Sex and gender are complicated issues, including in sports

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South Africa’s Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the women’s 1500 meters during the Qatar Diamond League on May 4 in Doha, Qatar. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

One thing we all seem to pine for is ‘‘the way things used to be.’’

Call it nostalgia, fear of change, whatever. Even young people wish things were like they were back in, say, third grade.

But nothing stays the same. And the past wasn’t better, just different.

And simpler. So much simpler.

Take, for instance, gender roles in sports. There used to be a simple divide: male teams and female teams. End of story.

But remember when marriage was between a man and a woman? Gay marriages are legal in the United States, even if some bakers refuse to make cakes celebrating such.

We still have male and female competition, but we have something somewhere in between, too: the advent of transgender and gender-fluid athletes who wish to compete with everyone else.

There have been doubts in the past about certain elite athletes’ sex, but it was New York tennis player Renee Richards — formerly Dr. Richard Raskind — who publicly transitioned from male to female in the mid-1970s and, amid great controversy, eventually was able to play as a woman. This got our attention.

I had a friend back then, a book editor in Manhattan, whose eye doctor was Raskind. One day, that friend had to find a new eye doctor because, well, ‘‘Raskind’’ no longer existed.

It was the dawning of an era in which we still are learning that sex and gender are two very different things. The former refers to the biological differences between males and females. The latter is harder to define, but it has to do with the role of males and females in society and the way a person sees his/her sexual identity within.

We’d love for this to be about absolutes, but it’s not.

Yes, women have 46 chromosomes, including two X’s. Men also have 46, including an X and a Y. The Y chromosome is dominant, signaling the embryo to begin growing testes. That’s where testosterone comes from, the male juice that, as the saying goes, makes a bull a bull.

Simple enough, right?

Not always. Some men are born with two or three X chromosomes, and some women are born with a Y. Some babies are born with a mix of male and female parts. It’s usually up to the parents to decide which gender to assign to that child. That’s a tough — maybe impossible — task.

According to the Intersex Society of North America, the number of babies born ‘‘so noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in’’ is about one in 1,500. That means in the Chicago metro area of 9.5 million people, there are about 6,300 intersex citizens.


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Many more people are born with subtler forms of sex variation, some of which don’t show up for years. So this sex/gender thing seems to be more a continuum than a line. It’s a lot more complex than we’d like.

It gives sports — and so much more — a run for the money. Where does it end? Who is what? Can two married men have a baby?

They just did. One parent is gay; the other, who gave birth, is a transgender male. The baby is fine, the New York Times reports.

We get an athlete such as Mack Beggs, a two-time 110-pound high school wrestling champ in Texas. Formerly a female, Beggs is taking testosterone as he transitions to becoming a male. Beggs wanted to wrestle as a boy, but Texas state policy says he must wrestle under the sex listed on his birth certificate.

A lot of people have booed him on the way.

Same, too, with transgender golfer Mianne Bagger, mixed-martial-arts fighter Fallon Fox and Olympic runner Caster Semenya, who is different in that she has undescended testes.

Two transgender high school sprinters in Connecticut recently raised a storm when they finished first and second in the girls’ 100-meter dash. Under Connecticut state rules, athletes can compete based on their self-identified gender.

So where do we go? How do we respond to this ambiguity?

We take a cue from mighty social arbiter Facebook, with its 2.2 billion users. Facebook lists 58 gender options, including androgynous, cisgender, genderqueer, intersex, pangender, trans male and transsexual person.

Change is in the air. As always.

Remember that pink was formerly the color for baby boys and blue for baby girls because blue was the ‘‘softer’’ color. And men were the first to wear high-heeled shoes.

We’ll survive this, too.

Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their gritty, no-holds-barred takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.

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