Because of a range of genetic conditions, people who look like women may have a Y chromosome, while people who look like men may not. And many times these individuals do not learn about such defects until they reach adulthood, when things can become very complicated quite quickly.

The aforementioned is a loosely paraphrased quote from a plastic surgeon who specializes in transgender medicine and was interviewed about genetic testing at the Beijing Olympics. What caught our attention was the term "defects."

It seemed odd to us that a doctor would refer to her patients as being defective just because their chromosomes, or perhaps their genitalia, don't meet the prescribed binary definitions of female and male. However, that may be irrelevant, given that the greater context of the discussion focused upon the validity and legalities of genetic testing of athletes in the Olympic games.

Genetic testing at the Olympics is a relic of the 1960s when some Communist countries, such as the Soviet Union and East Germany, were suspected of entering male athletes in women's events to gain advantage over noncommunist countries. And interestingly enough, only women were tested. They actually had to parade naked in front of a panel of (dare we say voyeuristic?) doctors to verify that they were indeed female and not men in ewes' clothing!

"Does it really matter if that co-worker in the office or cubicle next to you is a male presenting as a woman, or vice versa?"

How humiliating and insulting to spend one's life training for Olympic-level competition only to be debased by suspicions of sexual trickery. All made worse by the fact that no "pseudo" women were ever uncovered during these examinations.

We wonder if some men are so threatened by the possibility of being challenged and even defeated by strong, fit women that they must challenge their credibility and accomplishments. Well, we know the answer to that now, don't we?!

But don't misunderstand, we always enjoy the Olympics, and, as former competitive sports participants ourselves, we appreciate the training, dedication and plain hard work that is involved in achieving Olympic status. We were especially in awe of the magnificent opening ceremonies, as well as the closing, and liked watching snippets about China from the inside.

Whether censored or not, the glimpses of Chinese culture were intriguing and promising. And since we are also long-time patrons of Chinese art, music and theater, the overall presentation only served to enhance the competitive experience for us.

***

Anyway, it's our appreciation of athletic prowess that contributes to our consternation with the entire gender issue. And it's our opinion that individual gender identity or orientation is pretty much irrelevant unless limited to a strict discussion of procreation.

In that case, at least in the human species, a male and female is necessary. But beyond breeding, does it really matter whether or not an individual fits neatly into one category or the other? We don't think so.

"Gender-variant folks are not defects. ... They are parents, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors and school children."

We think folks should be measured by their accomplishments and, in the case of athletes, maybe their skill level, weight class and/or size, but not their actual gender. Perhaps some sports lend themselves to gender division, but many of the events would have remained quite competitive with no concern for gender distinction.

Did anyone question the gender of some of the young boys competing in the pairs diving for instance? Some of them seemed to be quite feminine to us. And what about the track events or volleyball? Lots of strong women as well as men. It might be fun to see some mixed-gender competitions.

Now we aren't saying that all sports should become gender-blind, with the elimination of all women's/girl's and men's/boy's teams. We just think it is time to consider more possibilities, maybe broaden categories of accomplishment and not penalize those who don't fit in neat little boxes of identity.

Sometimes it seems as though most of the world cultures are obsessed with sex, sexuality and gender identity. It certainly seems true of our American culture, almost to the point where we view ourselves as the first folks to have discovered sexuality with all its nuances and, hence, responsible for defining appropriate standards, moral codes and behaviors, with all the inherent contradictions explained away by religiosity, whether real or imagined.

After all, does it really matter if that co-worker in the office or cubicle next to you is a male presenting as a woman or vice versa? Isn't it more important that s/he be an efficient, reliable co-worker and colleague?

Or how much will it affect your life if your next-door neighbors are transgender individuals who mow their lawn, take out their trash, maybe rescue your cat from a tree or send their child off to school?

We dare say that unless you are obsessed with differences or scorn that which you don't understand and refuse to accept individuals for who they are, that colleague or neighbor just might become a friend and someone you are pleased to know.

***

Discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity is just plain wrong. It is hurtful and isolates a group of individuals who have a right to fully participate in society.

"It's our appreciation of athletic prowess that contributes to our consternation with the entire gender issue."

Gender-variant folks are not defects. To be defective is to be broken in some way, or unworkable and unproductive. They are parents, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors and school children. They walk among us, and we must expand our thinking to include everyone, and that extends into the sports arena as well.

Certainly we can do better than humiliate finely tuned athletes with strip searches and genetic blood tests that are irrelevant to their accomplishments.

The era of searching for a "commie" under every rock came to an end some time ago, and it is now time to put to rest paranoid reactions to a nonexistent threat such as those of various gender identities and presentations.

Helen Harrell and Carol Fischer can be reached at hharrell@indiana.edu and cafische@indiana.edu.