athletes · family · gender policing · stereotypes

Gender Policing of Girls in Children’s Sports

gender police comic

A friend of mine has an eleven year-old daughter, Maggie, who is gifted at sports. She is good at baseball, soccer, hockey, and has even played football on a boys team. Maggie also has a preference for keeping her hair short.

My friend got an email message from Maggie’s soccer coach the other day. Apparently, not once but twice recently the referees (young men) have literally STOPPED THE GAME and confronted Maggie about playing on U12 (under 12) girls team. Why? Because it’s a girls’ league, of course, and only girls are allowed to play.

My blood began to boil right then and there as my friend told me this story over lunch.

The coach was more than a little annoyed. She was writing to Maggie’s mother to let her know what had happened and how she (the coach) handled it. Instead of dealing with the referees directly, she felt strongly that the convenor should take this up with all the referees. The coach requested that the convenor send an email message to all refs outlining “appropriate conduct.” She emphasized that questions about eligibility should be directed to the coach, not the child. And the ref certainly should not stop play and confront the child in front of the entire field. The coach has players’ cards that prove eligibility and brings them to all games.

The ref was engaged in gender policing. Maggie defies gender norms and expectations for girls in two distinct ways that make people uncomfortable or even angry. First, she has short hair. It’s striking to see the team photo, where she sits among the rest of her long-haired, pony-tailed teammates. Second, she’s really, really good at sports, often ending the season as the team’s most valuable player. What conclusion do people draw from this? She must be a boy.

It’s also relevant, I think, that Maggie’s coach is a woman. Why? Because calling into question a players’ eligibility in the midst of a game also challenges the coach’s basic competence. The ref’s intervention assumes that the coach is so oblivious to the rules of the game that she doesn’t even know who is and is not eligible to play in the girls U12 league that she coaches in. Alternativelly, it is a challenge to the coach’s integrity, tantamount to accusing her of cheating by putting boys onto her team.

A more obvious inference would be that since this is a girls’ U12 league, all the players on the field must be girls under 12.

Gender policing in sport is nothing new, of course. Remember when Caster Semenya did so well on the track in 2009 that she had to undergo gender testing?

I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that this goes on in children’s sports too, but I confess to being shocked at the behaviour of the two referees who intervened in exactly the same inappropriate manner on two separate occasions.

This kind of policing is not new to Maggie and other girls who choose to wear their hair short. Hair length is one of the most obvious markers that our society uses to tell the girls from the boys, especially during childhood when parents usually have more say over the way their children present themselves to the world than the children do.

Maggie’s parents are committed to raising empowered daughters who believe that they are allowed to make their own choices. So she gets to cut her hair short. Her sister gets to keep hers long. Maggie gets to dress in androgynous styles, while her younger sister chooses clothes more easily recognizable as “for girls.” It is not easy for children to choose androgyny given how gendered children’s clothing is. Maggie’s style choice means that people frequently “read” her as a boy.

My friend is considering putting Maggie in boys’ hockey this winter because in general she is challenged less when she is on a boys’ team, at least for the time being. This is not because the boys think she is a boy. It’s more that, at least at this age, as long as she can play they don’t care much whether she’s a boy or a girl.

Maggie is learning about gender policing at a really young age. This summer’s lessons have not been her first. Even at age nine she was challenged on more than one occasion by strangers in the women’s restroom at the mall or the movies.

This type of policing of children’s gender identities doesn’t just happen to girls. Boys who are attracted to hairstyles and styles of dress, activities, and toys that are coded as being “for girls” are also given grief, bullied, and challenged. Their sexuality is called into question. Parents and other adults will, as they do with girls who do not conform to norms of femininity, often coerce or coax or simply order them to “fall into line.”

Parents who are more permissive about their children’s need to express themselves are often reprimanded by friends, family members, and other parents for allowing their child to flout gender norms.

Here are some things that are wrong with gender policing:

1. Calling someone’s gender into question, especially in confrontational manner, assumes that it is your business. It’s not. You don’t get to monitor people and keep them under surveillance and challenge them when you think they’re doing something that’s wrong for their gender.

2. Gender policing, most sadly, drives home the point that most people are completely confused about how to deal with someone unless and until they know whether the person is a girl or a boy, a woman or a man. Why does this make so much difference? Gender determines who gets taken seriously and who doesn’t, who has power and who does not, who has authority and who does not, who is a strong competitor and who is not, who we need to sexualize and sexually harass who we do not need to, who we need to worry about having an unfair advantage (e.g. a boy on a girls team, a woman who we thought was a man), who we need to marginalize, and a whole raft of other things.

3. Gender policing reinforces a false and harmful gender binary that slots people into very restrictive categories. It has been argued that both gender and sex are not binaries, but rather continuums. We don’t just have the femmy femmes and the manly men, or the girlie girls and the rough and tumble boys, but lots of people in between. Yet we demonize and castigate people who exist on what we perceive as the wrong side of the gender binary. Why else would people say of a girl with short hair that she has “a boy’s haircut.” She has short hair for goodness sake. Since when did boys get to have a monopoly on short hair?

4. Following on that last point, gender policing assumes that everyone is male or female. But it’s not just masculinity and femininity that exist on a continuum. Not everyone identifies as either male or female. Intersex is real and many argue that it ought not be considered a “medical condition.” Anne Fausto-Sterling has done extensive work on sex differences and launched compelling arguments against received scientific views about the biology of gender and sexuality.

5. Gender policing is insensitive and offensive to trans people. Again, it assumes that everyone ought to be a cisgendered male or female, that is, that their sex and gender identities should fit with the sex they were assigned at birth and that when that is not the case, there is something normatively wrong.

It may be that children and adults who present themselves androgynously or who, even further, present as a different sex or gender than that which they have been raised as (or, as Fausto-Sterling might argue, which has been chosen for them), might sometimes be misidentified in all innocence. That’s really not the issue. The issue is more about how pervasive gender norms are and how strongly they appear to be required for ordinary interactions.

Author and performer Ivan Coyote has a wonderful piece in which she wonders whether people whom she is interacting with, such as the cashier or the bank teller or the cab driver or the barber, are wondering whether she is a “she” or a “he.” Ivan questions how much information it is necessary to tell them. Does she clarify what her anatomy is to these strangers? She lists a host of intimate facts she could tell them about herself before the completion of their casual transaction or interaction, and then concludes: “But that would definitely be an overshare.”

And she’s right. How much do we need to know about someone before we can interact with them? Not so much in theory, but in practice people are completely flummoxed when confronted with ambiguous gender. Gender’s normative force is tremendous.

Maggie knows what she is experiencing. She is learning about the normativity of gender at an early age because she is going against what is expected and getting backlash as a result. Children who do not break from what is expected have an easier time of it because they are not forced even to notice the way gender shapes them into who they are.  But having an easier time by being less aware of the social forces that operate on them isn’t such a great thing.

Having girls like Maggie in the league can go a little way to re-shaping the preconceptions of every girl around her, possibly making them reflect enough to realize that it’s not as simple as they have been led to believe and that it’s okay not to conform all the time. When the ref called Maggie on her gender, a girl on the other team said, “Hey, I like her hair!”

[comic credit: Tatuya Ishida, “Don’t Fence Me In”, 2012-08-21]

15 thoughts on “Gender Policing of Girls in Children’s Sports

  1. Great post. Thanks. Here in Australia sport is really big. But although we have many outstanding female athletes, 95% of media coverage is about male sports. I have a girl and she’s a really girly girl. I tried to encourage her to come and play soccer, to which she replied “Girls can’t play soccer”. She’d never seen any coverage of women playing soccer – ergo they can’t do it. Face palm. It’s an uphill struggle to bridge the gender divide in sports, both in terms of others’ perceptions of girls playing sports, and the messages about sport they internalize from a really young age.

    1. Thanks. So true how the lack of media coverage sends the message that “girls can’t play “. I hope your daughter decides to try out a few things that social messaging leads her to believe “girls can’t do”!

  2. Thank you so much for shining some light on such an important topic. Let’s let people be who they are and not feel the need to categorize them into a specific group. What a waste of energy. I really appreciate your knowledge and insight.

  3. the ‘short hair’ thing just kills me. i have always worn my hair short. it suits my lifestyle better. the assumptions people make though, because it’s short, are just ridiculous.

  4. The gender policing of children is a bit overwhelming and not just in sports. My gender rebellious children have had issues all the way along, even as very young children. If you ever want evidence that this system of gender is forced on people at a young age, ask parents of a child who wants to colour outside the lines of gender even a little bit.

    1. Yes. I’ve seen this in different friends’ kids, both boys and girls. It’s pervasive and you’re quite right that it goes way beyond sports.

  5. As a former soccer referee, I suspect that the referee in question was either inexperienced or incompetent. For almost all competitive leagues, the referee checks the players in before the game, and any issues with identity and elegibility are handled then. The only time that this sort of confrontation should occur on the field is if the player arrived late, after the game had started. And then, the referee should have the players identification cards in his/her possession and simply checks the player against the card. Stopping the game to confront a player demonstrates a lack of control of the soccer pitch and lack of self-confidence.
    Bottom line: report the referee to the league and protest the demonstrated bias.

    1. Helpful. That’s pretty much what the coach did. Note that this happened with two separate referees. Clearly, the league needs to do a bit of work with the newer refs and have a better protocol in place (such as what you described) for confirming eligibility of all the players prior to the start of the game.

  6. This happened to me as a child for the same reasons– short hair on a girl + being the best on your team or “standing out” in any way because of how good you are (I was extremely fast as a child soccer player so i stood out that way) = “must be a boy.” It is utterly insulting and humiliating to have an adult confront you about whether you are a “real” girl or not in public, in front of your friends, in front of your coach and the other team. The power imbalance is terrifying for a child in that situation and you feel totally helpless to do or say anything to defend yourself (after all, what can you do? “Prove” it? By what, pulling down your pants? Many who would accuse you of cheating would easily not be swayed by what they would suspect is a falsified player card). Besides, a child doesn’t understand gender or have witty comebacks, and contrary to what this post suggests, just because you have short hair doesn’t mean you are “presenting as” anything, or trying to puth forth some sort of identity statement– you just want to play and not stand out, having short hair is practical and considered ‘cute’ and ‘feminine’ on girls in other contexts, etc. Of course the fact that this simple stuff conflicts with your gender does say that you have a “gender problem,” but it is misunderstanding that problem, I think, to locate it inside the girl in question, to see it as some sort of “identity” issue.

    for me the lessons here are life lessons that I was forced to learn at a young age:
    1. many people feel an intense need to police it in order to quell their own anxieties, and
    2. being good at sport is coded “masculine” and is therefore anti-feminine, full stop, and will thus always be a “problem” for women and percieved as a threat by some defenders of sex-roles (gender).

  7. From as young as I can remember, my choices of clothing, hairstyle, behavior,and activities seemed to compel people (mostly peers) to ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Most of the time, the question was accompanied by a sneer or a facial expression that said “I’m not sure what you are, so, eww.” I wish I’d had the wit and confidence to reply either, “Why do you need to know?” or, simply, “Yes.”

    When I look back now, as a 49-yr-old woman who still prefers styles and activities generally considered “male,” my heart breaks for “little kid me” who hung her head and ashamedly clarified, “I’m a girl.” I haven’t yet figured out if the shame was from knowing that my way of being was considered to be unacceptable, unattractive, and inappropriate . . . or because while others were sneering at my masculinity, my big brother was sneering at me with disgust and disdain while stating, “You’re a girl.”

    What’s really funny (or perhaps sad), is that when he would accuse me of being a girl, I would look him square in the eyes while loudly and forthrightly declaring, “I am NOT!”


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