with gender segregation at the Olympics altogether. It’s really not as crazy as it sounds. We lost interest in segregated water fountains a generation ago, and even gendered bathrooms don’t appear to be long for this world. We don’t seem capable of letting people decide for themselves which gender they identify with, so it seems the only course open to us is to make sure gender can never be used as a barrier that prevents a person from living their life the way they want to. Remove it from the equation, since it’s really a human-devised concept, anyway.

Maybe the trouble is that sports are, at their essence, about entertaining people. And maybe we need our entertainment to be safe and free from controversy. That seems to me like just more proof that we need to grow up.

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Holly Whitman

Holly Whitman is the author behind Only Slightly Biased, a freelance journalist and striving to be one of the best women political writers on the web. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Finance, Fortune, Politicus, Bust and Feministing. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman.

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