In an article in “Vanity Fair” magazine in 1932 sports writer Paul Gallico labelled 20) Mildred “Babe” Didrikson a “muscle moll”. It was not meant as a compliment. For many men the sight of women sweating during competitive sport was considered very unfeminine and undesirable. This attitude was hard to get rid of. Even with criticism directed at them it did nothing to stop women from taking up athletics.
Mildred Didrikson Zaharias, known as “Babe”, pursued many sports – track and field athletics, baseball, basketball, softball, diving, bowls and roller skating. Her competitive career began in 1931 playing basketball for the insurance company where she worked. She became famous a year later when the company entered her into the Amateur Athletics Union national championships. Babe won 5 out of the 8 track and field events she entered, setting 5 world records in the process. This lead to her inevitable inclusion in the US team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. She won 2 gold medals and 1 silver.
After the Olympics Babe left athletics behind and took up golf. In this she had greater success. For over a decade she was the world’s leading female golfer. Her successes earned for her a long-lasting place in sporting history. At the end of the 20th century when achievements in all areas were being analysed to recognise the individuals who made the greatest impact in their chosen careers Babe Didrikson Zaharias was included in all of the sporting lists. She was ranked the 20th century’s top female US sports personality by both the Associated Press and ESPN.
There was another female champion at the 1932 Olympics who had her femininity questioned. 21) Stella Walsh (1911-1980) won the 100 metres. Her birth name was Stanisława Walasiewicz and she was born in what was then part of imperial Russia before a partitioned Poland was reunited in 1918. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when Stella was just a year old. Cleveland had a large Polish community and Stella grew up with a strong sense of her Polish heritage and nationality. This was to be a disadvantage when she tried out for a place on the US team going to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.
She had won several national and international athletics championships under her anglicised name of Stella Walsh. After the US Olympic trials Stella was selected as an alternate athlete. However, when her birth nationality was confirmed she was dropped. Being 17 years old at the time meant that she wasn’t old enough to apply for US citizenship. Stella reapplied in time for the 1932 Olympics. However, less than a month before the trials she lost her job and stunned America, where she was by now a famous athlete, by declining to take the oath of citizenship. The reason was that she had got a job at the Polish consulate and was going to compete for Poland.
Stella acquired US citizenship in 1947, but was unable to compete for the US at the 1948 Olympics because Opymic regulations banned athletes who had previously competed for another nation. A "marriage of convenience" to an American was the only choice she had to qualify, but by then she had passed her athletic prime.
Never considered a woman of conventional female beauty Stella was typical of the “muscle molls” like Babe Didrikson Zaharias who were so derided. Interestingly, it was at her second Olympics at the infamous 1936 Berlin games that she was beaten into second place in the 100 metres by American Helen Stephens who was accused of being a man. A gender test proved she was not. It was 44 years later, however, after she was murdered that Stella Walsh’s own gender was challenged.
On a snowy night in December 1980 Stella was mugged and shot in a Cleveland car park. For a brief moment her athletic achievements were lauded in news reports and obituaries as her name re-entered the public consciousness. This attention disappeared briefly after John Lennon was shot four days later, but it reappeared a few days later in a different light.
Stella’s autopsy revealed that she was born intersex. To the minds of most people in the 1980s this meant that she was not a woman and gave her an unfair advantage in athletics. Accusations flew around denouncing her as a fraud and a freak. Calls were made for her athletics medals and records to be revoked. To their credit the International Olympic Committee refused to do either because they didn’t consider Stella to have broken any of their rules on gender verification during her competitions, nor believe that she intended to defraud anyone.
Since Stella’s sad death understanding of intersexuality has improved but still has a long way to go. Many support groups and organisations for intersexuals have appeared increasingly during he 21st century, an old terms such as “hermaphrodite” are being gently discouraged.
|The Olympic flag in the colours of the intersex flag designed by Morgan Carpenter of Organisation Intersex International Australia.|
According to the Roman jurist Ulpian (d. 223 AD) Roman law made a distinction between congenital and castrated eunuchs. Congenital eunuchs were allowed to marry, for instance, while castrated eunuchs were not. The lgbt Emperor Hadrian made castration equal to murder.
Hadrian had a one-time friend, a philosopher called 22) Favorinus of Arelate (c.85 AD-c.160 AD). He was born in southern France and, against the custom of his time, was not killed at birth when he was found to be a congenital eunuch. For this we should all be eternally grateful, for Favorinus can be seen a role model for modern gay men who express their personality openly and proudly.
Favorinus was highly intelligent as a child and quickly developed skills as an orator. This was made him famous and popular. Oratory was a common form of entertainment in those days and audiences loved his style in both oratory (witty, thoughtful and captivating) and appearance (effeminate mannerism, no beard, high-pitched voice and heavy female make-up). Other orators criticised his effeminate manners (they rarely criticised his oratory skills). In a mirror to the criticism of “muscle molls” Favorinus was considered too “feminine” to be an orator.
Favorinus also taught rhetoric and oration to people like Herodes Atticus, and Emperor Hadrian took him under his wing. For some reason Favorinus lost the emperor’s favour in the 130s and exiled him to the island of Chios. He returned only after Hadrian’s death. From then on he became known as an authority on law, grammar, education and science. He accumulated a vast library which he bequeathed to Herodes Atticus.
Favorinus was open about his personality, a personality formed from his intersexuality, and his confidence in presenting it to the world despite criticism was a major factor in his success and fame. He can be seen as a role model for young intersexuals and lgbt youths today who face abuse because of the way they present themselves to the world.
Favorinus is one intersexual recognised from the Roman Empire. Most, as I mentioned above, were killed at birth. Those whose parents chose not to kill their child may have hidden their physical differences throughout their entire lives as Stella Walsh did. Through her athletic career Stella always turned up to competitions in her running gear and didn’t use the changing rooms with other female athletes.
In 1978 the skeleton of a wealthy Roman woman was discovered in London. In 2015 DNA analysis revealed that she, too, may have been intersexual. We’ll never know her real name but she is known to science as 23) the Harper Road Woman (c.60 AD).
Next time : The rebellion of Boudicca leads to a Yiddish celluloid closet.